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Dr. Mohinder Kumar , Economic perspective on social existence of Menzseer "Daily Excelsior" 14/2/2016

Menzseer is located in Sopore block of Baramulla district at a distance of 15 km from Sopore. Village was once home to Kashmiri Pandits as they were an integral community of 150 households and 1000 persons, in 1990. Their houses are still intact though dilapidated. No person from village has encroached on these houses and lands which are protected and safe. Villagers aggrieve that during 1990 even Muslim households faced fear of militant-politics. They feel “authorities should have taken resolute steps to instill confidence to stop Pandits from resorting to mass migration” forced by formidably fearful circumstances. Was mass exodus a spontaneous, instantaneous, triggered response or, the last resort?

If “superstructure” refuses to acknowledge “base” as the foundation, both must be in correspondence and move together hand-in-hand. Ultimately, economic base is primary. Past social stress in Menzeer can be understood ultimately in economic perspective. Land relation, in the final analysis, may have determined and defined what Karl Marx calls, the “relations of production” (RoP) -emerging in the process of economic activity of production- between the villagers, particularly the two communities. Oral tenancy, wage-labor, inequality reigned supreme in 1990 in J&K, particularly Menzseer. Today we learn from the Japanese that tenancy is basically inhuman relation marked by feudal tendency. Can “reverse tenancy” be an answer? It becomes doubly immoral and accumulative to lease-back (lease-in) land from marginal farmer. If Punjab went-in for reverse tenancy why should J&K be regressive and follow suit? J&K must look for better alternatives -associative, not divisive, autonomous, separated producer-farmers.

Currently, village area of Menzseer is merely 375 acres, of which common land is just 17%, and only 313 acres are available for private cultivation, with 0.78 acre owned holding per household. The state of land holdings and distribution in 1990 obviously could not be any better. Currently village has 500 households (all Muslim) with population of 6000 and average family size of 12 persons. A few households (20%) have family size of 20-25 members -joint-family having small holding though without apportionment. It may not straightaway warrant inviting narrow Malthusian views of classical economics which created fearsome images of increased population without looking at sustainable technologies of raising production. Land-man ratio, the concern of Daniel Thorner for Indian agriculture during 1960s, is of course equally important for Menzseer. Marginal holding is a major factor that triggers instant pressure on human survivability and defines their social relations built on economic base of land ownership relation.

Economic structure of production in village has been characterized by individualism and tiny parcels of separated independent holdings, rather than associated/collective mode of production. Without associated production, social co-existence has little meaning in the long-run. A Greek philosopher said: to be individuated is to be immoral. In 1990, if shock-absorbers in the form of allied livelihoods or associated-collective modes of economic production were present among peasantry to tame rural inequality and unemployment, mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits would possibly be checked. Even rural structure characterized by credit-based cooperatives (though devoid of cooperative production), came under the attack of militant politics. We must rue the fact that Kashmir has lost cooperativism of credit societies as well as these too were destroyed. Let us not forget and overlook that both Kashmiri Pandits and Cooperatives (Primary Credit as well as Marketing Societies) of farmers and apple growers suffered due to militancy. Mounting pressure of self-indulgent individualist agriculture on scarce and marginalized agricultural land eventually built pressure on social relations between the two communities -leading to marginalization and alienation of both. Kashmiri Pandits’ plight may not be seen separated from that of Kashmiri Peasantry. Knowing and grasping varied rational perspectives of a social phenomenon is, therefore, important. Is it in the realm of common knowledge what was happening to the peasantry till 1990? How villages survived, lived and sustained? Thus spoke Robert Frost: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up”. Reality of “economic base” ultimately forms the core of a plausible analytical perspective amid alternative perspectives.

Seeing the reality a bit nearer: Even in 2013-14, Menzseer has 20% Muslim households which are landless, uneducated, with large family size, ruthless over-dependence on wage-labor, idle and jobless for 8-9 months and hence extremely poor. They find work in fields, at construction sites, at sawmill, etc. Of these extremely poor households 1-2% households are in such sordid state that access to adequate food for family becomes a big question mark. They are on the verge of starvation for years together, somehow surviving on 3-4 months of wage-income. This “somehow” hides the secret of survival, full of difficulties, hunger (unnoticed), idleness, depression, mental stress, disease, and appearing to the outer world that “all is well” behind nicely constructed houses. Gradually, by enforced idleness, youths have lost appetite and inclination to work -the most dangerous state for economic survival. Population of 70 extremely poor “Antodaya Ann Yojana” (AAY) households amidst apple orchard households appears to be a paradox.

Migrant laborers from Bihar have arrived, and several of them could be seen in the evening in streets of Menzseer, buying daily provisions (soap/ spices/ pulses or whatever) to recuperate for next day’s labor, from grocery shop. Villagers perceive migrant laborers from Bihar as better placed to survive against poverty than local Muslim youths who are taking to a life of joblessness and evading work opportunities. Some migrant Bihari laborers have become “Labor Contractors”. The same situation of inflow of migrant laborers from U.P. and Bihar which prevailed in Punjab in 1980s and 1990s concurrent with peak of militancy is visible in Baramulla villages and Kashmir valley. Volatility of labor market creates social volatility. It’s competition for “survival of the fittest.

