Agrarian Riots And Rural Distress: Is India's Countryside Burning?

A lack of jobs and an abundant workforce have meant that the agrarian states of India have become tinderboxes waiting to catch fire.

Representative image. Credit: PTI

Representational image. Credit: PTI

Statistics released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)’s annual report, “Crime in India”, reveal that in 2015, the number of ‘agrarian riots’ has increased by a whopping 327%. The number of cases of ‘agrarian rioting’ increased from 628 to 2,683 in one year. The bulk of these riots were recorded in three states: Bihar with the highest incidence of 1,156 (43%), Uttar Pradesh with 752 (28%) and Jharkhand with 303 (11%). Even, Gujarat, which has been touted by the BJP as the ‘model state’ for governance, crime management and the ease of doing business, has not been spared witnessing 126 riots. The agitation, that seems to be engulfing the countryside, of both non-agrarian workers and community leaders seems to be telling a story of near economic collapse that is manifesting itself in rioting in rural India.

What is most peculiar is that the category of an ‘agrarian’ riot (which is one of eight subcategories of riots: industry, sectarian, student, communal, caste conflicts, political and other) is a fuzzy classification with no clear definition. The riots recorded in the NCRB’s  ‘Crime in India’ report are those that have been registered between Sections 147-151 and 153(A) of the Indian Penal Code and the division between each is left to the discretion of the police stations. On being asked what is an ‘agrarian riot’ there is an almost indecisive chorus from police officers in different states. Prasanna Khamsera, the Superintendent of Police in Chittorgarh district, Rajasthan, in a conversation with this reporter said, “These are mainly land-related disputes, which could be over water, land acquisition or land disputes within villages that flare up.” This view is also shared by the NCRB, whose Akhilesh Kumar says the nature of these cases is broadly clubbed with land disputes.

What is most curious is how these ‘riots’ have largely gone unnoticed, and even after the data has been released the government has not been bothered to look into the issue. Ashok Gulati, renowned agriculture economist, in a conversation with Hard News said, “Back to back years of drought have acted as a sort of double whammy for the farmer. These [riots] however, sound like manifestation of major unrest amongst the farmers, because development is driven by people like us, we want smart cities and bullet trains, and not those working in the fields. Two years of the Modi government have been a disappointment, but what is more serious is how the media seems to be sleeping. But what is curious in all of this is how this unrest has not found its way into social media. It seems like the number of these riots might be many, but people involved might be few or there might not have the depth to shake things up. There is no mass contact farmer leader, right now, who can also carry the discontent and of the agriculture worker to any logical conclusion.”

What is more shocking according to Gulati is the lack of recognition that the government has shown, “These are official numbers, these aren’t also little sparks, this a towering crisis, why is Delhi sitting in denial?” However, if the crisis is as serious as the data points to, according to him, the agrarian minister should step down.

Suneet Chopra of the All India Agriculture Workers Union says, “We have to see what these riots reflect, they represent a profound political crisis that is not only limited by the economic agendas. There is a consensus that the spurt in these forms of cases suggests a clearer manifestation of the deep-rooted agrarian crisis that has hit the rural economy of the country: lack of agricultural productivity, the unavailability of jobs and the growing push to bring development through land acquisition.”

These trends are visible in both UP and Bihar who account for the bulk of the riots. These two states lie in the heart of the fertile Indo-Gangetic plain: resource-rich with large tracts of agricultural resources and access to irrigation canals. In the past two years, the onset of a drought, which further regressed an already stagnant agricultural sector and skyrocketing food prices only increased the distress faced by farmers and crippled the rural economy. Protesting farmers crowded cities all over the country, begging for quick solutions and release from their predicaments. “The most dangerous thing about these riots is that they are against the administration. The demands are also administrative, they may be jobs or being included in reservation, to become a part of the slice of the cake,” says Chopra.

Granular approach

The categorisation of this subsection of ‘riots’ is too broad and needs to be disaggregated. At this point, any entry points to unpack this category would largely be conjecture. States with large agrarian unrest in the past year either have zero or negligible incidences and cases of this sort. Punjab, which witnessed and continues to witness farmer strikes and protests, does not have a single registered case under ‘agrarian rioting’. The NCRB works by collecting all the data from the State Crime Record Bureaus, which, in turn, collect all the cases lodged or the FIRs registered. If there are no cases registered, there are no crimes. Sources in the police said most cases are not registered or they attempt to settle them off the books. This is most visible in Punjab.

Professor Ravi Srivastava at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said, “There is a definite need to disaggregate the category of agrarian riots, manifestly there are three or four conflicts that are being called agrarian riots. The first are movements against land acquisition; the second are the recent upsurge in caste-based rioting and demands for reservation, for example, the Patidars, Meenas, Jats, Gujars and now the Marathas; third would be those protesting for jobs, food and other amenities and fourth would be incidences of left wing extremism (LWE). I have not seen a dramatic increase in the number of incidences of LWE so that would not be responsible for this sort of increase in the number. What there has been is an upsurge in the amount of land that has been acquired in the past two years; the push for land acquisition began way back in 2006, but in the  past two years it has intensified,” he said.

