Land allocation to Dalits: A feasible option to end oppression?

By Rajiv Shah
A major plank of young Jignesh Mevani, widely projected as the new Dalit icon of Gujarat, is that the state government should provide five acres of land to each Dalit family, and it should part of the solution to rehabilitate those doing the despicable job of manually scavenging of dead cattle. The view apparently stems from the understanding that agriculture is a respectable profession, and can certainly provide a good livelihood option. Mevani has threatened, in case five acres land is not offered by September 15, he would launch a “rail roko” agitation.
Trained as a lawyer under late Mukul Sinha, a well-known Gujarat High Court advocate who shot into prominence for his tough counter-questions to those who appeared before the Nanavati-Shah Commission of inquiry into Gujarat riots, Mevani’s “passion” for land is not new. It existed five years ago, too, when I first met him in the Times of India office in Gandhinagar. He had told me how most of the land, which had been rendered surplus under the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act, 1960, hadn’t been “handed over” to the Dalits.
A couple of months back, talking in the same strain, Mevani, a hardcore city dweller, told me on the sidelines of a land rights meet, that a Gujarat government affidavit before the High Court had claimed, it wasn’t “physically possible” for the state revenue department officials to survey the land that hadn’t been handed over to the Dalits. “I would like to meet the state revenue secretary in Gandhinagar to find out why is the state government so indifferent”, he seemed to plead.
I don’t know if he could meet the top official, but, clearly, he wasn’t speaking in the air. I knew: Based on a information (RTI) plea, he had found out last year how there was an “extremely tardy” progress in the allocation of surplus land to the landless. Records with him showed the Gujarat government, in all, had “acquired” 1,63,808 acres of land. Of this, he estimated, quoting official sources, nearly 70,000 acres was “under dispute” with the revenue tribunal or in courts, yet there were 15,519 acres on which “there is no dispute”; yet this land hasn’t been handed over to the landless.
Be that as it may, a major question that has for long puzzled me is, how could land become a panacea for Dalits’ and other other marginalized communities’ ills? Wasn’t there much truth in Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya’s view that the share of agriculture in the GDP is just about 15 per cent, while half of the workforce is dependent on it? This contradiction, he believes, is a major reason why the rural people are poorer than the other half, employed in industry and services. And this, he thinks, is the main reason why, in the longer run, “the potential of agriculture to bring prosperity to a vast population remains limited.”
I approached Prof Ghanshyam Shah, a well-known social scientist, who has been studying the marginalized communities of Gujarat for several decades, to know if land could be a solution of the Dalit problem. Pointing towards the demographic shift of Dalits in Gujarat, Prof Shah told me, “The urge for land is mainly Dalits in rural areas mainly of the Saurashtra region, and not entire Gujarat”, he told me, adding, “Nearly all of them are either landless workers or marginal farmers.”
Elucidating, he said, “I was looking at the data. They suggest that the proportion of Dalits living in rural areas in Saurashtra remains high compared to the state average. However, it just the opposite in the rest of Gujarat. In fact, a a higher than the overall proportion of Dalits lives urban areas of the rest of Gujarat.”
“The urban Dalits face a different set of problems than rural Dalits. Even the proportion of atrocities on Dalits is pretty high in the Saurashtra region and other rural areas”, he said, adding, “A peep into the data of atrocities against Dalits showed this quite clearly.” Indeed, the districts and areas which have been declared “sensitive” from the Dalit atrocities angle are mainly rural – Ahmedabad (Rural), Vadodara (Rural), Rajkot (rural),and nearly most of the Saurashtra region and Kutch.
Interestingly, it is not just the agitators who view agriculture and allied sectors are the panacea for the marginalized communities. The view is equally strong among traditional economists. They do agree, for instance, that agriculture contributes less than 20 per cent of the Gujarat economy, down from 50 per cent during 1970s; yet they insist that agriculture is the “backbone of the economy” because because more than half of the working population is dependent on agricultural activities for their livelihood! Hence the “solution”: Priority should be given to agriculture in order to reduce poverty and malnutrition and for inclusive growth.
This is just contrary to what the available surveys suggest. One of them is by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi, which finds that, given an employment opportunity, 61 per cent of India’s farmers would like to “shift” to cities, with 50 per cent of farmers said they are “ready to quit farming” if such a possibility arises.
Conducted in 2013-14 in 274 villages spread over 137 districts of 18 Indian states, including Gujarat, and based on interview with 8,220 individuals, 20 per cent of whom are Dalits, the survey report says, “When farmers were asked whether they want their children to settle in the city, as many as 60 per cent said they want their children to settle in the city. Another 14 per cent do not want their children to settle in the city, whereas 19 per cent said they will prefer their children’s choice on this matter.”
Pointing out that better education was cited as a major reason why farmers want their children to settle in cities, followed by better facilities, and employment opportunities, the study says, “When asked whether they would like to see their children engaging in farming, only 18 per cent responded positively, 36 per cent said they do not want their children to continue farming as their occupation, and 37 per cent said they will prefer their children’s choice.”
The study underlines, “The sentiment that their children should not continue farming is strongest among landless and small farmers (39 per cent) and weakest among large farmers (28 per cent)” — a big proportion of whom are Dalits. The study adds, in a separate interview with youths from farmer households, “60 per cent said that they would prefer to do some other jobs, whereas only 20 per cent said they would continue farming.”
Ironically, it is no other than BR Ambedkar – in whose name most Dalit leaders (including Mevani) are never tired of swearing for any and every issue – who exhorted Dalits to flee villages and move to cities in order to escape caste shackle. Ambedkar wrote, “What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”
Intelligent Dalit intellectuals are found to have taken a cue from Ambedkar on the land issue. They say, land cannot be the panacea for Dalits’ fight against “oppression”. Senior Dalit intellectual Ratan Lal of the Delhi University, says land can at best be only be a “small part in the overall fight”, insisting, the main focus should be right to equal participation in public life, government and private sector. He says, Ambedkar termed villages “feudal bastions.”

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