Ambedkar Batted for Factories and not Romanticised Farms
The so-called secular and Dalit parties know nothing about Babasaheb Ambedkar’s views on how the disenfranchised can be truly freed if they move to urban India.
The current debate on land acquisition has been claimed to be all about farmers and their rights, industry and growth, employment generation. Political parties are trying their best to outdo each other to appear as the saviour and protector of India’s biggest vote bank – its rural population.
Lost in all this noise is the question of what will it do for the landless, the bulk of whom belong to the scheduled castes. But interestingly, even Mayawati, the supremo of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which pitches itself as a Dalit party, is opposing the current ordinance for being anti-farmer when close to 90 per cent of rural scheduled caste households own less than one hectare of land, according to the National Sample Survey report on Employment and Unemployment among Social Groups.
But what would Babasaheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, whose statues Mayawati got installed all across Uttar Pradesh, whose legacy the Congress Party, which is in a do-or-die battle against the ordinance, is determined to claim, have made of the current controversy? Ambedkar has been celebrated as a lawyer, a Dalit leader and the chief architect of Constitution. He was all of these but he was an equally well-accomplished economist with insights which continue to be relevant even today.
In the rhetoric against the land acquisition ordinance, most of those opposing it have spoken about how it will force people to migrate to cities and leave the village. Ambedkar would have found nothing wrong with such a move. In India After Gandhi, historian Ramchandra Guha writes that when some people proposed a ‘Gandhian constitution’, based on a revived panchayati raj system of village councils, with the village as the basic unit of politics and governance, at the time of the framing of the Indian Constitution, Ambedkar sharply attacked the view.
Guha quotes him as saying, ‘these village republics have been the ruination of India’. He goes on to note that Ambedkar was ‘surprised that those who condemn provincialism and communalism should come forward as the champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?’ So clearly, Ambedkar did not see Dalit upliftment as something that could come within a rural/ agrarian context.
More than 65 years have passed since Ambedkar spoke these words, but ‘village’, ‘farmer’, ‘panchayat’ continue to remain some of our most revered words. Their glorification has come at the cost of continued impoverishment of the people who are most in need of growth and development.
Chandrabhan Prasad, one of India’s most prominent Dalit writers, has often made the point that urbanisation is the real road to salvation for Dalits. A lot of the work that Prasad has done, on his own and along with Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania and Lant Prtichett of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government shows that the anonymity and opportunities that urban centres offer enable Dalits to put the oppressiveness of village life firmly behind them.
Statistics bear this out. The NSS survey on Employment and Unemployment among Social Groups show that the bulk of scheduled caste households – 52 per cent – are engaged in casual labour in rural areas and another 33 per cent are self-employed in agriculture. In urban areas, however, it is regular wage/salaried jobs that predominate – 44 per cent of scheduled caste households hold regular jobs.
But how will urban centres come up? It is through a shift from agriculture to industry. Ambedkar believed the transition was important. In 1918, he wrote:
“A large agricultural population with the lowest proportion of land in actual cultivation means that a large part of the agricultural population is superfluous and idle…this labour when productively employed will cease to live by predation as it does today, and will not only earn its keep but will give us surplus; and more surplus means more capital. In short, strange as it may seem, industrialization of India is the soundest remedy for the agricultural problems of India.”
Prasad has been the moving force behind the Dalit capitalism movement, along with Dalit industrialist Milind Kamble. The central thesis is that free markets and entrepreneurship are the route for salvation for Dalits. The proof that this has worked is the book, Defying the Odds, authored by Prasad, Kapur and D. Shyam Babu which profiles Dalit entrepreneurs who have moved from poverty to prosperity.
But can entrepreneurship be possible without property and property rights?
While the debate over the land acquisition law has been largely focussed on what purposes should qualify for acquisition of land under the eminent domain laws and the quantum of compensation, principles-based positions have been given a total miss.
What is unique about ‘land’ that requires a separate law altogether for its purchase and sale? Why can’t such affairs of purchase and sale of land be handled like purchase and sale of any other good or service – voluntarily between consenting parties.
India does not have a functioning land market, let alone a vibrant one. A functioning land market should have some basic characteristic features, like that of a market for any other good or service. The exchange of the said good or service should take place voluntarily without needing an Act of parliament, a third party involved or not. That can only happen if there is a fundamental right to property.
Property rights once were fundamental. However, after a series of assaults since the adoption of the Constitution in 1950, the 44th Amendment to the Constitution in 1978 removed its fundamental status, by deleting Articles 19(1)(f) and Article 31.
Ambedkar would certainly not have approved of this. He has been quoted in The Indian Federalist by Sanjiv Agarwal as having written: “The object of the Fundamental Rights is two-fold. First, that every citizen must be in a position to claim those rights. Secondly, they must be binding upon every authority . . . which has got either the power to make laws or the power to have discretion vested in it.”
Indian politicians and policymakers mindlessly debating land acquisition would do well to go back and read Ambedkar. The salvation for India’s rural population lies outside its villages.
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