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Kerala's Agricultural Labourers: Victims of a Crisis

Kerala's Agricultural Labourers: Victims of a Crisis

Most of the relief packages to tackle the farm crisis do not cover agricultural labourers, who largely belong to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This article analyses the situation of agricultural labourers in the crisis-affected districts of Kerala - Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad. It also reviews the performance of the welfare schemes for agricultural labourers which are implemented through the Agricultural Workers Welfare Fund Board.

COMMENTARY

backward districts in all the affected

Kerala’s Agricultural Labourers:

states. In Kerala, the agrarian crisis-led farmers’ suicides are rampant in Wayanad,

Victims of a Crisis

Idukki and Palakkad districts. These districts lag behind others not only economi-S Mohanakumar cally, but also in terms of the composition

Most of the relief packages to tackle the farm crisis do not cover agricultural labourers, who largely belong to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This article analyses the situation of agricultural labourers in the crisis-affected districts of Kerala

– Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad. It also reviews the performance of the welfare schemes for agricultural labourers which are implemented through the Agricultural Workers Welfare Fund Board.

S Mohanakumar (mohanakumar.s@gmail.com) is with the Rubber Institute of India in Kottayam, Kerala.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 10, 2008

F
armers and labourers are being deprived of their means of livelihood, yet the agricultural labourers have been kept out of the purview of farm sectors relief packages of both the central and state governments. The state, as part of its mandated strategy to put off the political crisis, which would otherwise block accumulation and capitalist profit, has granted material concessions to the farmers in distress [Das 1996]. The central government packages for the farm sector to tide over the agrarian crisis are: (1) Vidarbha package introduced in July 2006; (2) additional financial assistance to farm sector declared on August 15, 2007; and (3) budgetary allocation (200809) of Rs 60,000 crore for writing off farmers’ loans. Besides these, the Kerala government appointed a debt relief commission in December 2006 to recommend some measures to be taken to mitigate the hardships of debt-ridden farmers in the state. It is true that the farming community in general needs more relief packages to remain in its vocation. But are not agricultural labourers affected by the protracted crisis on the farm front? It is rather strange to note that there has not even been a courtesy mention in any of these relief packages on the plight of the agricultural labourers.

A depressing feature of the agrarian crisis, which erupted in the second half of the 1990s, is that its victims belonged mostly to the socially and economically of the population of scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). Wayanad accounts for 37 per cent of the total tribal population in the state and Idukki has a share of 14 per cent, followed by Palakkad district with a share of 11 per cent in the ST population. Also, 14 per cent of the SC population in the state lives in Palakkad district. Moreover, it is known that the SC and ST population in the agricultural labour force far outweigh their share in the total population indicating that the crisis in agriculture has put the vulnerable sections far more through the mill than any other social and economic groups in the state. Another miserable feature of these districts in the state is the prevalence of low daily wage rates for agricultural labourers. The daily wage rates for male agricultural labourers in Idukki was 47 per cent lower than the state average in 2005-06 and for female agricultural labour it was 37 per cent less. More or less the same difference can be observed in the daily wage rates of agricultural labourers in Wayanad and Palakkad also. While farmers have been lamenting on the price crash, there were absolutely no takers for the produce of agricultural labourers (labour power). Another feature of these crisis-ridden districts is a high proportion of agricultural labourers in total workforce.

In the context of the farm crisis, social security measures provide some solace to agricultural labourers, howsoever small they may be. The objective of this note is to review the performance of the welfare

COMMENTARY

schemes for agricultural labourers in Kerala implemented through the Agricultural Workers Welfare Fund Board (AWWFB) during the crisis period.

Genesis of AWWFB

The AWWFB was brought into existence in 1990 by amending the Agricultural Workers Act (AWA) of 1974. The full-fledged functioning of the AWWFB began by early 1990s. Prior to the introduction of the AW-WFB, under the AWA of 1974, only the provident fund scheme for agricultural labourers existed. The Kerala Agricultural Workers Act (KAWA) of 1974 was originally envisaged for the welfare of agricultural labourers in the state. For the effective implementation of the provident fund scheme envisaged in the AWA resources had to be pooled from agricultural labourers and farmers. While the monthly subscription from agricultural labourers could easily be collected, landowners refused to give a contribution to the workers’ provident fund. The influence of the farmers’ lobby in the ruling front in the state was such that it could get the provision of the provident fund scheme in the act kept frozen for the major part of the state even before the act came into effect in 1975. Yielding to the pressure from the farmers’ lobby, the jurisdiction of the act was restricted to Palakkad district with effect from 1979. As farmers refused to contribute to the provident fund of the agricultural workers, the then state labour minister accepted in public that the act could not be made to effective function. Accordingly, the AWA of 1974 was amended on April 30, 1990. In its place, the then state government proposed an agricultural workers’ welfare fund board. Under the amended Act of 1990, unlike the provision for a provident fund under the AWA, the jurisdiction of the law was made operational for the entire state. Landowners who fail to supply the required information to the inspector or whoever obstructs or wilfully refuses to produce records of employment on demand by the officials of the board are liable to be punished. In short, it may be stated with some degree of confidence that the act is comprehensive in its approach.

