Dynamics of rural proletariat: labour shortage in agriculture, NREGA, aspirations, and the nouveau riche

August 5, 2008

This set of articles and summaries on various aspects of the rural proletariat near Gurgaon, North India, appeared in Gurgaon Workers News .

Introduction: rural proletariat in Haryana and Punjab
Aspirations within misery: labour shortage in agriculture
The NREGA and the control of rural proletariat
The teenage guns of the nouveau riche



It is said that India is still an agrarian country, a country of villages. Statistically 70 per cent of the population still live on the “countryside” – but they don’t live as peasants, the majority of them live as proletarians. 40 per cent of the rural population don’t own land. Most of the “land-owning peasants” actually survive as wage workers: 80 per cent of the land-owning households own too little land to make a living – under two hectars – forcing them to turn to other sources of income. Only 35 per cent of the average Indian rural household’s income stems from working on one’s own fields.

More and more rural proletarians have to find other sources of income: those who have some kind of resources – e.g. a small patch of land – can migrate to cities, those who have no resources try to find jobs in the rural industries, e.g. brick kilns, construction work or work in the “industrial harvests”.

In Haryana – the state surrounding Gurgaon – in Punjab and other states of the “Green Revolution” (the “industrialisation of agriculture”) these tendencies towards “proletarianisation” of the rural population is far advanced. Leaving the old hierarchies of village life and the desolate situation, they try to find a better life in the cities. In Gurgaon the misery and aspirations of the rural proletariat can be found in the factories: most of the workers are migrants from poorer states. The fact that 12-14-16-hours shifts, slum life, malnourishment can still be enforced upon industrial workers is due to the enormous pressure from the land.

The fact that the agriculture in Haryana and Punjab finds it difficult to attract a sufficient number of migrant workers for the harvest show that the aspirations within misery are growing. In the following we summarise some articles which relate to the situation in rural Haryana. Looking at the anti-SEZ protests in Gurgaon rural area we can see that the protests are lead by the landed peasantry. They don’t oppose the SEZ as such, they don’t want to keep on letting the poor plough their land, they actually want to leave their land, but for a higher price. The landless don’t protest, but we don’t know why. They might see a chance that the SEZ or the increased construction work will provide better jobs.

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Aspirations within misery: labour shortage in agriculture

Summary: Capitalist farmers in Punjab and Haryana have trouble finding migrant workers for bringing in their harvest. They cry about rising wage demands of the proletarians. They blame urban areas like Gurgaon for draining their human capital, and they accuse the state-organised work-scheme NREGA of creating an upward wage pressure. In Gujarat the state government has increased the minimum wage for rural labourers by 100 per cent in July 2008. The massive increase of wage labour in recent years plus the hikes of food prices ask for preventive counter-insurgency.

Lack of migrant workers for bringing in the harvest

“In what looks like the latest crisis to strike India’s food bowl, migrant labourers, who earlier came in hordes to till Punjab’s unending agricultural lands, have suddenly disappeared, forcing landlords to stop short of kidnapping them from railway stations and bus stops.

“Crisis?” asks Iqbal Singh from Bagrian in Kapurthala district. “It is a disaster.” “Today, I promised them Rs 1,500 per acre for transplanting the paddy nursery in 10 acres. Just two days days back I had paid them Rs 1,200 per acre. And this when I tell them that I will add to it if there work is good. Just imagine, the same work used to cost just me under Rs 600 per acre till last year.”

Across the paddy growing northern region, including Punjab and Haryana, farmlands have been facing a severe shortage of labourers. Ubiquitous labourers who poured in from Bihar and UP, even Jharkhand and Orissa have dried up, content to stay home and take advantage of work provided under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). What has compounded the crisis is the diversion of labourers in the booming construction and real estate sectors, both in this region and in the native states of the migrants. Though there is no authentic data or official number on this, a workforce of an estimated 2-3 lakh arrive here for farm operations each year. This time, many say, not even half of that has come in. “When the migratory labourers can find equally profitable work at their doorsteps, why should they be travelling long distances and suffer back-breaking work in other states where often they are treated as second-class citizens,” said a government official in the agriculture department.

Director, agriculture, B S Sidhu has a different explanation. “Earlier, the labour force used to come to Punjab sometime by March-end, at the beginning of the harvesting season, and would stay put till paddy sowing was complete by July-end. This assured them ample work for nearly four months. But increased mechanization of farm operations, especially in wheat production, has reduced the duration of employability for them and predictably of the work force has shown a dwindling trend since the past six years or so.”

Increase of rural wage labour and minimum wage in Gujarat

July 18, 2008: In an important development, the Gujarat government has doubled the rates of minimum wages for the agricultural labourers from Rs 50 to 100. Apart from the increasing human population, the other primary reason for the growing number of farm labourers in the last three decades or so is the “land alienation,” where small and marginal farmers are forced to sell their land due to lack of irrigation and other agriculture-related facilities. This class of farmers are thus being increasingly reduced to landless labourers. The number of agriculture labourers that stood at a little over 18.87 lakhs in Gujarat in 1971 has shot up to a staggering 51.61 lakhs as per the census conducted in 2001.

