‘Caste’ agitations rooted in failed system: 65% small, 50% marginal farmers wish to quit farming


By Dr Ghanshyam Shah*

Dominant peasant castes occupying significant space in the economy and polity in their respective States are not giving up the battle for quotas. The Marathas are once again up-in-arms against the State demanding reservation in educational institutions and government jobs, an agitation that has often turned violent. In Gujarat, the Patidar agitation is on the verge of reviving with the detention of Hardik Patel. The Jats of Haryana and Rajasthan and Kapus in Andhra and Telengana have not given up their demands for quotas.

The agitations have got a lot of attention but consider a connected event earlier this year that was significant though it may not have made it to the headlines. It was in Gujarat in early 2018 that the Patidar businessmen organised a three-day summit “to provide a networking platform to Patidar entrepreneurs and jobs for youths.” It declared a mission of providing employment with one lakh jobs to Patidar youth.

The event was attended and blessed by the Chief Minister as well as the leaders of the Congress party. Many of civil society’s intellectuals have also endorsed and legitimised the caste-based employment drive of the Patidars. They call upon other communities to follow the Patidar model. But most of the lower castes neither have many rich entrepreneurs nor social capital to follow the path of the dominant castes.

The political system provides congenial platforms for nurturing this kind of caste solidarity.  In a system geared around social contacts, the poor strata of the dominant castes are in an advantageous position to drive a host of tangible and intangible benefits because a significant number of power holders in the economy and the administration come from these castes. Moreover, the colonial and post-colonial States have facilitated the dominant castes in accumulating financial as well as socio-cultural capital. To strengthen caste bonds and unity, these caste associations undertake welfare programs like education, health, credit etc. for caste members. In educational spheres, these associations and/or the caste elite run schools and colleges, hostels, coaching classes, disburse education material, scholarships etc.

The castes with a sizeable number of successful entrepreneurs have developed a system of providing credit to fellow caste brethren to help launch an enterprise. They also give preference to fellow caste members in employment in their firms. More important, the State has now encouraged and legitimised the practice as seen from the simple fact that the ruling party and the opposition both attended the Patidar summit of 2018.

Notwithstanding this wealth of social capital compounded with material wherewithal, caste pride and unity, the educated youth of these dominant castes now demand reservation. This is an argument very different (if not diametrically opposite) to the initial one that opposed reservations to OBCs/SCs/STs on grounds of merit. All castes are stratified with a varying degree of rich, middle and poor families. The dominant peasant castes also have a relatively small strata of the lower middle class and poor.

Under the development paradigm, these peasant castes improved their economic position with the State-assisted community development programmes and the Green Revolution. However, the terms of the trade have been in favour of industry over agriculture. It is more so with the neo-liberal economy. A small section of the rich and middle peasants have invested their agriculture surplus in business and industry. Unlike Gujarat, a few OBCs in Maharashtra have improved their economic condition and are competing with the Marathas in the agriculture sector.

On the whole, over the years, the proportion of cultivators has been on a declining scale. The worse sufferers are small and marginal farmers of all communities. According to the Lokniti-CSDS survey of 2013-14, nearly 65 per cent of the small and marginal farmers and 50 per cent of the middle peasants wish to quit farming and settle in cities. Such distress conditions reflect in increasing cases of farmers’ suicide.

Like everyone, Marathas and Patidars see formal education as the only asset for a better life for their children so that they get ‘decent’, secure white-collar occupation. The upper caste students constitute more than 50 per cent in higher education. However, Marathas are still lagging behind brahmins; and OBCs are catching up with them in higher education. This hurts their ego and leads to fears that the OBC would bypass them.

Most of them enroll in government or run-of-the-mill private colleges pursuing studies in general streams like arts and commerce. These institutes are ill-equipped,  under-staffed, use dated syllabi and pedagogy. As a result, in the job market, many find that the skills acquired are inadequate and do not meet the requirements of employers. Those Patidar youths who had gone abroad on the basis of the ‘educational qualifications and work experience’ required for their entry into Britain for example, were devalued after entering the country, and have often had to start from scratch. Such experiences add to their frustration.

Of those with an education, a minuscule number join the family/relative’s enterprise. Most of them do not have adequate acumen, skill, experience and capital to launch an enterprise. Moreover, ten per cent of small industries are sick. Over 80 per cent of the urban self-employed earn less than Rs. 20,000 per month. In such a situation, they perceive that the best option for them is to have a salaried and regular employment.

The growth in employment is largely (84 per cent) in the informal sector without social security. Regular employment both in the formal and informal sector has declined. Moreover, the available employment does not provide social security. Even in the formal sector, employment is often casual or contractual. Only a negligible number get a so-called ‘permanent’ position which offers them regular increments in salary, leave benefits, old age pensions, etc. The rest of the workers get employment as self-employed, casual workers or regular on an ad hoc basis.

Insecurity haunts most of the young employees irrespective of the sector. Such jobs do not satisfy their rising wants, lifestyle and notion of social status. In such a situation, an agitated youth perceives that government employment is the only type of employment that provides security and a dignified status. The young people from dominant upper castes believe that they are more meritorious than lower caste members.

The angry youth of the dominant castes are victims of their caste pride and superiority complex, unable to accept that the lower castes have moved ahead and have improved lifestyles.  At the same time, like everyone, they are frustrated with an economy which boosts aspirations and needs but is incapable of providing decent employment. This pushes them to hang on to primordial identities and networks. The political system, unable to meet its responsibility, encourages and legitimises a primordial based identity formation in the name of culture.

*Renowned social scientist and former national fellow, Indian Council of Social Science Research. He is the author of many books, including “Social Movements and the State” and “Untouchability in Rural India”. This article was first published in The Billion Press

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