Indian Democracy Has Failed to Advance Redistributive Reforms for Marginalised Groups

Class exploitation and caste oppression in rural India have to be put squarely at the centre of any oppositional agenda for redistribution, recognition, and progressive change.

India’s general elections are the largest exercise in universal franchise anywhere in the world. With the elections comes international media punditry, which, as always, will tell us that India is the world’s largest democracy, and that, uniquely, it is a democracy in which the poor exercise their right to vote more eagerly and in greater proportion than the middle classes and the rich. What receives far less attention in international media is the fact that the stability and resilience of its formal institutions and procedures notwithstanding, India’s democracy suffers from serious social deficits. 

Despite the fact that India has performed well in terms of economic growth since the early 2000s, more than 60% of its population, that is, more than 780 million people,  live on less than $3.10/ 213.64 per day (OPHI 2018). The persistence of poverty in the context of India’s high-growth economy reflects escalating inequality: in 2016, 57 billionaires owned as much wealth as the poorest 70% of the country (Jha 2017). And, as Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze (2013) have pointed out, India falls behind its poorer South Asian neighbours when it comes to basic social development indicators such as infant mortality rates, life expectancy, mean years of schooling, and female literacy rates. This is directly related to the fact that India spends only 7.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on social protection in the form of healthcare and education (Nag 2018; Makkar 2018). Hence, even after 70 years of independence, Indian democracy has failed to serve as an arena for advancing redistributive reforms in favour of marginalised groups. 

The social deficits of Indian democracy have only worsened during Narendra Modi’s term as Prime Minister from 2014 onwards. In 2018, four years after Modi assumed power, the richest 1% of the population owned 73% of all wealth in the country—up from 58.4% in 2016—while the wealth of the poorest half increased by only 1% (Saberin 2018). Spending on education has been cut under Modi, and the flagship Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PMJAY) threatens to channel public funds to the private healthcare sector (Narayanan 2019). We also know that the Modi regime has failed dismally to create jobs. Indeed, unemployment is at it highest rate in 45 years and last year alone, the Indian economy lost 11 million jobs, primarily in the unorganised sector that employs more than 90% of the workforce (Sanghera 2019; Kumar 2019). In addition, wages to low-skilled workers declined from 13,300 per month in 2014 to 10,300 per month in 2017 (Mourdokotas 2018). Sabka saath, sabka vikas? No, not really.  

For these reasons, this Lok Sabha election will be fateful, not only in terms of the constitutional dimensions of Indian democracy, which have been badly eroded by Modi’s authoritarian populism but also in terms of its social dimensions. The need of the hour for the vast majority of Indian citizens is to win radical redistributive reforms. But what kind of collective agency will be capable of doing this? 

The Last Frontier

“Rural India” is the most obvious answer to this question in the current context. It is India’s vast countryside, home to more than 66% of the country’s population, that has thrown up the strongest opposition to Modi over the last couple of years. This became abundantly evident towards the end of 2018 when a huge march of protesting farmers reached Delhi with chants of “Modi Sarkar Murdabad!” and demanded minimum support prices and debt relief. The November protest was only the third time in 2018 that large-scale farmers' marches had taken place, and looking back a little further, the past two years have witnessed several major agrarian protests (Nilsen 2018a). 

These protests have erupted as a response to a deep crisis in Indian agriculture, caused by a pincer movement where the costs of cultivation have escalated strongly, while at the same time, agricultural incomes have declined or stagnated, resulting in high levels of unsustainable indebtedness. Of course, India’s agrarian crisis is by no means new, but the condition of Indian farmers has deteriorated since 2014, as the cost of inputs have continued to rise and prices for agricultural products have continued to drop. All of this has happened despite Modi’s promises that he will double farmers’ incomes by 2022 (Parsai 2018; Jadhav and Bhardwaj 2018; FE Online 2018). Access to formal credit for farmers has declined precipitously since 2014, farm incomes are at a 14-year low, and rural wage growth has stagnated (Mathew 2019; Damodaran 2018; Damodaran 2019). Significantly, the Bharatiya Janata Party's losses in the state assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in early December 2018 were directly related to escalating agrarian distress (Nilsen 2018a). 

However, there is a catch to this scenario: rural India is not a uniform entity with common interests (Jaffrelot 2018). First of all, landownership is profoundly unequal. As few as 7% of India’s rural households control 47% of the country’s land area, while the remaining 93% households do not have land at all, or are relegated to small and marginal holdings (Nilsen 2018b). Approximately 40% of the agricultural workforce is entirely dependent on wage labour for their livelihoods, while the majority of cultivators have such small holdings that they are compelled to supplement cultivation with wage labour. As agricultural wages are very low and agricultural work intermittent, migration has become a necessity for survival (Breman 2016; Pattenden 2016; Shah et al 2017). Secondly, this socio-economic structure is deeply marked by caste hierarchies. Dalits are vastly over-represented among India’s agricultural working class and as many as 71.3% of all Dalit farmers work as wage labourers, and about 45% of Dalit households are landless (Stevens 2018; Damodaran 2015). What this means is that rural India is shot through with exploitative and oppressive class and caste relations that pit large capitalist farmers and dominant caste groups against small and marginal peasants, landless labourers, and lower caste groups and Dalits.

