Analyzing the ‘new poor’ in India

Analyzing the ‘new poor’ in India
Like the Jats in Haryana, farming communities across the country are pinning their hopes on government jobs for a bright future. In fact, the demand is now not restricted to the farming communities. From Rajputs to Brahmins and landlords almost every community is now protesting to be called backward. Just a week before the violence erupted in Haryana, the agrarian Kapu community in Andhra Pradesh protested for their inclusion in the backward class list. In fact, the current Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, N Chandrababu Naidu, came to power promising reservations for the community. In 2015, the Patels of Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanded backward status. In Kerala, the Namboothiris, a priestly community, also demanded minority status for reservation in government jobs last year, making them the first Brahmin community in the country to do so. Another upper-caste community that has been demanding reservation is Panchamasali Lingayat from Karnataka. The farming community, who are regarded as equal to the Brahmins, constitutes nearly 15 percent of the state’s population and is politically influential.

So far, at least 10 farming castes in 15 states have staged protests to get recognised as backward. “The non-farming season is turning out to be a cause of concern. Increasingly more agrarian communities are using this period to push their political and economic agenda by resorting to violent protests,” says a senior Intelligence Bureau official. In the past five years, there have been over 600 days of protests by communities who are demanding backward class status, with an estimated property loss of Rs 40,000 crore, suggests an analysis by the CSE-DTE Data Centre.
Different people, same demand
On February 1, 2016, paramilitary forces had to be called in Tuni in Andhra Pradesh’s East Godavari district when the Kapus’ demand for inclusion in backward list turned violent. A worried state government has set up a commission to examine their demand. The chief minister has also promised a state corporation to look after the welfare of Kapus, who are a dominant agrarian community in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. They account for 26 percent of Andhra’s population and have been demanding reservation for over a decade.

Rajasthan Gujjars are a farming community that has been demanding a bigger share of state government jobs since 2007. In September 2015, the Rajasthan Assembly passed two bills providing reservation in educational institutions and government jobs to economically backward classes and special backward classes, including Gujjars.

At present, up to 50 percent of government jobs in Rajasthan are for the reserved category, which is divided into 21 percent for OBCs, 16 percent for the Scheduled Castes and 12 percent for the Scheduled Tribes, bringing the total to 49 percent. Now Gujjars want five percent of the seats within the OBC quota to be exclusively reserved for them. They say their demand is valid because most of the quota is taken up by the Jat community in the state.

The biggest surprise, many would say, remains the reservation demand by Gujarat’s Patel community, believed to be one of the richest in the country. The community, which constitutes 15 percent of Gujarat’s population, belongs to the Kanabi caste, which literally means those earning a livelihood from grain or kan. Over time, they have also become the most influential business community. Their success story started in the 19th century when many started to work as tenants in the fields of the princely states ruled by local Rajputs.

Though not an upper caste, the Patel community is extremely enterprising. In fact, they were among the first farmer communities in the country to start growing cash crops in the 20th century. The community received a boost in the 1950s when then chief minister Uchchhangrai Dhebar ushered in land reforms that made Patels the owners of the land they cultivated. They later forayed in other businesses such as textile and diamonds. By the early 1980s, the community started to believe in the idea of doing business over jobs. Their most popular slogan during the period was “Vypar Karo, Naukuri Chodo (Quit job and do business)”.

Similarly in Karnataka, the Lingayat community has been demanding backward status for quite some time. In 2014, the community organised hunger strikes to pressure the state government. RS Deshpandey, former director, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, says, “The Lingayats are traditionally landed and belong to the business class and are politically strong. They demand their reservation mostly in educational institution.’’ D R Patil, a Lingayat leader, says that the demand is only from a section of the Lingyat community, such as Panchamasali Lingayat, who suffered because of a decline in agriculture.

Another community that has also started demanding reservation is the Marathas from Maharashtra. The community accounts for 32 percent of state’s population and owns close to 75 percent of the state’s land. It is no secret that most of the state’s sugar factories and educational institutions are controlled by the Marathas. Since the last two-and-half decades, many high-level institutions, including the National Commission for Backward Classes, have rejected their demand. But, the demand seems to be gaining ground now.

What is intriguing about the current demands for reservation is that almost all are from castes that have for generations called themselves as “higher” in the social hierarchy and traditionally stayed away from jobs. Jats, for example, believe that kheti or farming is a high-caste job, whereas jobs are for the lower castes. Chaudhary Charan Singh, the former prime minister and by far the tallest Jat leader, had rejected the idea of reservations for Jats, saying that the community is prosperous and forward looking.

So, what has prompted this change? An analysis of the recent protests suggests that they coincided with landmark events in the agriculture sector. The agrarian crisis in India has definitely a played it part in pushing these communities to demand reservations. These communities became prosperous after Independence, thanks to the country’s decision to strengthen its farm sector. The prosperity of agriculture meant that these communities never prepared themselves for formal jobs.