Government sources further say that seven years after the 2001 census, the population of farm labourers in Gujarat has swelled to over 60 lakhs«. The major increase of the minimum wage is interesting in itself and poses further questions: why did the government opt for the increase, and will it actually be paid? And to what extent does the increase function as a migration control measure: the minimum wage for industrial (urban) workers in Gujarat is about 60 to 70 Rs, considerably lower now than the wages for agricultural labour!

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The NREGA and the control of rural proletariat

Summary: This collection of clippings examines the NREGA: given the enormous transformation and turmoil on the countryside, the huge streams of migration, the thousands of debt-suicides, the growing armies of Maoism, the state has to launch a large-scale welfare scheme to try to secure social control. The scheme helps control rural proletarian reproduction by giving only one person per household a paid job, controlling their movements by implementing a system of registered enrolling and formalised applications, mobilising a cheap manual work-force for infrastructure programs, re-enforcing the power of the local village council by entrusting it with the management and payment function of the work-scheme.

The misery on the Indian countryside is blatant, any sort of income is necessary.

Millions applied for jobs within the framework of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which is supposed to be implemented all over India in summer 2008. According to official data, the NREGA was employing nearly three million workers on an average day in 2006-07 (when the Act was in force in 200 districts). As the Act is extended to the whole of rural India, this could rise to 10 million or so – the largest public works programme ever.

The Act “guarantees” 100 days of paid work for one person per household. The official wages vary from state to state, ranging from 60 Rs per day to 130 Rs. The Act prohibits the use of machinery. It is a labour intensive work-scheme to build infrastructure: roads, wells, canals etc.. The local village council functions as supervisor and receives the funds. The scheme is a battlefield: local activists, NGOs, Maoists fight for the proper implementations of the scheme, against the corruption of the (upper class and caste) village councils, for the full payment of wages, for providing the full amount of working-days. NREGA activists have been shot dead in this battle.

Many of the capitalist farmers organisations criticise the Act as responsible for rising wages in the agriculture sector. The fact is that the Act is a state response to an increasing chaos and social turmoil on the Indian countryside, using the dependency of the rural proletariat on any sort of income to control their movements, to strengthen “local governance”, to make labour-intensive use of their work-force. Or as two NGO members put it affirmatively:

“Focusing on support structures at the panchayat (village council) and block level can actually help a working system that can allow panchayats to become an effective tier of local self-governance. The NREGS has been one of the biggest programmes to combat rural poverty. Its legal guarantees have radically altered the relationship of the poor with the state”. – : Indian Express, 2 February 2008

Other “modernist” voices complain about the “manual character” of the scheme, demanding “better education” being part of the program:

“Absurdly, the NREGA bans machines and contractors. This was supposedly a move to prevent the exploitation of villagers. But it is only serving to keep them in the Dark Ages, even as we talk of a new urban India. Whether it is digging ponds, making or repairing roads or building check dams, all these are achieved manually. The world’s largest social security scheme is only creating millions of labourers”. – Hindustan Times, 2 January 2008

A descriptive view from Haryana

“On the outskirts of Ghukanwali village in Sirsa district in Haryana, arid, uneven land stretches out as far as the eye can see. Men and women of all ages are going back and forth carrying mud from the hillock to a depression nearby. No clang of machines at work, no roar of engines, only the quiet sound of work in progress while the sun rays beat down. The labour is absorbed in earning its Rs 135 a day under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).

The women at the site of work are upbeat about “earning their living”. While some would work at home, there were others who went to work in fields of zamindars to earn a pittance.

“We used to get Rs 60 to Rs 80 after a whole day in the field. Now, we get the full payment without having to argue or haggle,” remarks Kesho Devi while Manjit Kaur adds that labouring at such sites is more respectable than working in the fields. “I wish this would go on instead of limiting work to 100 days a year,” she says.

After the work of levelling of land is complete, the labour will be again out of job and will have to wait for another project to begin. However, that does not mean that they can slow down the work for there are special appointees to keep tab on everybody’s efforts.

Job cards in hand, the labour is certain that it will not be cheated and get its day’s due. These works are primarily dominated by the fairer sex since most of the men go out of the village to work or are committed to work for zamindars.

Sarpanch (head of local village council) Kuldesh Rani says it has revived the sagging strength of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (local council) which are central to this scheme. All projects of the village are first identified at gram sabha meetings. According to revised guidelines, the payments are to be made through bank accounts and no hard cash is to be given. The panchayats (council members) and the villagers are opposed to the move. While the panchayat is keen on making payments itself, the labour feels that it would be troublesome to get the money”. – The Tribune, 23 June 2008, by Geetanjali Gayatri

A different voice on the systemic corruption within the scheme, this time from Andhra Pradesh.

