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THE LOGIC OF HISTORY
- Indian agriculture is confronting a serious crisis of viability

During the pre-liberalization years of the shortage economy in India, there was very little scope for waste. From the metal caps on milk bottles to broken-down TV sets, nearly everything was recycled. Every market in urban India boasted a small, chaotic shop which had perfected the art of jugar technology. Whether it was the malfunctioning transistor set once lovingly presented by the visiting NRI relative in the Seventies or grandfather’s old chiming clock, you could be sure that there were people who specialized in repairing almost anything at an affordable price — that too without having access to original spares. And, of course, there was the raddi market.

It is so different in the advanced citadels of world capitalism. I remember traipsing half-way across London to a tiny shop adjoining Pentonville prison to locate a watch-repairer whose charges were somewhat affordable. Even then, it cost me a whopping £60 to have my father’s wedding watch back in working order.

“You could have got it done at one-third the price at a shop in Bowbazar,” a cousin chided me. He was, of course, right — but there was a difference. The London shop specialized in restoration and the Bowbazar man excelled in repair. The Londoner was an appendage of the antiques trade while the Calcutta man was a creation of the shortage economy. The dealer who lovingly restores old Studebaker cars of the Fifties in Los Angeles is different from the clever mechanic who ensures that the old jalopies continue their profitable run as taxis in socialist Havana. It is not that one can’t make the transition to the other. It is just that the economic imperatives are different.

As India reaches out to the global economy, things are fast changing. Regulars at New Delhi’s Khan Market, the local market for the discerning and genteel, have been complaining about the disappearance of a small shop that excelled in repairing anything electrical. The shop closed and has been replaced by the showroom of a well-known Indian brand.

The transition from jugar technology to brand-building is understandable. Shop rentals in Khan Market are said to be the highest in India. The sons of the old man repairing TV sets and cordless phones must have realized that their father was occupying a piece of prime real estate and still earning a pittance. It definitely made more economic sense for the shopkeeper to sell out the leasehold, probably buy a comfortable home somewhere across the Yamuna, provide seed capital to a son and still have loose change for his retirement.

What is taking place in Khan Market and across countless bazaars in India is not unusual. The transition to a modern, globalized market economy involves what economists call structural adjustment. The process is never easy and the losers outnumber the winners in the initial stages. For every beneficiary among the old-timers in Khan Market, there are at least four small shopkeepers who have been ejected because they can no longer match the market rents. The recent sealing and demolition drive in Delhi, for example, has led to small barbers, scrap dealers and petty grocers in the authorized markets being evicted by landlords anxious to benefit from the dramatic rise in rents.

The problems faced by Delhi’s petty traders are not dissimilar to those faced by the predominantly Asian-run corner-shops and rural post offices in Britain — their viability has been eroded by mushrooming supermarkets. Naturally, there are fears that the entry of corporate houses into the retail sector will replicate that process in India and drive lakhs of small shopkeepers out of business in due course.

History, tragically, is never on the side of those who resist its cruel logic. The enclosure movement which preceded Britain’s rise as an industrial power led to mass migration from the countryside to squalid towns. The dispossession of the small farmers and the appropriation of common land generated protests and even triggered a few riots. Poets such as Oliver Goldsmith railed against the iniquity of the enclosures: “They hang the man, and flog the woman,/ That steals the goose from off the common;/ But let the greater villain loose,/ That steals the common from the goose.”

In France, the early Fifties saw spirited protests by petty shopkeepers, small farmers and artisans against government attempts to drag them into the tax-net. Led by Pierre Poujade, the owner of a provincial stationery shop, the Poujadists brought together communities anxious to preserve pre-industrial values in the face of industrial onslaught. The Poujadists combined their hatred of big business and cosmopolitanism with fierce anti-Americanism. In 1956, the Poujadists created consternation in the French Establishment by polling 11.6 per cent of the popular vote and winning 53 seats in the National Assembly. One of those elected on a Poujadist ticket was Jean Marie Le Pen — later to become famous for spearheading the opposition to North African immigrants.

Some historians have described Poujadism as the “first anti-globalization movement” — a description that fits a movement led by chauvinists and cranks. Others have more appropriately compared Poujadism to the “wild gestures of drowning men” — a characterization which, while somewhat condescending, puts the movement on a par with the Luddites and other opponents of the Industrial Revolution.

As protests mount in Singur, Nandigram, Kalinga Nagar, Dadri and other places against the forcible acquisition of agricultural land for industrial use, there is a temptation to detect an incipient Poujadism in India. Certainly, the disparate movements are not exclusively directed against the compensation packages offered by governments. These, everyone agrees, could do with a greater measure of generosity — considering the potential windfall of many Special Economic Zones. The movements have now escalated to a point where the issue centres on the very right of government to appropriate agricultural land for industrial use. In other words, what is being questioned is not the admitted lack of transparency, as was evident in Nandigram, and the crony capitalism practised by the state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, but the mere suggestion that small-holding agriculture must yield to manufacturing and the services.

The fact that resistance to appropriation is becoming more pronounced as Indian agriculture confronts a serious crisis of viability is significant. It points to economic logic being subsumed by what the finance minister called the spiritual bond between the tiller and his land. Is this purely a function of political manipulation, as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal insists' Or does it arise because the benefits of a modern, globalized economy are not yet evident to the farmer'

These are questions that still await a definite answer. For the moment, however, India’s rush to emulate China’s SEZs has become far too contentious for the political class to rush through. Before the entire reforms process is mired in needless controversy, it is necessary for the political class to answer some fundamental questions. Is it the government’s job to be a land broker' In Gujarat, for example, land acquisition for a SEZ is left to market forces and the promoter. More important, shouldn’t land acquisition by the government for infrastructure — the building of roads, airports, power plants, dams, et al — be accompanied by public hearings and determined by an independent tribunal' This is the practice in evolved democracies and results in endless kerfuffle when retired colonels get all worked up over the rural parish being ruined by a motorway running through it. It is silly to imagine that India can be insulated from this process.

People take their time to accept the inevitable; they can never be force-fed the logic of history.

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