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Fitting tribute

Print edition : Jun 29, 2022 T+T-
Professor Utsa Patnaik.

Professor Utsa Patnaik.

A collection of essays published in honour of Utsa Patnaik, one of India’s leading economists, which mirrors her passionate concern for the welfare of the underclasses, peasants and workers.

UTSA PATNAIK is among the leading economists of the country and a prolific writer. In the introduction to this volume, the editors say: “Utsa Patnaik’s academic work has been guided by the principle of raising issues of exploitation of the underclasses, peasants and workers, and a quest towards alternative economic models that emancipate these classes.” While rooted in Marxist economic theory, Utsa Patnaik’s work shows an eagerness to take it forward to suit the conditions that have emerged since it was originally formulated. One of her major thrusts has been to emphasise the role of colonies in the development of capitalism, initially in the United Kingdom and then in other European countries. The drain of the colonies was the basis of capital accumulation in the newly emerging market economies of the contemporary world. That is how dispossession, deprivation and development are linked.

The ‘E’ Index

Indeed, one of Utsa’s Patnaik’s major contributions has been the Labour Exploitation Index “E” that she worked out, classifying households in the rural areas into landless workers, poor peasants, small peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants and landlords. The interaction of these groups via leasing in and leasing out land, hiring in and hiring out labour, and work on own land is necessary to understand the nature of the “agrarian crisis” which is much in discourse these days and is often considered as resulting from the absence of public support to the sector.

The papers brought together in this collection reflect this basic approach. Overall, they support peasant farming as the future agrarian pattern from the point of view of employment, production and capital accumulation. What the neoliberal “Reforms” have done, on the other hand, is take away land from the farmers for non-agricultural purposes and neglect public investment in agriculture, leading frequently to a fall in the rate of growth of food production and the consequent reduction in per capita consumption of foodgrains. The resulting dispossession of land and the deprivation arising from it are the underlying causes of the agrarian crisis; the much-publicised writing off of loans of farmers may provide some temporary relief but is no solution to that crisis.

A study of peasant farming in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA, consisting of 47 countries) by Sam Moyo, Paris Yeros and Praveen Jha highlights the importance of peasant farming in that region: “Peasant farms are pervasive in the economic life of the largely agrarian SSA region, and, in general, they shape the social life of its predominantly rural population.” They coexist with large-scale commercial, capitalist farms. The peasant farms produce mainly for the needs of the members but are being increasingly brought into market transactions as well. Most peasant families hire out their labour but occasionally hire in labour too. The scramble for control over agricultural land threatens the reproduction of peasant farming. But a 2013 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation stated that family farms are central to a sustainable future for agriculture, eradicating hunger and poverty, ensuring employment and achieving social cohesion.

On the basis of field studies in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, and using the “E” Index, Arindam Banerjee arrives at the conclusion that even the labour-exploiting rich peasants are unable to achieve social reproduction and undertake productivity-enhancing farm investment. He goes on to say: “With immiserisation and indebtedness having unambiguously permeated even among the middle and rich peasants, large sections of the peasantry face a more fundamental contradiction with neoliberal policies of the ruling elite, driven by the hegemony of finance capital. This has meant misery for large masses of rural petty producers, including tragic farm suicides.”

Another field study by Sudipta Bhattacharyya conducted in West Bengal leads the scholar to conclude that there is extreme inequality in land, irrigation, asset market, credit and output. Costs of production have increased relative to prices of produce. Rich peasants increasingly employ the labour of others while the poor peasants work more for others, leaving the self-employed petty commodity producers in a vulnerable position. The landless are in a pitiable condition.

Are these findings based on field studies peculiar to the regions studied, or do they reflect changes taking place in the country as a whole? Suneet Chopra’s paper provides some statistics at the national level. In the total population, landless labour grew from 28 per cent in 1951 to almost 38 per cent in 1971 to 40 per cent in 1991 and roughly 55 per cent according to Census 2011. Correspondingly, there was a decline of cultivators from 72 per cent in 1951 to 60 per cent in 1991 and even lower by 2011. The paper covers many other aspects of changes that have been taking place in the economy, including a quick assessment of the variety of policy measures of the Bharatiya Janata Party government and their impact on the lives and livelihoods of the masses.

Smita Gupta’s paper draws attention to two dimensions of agricultural distress. There is the agricultural development crisis, low growth and low profitability as well as an agrarian crisis, growing landlessness, casualisation of labour, fragmentation of holdings, and an increase in small and marginal holdings. India has been facing both these crises that have resulted in widespread displacement and distress. It has been estimated that in the period between 1947 and 2004, some 60 million people were displaced, with Adivasis constituting 40 per cent and Dalits about 20 per cent. The paper has a special section dealing with the alienation of Adivasi land and the environmental degradation resulting from it.

The paper by Robert Pollin and Shouvik Chakraborty raises the question: Is it possible to develop a unified framework that can both increase the well-being of workers, peasants and the poor through expanding employment opportunities and contribute significantly towards the global project of controlling climate change? The authors provide an affirmative answer. If the Indian economy grows at 6.5 per cent over the next 25-year period, and if 1.5 per cent of this annual growth is channelled into investments in energy efficiency and clean renewable energy sources, the objective could be achieved.

Women’s work

Based on National Sample Surveys of Employment and Unemployment, the paper by Vikas Rawal and Partha Saha examines women’s employment in India. It arrives at the following conclusion: “Data on employment conditions of women workers from recent NSSO surveys reveal an extremely dismal picture. There has been a steep decline in the availability of work for women. With rising landlessness and declining labour absorption in agriculture, there has been a sharp contraction in the availability of employment in agriculture…. This has resulted in a significant increase in the proportion of rural working-age women engaged in housework. A very large proportion of such women are engaged in unremunerated work to obtain different commodities for their households. Accounting for such women as unemployed indicates that the unemployment rate in India is extremely high and has risen significantly over the last decade.” But, of course, that raises the more basic question whether only work that is paid for will be treated as “work” or whether a different approach is necessary to deal with the effort that women put in on a day-to-day basis.

The last paper in the collection is by C.P. Chandrasekhar and is titled “Macroeconomic Policy, Employment and Decent Work”. After a detailed examination of the macroeconomic policies of the recent past, his conclusion is: “The macroeconomic stance adopted by the Finance Ministry of the Indian government and by the Reserve Bank of India is not the best from the point of view of improving conditions in the labour market.” According to C.P. Chandrasekhar, this is because macroeconomic policies tend to be concerned with limited objectives such as controlling inflation rather than real variables such as aggregate growth, productive investment, employment generation and poverty eradication.

The collection of essays is a fitting tribute to Utsa Patnaik and brings out the variety of themes she has dealt with in her writings and her passionate concern for the welfare of the least among us.