The peasants of Orissa have been agitating over the issue of the low prices for paddy or rice from last year, but vigorously so since the month of October 2001. This and the following months being the harvest season of the paddy in Orissa, the peasants, in a difficult financial situation were anxious to sell, and the minimum at which they expected was to sell at the minimum support price fixed by the central government.
The question of the ‘under-rate’ has been there for long. But the origin of this protest is quite difficult to trace. In Jharsuguda, the protest started last November, according to Surendra Sahu of the Jharsuguda Anchalika Krushaka Sangathana (Regional Peasant Organisation). But initially the peasants organized themselves to press for their demand for famine relief. (This district was affected by famine during the year 2000-2001.) The next season, that is during the monsoon of 2001, the district was inundated by the flooding of local rivers. And since then, that is, July-August of 2001, the demand of the peasants has been for flood relief. Finally towards October–November of 2001 the issue in front of the peasants was the proper sale of whatever little paddy they had produced despite the vagaries of nature. And now their organization seems to be growing in strength.
But the people in the district of Bargarh, which is irrigated by the Hirakud Dam, had been fighting for the proper sale of their paddy. In fact, they clearly remember the protest they had registered last year. On 2nd November 2000, at Godbhaga and on 10 November 2000, at Debahal, there was a Rasta Roko (Road Blockade) on National Highway No. 6, to have the paddy sold in Regulatory Market Committees (RMC) premises for the stipulated minimum support price. This led to some relief for some days as the paddy was purchased at the minimum support price in the RMC premises. But again after some time this practise fell into disuse. In Barpali on 3rd February 2001, as the paddy was not purchased from them in the RMC premises, the peasants stuffed the Block and Tahsil offices with their paddy in protest. This became a method of protest and was tried again on 8th May 2001, at Attabira Block. On 10th May 2001, after a Rasta Roko of the National Highway No. 6, which was preceded by a massive rally of peasants numbering around 10,000, from various parts of the district assembled at Bargarh, the district administration was brought to its knees. There was an agreement between the protesting peasants and the district administration. The important points in the agreement were as follows:
1. The sale and purchase of paddy was be effected in the RMC arena. [Nobody seems to know how these Committees are formed, or who can become a member. But there are quite a few market places which are known as RMCs. These places become centres of activity during the harvesting seasons of paddy. After that these places remain deserted.] There were, in the district of Bargarh, 36 permanent RMC marketplaces. Around 31 more temporary market sites were added to the permanent ones of the RMC, as at Gaisilet. The Civil Supplies Officials at that RMC should issue the requisite Enforcement Certificate (E.C.) to the owners of the rice mills. This was to put a check on the mill owners. Earlier the practice by the mill owners was to buy paddy from outside the RMC, at a price much below the stipulated minimum support price and sell it to the Food Corporation of India at a much greater profit. The EC became a method to put a stop to this practice and force the mill owners to buy under the stipulated law/price from the peasants. At another place, a revenue official was heard saying – ‘the peasants are talking of EC now. You can not take them for granted any longer.’
2. The second important point in the agreement was regarding payment. In case the sale was as little as 15 bags of paddy, then the buyer should make payments immediately. If it was higher than that then 30% of the price would be paid at the RMC and the rest within the next week. Besides, the Fair Average Quality standard or FAQ analysis had to be done at the RMC premises and not at the rice mills. The FAQ was set by the government of India in 1978, and is still in force. This standard sets a limit to the percentage of various impurities such as dust and sand particles, discoloured grain, chaff, barn and its humidity, in each bag of paddy (which contains about 75 kgs.)
But despite these ‘victories’ the peasants could not sell their rice at a fair price. The problems they faced and the way they are exploited are multiple. Pradeep Patra, the Secretary of the Krushak Sangathan (Peasant Organisation) of Batemura at Sambalpur, has catalogued the problems in an unpublished statement on the peasant protest. He says:
1. Even if the district authorities have assured that the payment for sale of rice will be made within 10 days (This stipulation actually varies from district to district. It is 7 days in the district of Bargarh, as we have seen already), it has remained a (false) promise only. But if the peasant is ready to accept a price of about 10 to 15 rupees less than the prescribed price, then the entire payment is made immediately.