Migrant laborers compete with local Kashmiri Muslim laborers in apple orchards (spray, managerial jobs, other operations, etc.), grass cutting, paddy sowing, apple plucking, and other farm-related jobs, or even in fruit markets. Local Kashmiri agricultural laborers are making exit from fields and apple orchards to off-farm wage labor, at house construction site, at sawmill, at highway, on road, MNREGA works, etc. If these avenues are not readily accessible, their attention gets drawn to “government permanent job”. Their next course is to remain idle, jobless, and get work attitude and self-enterprise weakened. If 1990 represented one sort of crisis, current situation represents new crisis: unemployment among (educated) Kashmiri youths who find little opportunities of work in family farm or apple orchard. Sarpanch helped over 50% farmers/growers in getting Kisan Credit Card (KCC) from bank. Inflow of laborers from Bihar is giving tough competition to local youths in fields and orchards. As a result youths are taking to drugs, idleness, joblessness and unemployment. Inflow of 50 migrant workers from Bihar to Menzseer is more burdensome on 500 village youths who seem unable to cope with pressure of competition in labor market.

Menzseer along with Pethseer village faces problem of irrigation water from canals of river Jhelum. In Sopore block 13 villages including Menzseer do not get irrigation water from canal. Sarpanch is active and educated. However, without apple growers getting associated, irrigation problem cannot be solved. Sensitization of small growers is needed to find alternative solutions. Uniting farmers in groups could be a way-out. Marketing is a big problem for growers in Menzseer. Farmers grow paddy, vegetables and apple. Menzseer vegetables are exported to Punjab though Kashmir valley faces shortage of vegetables -the reason being that vegetable growers do not get fair price for their produce in the absence of local market/ bargaining power. Sarpanch made efforts to induce Horticulture Marketing Department to come out with a marketing scheme but to no avail. Small isolated growers, particularly women farmers could not protect their economic interests in marketing of produce locally. Small apple growers are mere captive orchard owners of pre-harvest contractors (PHCs) appointed by commission agents and wholesale traders of big markets of Delhi, Srinagar, Sopore, and even markets outside of State. PHCs primarily serve interests of commission agents and traders, not growers, by ruthless combination of informal credit and marketing. Captive orchard owners in Menzseer rue that PHCs managing contracted orchards sprayed “mysterious and superfluous” pesticides, due to which plant growth has been adversely affected. Growers are also somehow least interested in taking care of farming and managing apple orchards.

Over 90% households face problem of finance. Before 1990, Kashmiri Pandits acted as their moneylenders. They lent money to Muslim households on interest. Although over 50% farmers have got KCC with lump sum limit up to Rs.50000, all farmers are not sanctioned bank loan. Farmers reportedly submitted incorrect land ownership papers for KCC: 5 kanals were showed as 25 kanals. Since Patwari “verified” it, Sarpanch forwarded the same to bank. Agriculture, with tiny plots has fast turned-out as a complicated system involving long chain of growers, suppliers, commission agents, contractors, traders, array of agencies, linkages -all intertwined to indulge in serving individual interests. In 1950s, we thought intermediaries would be out once the land reforms were implemented and Zamindar as “intermediary” abolished. Ironically one intermediary has been replaced by a long chain having several of them together: “Supply Chain”.

System has adversely influenced traditional integrity of farmers. Apple growers in craze opt to borrow advance money from several PHCs and commission agents simultaneously, and spend it on house construction, car, marriage, pilgrimage, etc. Sarpanch and villagers make a light observation that growers’ preference for pilgrimage gets precedence over managing own orchard. Advance money taken from commission agents comes handy. Houses in Menzseer are pucca, strong and beautiful though same may not apply to the future of farmers. New pucca houses constructed in Menzseer hide actual precarious condition of villagers. As captive growers/ primary sellers, small orchard owners are ignorant about which pesticides are sprayed by PHCs or how they manage orchard. Senile orchards are becoming less productive. Advance money-based orchard management through PHCs is impoverishing apple orchards and owners, both. Small orchard owners in village don’t have coping mechanisms. If they get out of the clutches of Delhi’s Azadpur commission agents, they would be trapped by Sopore or Jammu or South’s market agents.

Commission Agents have huge appetite for Kashmir Apple which senile orchards cannot satisfy, and that leads to brisk demand. So, small orchard owners are tempted to enter several selling-contracts and surreptitiously take advance money from several agents including Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu, Sopore, and even Southern States’ markets, thereby creating more complications. Thus, they supply apple to one commission agent but take advance from multiple sources. Such complexities unwittingly help in exacerbating their problem of poverty amid apparent richness of orchards even as apple is “gold” commodity of Kashmir. Problem of poverty of villagers doesn’t have sustainable solution. Apple Scheme of J&K Bank is good though it did not help growers much due to limited coverage; it needed to be up-scaled to cover all growers. Commission agents make super normal profits by capturing informal credit market interlocked with apple output market of Menzseer, like all parts of valley. Commission agents also charge unauthorized 6% commission from primary seller (grower) in contravention of State’s APMC Act-1997. This has continuously happened for past 5-6 decades even before APMC Act was introduced. Until village growers are associated and united on cooperative basis to form producers’ groups, there seems no sustainable solution to the problem of declining value system of unorganized growers and value of apple both. Old senile orchards do less harm than decaying value -market and human. Peasant question is as critical in Kashmir Valley as the question of plight of Kashmiri Pandits. Evolution of producer associations of peasants and integration of Pandits may form the solid rock foundation for Kashmir’s rural development.

(Author works for NABARD. Views expressed are personal)

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