In Delhi University professor Nandini Sundar’s meticulously researched book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar, the plight of the adivasis struggling to make ends meet paints a striking picture of the growing wage disparity in the “Maoist state”. Wages paid to the adivasis are strictly controlled by contractors who procure tendu leaves — used to roll beedis — and sell them to traders. According to one contractor, adivasis were paid as low as 80 paise (figures from 2006) to collect 100 leaves. On a average, a worker, at best, collects 100 bundles a day; that is Rs 80 for a day’s of hard work.
Fourteen bundles of tendu leaves make a kilo, which is then sold at Rs 15.70. The contractor stands to profit anywhere between Rs 5-10. And he is just one person in the middle of this huge trading pyramid. The trader community is, like any other community, hierarchical. A majority of them are non-adivasis, mostly immigrants from other states. At the top is the Marwari community that controls the trade, with links spread across the country, and Kochiyas (agents) make up the bottom. Adivasis selling their produce directly at the weekly market are often cheated by Kochiyas, who under weigh the sale. And tendu leaves are just one of the many forest produce that make their way to the market.
To understand wealth disparity on a larger scale, it is important to fully comprehend where Bastar fits in the global economy. Studying micro economies such as Bastar gives us the tools to highlight the rising inequality between the bourgeoise and proletariat.
A recent report by UK-based rights group Oxfam notes that India’s richest 1 per cent now holds 58 per cent of the country’s total wealth — 57 billionaires in India now have the same wealth ($216 billion) — as that of the bottom 70 per cent population of the country. How did they get there? In a capitalist economy, organisations work towards achieving profits and maximising dividends for their shareholders rather than subsidising their products for the poor or distributing the wealth among its workers. In India, around 12 private corporations pay more than 50 per cent of their profits as dividends.
The figure has been steadily on the rise in the last decade, reaching 34 per cent in 2014-15, according to the report. They set out achieving their targets by checking the following boxes: Squeezing wages at the bottom and avoiding taxes. Oxfam notes that the world’s largest garment companies routinely employ India’s cotton mills, which use forced labour. Pay disparity also reflects in the corporate sector. Take this for example, the CEO of India’s top IT firm draws 416 times the salary of a regular employee. When it comes to paying taxes, most tend to avoid them, citing technicalities or incorporate their companies in tax havens — as we have seen in the recent Panama leaks. How does it end? The powers that be must rein in corporate greed by raising taxes and putting an end to crony capitalism, where corporates lobby for state projects and peddle influence to suit their needs. A honest pay for a honest day’s of work is the need of the hour.