2. As the weighing machines are not available at the RMC sites for large-scale purchases, the peasant is supposed to carry the grain/paddy to the rice mills, where it can be weighed. There, almost all peasants complain, they are cheated by the mill owners. Even as little as ten bags of rice, in spite of agreement to the effect, could not be weighed at the RMC sites.
3. The FAQ analysis also could not be done at the RMC (either because of the non-availability of gadgets or the absence of trained staff). So an arbitrary/whimsical deduction of 1kg to 15 kgs of paddy from a bag of 75 kgs is made by the mill owners. Mostly, at the mill, the deductions are more than what was agreed upon at the RMC.
4. The mill owners ought to arrange for the transportation of paddy from the RMC sites to their mills. But invariably that does not happen. The peasants who carry it to the mill do not get paid for that. At times, due to deliberate delays in unloading the paddy by the mill owners, which is a strategy of bargain, the peasants have to pay more to the transporter. At places even the mill owners allege that the paddy has been changed while in transit from the RMC to the mill. This is done to slash either the quantity or the quality or both of the paddy purchased.
5. The gunny/jute bags are another issue. The bags are meant to be returned to the peasants immediately. But that does not happen and the mill owners instead return old and torn bags. Thus the peasants suffer a loss, as the bags are worth 5 to 10 rupees a piece.
6. Some mill owners make the payment through account-payee cheques. Not all peasants have bank accounts, nor are there branches of banks at convenient places.
7. The small and marginal peasant finds it most difficult to market their paddy (which they do from out of their food for cash requirements). The transportation cost, at times, is so high that they hardly get any return. That is one reason why this section of the peasantry prefers to sell its paddy to local ‘bepari’ or traders at a much lower price than that set by the government.
Aside from these there are various other local problems. The Bargarh district administration/collector had the grand idea of introducing photo-identity cards for peasants who will sell paddy at the RMCs. He said his objective was to identify and put a check on the ‘beparis’ who collect paddy from peasants at a cheaper price and sell dear at the RMC. But the following information was also required for the identity card. 1. How much land a peasant owns. 2. How much paddy is produced on it. 3. How much do the peasants retain for consumption and how much do they sell. Besides being humiliating, such questions begged further problems. How can a share-cropper sell the paddy (as he does not own the land)? How can the small shopkeeper of the village sell his rice/paddy? [In most of the interior villages, even now, the shopkeepers provide basic consumer goods in exchange for grain and later sell it to mill owners or ‘beparis’.] Will the R.I. (Revenue Inspector) attest the statement of the peasant, which was necessary for the I-card, without any bribe? He could also use this as an instrument for other purposes such as the payment of water cesses.
So the photo-identity cards not only placed the peasant at the mercy of local officialdom but also put a limit on the amount of paddy that they can sell. Instead of putting a control on the illegal and ‘under-rated’ purchases by traders without a license, the district administration further harassed the already exploited producers.
The legal or the administrative arrangements have so far not helped the peasants. Only when the peasants have united and fought, has the administrative machinery worked for them and the law interpreted judiciously. At Sahaspur RMC, the peasant experience was that the gadgets (modern technology) for the analysis of the quality of the grain also did not work favourably unless they were alert. In fact, the mill owners used to bribe the analyst and get the paddy under-valued.
Though the solidarity of the peasants has during the protests increased considerably and more importantly, been effective, there are certain problems which the peasants want to address or so far have not been very definitely addressed.
The strength of the movement has undergone various troughs and crests. During November and December 2001, the peasants were free from the agricultural routine. So the participation in the rallies, meetings and other activities was at its highest. But once the agricultural operations began in January 2002 for the ‘Dalua’ late-rice crop, mass mobilization became difficult. Thereafter, the Dhanujatra, a local festival of about three weeks, in the district of Bargarh, kept the peasants busy.
During the initial months of the movement, those peasants who could sell their paddy profitably due to the movement did not find any reason to remain as part of the movement.
