Is This Freedom?

is the
Is This ‘Azaadi’?
Everyday Lives of Dalit Agricultural Labourers in a Bihar Village
Anand Chakravarti
2018, Tulika Books,
265 pages

The title of Anand Chakravarti’s new book, Is This Azadi, is as much a question to the Indian state as it is to those over-awed by claims of growth and development under Nitish Kumar and other such regimes. The book is an empathetic attempt to voice the concerns and life of the dalit agricultural workers, who have remained invisible from academic and ruling political discourses. The title is a reference to the discrepancy between the promised justice in Constitution and existential realities of rural India where reactionary forces ensure a status quo. It points to the implicit role of the state and the distance between rhetoric of development and the dismal realities of the rural poor.

The most interesting part of the book are the testimonies where it is clear that the rural poor want not only to be seen, but also heard, and the desire they express for their voices to be heard. There are few books that have academically engaged with the structural inequalities that grip agricultural workers and raises concerns about their terrible plight even in this century. The books that do exist, such as those by Drèze, have focused often upon numbers to highlight the magnitude of poverty. There has therefore been an acute need for books that represent the lived lives of the rural poor and bring academic discourses to dwell upon a section that for most part has remained invisible. The conditions that impoverish, the cycles that keep the rural poor enslaved to caste and class dominance, the development that has skipped over the rural poor are experiences that need to enter academic debates. Unlike the studies that argue with numbers and aggregate the sum of the pains, Chakravarti argues by unravelling the pain that sometimes gets hidden in the numbers to highlight the faces, the names, the places, the struggles of the agricultural workers in Bihar. This has been done meticulously by recording and organising information to put forth the shocking disregard that the Indian state has exhibited towards the agricultural workers and rural poor, who are landless, and mainly from dalit backgrounds.

The village where the study is located has been given a pseudonym, to protect identities, but the details provide an elaborate account of the agricultural workers’ life in the village. The book is the product of the author’s six-seven visits to the village from 2001 to 2015, with one part describing the findings in the earlier period, and the second part covering the recent visits. This also enables a reader to draw some comparisons over time. The village has seen the political work of CPI(ML) Liberation and the rural poor-or the ‘under-class’, a term that Chakravarti uses. Some of the agricultural workers have been involved and influenced by the struggles.  The political work include both ‘substantive’ as well ‘symbolic’ interventions leading to increase in wages, freeing banihars, increasing access to bank loans instead of falling prey to money lenders, successful temple entry movements, and expanding inter-dining practices. The book thus also provides an interesting account of what became possible because of the Party’s work, the social groups who became actively involved and so gained the consciousness for transformation. One could read the book also to note the material challenges, the incomplete tasks, the sections that got less influenced and the areas around which rural poor needs to be organised.

Chakravarti builds a picture of the material realities of the village. For the agricultural workers, ownership of means of production and land rights are important, because they experience both caste and class on a daily basis through it. In this study, in the fictitiously named village Muktidih, in Rohtas district, there are landless among Brahmins, both because of land reforms that followed Independence as well as impoverishment caused by feudal life styles and indebtedness; however they opt for jobs in the urban industrial sector. The head start received in higher education among the Kayasths placed them in better economic positions within the village and allowed them both rentier income and benefits of the service sector. The OBCs, especially the Yadavs and Koeris gained ascendance with post Independence land reforms and occupancy rights. The dalit agricultural workers however had no occupancy rights and gained nothing, they also suffered low wages, physical abuse and violations at the hands of all those who dominated over them in caste and class. While the ML movement in Bihar strengthened the resolve of the rural, landless dalit and poor to organise, the state allowed the social power of dominant groups to prevail by opposing class struggle and giving dominant caste senas a free hand to terrorise the rural poor.  

The livelihood conditions of agricultural workers in Bihar remain unsatisfactory as Chakravarti identifies long periods of unemployment enforcing a hand-to-mouth condition. The continued existence of banihars or unfree labour, in 2015 , is identified as an outcome of state’s lack of concern and deep indebtedness among the agricultural workers. Livelihood mapping shows that sources of income generation is not evenly spread among dalit households, with Bhuiyas lagging behind. Significantly, the importance of cooked meals as part of the wage in the life of food deficit households is brought out in testimonies. Without it, workers toiled on empty stomachs.  Notably cooked meals were achieved after political struggles. Food insecurities hound agricultural workers’ lives and tenancy was much sought after for covering the deficit, though it came at a high cost. Tenancy existed under different modes of payment, nagdi, teesri, batai , with batai rights still limited. The risks are steep and include high interest rates when leased for cash, crop failure without crop compensation and indebtedness. Rearing and maintaining buffaloes was the only reliable measure of augmenting income available to labour households. The animals remain with the owners, under various kinds of arrangements, before the labourers are ever being able to buy one for themselves. Reading these accounts makes one wonder how violent interference in cattle rearing in the name of gau raksha these days would affect the only reliable income generating source for rural workers.