An agricultural worker who is above 18 years and below 60 years of age is eligible to apply for registration as a member to the AWWFB [GoK 1990]. Every registered

agricultural worker shall pay a contribution agricultural labourers; and (2) annual
to the fund at the rate of Rs 5 per month. mandatory contribution of landowners.
Unlike in the past, by the amendment in About 34 per cent of the operational hold
1990, it became binding upon every land ings are below 0.50 hectare of land each,
owner holding more than half a hectare but meaning that these farmers are exempted
less than one hectare to contribute to the from making a contribution to AWWFB.
fund at the rate of Rs 10 per annum and Another 19 per cent of farmers hold be
those holding one hectare and in excess tween 0.5 and 1 hectare each. In short,
thereof to contri bute Rs 15 per annum per more than 50 per cent of cultivators in the
hectare. The contribution to the AWWFB state fall under the marginal category of
from land owners is collected along with farmers, and therefore, the magnitude of
their remittance of land tax in village offices. contribution from the farming commu-
In the first year of the introduction of the nity to AWWFB is extremely limited, not-
AWWFB, an ex gratia payment of Rs 1,000 withstanding the fact that Kerala is one
on retirement was the only welfare meas of the states in India in which the propor
ure implemented for agricultural labour tionate use of hired labour in total labour
ers. Now, the AWWFB is implementing six use is high. In other words, the maximum
major welfare schemes for agricultural la collection that the board could make in a
bourers in Kerala. Among its schemes, the year is about Rs 60-70 million on the aver
one on superannuation is the most attrac age and that it does not reach anywhere
tive welfare measure from the labourers’ near the claims that the board has to settle
viewpoint. On completion of 40 years of with labourers.
service as an agricultural labourer or mem- An aspect worth examining is whether
bership in AWWFB, a labourer is entitled to the benefits to workers are disbursed
Rs 25,000 as a superannuation benefit. promptly, especially during the 2000s,
Other schemes of the AWWFB include ex when the agricultural crisis assumed in
gratia payment, marriage benefits to the tolerable proportions. Among the benefits
daughters of labourers, maternity benefits disbursed from the board, those for super
to female agricultural labourers, medical annuation is the single-most important
reimbursement and merit awards to stu retirement benefit, for which a worker has
dents on passing secondary education. The to put in 40 years of continuous service.
merit scholarship scheme was introduced Even though the scheme was introduced
from 1993-94 and the superannuation in 1996, applicants from 2001-02 on have
scheme started from 1996-97 onwards. not been paid superannuation benefits. For
Marriage allowances maternity benefits superannuation benefits alone, as many as
and medical allowance were introduced in 1,44,349 labourers are awaiting settlement,
1998-99. Till the end of 2006, the total and the settlement of the claims would re
number of workers registered with AWWFB quire Rs 3,600.87 million (on the assump
was 1.88 million, of which 0.27 million had tion that all labourers are entitled to full
already retired from the Board’s member superannuation benefit). Pending applica
ship on superannuation. The current live tions for marriage benefits are as high as
membership in the AWWFB is 1.61 million, 59,027 amounting to Rs 118.05 million.
which is 60 per cent higher than the total In such a scenario, an agricultural labourer
number of agricultural labourers who have submitting his application for superannua
reported as being engaged for more than tion benefits at the age of 60 has to wait for
six months or a major part of the year not less than seven years for the settlement
(main agricultural labourers) in wage of her/his claims. Given the average life
labour in the agricultural sector according expectancy in Kerala, a labourer should be
to the 2001 Census. These figures are considered fortunate if she/he remains
indicative of the fact that the registered alive to avail of the benefit. The impending
active workers include both main and danger is that the piling up of applications
marginal agricultural labourers and that on the one side and their non-settlement
therefore the coverage of agricultural on the other may cause disillusionment
labourers under the scheme is exhaustive. among labourers, which can ultimately
The important revenue sources to lead to the virtual functional cessation of
AWWFB are: (1) monthly subscription of the much acclaimed and unique AWWFB.
May 10, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly
EPW
COMMENTARY

It is also important in this context to look at why AWWFB fails to disburse the due amounts on time. The board has a total staff strength of 126 officials, who are all on deputation from various government departments to the AWWFB. It is interesting to note that the annual administrative expenditure of the agricultural workers welfare fund was Rs 13.09 million in 2005-06 [GoK 2006]. The administrative expenses for AWWFB vary between 15 and 27 per cent of the total amount disbursed as benefits. Had the board not been constituted, the salary component should have been met by the state exchequer, which is now conveniently passed on to the agricultural workers. Until 2005-06, the budgetary allocation to the board had been a token amount of Rs 1,000 per annum, which was hiked to Rs 1,00,000 from 2005-06. Contributions collected from agricultural labourers and farmers are being used to finance the state’s administrative expenditure.

Though the farm crisis has hit farmers and agricultural labourers alike, the latter group still remain totally neglected by central and state governments. Even political and social organisations are yet to turn to them and take up their issues. It is rather strange to note that the social security measures instituted for the benefit of agricultural labourers have not only ceased to function to a very great extent during the period of the impasse, but even the hard-earned money contributed by agricultural labourers for their welfare has been diverted to defray the administrative expenditure of the AWWFB.

More over, the AWWFB instituted for the benefit of agricultural labourers has several deficiencies and deformities. Agricultural labourers from the crisis districts like Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad are under-represented in the matter of live memberships of the AWWFB. Labourers from these districts also fail in claiming their due shares of benefits. The case of agricultural labourers reminds the social philosophy of neoliberalism that the weaker is destined to become extinct.

References

Das J Raju (1996): ‘State Theories: A Critical Analysis’, Science and Society, 60(1):27-57.

Government of Kerala (1990): ‘The Kerala Agricultural Workers Act, 1974’, Government Press, Thiruvananthapuram.

– (2006): Economic Review, State Planning Board, Thiruvananthapuram.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
may 10, 2008

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