“I myself have seen protests over land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh. In Bulandshahr, Ghaziabad and many other places smaller acts of dissidence are seen. These are mainly against the land that is being taken for power plants, roads and highways,” Srivastava added.

Many believe that the inability of the state to ensure land acquisition is a big hurdle in bringing industrial development in the country. To mend this, the Bharatiya Janata Party wanted to initiate the process of faster land acquisition. It moved to amend the UPA’s Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. The amendment sought to allow for faster land acquisition for five special categories: defence, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, infrastructure projects and industrial corridors. “When the Act was promulgated and eventually passed through an ordinance, there was an increase in unrest in the countryside, it was a matter of livelihood,” said Srivastava.

When the ordinance was passed there were strong reactions and condemnation from farmers, unions and civil society organisations all over the country. Facing strong criticism from the opposition as well, the ordinance route was eventually abandoned. However, this didn’t stop the state governments.

Chief minister Raghubar Das wants to make Jharkhand a hub of investment and a ‘gateway state’ for the central government’s flagship ‘Make in India’ programme. He has travelled far and wide to attract investment and companies, and has signed an to the tune of Rs 2,000 and Rs 5,000 crore.

All of this hinges on the belief that the government must provide an environment that is conducive to ‘ease of doing business’, which ensures quick resolutions to issues and conflicts. In a note on the website of the ‘Momentum Summit’ Das writes, “Since coming to power, there has not been a single major incidence of industrial conflict. Through highly responsive governance systems we have ensured near perfect industrial harmony.”

Statistics beg to disagree with Das. Out of the 191 industrial riots registered in India, 44 took place in Jharkhand alone, accounting for nearly a quarter of all industrial riots in the country.

It is, however, the agrarian riots according to civil society members that are truly representative of the problems faced by farmers, tribals and other communities when confronted by a state government hell-bent on the idea of implementing ‘ease of doing business’. The number of agrarian riots in Jharkhand increased by 4,950%, from six in 2014 to 303 in 2015 (NCRB). There seems to be dissonance in the definition of the idea of development between the tribal activist groups and the state. The opposition is also readily cashing in on the fissures that are fast appearing in the state.

Several instances of protest by adivasis have turned violent in the past year and have ended with the police firing and killing several farmers. On October 1, the police opened fire on protesting farmers in Jharkhand’s Barkagao village, which lies in the Hazaribagh area, killing four and injuring 15.

This is one amongst several other incidents, according to many is the most visible articulation of the agrarian rioting.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

“There are barely any good jobs in the private sector or the public sector for those in rural India. Those who have gained even tertiary education will want to work in the fields,” says Srivastava.“This lack of jobs has manifested itself in the growing push for anti-reservation marches of communities such as the Patidars in Gujarat and now the Marathas in Maharashtra.” This has given rise to a floating population of youth who have no jobs and no security and are reduced to ‘bad quality’ employment in the private sector doing jobs such as security guards or even delivery boys for e-commerce retail companies.

“Even in Kashmir the riots that we are witnessing are a direct consequence of the lack of jobs and an abundant workforce, you have unemployed youth who are not finding jobs. The rate of unemployment in Kashmir is extremely high. According to Chopra, together with this is the quick, heavy-handed and insensitive techniques used by state governments. This is visible in Jharkhand and was visible in Gujarat during the Patel agitation.

What these statistics paint is a picture of deeply rooted unrest, anger and dissatisfaction with successive governments and their ideas of economic well-being and development. Protests escalating into riots, according to statistics, are becoming an almost everyday fixture in the country. In 2015, there were nearly seven agrarian riots a day all over the country. There are more unemployed youths than ever before, with more ‘skilled or semi-skilled’ workers entering the market every day.

This leaves large sections of the population free to engage in crime, rioting and other untoward activities. Until 2013, there was no separate category known as an ‘agrarian riot’ and it is a relatively new classification, whose definition remains unclear. An inspector general in Saran, West Bengal, wrote, “The caprices of classification, and in many districts there is great and perfectly intelligible objection to call it by the right name. A petty squabble in the hat [market], and a pitched fight with spears and firearms attended by bloodshed, may be equally riots.. The figures submitted do not in my opinion at all accurately represent the real state of things.” While the numbers might be far higher than the ones registered, and the classification a bit dodgy, the statistics, in the words of Chopra, “ask important questions of the impact and in turn unrest that is fomenting in rural India as a direct consequence of policy, employment and unemployment and land acquisition.”

Riots, unrest and protesters are everywhere, from the lakhs who were part of the crowds in the Mukh Maratha protests to the thousands of tribals who took over Ranchi’s Mohrabadi ground. Farmers in Punjab blocking railways, and rioting against their farmlands being attacked by the ‘whitefly’ infestation; or the farmers who ran away from their fields in Marathwada to sleep at bus stops in Nashik; it could be the images of buses being burnt in Bengaluru and Mandya over the parched farmlands in the state, or Patels agitating all over Gujarat for reservation. There is little or no doubt that these images have become part and parcel of our everyday.

This article has been republished here, in an edited form, with permission from Hardnewsmedia.com