Kings have come and gone, invaders have rushed in and plundered, boundaries have got marked and abolished, and new ethnic groups have appeared and assimilated but our peasantry has survived the unusually harsh onslaughts of hostile historical forces. Peasantry is an indelible presence on the patina of our social time as Punjab despite its long urban history cannot be conceived without peasants in its fertile fields.
It’s intriguingly interesting to decipher the secret of its success as it’s no longer sure of itself due to entirely changed politico-economic conditions created by inroads of global capitalist market and state’s intrusion. Peasantry is threatened with unnecessary intervention by the state as tax collecting agent. It also suffers from disdainful indifference of the state as regulator of economic life. The paradox of being a predatory and fragile state at the same time negatively impacts the process of agricultural production and peasants’ well-being, still a mainstay of our collective existence.
First a few words on how peasantry has faced the vicissitudes of time and managed to survive. Our village, students of history know, has been economically and socially a self-sufficient unit. It comprised farmers and other semi-skilled and skilled workers and artisans needed for the purposes of cultivation of land and socio-cultural life that ensued from it.
Apart from farmer, the lot included mansion, carpenter, blacksmith, weaver, potter, cobbler, barber, baker, traditional musicians, bard, mimic, veterinarian, impersonator, genealogist and religious guide, to name a few. Village had minimal contact with city or urban administrative centre which had invariably exploitative relationship with it. Both in fact shared the indifferent attitude. Urban administrative centre was as little pushed about the village as village was about the centre. The centre did little for the village other than taxing the agriculture and extracting the surplus with the use of coercive power.
Punjab being the gateway of ancient India bore the brunt of incessant invasions by foreigners of different hues. To ward off total destruction agricultural classes willy-nilly paid more to the invaders than what they were forced otherwise to pay to their overlords and masters nestled snugly in cities who never made good on the solemn promise of defending and protecting them against the brute force of aliens that always loomed on the horizon. So peasants’ resilience is linked with the nature of rural life.
Village’s self-sufficiency was both its strength and bane; it made the regeneration possible after each foreign invasion but it also discouraged innovation and creativity producing what Marx called rural idiocy.
But the things changed beyond recognition with advent of colonialism in Punjab in the mid nineteenth century. The colonial state with its advanced knowledge, political acumen, nous and modern technological means managed to reach the peasant’s hearth and home by creating an intricate and elaborate economic and political network never seen before here. Post-colonial Pakistani state has continued to follow the colonial policy albeit in a haphazard manner without pizzazz on the age-old sacred pretext of patriotism.
The situation for Punjab’s peasant has gone from bad to worse with the passage of time. The unchecked corporate penetration in recent decades has rendered him more vulnerable. Now he has to negotiate from a position of weakness with vagaries of weather, post-colonial nation state and the mammoth of transnational corporations.
Each wants its pound of flesh from the emaciated peasant’s body. Look at the current scene. Corporations and their local agents control the supply of agricultural outputs. They are free to fix the prices of what they offer and there is no check on the quality of what they offer with the net result that cost of raising crops and agricultural products has spiked sharply but yield has not been significantly enhanced. Corporate sector is free to price its inputs in the docile presence of a government that willingly relinquishes its role as a watchdog but peasant with his harvest is completely at the mercy of market forces for the price of its produce. As a last resort he genuflects to corrupt bureaucrats and politicians for the support price in order to last till the next sowing season. And bureaucrats and politicians (read government), we all know, are easily manipulated by big business. Throw a few crumbs at them from your high table and get your way on the issue of dealing with agriculture. So simple math: peasant is forced to spend more while buying and gets less while selling.
Pecuniary losses of peasantry stand in stark contrast to hefty profit the corporations make. Government is an accomplice in crime by protecting the powerful and forsaking the powerless. It wears a predatory look when dealing with the peasantry but becomes nebulous in an air of fragility when tweaked by global capital.
All this happens while landowning politicians in overwhelming number are ensconced in parliament. Landed politicians are an intellectually impotent lot. Secondly they have branched out into other businesses. The main source of their income is no longer traditional farming. Hence paying heed to the ailing agrarian sector in terms of legislation and governance is not their priority. Peasantry cannot expect any good from the landed gentry that is in corridors of power.
Farming for small and medium size landholders is not sustainable any longer. Peasants are leaving their green patches. Population explosion is about to occur. Dwindling of agricultural sector and unbridled population growth are likely to create dangerous conditions in near future. Urgency demands immediate remedial measures. The picture gets frighteningly abysmal if we look at the track record of the elite that has been looking after the affairs of the nation since the emergence of the Pakistani state. The peasantry will have to rise to the occasion if it wants to save itself and people at large. That too again seems to be forlorn hope. But that’s the only hope left with the people and the country in a situation fraught with lethal ambiguities. “A peasant field has been set ablaze/ let’s sees when he rushes back and douses the fire”, says Waris Shah, the bard, who captured the soul of Punjab’s agrarian society spread over thousands of years.
Byline: Mushtaq Soofi
Dec 30, 2016