Land, Labour and Dalits in Post-Independent India

Simi Mehta, G Sridevi, Sakshi Sharda

On the occasion of the 130th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, Center for Human Dignity and Development (CHDD) at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi organized #WebPolicyTalk​ The State of Human Dignity and Development  #InclusiveDevelopment on “Land, Labour and Dalits in Post-Independent India”.

Land, Labour and Dalits in Post-Independent India

The esteemed panellists include the speaker of the session, Prof G Nancharaiah, Emeritus Professor, University of Hyderabad; Former Vice-Chancellor, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar Central University, Lucknow and the moderator of the session, Prof Utpal K De, Professor, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong. Other honourable panellists include Prof Dhanmanjiri Sathe, Emeritus Professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, Dr Arvind Kumar, Assistant Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSEIP), Jamia Millia Islamia (JMI), New Delhi, Prof Pampa Mukherjee, Professor, Department of Political Science, Panjab University, Chandigarh and Dr Mala Mukherjee, Assistant Professor, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies (IIDS), New Delhi.

Land, Labour and Dalits in Post-Independent India

To begin with, in the lecture the key speaker Prof Nancharaiah, explained the implied importance of the land, as it is an essential part of the capital to generate wealth but also works as an indicator of social wealth of a person, or a family. It has been observed that the ownership of the land has also led to the ownership of powerful positions in society, as they derive several privileges from this ownership of land. With the help of some major statistics, Prof Nancharaiah made the case that a staggering 67 percent of the SC population from the state of Uttar Pradesh.

It was brought into notice that in the period of the agricultural boom the land acquisition of the SCs was still decreasing, although it was increasing at a much lower rate for the STs. Prof Nancharaiah also brought on the table the fact that the Liberalisation era did not do much good for the redistribution of land from the forward caste to the Dalits. There has been an inverse relationship between the percentages of the cultivators and the agricultural labourers among the Forward castes and the SCs and STs.

Over the years, according to the study presented by Prof Nancharaiah from the NSSO, the proportion of cultivators from the SC and STs have dropped significantly, which was already meagre in the first place. The primary question for investigation in the discussion is that despite all the initiatives that were undertaken by the Government for the land reforms and the redistribution of land, in the year 2011, the people from the SCs predominantly remained agricultural labourers. In the post-liberalization period, according to the study from the Asian Development Review, the level of poverty has surely gone down by a substantial amount. But by the least margin in the sects of SCs and STs.

The primary reason for the failure of the land reforms that were introduced soon after the independence is because the land was shifted from the tenants who could still afford the land, and thus it could not be shifted to the marginal tenants. In other words, the policy could not seep into the Indian demography and reach the neediest of all. Therefore, according to Prof Nancharaiah, the land reform legislation was successful to the extent of abolishing the Zamindari class but it couldn’t make a change in the real shift in the ownership of the land, and hence the inequality continued. The same happened at the time of the green revolution, as the profits would not seep to the most vulnerable strata of the society, since they did not have any inputs that would actually yield surpluses.

Another finding from several micro-level studies undertaken by Prof Nancharaiah was discovered that even after the redistribution of the land within the backward castes, the land was still acquired by the most dominant people/family/group within the particular caste. This led to the poorest of the poor being exactly in the same condition as they were, except a little marginal growth over an elongated period.

Prof Dhanamanjari Sathe begins by saying that according to an NSSO round taken by the government in the year 2005, 40 percent of the farmers said that they were not interested in the occupation of farming and only continued with it because of the land they already had. Further, Prof Sathe also brought it up in the discussion that looking at land redistribution as a way to bring equality of employment and opportunity for the people from the SCs and STs is an idea not suited for the political economy of India. The reasons for the same were also explained, that firstly farming is not as remunerative and practical, and secondly, the current trends in the society, by and large, are that of seeking employment through the ways of education, and the upwards migration of the people from the SCs and STs from the rural to the urban areas of the country.

Prof. Sathe’s emphasised much on the need for land to be seen as an input rather than an entity of social and economic stability in the case of Dalits, since they are much more interested in other things that promise better prospects for a stable income to them, like education and employment. Hence the case was made by Prof Sathe that land redistribution is a theoretically obsolete option if the issue of the betterment of the Dalits is in question.

