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India-China Relationship

 

RETRACE INDIAN STEPS IN THE AGRICULTURAL SCENE IN CHINA 40 YEAR BACK

S. K. Bhutani

41

As early as 1927, Mao Zedong realised the revolutionary potential of China’s peasants. In the Yanan period, he developed new agrarian policies, which helped win the support of millions of peasants in the war against Japan and then, during the civil war in the forties. When the Communist Party led by him united the country and came to power in 1949, he set about on a wholescale reform of China’s agriculture.

The establishment of agricultural cooperatives became the key factor of development. The Chinese leaders believed that transforming small peasant holdings into large collective farms by itself would lead to higher production because it would permit better organisation of farming operations, hasten adoption of new techniques and make available large labour power for intensive cultivation.

To create a favourable environment, the government established institutions to purchase farm products at prices notified in advance of the harvest. This ensured the amount of income available to the farmer. Institutions were set up to supply consumer articles to the farmer - this stimulated greater effort on the farm. Credit cooperatives stimulated his savings which were supplemented by the credit made available by the state institutions.

Agriculture was collectivised in a short span of five to seven years in distinct stages. After the absentee landlords were deprived of their landholdings, all farmers became peasant proprieters. They were placed in three categories - rich, middle and poor. The latter two were persuaded to set up mutual aid teams and then elementary cooperatives where size of landholding in addition to labour, counted for income. Intense propaganda and discreet use of monopoly sale, purchase and credit institutions were utilised for this purpose by the Party and state authorities. Soon these were forward by cooperatives of the higher type of collectives where payment was based on labour alone and the landholding was no longer relevant. By mid-1956, ninety-two per cent of the farmers had joined the cooperatives: nearly sixty-two percent belonged to the higher type, where not only the land but draught animals, large toots etc. were handed over to the cooperatives. It was claimed that the cooperatives, by themselves, had increased the productivity of the farm by fifteen to twenty percent. The target for the first five year plan ending in 1957 was an increase of a little over twenty-three per cent.

In some respects, condition of agriculture in India resembled the condition in China. A limited quantity of land supported a large population. The size of farms was small. The farmer relied on higher productivity to raise his income. The success of cooperatisation in China stimulated interest in India. The second five year plan of India postulated that a large proportion of agricultural land would be farmed on a cooperative basis and this would be achieved over a decade or so. At Indian request, China agreed to receive two delegations to study the development and rote of cooperative institutions and to study the programme and methods of raising agricultural productivity in China. The latter delegation was at the ministerial level and included senior officials dealing with agriculture and planning. Both delegations arrived in China in the summer or 1956.

The two delegations met Premier Zhou En-lai. He was much concerned with the increasing population of China and showed interest in the family planning programme in India. Concerning agriculture, he ruled out large scale mechanisation since this would be expensive and displace labour. Productivity of land would be increased through use of manpower and animal power. He insisted on the need for careful experimentation and not to be carried away by enthusiasm alone.

Premier Zhou was asked about the relative merits of large and small cooperatives in the context of motivation of the farmer, which was an important consideration since the productivity of land was based on the farmers effort and not on mechanisation. He accepted that the question was valid - the cooperatives allowed cultivation of small individual plots by farmers, whose produce was sold in the open market. Further, he did not envisage a farm labour surplus in the near future as there was considerable scope for building infrastructure in the villages, e.g. roads, water conservancy works. (The establishment of communes two year later did not correspond with his ideas expressed at this time.)

The Indian agricultural delegation was intrigued by the methods of collection of data relating to farm size and production. The methods relied on visual survey and peasant memory. The delegation felt there was an unwitting bias towards overstating the results, especially since the countervailing methods like crop cutting sample surveys were not used. This bias influenced fixation of planned targets of production too. Despite this, the delegation felt that agricultural productivity had indeed increased. India could introduce some of the techniques in its agriculture even though collectivisation on the Chinese model was not envisaged. India was committed to peasant ownership of land.

Spring and summer of 1958 saw a massive mobilisation of all sections of society to build water conservancy projects in the countryside of China. About fifty kilometres from Beijing, in the vicinity of the tombs of the Ming emperors the soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army launched a project to build a reservoir. Soon, they were joined by the workers from factories and shops in Beijing. Staff of the government and members of the Communist Party volunteered in the effort. The mood of the country was electrified when Chairman Mao Zedong took part in the voluntary labour. The Afro-Asian diplomats did not want to be left out and requested the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to arrange for their participation. On the appointed day, the trip was suddenly cancelled since appropriate arrangements could not be made. It is unlikely the project suffered a delay in completion due to our non-participation.