“There are complaints of rip-offs. “We’ve been paid only Rs 30 a day,” says an angry P. Mallamma in Mosangi. The record says they got Rs 84 a day. K. Kalamma says she has “worked for over a month, without being paid.” Even a former deputy sarpanch, Saiddulu, has not been paid for a week’s work. He is well over 60 – yet another older person returning to work, driven by food costs. “Why only 100 days of work,” ask people. And they do not get those 100 days fully. The second is the rule of only one member per family being able to use it. Third are the usual local problems. Payment delays for one. Though Andhra Pradesh seems to be ahead of several other States, this remains a problem. “People here have waited four months to get much less than what was owed to them,” says Mallamma. “People are recorded as working when they did not work. Others are not recorded as working when they did,” says B. Ramaiah in Vadlaparthi village of Nalgonda”. – Hindustan Times, January 31, 2008

And finally a recent example struggling NGERA workers from Tamil Nadu

Rural job scheme: wage cut irks workers

“Villagers who are the beneficiaries of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) are complaining that the wages paid to them have been gradually reduced, much to their disappointment. On Friday last, about 3,000 workers resorted to picketing in Dindigul.

On Monday, the villagers of Chettinayakkanpatti came to the collectorate in large numbers to submit a petition against the low wages being paid to them under the programme. They said that originally, the daily wages they received was Rs 80 but it was reduced to Rs 70 and 65 and finally now they were paid only Rs 45 as wages.

Workers argue that the officials were adopting impossible measures to assess the quantum of work done by them, in order to deny them the guaranteed wages”. – Express News Service – July 1 2008 12:17 IST

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The teenage guns of the new rich

Summary: In December 2007, in a Gurgaon upper-middle class school a teenager was shot by school mates. The Indian media was full of “Americanization” paranoia. In contrast to this superficial reaction some journalists tried to understand how the violent act was a mirror of the violent transformation of medium peasants into rent-based new rural rich – and how in Gurgaon they tend to clash with their urban upper-middle class counterparts.

End of 2007 Gurgaon was big in the Indian news. In the elite-school “Euro International” a teenager was shot dead by a group of school mates. A superficial discussion about the “Americanization” of India started, all kind of culturalist-conservative interpretations were churned out. Some more serious efforts were made to understand the background of the incident: the changing structure of Gurgaon’s upper-middle classes, the internal split between the urban elite and the local rural nouveau rich, who came to money by selling their land. As a tool necessary for his profession, the gun belonged to a father of the accused school-kids. He is a local property dealer. The deals involve loads of cash and therefore life danger. As a property dealer he takes part in the conversion of landed peasants into rent bourgeoisie. The shooting can be seen as a sad biproduct of this violent transformation process…

“And that is why so many people begin their description of Gurgaon by saying, The thing about this place is its really a gaon (Gaon: village). Because of the way Gurgaon came to be acquired and built gradually, large swathes of farmland were parcelled out even as villagers hung onto their pockets of homes, which cluster in the shadows of sleekness. Some took profits and bought into new societies clinically named sectors, renting out the old place to migrants or relatives. Flush with cash or rental income, locals seek the same power, purchasing and political, as the newcomers, observes Sanjay Sharma, who runs a real estate company and the portal, Gurgaon Scoop. They shop in the same malls, attend the same resident welfare association meetings and send their children to the same schools. But they are not the same.

There is a struggle between people who are here and people who have come from outside, says Sharma, a returnee from the US. His attempt to videotape a community meeting in his sector recently resulted in a brawl and seven stitches on his upper lip. Locals here are quite bottled up. They have money but they are not well read. A new awareness is coming to Gurgaon and locals, they want their kids to learn English. By virtue of shunning government schools, the families of the three boys involved in the shooting seem to hold this aspiration. Media outlets reported that the family of the victim, Abhishek Tyagi, moved into Gurgaon city from their nearby village so he and his sister could attend Euro International.

Police say the gun came from one suspects father, a property dealer. Why so many in Gurgaon feel they even need a gun is a question as loaded as the weapon. Status symbol, yes. A response to the general lawlessness outside gated compounds, indeed. Police also say real estate agents brandish guns because so many transactions are a combination of cheque and cash (translation: illegal)”.

“There is an urban Gurgaon touted as India’s Millennium City and a rural Gurgaon largely seen as a cluster of villages. And though the stark divide between the old and new Gurgaon as represented in these two voices may appear to be nothing new, the recent killing of a 14-year old boy in an upscale Gurgaon school by his own classmates has brought the underlying tensions of these two Gurgaons into the open. The fact that the victim and the two accused hail from rural but well-to-do families has given Gurgaons more urban residents a chance to vent out their true feelings about their rural counterparts. The lure of skyrocketing property prices made big land owners from nearby villages of Gurgaon sell their land and move to the city to give their children a better life. But the urban residents say they have also brought along with them their own regressive mindsets”. – A clash in class, of class, http://www.livemint.com/2007/12/13232123/A-clash-in-class-of-class.html , by S. Mitra Kalita, and December 2007

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