If we fail to recognise this fact, we risk lapsing into an uncritical embrace of the kind of agrarian populism that fuelled the so-called new farmers' movements of the 1990s, for example, the Shetkari Sangathana, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, and the Bharatiya Kisan Union. As Banaji (1994) has pointed out, these movements were essentially “conservative rural coalitions” that attempted to consolidate rural capitalism. In doing so, they also erased the political contradictions that attach to class and caste relations in India’s unequal countryside (Balagopal 2011). If the agrarian struggles of today are to advance a radical deepening of Indian democracy, agrarian populism is not an option. On the contrary, class exploitation and caste oppression in rural India have to be put squarely at the centre of any oppositional agenda for redistribution, recognition, and progressive change. 

Where Would Such an Agenda Begin? 

As I have argued earlier on EPW Engage, nothing less than a fundamental restructuring of land–labour relations in the agricultural sector will suffice in the current conjuncture (Nilsen 2018b). Today, the average area of land available per holding is as little as 0.87 acres, which is not sufficient for anything remotely resembling a dignified livelihood for the 244 million Indians employed in agriculture. As Shukla et al (2019) have suggested, a programme for restructuring should begin with a suspension of the transfer of agricultural land and the elimination of speculative land markets. This would have to be combined with a new strategy for land reform in order to recuperate and redistribute surplus lands to landless households. In addition, given the fact that smallholdings are not viable as productive units, it will be necessary to establish cooperative farms, and these farms will, in turn, have to be federated across the district, state, and national levels. In order to provide employment to the agrarian workforce, it will also be necessary to set up labour collectives to engage in activities related to agriculture, for example, providing necessary inputs, or taking care of agro-processing, storage, transport, and distribution. If this is to become a reality, the corporate sector must be barred from input and output markets. 

What is more, an oppositional agenda for redistribution, recognition, and progressive change would have to organise and mobilise the DalitBahujan and Adivasi groups who constitute the most exploited and oppressed groups in India today. In terms of the former, promising developments have been underway the last couple of years. During the summer months of 2016, in response to ever more brazen attacks by upper caste groups, Dalits organised an azadi kooch, a freedom march, from Ahmedabad to Una. As the march reached its destination on 15 August, thousands of Dalits vowed to refuse stigmatising work such as manual scavenging and disposing of dead cattle. Claims for recognition were fused with calls for social justice, as the emergent movement demanded that the state government distribute five acres of land to each Dalit family in Gujarat. Jignesh Mevani, a leading activist of the Una movement, was elected to the Gujarat Legislative Assembly in December 2017. 

While the 1980s and 1990s witnessed a slow but sure transfer of political power to Dalits and lower caste groups in northern India, the politics of reservation that fuelled much of this process has not reversed the socio-economic disadvantage suffered by these groups. For example, the Bahujan Samaj Party or the Samajwadi Party ruled Uttar Pradesh more or less continuously from the early 1990s to 2014, but social indicators among Dalits and lower castes in the state are far worse than in the rest of India (Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery 2008; Arora and Singh 2015). At a national level, 65.8% of India's Dalits, predominantly earning a living as wage labourers, and 58.3% of the country's lower castes live in poverty (Nilsen 2019). This is why the fusion of demands for dignity and claims for land rights is so important, as it holds out a distinct possibility for the emergence what Nigam (2017) has called “a DalitBahujan oriented left-wing politics.”[1] It goes without saying that this is a possibility also for the communist left in India, which for far too long has failed to reckon seriously with the fact that that caste-based discrimination and political under-representation constitute distinct manifestations of social injustice (Crowley 2017).

Adivasis are more rarely landless than what is the case with Dalits, but nevertheless, they live in even deeper poverty. In fact, according to the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, nearly 79% of all Adivasi households are considered to be deprived, compared to 73% of all Dalit households and 61% of all rural households (Damodaran 2015). Almost half of all Adivasis—about 44.7% —live below a very meagre poverty line of 816 (£8.32/$12.75) per month for rural households (World Bank 2011). They are also among the most precarious and vulnerable workers in India’s fast-growing economy (Nilsen 2015). A radical agenda for redistribution should therefore also be closely aligned with the interests of India’s Adivasis. 

During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, Adivasi movements achieved a major reform in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, that acknowledged the rights of forest-dwellers to land and other resources in forest areas. Reversing colonial laws that criminalised the customary use of forestland for agricultural cultivation, the FRA has posed a major obstacle to industrial expansion in the mineral-rich areas inhabited by Adivasi communities and has been a thorn in the side of Modi’s Make in India policy (Nilsen 2018c). This obstacle was brushed away in early March this year, when the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of more than 10,00,000 Adivasi and other forest-dwelling households from forest areas across 16 states after conservationists filed a case questioning the legality of the FRA (Sethi 2019). At the time of writing, new and draconian laws are being drafted, which seek to give the forest bureaucracy expanded powers of policing over forest dwellers (Sethi and Shrivastava 2019). A counter-offensive to this subversion of the FRA has to be squarely at the centre of a radical agrarian movement that aspires to vindicate the imperative of social justice. 

It is encouraging in this regard that the agrarian movement that has crystallised over the past two years has a significant representation of small and marginal farmers, landless labourers, Adivasis, and notably, urban youth from rural backgrounds (Suthar 2018). Moving forward, this movement will have to have the courage to think beyond merely ousting Modi from his seat of power in Delhi. A democratic future for India needs much more than that, and above all, it needs a fundamental break with a neo-liberal project that has nothing to offer the vast majority of India’s population but deepening marginality. 

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