About this time, there was an occasion when help of the diplomatic corps was actually sought. The Chinese authorities were much concerned at the loss of foodgrains due to the depredations of the pests. Sparrows were considered to be a pest. It was discovered that the sparrows died if they did not rest after flying a certain number of hours. The citizens of Beijing were

mobilised to prevent resting space to the sparrows so that they were forced to fly until death resulted due to exhaustion. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned a meeting of the representatives of the diplomatic missions to request that the sparrows be denied refuge in the diplomatic compounds! This was an unusual request. Some representatives were sceptical and were convinced only when they personally saw a senior Vice-Minister standing on the roof of the Ministry shooing off the sparrows. Not all the missions were wholly cooperative. Unknowingly they helped by, saving some sparrows - it was soon discovered that the sparrows played a role in eliminating some insect pests.

The main centre of action was in the rural areas which saw frenetic activity that year. In early September, the Ministery of Foreign Affairs invited the diplomatic corps to visit Mi Yun, the site of a reservoir under construction, north of Beijing, and to the east of the Great Wall. The reservoir was being constructed at the confluence of two rivers and envisaged construction of eleven dams. It was a tremendous effort centred on the mobilisation of peasants who were going to be the main beneficiaries. A fortnight later, the Ministry organised visit to a commune.

The organisation of communes had received official approval in August. The seeds had been sown earlier when several collectives had pooled their manpower and other resources to jointly build water conservancy works. The commune which was shown to the diplomatic corps was also in the vicinity of Beijing. We were shown the community dining hall, the kindergarten and the experimental rice plot, where five thousand kilos of rice per mou (a sixth of an acre) were being produced. This was an incredible achievement.

The reservoir and the commune had been visited by the Indian Ambassador, Mr. G. Parthasarathi. After consultation within the Embassy, the Government of India were asked to send a group of experts to study the technique of raising the farm yield, the mobilisation of rural labour to build irrigation and drainage works, and to study the methodology of amelioration of land lying uncultivated. The Government of China readily agreed to receive the experts who arrived in late January, 1959 and were in China for nearly forty days. The Ambassador had me included in the group.

The group travelled nearly five thousand kilometres by air, over three thousand kilometres by train and half that by road. The group visited agricultural exhibitions, agricultural colleges, research and training institutes, experimental centres, newly completed projects, construction sites and several communes. Most of these visits were concentrated along the Beijing-Guangzhou Axis. The study of communes per se was not on the agenda since the approaches of the two countries to peasant proprietorship were different. Yet, a study of agricultural practices could not be divorced from some knowledge of the communes.

One of the largest communes was located in the vicinity of Tianjin. It had eighty-thousand members. Of whom, sixty-four thousand were able-bodied. The rest were old or sick and able to perform light duties only. The members elected a representative board of two hundred and fifty. In turn, the board elected a managing committee of thirty-three members, including thirteen leading cadres, director and his deputy. The director was paid by the state.

Nearly half of the total income of the commune was expended MI capital construction and procurement of seeds, fertilisers and machinery. The remainder was used to supply food, clothing etc. to the members and their families. The food was supplied by the communal kitchen releasing women for labour in the fields. The sick and the old could receive food at home. The

members also received a cash supplement averaging five yuans per month. The quantum depended on the nature and quality of work. Men received two and woman four holidays a month.

The commune also provided free education and medical aid. It ran schools, hospitals and maternity homes and paid the staff employed for this purpose.

The primary activity in this commune was farming. At the next commune, in Guan Shan in Henan province, the accent was on preventing soil erosion in a hilly, coal-mining area and providing irrigation facilities. The commune had a population of about sixty-thousand. On the other hand, the commune in Chusan village had a strength of four thousand members only. They were divided into working groups. The commune had organised a special construction brigade of seventy workers, which was engaged in afforestation as part of soil conservation work. At the 80 Hu Xiang commune, we were explained the advantages of deep ploughing, i.e. ploughing to a depth ranging from forty centimetres to more than a metre. The wells were the source of irrigation in this commune. Their number had increased from twenty-three thousand in 1956 to nearly thirty-eight thousand in 1959. The data on irrigated area related more to potential created than to what was actually achieved.

Still in Henan province, the Jiliyan commune of twenty-thousand people, owned and managed a hydroelectric station with a fall of three metres and three turbines. The commune had a large cotton growing area and proposed to set up a textile mill!

