Cooperation And Non-Cooperation

Fragile State of Cooperative Movement

Sukanta Sarkar

In all countries, the poor are more, the rich are less. If so, I will call which country particularly poor. The answer to this is that in a country where the means of earning for the poor are few, the roads are closed. In a country where the poor hope to become rich, that hope is a great treasure. There is a shortage of money in our country. The truth is, there is a lack of trust in our country. So, when we feel frustrated we blame the forehead; we lie half-dead on the dust, saying that we will be saved only if God or man has mercy from outside. We cannot even think of any way we have in our own hands.' That was Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote these words in 1325 Bngabda (1918) about his cooperative thought.

Rabindranath repeatedly expressed his confidence in cooperatives. In one place of the article written in this context in 1329 Bangabda (1922), he wrote, 'The main way to make a sufficient amount of freedom the property of the common people is to combine the power of the common people in the acquisition of wealth. Then wealth will not accumulate in the hands of one person or one community. But everyone can enjoy the fruits of wealth that millionaires and crorepatis are entitled to today. When many people learn to turn their energy into wealth in the cooperative system, the foundation of freedom for all will be laid. If we are not saved from poverty, we will continue to be beaten by all kinds of devils. There is wealth within each and every one of us, only if we understand and apply this simple word then we will defeat poverty.'

Today, 1430 Bangabda (2023). In fact, Rabindranath Tagore realised the necessity and importance of cooperatives in the country a hundred years ago. Although the co-operative movement started during Rabindranath's lifetime, it was mainly carried out by the Swadeshi agitation with the encouragement and inspiration of Gandhiji. Initially started by weaving khadi cloth on spinning wheels, the cooperatives gradually started producing other cottage and rural goods as well. After the partition of the country many cooperatives were formed in different parts of the country and especially in West Bengal. Through which the ration system was also run in rural areas. But, there should be no hesitation in saying that they were not carried out with much care or tenderness either. As a result, most of these cooperatives have either collapsed or remain in a very poor condition. The fact that cooperatives can be a real poverty alleviation tool, neither socialists i.e. intellectuals and politicians themselves thought seriously, nor did they convince or encourage the common people. The interesting thing is that even today, in various discussion circles related to cooperatives, starting from politicians and intellectuals, they talk for hours and hours about the necessity and importance of cooperative movement. There ends the matter. No follow-up action.

Currently cooperative means a grey area before the eyes. Except for a handful of cooperatives, cooperatives have become an extremely neglected sector in the entire country, including the state of West Bengal. However, the Centre and many states have cooperative ministries. It goes without saying that these Ministries at the Centre and the States have failed. Because, the government is generally indifferent to the cooperative movement. But, even when Rabindranath and Gandhi thought of the cooperative movement a century ago, the country's poverty has not decreased, but rather increased, due to the increase in population and iniquity in income distribution.

Before and after the partition of the country, most of the cooperatives, especially in the states, were run by Gandhians. After the change of government in West Bengal in 1977, the Left was expected to use the cooperative movement extensively. Because, the cooperative movement has a close relationship with the socialist system and philosophy. After Operation Barga, the Left Government did not take any initiative to form farmers' cooperatives by pooling the pieces of land owned by the sharecroppers. As a result, the condition of sharecropping became more pathetic. But, through Operation Barga in consultation with the original owners of the land, it was possible to combine the lands of the cultivators with ease and to form many agricultural cooperatives across the state. The agricultural production would also increase manifold and the rural economy would definitely flouridh. On the contrary, in the left era, it was observed that the existing cooperative banks or cooperative lending societies were looked upon. Not only that, many such organisations also formed new ones. It was not understood at all how the local economy improved. However, few party workers-supporters in the area got employment. There is no objection to that. But, the problem is, common people are not that way towards cooperative banks. Two reasons. One, people have a lot of trust in the central government sponsored banks. Two, no concerted effort was made by the state government or the then ruling party to create interest and attraction of the common people towards cooperative banks. As a result, co-operative banks never became self-sustaining. Loans disbursed by co-operative banks mostly remained unrepaid. From recruitment to lending, corruption and nepotism made the underwater journey of most co-operative banks almost certain. In this situation, the moribund co-operative banks have started trying to turn around with the intervention of the Reserve Bank. Even though the Reserve Bank has come forward, there is still apprehension about cooperative banks among the common people.

Apart from agricultural co-operatives societies and co-operative banks, there are several areas where co-operatives could have benefited. Unfortunately, no one looked at it that way. There is prospect of industrial cooperatives. In the case of industrial co-operatives, this state has not been bothered in that way. After the success of Amul in Gujarat, several co-operatives were formed in the dairy sector in the state as well. The Mayurakshi Dairy Cooperative in Murshidabad was once in a good shape. Later, mainly due to political reasons, the cooperative could not progress as expected. Himul, another dairy cooperative in North Bengal, is practically in a shambles. Apart from this, in the early 70's cooperatives were formed mainly under government initiative in several places including Dhanekhali, Daihat, Monteshwar, Fuliya, Shantipur with tantubais--handloom weavers. Organisations like Tantuj, Manjusha were set up to sell sarees, dresses etc. made in these cooperatives. But unfortunately, the management and control of these co-operatives passed into the hands of financiers instead of tantubais. As a result, common fibre traders remained deprived of the benefits of cooperatives. Today, most of the textile mills workers in the state have left their generational occupation and started looking for alternatives.

Cooperatives still have a wide scope to exploit without being disheartened by this sad picture. In particular, there is a huge opportunity to develop industrial cooperatives in this state. Thousands of bicycles are given annually to school students through Sabuj Sathi, a state government scheme. Apart from that, the bicycle is still the main mode of transportation in rural areas. Creating thousands of bi-cycles a year by forming cooperatives in different parts of the state is not a difficult task. Different parts of the bicycle will form different cooperatives. Then it will be assembled by one or two other cooperatives. Not only this, the responsibility of selling these bicycles should also be given to the cooperative. Its market is in the state. It also has employment opportunities for thousands of unemployed people.

 Small industrial cooperatives can be formed in every block of the state basing on low cost materials which are easily available. In some parts of South India, plates, bowls and even sarees have been made from the trunk of the banana tree by twisting it into machines and extracting the fibre. It is possible to produce many such things by forming numerous small industrial cooperatives in this state as well. But people in this part of the globe are more familiar with non-cooperation movement, not cooperative movement.

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Vol 55, No. 50, Jun 11 - 17, 2023