Where have the landless got lost in this twist-and-swirl debate over the land bill? They have disappeared from a discourse ranging across prejudices, egos, needs and ambitions. The political radar of some parties seems transfixed on obstruction, floating above the fragile, hungry and increasingly angry millions trapped in strangulating coils of extreme poverty.
The current estimate for India's landless is around 100 million households, which would constitute at least 300 million of our population. Another 200 million rural families subsist on less than two bighas, and must supplement their meagre incomes with some form of labour. You do not have to be an Einstein to connect the dots: these are the Indians either below or hovering on the poverty line. How are we going to pull them up towards the middle class over the next two decades?
It has taken us nearly seven decades to bring extreme poverty down from 60% to 30%. Is it going to take us another seven decades to bring 30% down to zero? Will India be able to bear the burden of such failure?
Even Marxists, who ruled Bengal for more than three decades on the rewards of sharecropper empowerment, no longer talk about the landless. Poverty has become a leftist slogan, rather than a problem in urgent need of redress. Their traditional recipes are riven with fault lines; they have no new answers, so silence is their best policy. Ironically, the last battle that CPM fought in Bengal before being overwhelmed by Mamata Banerjee was over industrialization in a rural district through a private sector automobile company. The factory was aborted; the subsequent election was lost. Defeat has unnerved the CPM's brain cells. Its new comfort zone is intellectual and political retreat.
The first wave of land reform in the 1950s and 1960s brought some much-needed solace to the land less, but that option is over. There is no longer enough productive land to redistribute. The elimination of poverty — as distinct from alleviation — demands rational, coherent, new approaches. Economic empowerment is now possible only through jobs, principally through manufacturing, with a corollary market of services.
For three decades we have witnessed the intense pressure of migration towards every megapolis by the rural poor, searching for some, any, kind of salary along the fringe of urban wealth. Cities have grown into virtual city states, with the impoverished on the spreading edge, various degrees of middle class squeezed vertically, and an icing of disproportionate wealth at the top. This is a dysfunctional consequence of that horrid trickle-down theory propagated by economists who have never seen poverty: Indians with swimming pools get a waterfall, while slums dying of thirst are told to be content with a trickle. This palliative of disorganized job-areas scattered across a haphazard geography has become unsustainable. Manufacturing and jobs must now go to where the poor live in vast stretches of rural India.
Economist Bibek Debroy points out that one of the reasons for visible stress among farming communities at the very thought of losing land is that we have not provided their young with skill-sets that would make them productively employable in any other sector. Rural India is still substantially bereft of basics. There is shortage of decent housing, toilets, electricity, water, education and of course jobs. In the meantime, we have provided the young an eye-view of a flickering television screen in a teashop, but no means to buy a set. Minimal aspiration is being swamped by stagnation.
If India does not create a break-out economy buoyed by jobs, we are heading towards violence of the kind we last saw in 1960s, this time with guns rather than axes and arrows. No political party, in power or opposition, will escape this wrath if, God forbid, it becomes the only means through which the poor can send their message.
Since so much of democratic politics is about posturing, to enable a politician to look photo-fit for a vote, perhaps the land bill bouncing between the Lok and Rajya Sabhas should be renamed. Why don't we call it the Land and Landless Economic Regeneration Bill instead of the cumbersome Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015? If nothing else, the suggested alternative should help identify the most relevant category of beneficiaries, the landless. If, as is increasingly evident, existing agricultural land cannot meet the needs and dreams of those who possess it, how is it going to feed and clothe those without it? Jobs are their only rational option.
Deny them this legitimate hope, and brace yourself for consequences. After them, not the deluge; but prairie fires.
The writer is national spokesperson of the BJP
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.