Then there was the question of the poor-peasants, marginal peasants, or landless and dalit peasants. This was addressed squarely by the socialist leadership of the Orissa Rajya Krushak Sangathan (Orissa State Peasant Organisation) at Bargarh. They have placed the needs of the dalit and the poor peasants on their charter of demands (as in the pamphlet published and distributed at the mass rally of 15th October 2001 at Sohela the demand was put that the poor and dalits be given hutment-sites immediately). According to Lingaraj, a popular peasant leader of the Orissa Rajya Krushak Sangathan of the region, this section of the peasantry has very little surplus to sell in the market. Mostly, the necessities of cash make them part with some of their own food (so it can hardly be called surplus). They have between 5 bags to 15 bags of rice to sell. This section constitutes the largest section of society. According to the District Statistical Handbook of Bargarh of 1997, marginal peasants owned 39,745 hectares out of a total of 297,300 hectares. And they numbered 69,396 in a total population figure of 165,563.
When they were under the pressure of the movement the mill owners preferred to buy in bulk from peasants who could bring between 100 to 500 paddy bags. This preference left the marginal peasants in the lurch. They also had the problem of transportation. Lingaraj observed that during the last 10 to 15 years there has been a gradual increase in the use of tractors and mechanized farming and a decline in the of use of draught animals and bullock carts. (I was surprised by the conspicuous absence of bullock carts in this area which once used to be the greatest problem for motorists). This change has left the small peasants at the mercy of bigger peasants or commercial transporters. This has monetarily added to their woes.
In this situation most marginal peasants preferred to sell their paddy to their village ‘beparis’ or agents of the mill owners. In fact in the far flung villages, these beparis and agents provide the required cash to peasants, and in return receive from them paddy during the harvest-season. In places like Talsigagd, Gaisima, and Khuapali, in the district of Bargarh, the socialist activists set an example by forcing the mill owners to purchase from the small-sellers/marginal peasants first. This sacrifice led to some activists being rebuked by their family members for not helping their own sales.
According to the socialist activists of Bargarh there was also tension between the peasants of different districts and localities. Bargarh has a large number of rice mills. Sonepur in the adjacent district, in comparison, does not have so many. So the peasants from Sonepur started bringing their paddy to RMCs in Bargarh. This was not liked by the peasants of Bargarh. They protested saying ‘why should the ‘outsiders’ be allowed to sell here.’
One of the remarkable features of these peasants’ movement has been the great care that the socialists of Bargarh have taken to inform and educate the peasants of the existing laws and administrative practices. In almost all the rallies and demonstrations they have been printing and distributing pamphlets much to the discomfort of the administration. Armed with the small pamphlet titled, ‘Dhana Under-rate: Samasya O Samadhan,’ (Under-rate Paddy: Problem and Solution) the peasants have been inspired to launch a protest against the unremunerative sale of paddy.
The attempt of the peasants of Jharsuguda, in self-help and self-organization is also noteworthy. Their organization is nascent and in one of their first rallies, they had taken meticulous care to print the slogans and practised chanting them.
In a recent meeting of Batemura Krushak Sangha, a great deal of anxiety was expressed regarding the fate of the agitation and the move of the government vis-à-vis the peasantry. The government on the last market day of the week, on 15th February 2002 (O/o No. 123/ dt-15th Feb 2002. The Sub-Collector and Chairman RC, Sambalpur), suddenly announced the closure of the RMCs for a fortnight due to the coming panchayat (village council) elections. (The panchayat elections were scheduled to be held between the 19th and the 28th of February 2002.) The next market day was the 19th February 2002, a Monday. The leaders feared that the peasants would trudge jungle paths to come to the RMCs by the Monday and find it locked. That would cause harassment of the peasants and also would discredit the leadership and the Krushak Sangathan. (I had spoken to the Sub-Collector of Sambalpur, who denied any procedural lapse on the part of his office. Though it smacked of mala fide intentions, the administration denied this.)
Beside this the Sangathans (organisations) were apprehensive of the coming days when the government proposes to decontrol prices of food crops. And what will be the shape of the procurement exercise during the harvesting of the second crop? This is another question which is haunting them. The Sangathan in this context is trying to keep their flock together by paying attention to canal water management and periodical rallies.
Another kind of attempt has been made by the Orissa Krushak Sangathan - the Orissa Peasant Organisation (OKS) – to keep the flame of the agitation burning. Possibly the agitation has itself created the possibility of OKS participating in the panchayat elections. The OKS has never participated in any elections, probably they do not, as a matter of principle, fritter away their resources in elections. But this time they have. Again to make a difference, the activists are campaigning on bicycles and without much fanfare. We wish them success.
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