The balance of political power
In most third world countries the poor are not only economically deprived, they are politically oppressed. Especially in the countryside, where the population is scattered, isolated and unorganized, the poor are victims of discrimination (on tribal, caste, ethnic or linguistic grounds), manipulation (by landowners, moneylenders and merchants) and exploitation. They are socially and politically repressed, routinely intimidated and frequently threatened by violence or actually harmed. Normally all of this escapes the attention of outside observers - it is part of the quiet crisis of the third world1 and represents merely “the day-to-day repression of ‘normal’ society”2 - but occasionally the level of violence becomes so intense that it cannot be ignored and indeed becomes an international scandal. Attention in recent years has focused on South and Central America, particularly Argentina, Chile, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the army, the police and right wing death squads have engaged in mass murder, kidnapping and torture of sections of the rural (and urban) population. Such practices, however, are not limited to Latin America; similar phenomena can be found, for example, in the Philippines and in all South Asian countries.
In India, for instance, the number of recorded incidents of violence against the so-called scheduled castes is high and possibly rising. This is reflected in the figures above which refer to cases of murder, rape, grievous hurt, arson and “other offences” as classified under the Indian Penal Code, and cover the five years from 1976 to 1980. As can be seen in the Table, most of the recorded incidents occurred in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but this may reflect a greater accuracy of statistics in these four states rather than a higher level of violence against members of the scheduled castes. Given that 52 per cent of scheduled caste workers are agricultural labourers, 28 per cent small farmers, sharecroppers and tenants, and most of the rest primary leather workers, fishermen and weavers, it is evident that the violence against the scheduled castes is in essence a class conflict between, on the one hand, middle and large landowners and, on the other, the landless and near-landless.
Number of Incidents of Violence Against Scheduled Castes: India, 1976-1980
Any serious effort to improve the well being of the poor should begin by ensuring their freedom from violence and repression. No need is more basic than the need for personal and group security. In most countries, however, a change in the balance of political power at the national level probably will be necessary if the basic need for security is to be met. The poor, moreover, are entitled not only to personal security, they also are entitled to bread, i.e., to a minimum of economic security. Ideally, in a decent society in which every person’s voice counts, the poor should be able to influence the policies which determine whether or not they enjoy economic security, of which the most fundamental policies are those which affect the distribution of wealth and income. These objectives imply that the rural poor are incorporated into national political movements, given a say in national political, judicial and economic institutions and allowed to exert influence commensurate with their numbers in all major national decision making bodies.
This may be impossible to achieve in the short term and it is therefore worth while to consider measures which would change the balance of political power not nationally but only in the countryside, even if their impact inevitably would be slight when seen from the perspective of a general alleviation of poverty. No doubt there are a great many such measures, but only three will be mentioned to illustrate the sort of thing that may be possible in a particular locality.
Power at the local level often is effectively monopolized by landowners and their allies. Their economic influence is of course considerable and this in itself may enable them to exert political control over village councils, local elections and the like. In addition, the larger landowners usually have considerable influence over government appointed officials, notably, district officers, local magistrates and the police. Disputes between landowners and the poor almost always are resolved in favour of the former, be they by administrative decisions of district officers, legal judgements by magistrates or physical repression by the police or hired gangs of thugs. A small step toward redressing the balance would occur if the police were disarmed and the possession of weapons by private individuals were made illegal.1 The poor would benefit considerably by such measures, for it is the poor not the landowners who are on the receiving end of official and privately organized violence.
Next, the rural poor should be allowed to organize themselves politically and their right to do so should be protected by the courts. There are numerous examples throughout Asia of small, locally based political movements which developed more or less spontaneously and which were suppressed as soon as they succeeded in articulating the demands of the poor, recruiting significant numbers of members and posing a threat to the political hegemony of the landed elite. Yet these attempts to establish a countervailing power in the countryside are essential not only to the poor but also to the reformers in the provincial and national capitals, for the reformers need an organized constituency to which they can appeal and a source of information about development priorities. Without political organizations that cater to the ambitions of the poor it will be difficult to translate good intentions into good policies and effective implementation.
Third, more narrowly defined economic organizations also are needed, such as cooperatives composed exclusively of the poor or other groupings of poor people. Let us consider trade unions as an example. It is notoriously difficult to form trade union organizations in rural areas, for fairly obvious reasons. Labour is abundant and cheap and sometimes unemployed for considerable periods of time; the labour force is dispersed over wide areas and among a number of employers; because of their poverty individual workers are unable to resist the demands of employers and for the same reason can contribute little to a collective union fund; and because of the multiplicity of occupations in which individual workers often are engaged (e.g., as a farmer on their own and on tenanted land, as a part-time hired agricultural labourer, and as a seasonal or occasional migrant worker in the cities or other rural areas) it is almost impossible for a trade union to serve all its members properly. In practice the rural trade union movement has been most successful in organizing plantation workers and even there its success has been limited.
Nonetheless, further progress may be possible, particularly among landless and near-landless workers who derive most of their income from wages as permanent hired agricultural workers and among seasonal agricultural workers who are recruited regularly by contractors or agents of the ultimate employers. The state of Kerala in India indicates perhaps the limits of the feasible.
It is doubtful that rural trade unions can raise significantly either total employment or the real wage rate, and to the extent that they do the latter, this may be partly at the expense of other workers who fail to obtain jobs or even of small, poor peasants who supplement family labour with some hired labour. Unions may be more successful, however, in bargaining for improved working conditions, helping to ensure that labour laws are enforced, ending the physical abuse of workers by landowners, reducing the incidence of child labour (and thereby encouraging rural children to attend school), and agitating for public policies (such as food rationing schemes) which help to raise the standard of living of the mass of the poor. Too much should not be expected of rural trade unions - the economic environment is too unfavourable for them to flourish - but instead of condoning violence toward trade union leaders and their members, it would be of some help to at least some groups of the poor if government policy were supportive of the union movement and protective of its members.
[Ukrainian] [English] [Russian]