Prof Sathe also shared an experience of a study that was undertaken in the state of Maharashtra, where the acquisition of land from the owners of the land had taken place for the setting up of different industries in the area. As a result, the Dalits who previously worked in the fields of others were now employed in the newly set industries in the area where they had some unprecedented benefits. The sense of belonging to the modern world is the one, to begin with. A uniform, an Identity card, an assurance of stable employment and income, as Prof. Sathe quoted were some of the much-revered benefits of the acquisition of land by the industries, which on the other hand had their previous owners under serious distress.

In continuation of the topic, Prof Sathe also brought into light the teachings of Dr Ambedkar, as he believed that the solutions of the problems for the Dalits due to farming, lie outside farming, i.e. in industrialization. Moreover, the Dalits should migrate to the urban areas, and be a part of the industrialization process which would facilitate their inclusion in the overall growth of the nation. So, the redistribution of land is not the most appropriate option according to Prof Sathe for the benefit of Dalits, as in the state of West Bengal due to the land redistribution a serious toll was taken by the growth of the industrial sector.

The moderator, Prof Utpal K De, stated that education has played a pivotal role in the emancipation of the Dalits, and with grave issues such as untouchability. Further, Prof Pampa Mukherjee put up on the table the issue of lacking the narratives of both the Dalits from the north-eastern states and also of that of the women, from these sectors. Prof Mukherjee put much emphasis on the need for micro researching and looking beyond the numbers to gather these currently missing narratives.

Dr Mala Mukherjee shared with the panel a few findings regarding the condition of the Dalits in the country. Commencing with a brief revision of the actual meaning of the Ambedkarite Movement, Dr Mukherjee then moved on to bring into focus some more areas of interests for the Dalit population like education and government jobs and their representation in the same. Since it has been established earlier in the discussion, the prospect of farming is not as remunerative as it was earlier, and pertaining to their status of as either marginal ownership or no ownership at all, the shift in the Dalit population from the rural to the urban areas of the country has been consistent.

The majority of the SC population in the big cities and metropolitans is to be found in the urban slums and the highest number of urban SC communities are to be found in Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh. The statistics also showed that the women of the ST category are the poorest in the country, thus belonging to the poorest of the poor. The condition of unemployment among the ST and SC women also does not reduce with an increase in their education, as even after their education the women from these sects are unemployed in massive proportions. It is also evident that the women from these communities are also engaged primarily in the unorganised small-scale sector, and a very little proportion of SC and ST women hold high offices. Over time from 1994 up until now, the representation of the Dalits in the Central Government jobs is increasing, but the point to be noted here is that all these jobs are held at group B and C.

Dr Arvind Kumar pushes forth the argument that despite the Ambedkarite notion, that the Dalits must leave the rural setting, and move to the urban centres, their migration from the former to the latter does not ensure a sudden change in either their living conditions or their social and economic standing. The concept of the Urban Ghettos is thus very prevalent in these urban centres, where the Dalits move to, in search of work-related opportunities. It was also brought into the light by Prof Pampa Mukherjee that states of Punjab and Haryana have the highest number of SC population, but also the highest number of landless Dalit population. This implies that the atrocities made towards the Dalits in these regions are to be charted and taken into the narrative. The point was also made that even though a sizable Dalit population moves to the urban centres, these areas are not cast neutral. As people are not able to be freed from their castes just by moving from one place to another.

The case of the acquisition of the common land for infrastructural development was also brought up by Prof Mukherjee, as in places like Punjab where the landless Dalit population is this large, the only place these people have access to, for their own works is the common land. Prof Mukherjee highlighted that it’s high time that research work needs to be taken into action to investigate the matter of the same. Since it is seemingly unfair that the land is being taken away from a large number of people who do not have any land of their own.

In closing, it was brought to the conclusion that although the land reforms are not the single solution to the issues of the Dalits, all the nations who have implemented the reforms have come up with more egalitarian societies than before. Education, employment opportunities, along with land reforms when implemented with utmost dedication can surely bring about massive changes in the Indian diaspora.

Acknowledgement: Ramya Kathyal is a Research Intern at IMPRI.

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Picture Courtesy: FrontLine



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