The Ankou country had three hundred and ninety villages with over ninety-two thousand peasant households. The total arable area was nearly nine hundred thousand mu. The land was irrigated by wells, both deep and shallow. The average yield of foodgrains had increased from two hundred and thirty-two kilos per mu in 1957 to seven hundred and twenty-seven kilos per mu in 1958 as a result of implementation of the eight point charter. The eight points were Irrigation; Use of Manures and Fertilisers; Deep Ploughing and Improvement of Soil; Seed Selection and Seed Breeding; Close Planting; Plant Protection; Reform of Tools; Farm Management.

The villages of the county were grouped into eight people’s communes. Out of the total population of four hundred and twenty-seven thousand, only one hundred and eighty-three thousand were able-bodied men and women, i.e., within the age group of eighteen to fortyfive. Percents between fortyfive and sixty were classified as semi-able received no specific tasks. Ten percent of the able-bodied were employed in local industry and the remainder in farming and related activities. In the following year, 1954-60, only fifty percent were to be engaged on farm-related work, the remaining fifty percent to be employed in industry, i.e., iron and steel, machine building, electrical industry, etc. (A campaign had been launched to build iron and steel furnaces in the backyard in the rural areas. This quickly proved to be a failure. The visit of an Indian team to study this programme was cancelled.)

Construction programme of the Cheng Ho reservoir in Hubei province provided an example of the mobilisation of labour on a large scale. Twenty-four communes located in five counties took part in construction. Eight out of these twenty-four communes were from Quemoyi country, which was the main beneficiary. One hundred thousand workers were engaged on the project. Construction was to be completed in two winters’and two springs, i.e., during the slack farming period. The conmunes were responsible for provision of food and lodging to the labour. The commune members were to build their own lodgings with materials supplied by the commune. Medical personnel were provided by the communes. Medicines were provided by the government, which also provided construction machines. The labour brought its own small tools and implements. While the toots and implements were transported on trucks provided by the government agencies, the workers came on foot, in some cases from as far away as two hundred kilometres.

Cha Kao commune in Guangdong province provided an example of utilising water power. The commune with over ten thousand families had constructed three electricity generating stations, seventeen water power and electricity generating stations and seven water power stations. The commune utilised wooden turbines, pulleys, shafts etc. manufactured locally. The agricultural experimental stations we visited, were engaged in summing up the “experience of masses” in soil conservation and in increasing the agricultural production. The agricultural exhibitions provided the norm or the ideal for comparing the situation in the field. There was considerable variation between the norm and the reality on the ground. This variation might have adversely affected agricultural production.

The major characteristic of the communes was the ability to mobilise large numbers of local people to construct water conservancy works. Water conservancy was the key element in agricultural production and the government sought to bring all cultivable land under irrigation, hence the mass mobilisation. A small corps of enthusiastic men played a key role in motivating the labour force. For this, objectives were dearly defined and explained. Concentration on water conservancy and soil amelioration, it seemed, affected adversely the normal agricultural operations. There were instances where harvesting of paddy and processing of cotton were delayed, affecting in turn the agricultural operations for the ensuing season.

The group of Indian experts was impressed by the use of local materials and indigenous tools, which could be practised in India too. Similarly, local people could be mobilised for small irrigation works designed by competent engineers. While most elements of the agriculture characters could be practised in India, the group felt that deep ploughing and close planting needed further testing at the experimental stations.

Some of the statistics provided to the group stretched the imagination. It was said that the total area of arable land was 1,600 million mu. Upto 1957, nearly thirty-one percent was under irrigation. By 1958, this had increased to over fifty percent. One hundred and fifty-four million mu were protected against soil erosion upto 1957. In 1958, an additional area of sixty-five million mu had been protected. In the four provinces of Henan, Jiangsu, Hubei and Hunan, the average yield of rice had increased to five thousand catties per mu in 1958, the year of Leap Forward, as compared to one thousand catties per mu earlier. Consequently, the government was thinking of earmarking only a third of the cultivated area to food crops!

The rapid establishment of communes probably dislocated the rhythm of agricultural operations. The harvest was nowhere near the claimed figures. A subsequent drought led to scarcity of supply of food in the urban as well as rural areas, especially during 1960 and 1961.The Chinese friends spoke about the shortages and consequent hardships, which were shared unevenly. The scale of shortages was however unknown.

The premise that collectivisation by itself would lead to rise in farm output had not been proved by the establishment of communes. Crop failures led to a reversal of the policies. Ownership of land and means of production reverted back to the old cooperative or production team level, with the right to manage resources at its disposal. Communal kitchens were closed down. Family became an important production unit too by means of private plots, domestic rearing of animals, etc. The reversal of the policies was a cause of the schism which later developed in the Chinese Communist Party.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

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Published in 1998 by 

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