The Dawn: May 27, 2016

Punjab Notes: Peasants on The Mall: starvation wages

Mushtaq Soofi 

They may be unlettered and docile. They may fear authority but they are a tough lot, tougher than the workers in cities. The reason is they are a product of historical conditions that have been hard and harsh. In their struggle spanning over thousands of years, they have been fighting not only vagaries of nature but also parasitic lords and state authorities that have persisted in their predatory habit to extract the entire surplus produced every year. They know the secrets of art of survival which is transmitted from generation to generation. They feel compelled to keep themselves constantly engaged with their perennial foes; nature and authorities. They seek nature’s mercy by appealing to its diverse forces in manifest and subtle manners which is seen as an unmistakable sign of their being superstitious. They mollify the authorities by offering them ‘pounds of flesh’ though grudgingly in the form of land revenue, water charges and other taxes. What do they get in return? Indifference or hollow promises at best. Peasants usually do not bother about such stuff if the things that affect their life and limb do not go awfully wrong threatening the very existence of the community. So what has gone wrong that a sizable chunk of peasants recently marched on Lahore in order to pressurise the Punjab government to accept its demands if it wanted to avert the disaster that, in their opinion, was most likely to strike the agrarian sector. The agrarian sector as we all know is still a crucial component of the national economy in terms of jobs, food security and exportable products. There is no doubt that if it goes down, more than half of Pakistan in general and Punjab in particular will go under.

What the revenue officials do to the peasantry is nothing new. The oppression is as old as Harappa. In medieval Punjab how the authorities treated peasants is best described by Baba Guru Nanak, the great seer of this land. See how he in some of his verses excoriates the panjandrums of his times.“The kings are tigers, their officials are dogs; they go out and wake the wakeful and the sleeping to maul them (Rajay sheenh muqaddam kuttay, jai jagain baithay suttay),” he says.

Situation for the peasants in no way has not changed qualitatively. The kings have been replaced by near invisible chief executive officers of transnational corporations and the officials by their local representatives that include bureaucrats and businessmen. Farmers who are mostly tenants, small and medium proprietors, have a simple case. They aver that they have been abandoned by the government and the state, and left at the mercy of diabolic market forces. They are not wrong. Some of the vital agricultural inputs remain in short supply such as water. If they try to pump out water for the crops, they do not get power because of power shortfall which is described in official parlance as ‘loadshedding’ i.e. temporary lack of power supply. Whenever they get power supply, they run their tubewells very sparingly due to exorbitantly high power tariffs. The seeds they need every season are very expensive. Herbicide, pesticide and sprays cost too much and secondly, one cannot be sure about their quality. There is no check on their being spurious. Traders and state officials work in collusion to defraud the growers who are put in double jeopardy; they pay for the inputs that destroy their crops. So they end up being paupers; they lose their investment as well as the prospective crops which push them into a vicious debt trap. Crop yield or whatever of it the peasants get, doesn’t cover the cost of inputs used. It’s a question of a symmetrical relation between inputs and output which rulers in the cities are least pushed about as they are manipulated by multinationals. They know the peasants have little political clout because of their horizontal spread. But the power wielders shouldn’t forget that this weakness can turn into its opposite. Political consciousness created by their current historical compulsion can make them realise how their weakness can work to their advantage; they are too many, they are everywhere. A single peaceful act of their coming on to the roads and highways can bring the entire Punjab to a grinding halt. Make no mistake. History has seen many a peasant revolts. Read the chronicles and history books which are replete with the unsavoury details of peasant rebellions during the last one thousand years. One of the reasons for the great Mughal Akbar to shift his capital to Lahore was peasant insurgency led by legendary Dulla Bhatti in the Sandal Bar. The uprising was triggered by high taxes imposed by the state on agriculture. It was again a ferocious peasant movement caused by state oppression that destroyed the Mughal rule in Punjab and paved the way for the glorious kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit Singh at the end of the 18th century. The latest grand example is that of Chinese revolution of the last century which cannot be conceived without mass peasant participation.

Peasants are not an ambitious lot. They can be content with the bare minimum but not less than that. You cannot starve them. They can survive starvation but can you? What if they stop producing or are unable to produce! A peasant can survive on a loaf of bread and a lump of jaggery. So gentlemen in corridors of power, use your loaf when you deal with the peasants who are out on the road voicing their legitimate demands. Don’t nurture the illusion that you can import what they produce. That would destroy your economy and the ensuing unrest will turn the system you love on its head. “The peasant’s field has been set ablaze/let us see when he comes to douse the fires,” says Waris Shah. Don’t miscalculate. He will certainly come. —

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