But over the years, India’s growth story has propelled a boom in the non-farm sector. This fundamentally changed the use of land. The people realised that land, which they believed could only be used for farming, could be easily sold as a commodity for money. As a result, most of the communities, including the Jats, started selling their land to private companies for development projects. Farmers say that one of the main reasons they sold their farmland was fragmentation, which makes farming unviable. The country’s per capita landholding has been declining since the first Agriculture Census in 1970-71. It has come down from 2.28 ha in 1970 to 1.15 ha in 2011. This indicates that a farmer, big or small, has less land to till. The situation of the big farmers, who normally come from communities such Jats and Patels, has been particularly bad. The number of large landholders has come down from 2.8 million in 1971 to less than a million in 2011. At the same time, the number of marginal farmers has more than doubled. According to the Agriculture Census of 2011, the total operated area has decreased gradually between 1990-91 and 2005-06.

This reduced the employment opportunities in the farm sector, which in turn crumbled the rural economy that resulted in mass exodus to urban centres by the early 2000s. During this period, for the first time since Independence, less than half of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Between 1993–94 and 2004–05, rural non-farm employment grew about four times as fast as farm employment. Over time, even lower-paid non-farm jobs—casual wage employment—started paying considerably more than farm jobs. Non-farm employment also reduced rural poverty indirectly by pushing agricultural wages. Since 2004–05, diversification to the non-farm sector has picked up pace, alongside much more rapid decline in poverty between 2004 and 2012.

“In the past 15-20 years, the whole agrarian community suffered because of urban-centric development, which primarily benefitted the urban upper class. This pushed the young generation of the farming communities to desert farming and migrate to urban centres for jobs,” says Surinder Singh Jodhka, a professor of social sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

As sociologist Dipankar Gupta wrote recently, “Most of these groups were not actually denied social assets. Many of them who took pride in farming did not place enough emphasis on educating their wards. What they lacked was an urban connection. With the agrarian economy yielding lower returns, they now want the benefits of reservations in the form of government jobs.”
The final blow
While urbanisation reduced employment opportunities in the farm sector, it did not translate into an equal increase in the job opportunities in the non-farm sector. NSSO data suggests that the growth in urban jobs was stagnant between 2004–05 and 2011–12. In rural areas, on the other hand, employment in farming shrunk by two percent every year, resulting in a loss of 33 million jobs over the whole period. Though rural non-farm jobs expanded at nearly twice that pace (3.7 percent/ year), not enough non-farm employment was generated to compensate for the loss of jobs in farming.

With the private sector failing to absorb the people from farm sectors, these communities started pinning their hopes on government jobs. Unfortunately, jobs even in the public sector have reduced over time: from 19.5 million in 1992 to 17.6 million in 2011. Desperate, these communities are now demanding reservations to increase their chances of employability.

Another reason these communities are pushing for reservations is that they have seen how it has helped disadvantaged communities in the past. In 1990, the Centre implemented the Mandal Commission report that recommended 27 percent reservation of jobs in public sector for OBCs. But communities with land did not benefit from the Mandal Commission recommendations. In fact, they were not even interested in the recommendations. Between 2004 and 2013, the share of OBCs in A, B and C grade jobs in the Central government rose to 17.31 percent from 3.8 percent. A similar upward trend was witnessed for the other two reserved categories. Between 2003 and 2013, the share of SCs in government jobs grew to 17.3 percent from 14.18 percent; for STs, it grew to 7.59 percent from 5.01 percent.

Seeing the success, these landed communities today see hope in government job reservations. But fulfilling their demand is not an easy task as the criteria for identifying backward communities in India are not economic but social. The Mandal Commission adopted 11 criteria for identifying backward classes. These were grouped into three major heads—social, educational and economic. Separate weight was given to indicators in each group. All social indicators were given a weight of three points each, educational two points each and economic one point each. The total score was 22 points and any caste with a score of 11 was considered OBC. In this, the first criterion is whether other castes consider the community backward. And communities such as Jats and Patels have never been considered backward.

“Patels are comfortably placed in cities. But at the same time, there are many villages in Gujarat which do not have pucca houses for people (including Patels). Also today, Patels do not have enough land. At least 40 percent of Patels in Gujarat do not have land. The rural poor among the Patels do not have any government policy for support. We want these poor individuals to get reservation,” says Ashwin Patel, national convenor, Patel Anamat Sangharsh Samiti. On the other hand, Jat leaders say land does not guarantee prosperity. Yashpal Malik, president, All India Jat Aarakshan Samiti, says, “If you conduct a survey of Kurukshetra, 60 percent landholdings are with Sainis, so why do they get reservation? The Jats, since 1997, have been demanding reservation in Central government jobs. They argued that they might be a landed community but did not have adequate representation in government jobs and educational institutions.” He adds that all the OBC communities that live with the Jats in Haryana, including Ahir, Gujjar and Lodha, have progressed with the help of affirmative action. Yashvir Chauhan, national president, Gujjar Mahasabha, says, “All agrarian communities are in poor condition. Gujjars are also farmers. If farmers keep on getting neglected, the situation in the next 15-20 years will become explosive.”

(The views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth)
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