Notably the agricultural workers of Muktidih, when shifting to unskilled urban work find themselves in abysmal living and work conditions, with little savings left over after expenses. They are compelled to return during the harvest season to ensure food for the household.

Even those familiar with the poverty of workers in the ‘granary bowl’ villages of Bihar would find the detailed account of food consumed, clothes worn, the pain of those who toil, striking. As an outsider Chakravarti notes with shock the poverty of a labourer’s diet, the scant food available to the household, and the distressing ways the poor clothe and protect themselves from elements. It is a revealing account of poor nutrition, living on rice and salt, near absence of lentils from the diet, the borrowing cycles, selling the paddy earned in wages in an underpaying buyer’s market, the elderly and children gleaning fields for fallen ears of paddy and wheat to stave off hunger.

Over the years, when some households have managed to augment their incomes, there have been some additions in the form of lentils and vegetables, but for most it remains sparse and simple.  State provision through PDS has let down the poor, and only mobilisation by party activists has led to receiving the due rations.  Even when available, the prices at PDS were unaffordable for workers during the lean season, and those in distress suffered because of it. The grievances have included non-entitlement, under weighing, irregularity and poor quality. The National Food Security Act (NFSA, 2014) and Socio-economic Caste Census (SECC 2011) introduced a new regime of PDS which reduced households entitled to provisions; began  individual instead of household shares in PDS; and wrongly attributed privilege to BPL households; and directed rations to well-to-do homes for siphoning off in the market.

A similar situation is seen in the neglect of housing. Indira Awas Yojana, when it did arrive provided such tiny housing that it could not accommodate the entire household. Moreover it was mired in corruption and misappropriation, and Bhuiya workers in the village for most part lived without water or electricity supply.

The chapters examining indebtedness provide seasonal patterns of borrowing, which the author describes is mainly to cover deficits for ‘biological and social’ existence. Those who need loans the most and suffering deprivation also end up paying the maximum interest. The calculations and extracts from the account book of borrowers provide details of the exploitative relationship. Vicious cycle of loans have been noted - compounded by the fragile health of the workers as well as social demands in marriage rituals. The magnitude of health costs leave the worker both indebted and facing death.

Strikingly, the section on marriage ceremonies observes, how even those among the agricultural worker households influenced positively by the Party’s progressive politics, still find it difficult to withstand the social pressure to hold marriage ceremonies involving dowry that lead to indebtedness. While in theory the need to break from such customs is recognised, there is still a deficit, it seems, in the collective support and political will needed to make the break in practice. The shift from agrarian to non-agricultural incomes were noted to have increased the commercial dowry transactions. The commoditisation seen in gender relations and the commercialisation of marriages does point to an important area for social and political work that needs greater attention by the Party and organisations of rural poor and women to combat dowry, indebtedness, and vicious cycles of exploitation.

The dismal state of education are offset by some narratives of determination and perseverance. While reading these fascinating accounts, it emerges that that those who studied also were the ones who had gained political ideas for change and led the resistance. In recent years the interest in formal schooling has increased.

The state having abdicated its responsibility towards rural poor and allowing dominant social power to prevail, the author recognises the political voice of the rural poor emerged and got amplified through CPI(ML) in the village. Over time, party activism of the rural poor also lead to incremental as well as substantial change in wages. Social gatherings have democratised and there is greater participation of women in political rallies and processions. Rural workers have begun to occupy the political space.

However, it is but obvious to a reader that this change is a continuous process, which is ongoing even when once important individual political actors personally fail. The challenges of political organising include challenging the inter-generational deprivation that has depressed the poorest among the agricultural workers, which has lowered their self-esteem and power to change. The fresh waves of onslaught on food, shelter, housing and wage, adds to earlier deprivations.

Chakravarti takes on liberal scholars of rural poverty who have argued in favour of the rural poor lobbying for their space in democracy; he emphasises the structural inequalities that has kept freedom away for the rural poor even after 70 years of Independence.

The book has many things to offer to different kind of readers. A reader unfamiliar with deprivation would gain an understanding of the conditions that lead up it. It brings out the relationship of the rural and the migrant urban poor with their land. For those moved by the plight of farmers and the agrarian distress, the book unfolds the social composition of the agricultural economy based on their means of production and capitals possessed. Even those familiar with such villages of Bihar, the book throws up details from the lives of agricultural workers. The testimonies stand up against the normalisation of the deprivation. For those engaged in organising the rural poor, the book emphasises once again the distance covered and roads ahead, if Azaadi (freedom) has to have any meaning.