Agrarian focus

Print edition : February 14, 2020

Harvesting Bt Cotton in a farm in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Shaju John

People queuing up for rations from a PDS shop in East Delhi. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Venkatesh Athreya. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

This Festschrift for the social scientist Venkatesh Athreya brings together a wide range of papers relating to agrarian transformation in India.

This volume is a Festschrift for Venkatesh Athreya, well known as a social scientist for his work on agrarian transformation and development in India. He is also an influential teacher, writer and activist.

Although the editors have not grouped the papers into categories, this reviewer is tempted to do so. The following are the principal issues: how agriculture relates to the economy as a whole; studying agriculture and the agrarian scene from a Marxian perspective; examining welfare programmes such as the public distribution system (PDS); probing the environmental dimension in agricultural growth; and offering some case studies such as the crisis relating to cotton and land acquisition and its varying impact on different sections of the dispossessed.

An attractive feature is that no single viewpoint is projected uniformly in the papers. As C.T. Kurien notes in his foreword: “—the attempt has not been to project a particular point of view”. Secondly, virtually every author gives evidence of balance in presenting her/his conclusions. The editors should be complimented on presenting this blend.

Utsa Patnaik’s paper, incidentally not specially written for this volume, puts the great Bengal famine under the scanner from a new perch. She begins with the observation that the several million deaths owing to the tragedy have largely gone unnoticed. She traces the famine’s origins to profit inflation wherein the share of profits was deliberately allowed to rise at the cost of the share of labour. This policy was pursued to finance the war. The fulcrum of this policy was to tax the beneficiaries of profit inflation. This was almost directly the result of Keynes’ recommendation. Utsa Patnaik’s verdict is emphatic: Keynes was a humanist in Europe but an imperialist in the colonial context. In passing, it may be mentioned that she also critiques Amartya Sen’s celebrated analysis of the Bengal famine mainly by showing up its limitations.

In the same Marxian genre are two other papers, by V.K. Ramachandran and Prabhat Patnaik. The former, in his contribution, studies the process of differentiation in the peasantry. His central point of inquiry is the “concentration of production in the hands of a minority and the forcing of the majority into the ranks of the proletariat”. The market for hired labour is not confined to manual worker households but has, in fact, spread to other households, of which peasant households are a substantial part. The loss of land for the peasantry, and its attendant consequences, are well-documented, but Ramachandran invites attention to another phenomenon, that is, how sections of the peasantry are drawn into the hired labour market even as they continue in their status as peasants. This dimension is not analysed, in his view, for want of data. His final point is that the poor and middle peasants and the manual workers—the army of surplus labour—must be in the forefront of social change in the country. Such a development will be welcome but one cannot be blind to the contradictions which this alliance has to resolve.

Indian agriculture

Prabhat Patnaik follows the Marxian trajectory to study Indian agriculture. He focusses on two issues. One is that while post reforms, the rate of growth of the economy has been more rapid than in the preceding periods, agriculture has shown no such trend. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, the level of stocks of foodgrains has been much larger as a share of output than before, leading to government claims that the level is above “normal”. Contrary to the inference that this state of affairs is a positive sign, Prabhat Patnaik posits the view that this “excess supply” indicates that there is a problem of lack of effective demand. As he puts it, this is yet another example of reality being the opposite of what it appears to be. The lack of demand is owing to the shift in public expenditure from agriculture to non-agriculture, which results in increase in poverty levels. This paper is of particular interest given the present gloom in which the economy finds itself, and especially as the government is unwilling to admit the existence of fundamental problems in the system. In particular, there is extreme reluctance to ensure more income for (and therefore expenditure from) the mass of the rural population.

Madhura Swaminathan’s paper is centred on the PDS. She critiques the popular call at present for direct cash transfers to replace extant welfare programmes, including foodgrain distribution. Her emphatic rejection of this must be music to the ears of all who value equity and the welfare of the poor and regard them as non-negotiable. In her view, the move to implement cash transfers and eventually close down the PDS, “will be disastrous for ensuring food security at the current stage of development”. A telling point she makes is the need to distinguish “errors of inclusion” from those of “exclusion” among beneficiaries. The latter has ramifications which are much more pernicious and widespread. The expenditure on PDS, she argues, is “minuscule compared to the scale of the problem of hunger and malnutrition in India”. Her views find resonance in what social scientists such as Jean Dreze have felt about dismantling welfare programmes.

Three papers look at the relationship between agriculture and the other sectors. In the first of these, Barbara Harriss-White et al present evidence of an increasing nexus between agriculture and the economy as a whole. However, they find that this has not led to integration of the labour market. And this despite the retail sector being opened to corporates. A disturbing finding is that within labour, the worst affected are the most vulnerable, female labour. Further, labour has tended to get “masculinised”. Finally, the producer’s share in the consumer’s rupee increases more via the PDS rather than private trade. This is an interesting exploration of a fairly complex field.


Gordon Djurfeldt has a paper where he contests both the Leftist view that “peasants are doomed to loss of land and livelihood” and the Chayanovian view which, to him, corresponds with the de facto Western trajectory where one sees highly mechanised farms using family labour with limited hiring. Djurfeldt presents a third perspective in which the principal feature is pluriactivity. This refers to family farms having a number of activities which provide them employment and income. His argument is that the Marxist-Leninist as well as the Chayanovian models abstract from pluriactivity, which is a dominant aspect of contemporary agriculture. In the Djurfeldt model, the accent is not on ownership but on family labour. His own field studies, he states, confirm that both the earlier models referred to do not stand scrutiny. Pluriactivity as a major feature of contemporary agriculture is certainly a notion worth pursuing by those interested in studying India’s development profile. Pluriactivity may have some relation with the felt need of many in our rural areas not to part with land no matter how unprofitable agriculture may be.

The third paper in this subset is by Judith Heyer, who argues that agriculture has benefited from non-agricultural growth. She bases herself on evidence from her fieldwork in western Tamil Nadu. Her study brings out that non-agricultural incomes have increased substantially since the 1980s, but at the same time there has been a negative impact on the environment. This should surprise no one. A significant point is that her study is longitudinal, although as she herself says, it is quite limited. Again, unsurprisingly, Judith Heyer remarks on the declining role of the state as also on changes in landholding patterns. She is cautiously optimistic about the impact of the growth of the non-agricultural sector on agriculture but suggests that extrapolating from her study to the whole state ought to be done with great care.

Judith Heyer’s remarks on the adverse impact of growth on the environment—to be fair, that is not the main concern of her paper—ties in with U. Sankar’s more detailed contribution which deals exclusively with the environment. Starting with the truism that the poor are relatively far more dependent on natural capital than the affluent sections, Sankar is concerned with the fact that agricultural markets being highly imperfect fail to capture the externalities which are so important. Given the stature of the author, it comes as no surprise that he analyses the environmental costs of agricultural growth in a holistic fashion. He demonstrates how the pricing of inputs has had a deleterious effect on the environment via the profligate use of some of them such as chemical fertilizers, but he is careful not to deny the positive role played by them in taking the country towards self-sufficiency in food. It is impossible not to agree with Sankar when he regrets the absence of adequate attention to the environment which is one of the pillars of sustainable development. A happy feature of this paper is the balance with which the author approaches issues such as organic farming, which quite often tends to be advocated with more enthusiasm than information. Sankar vividly draws attention to the factors inhibiting the adoption of organic farming (the interested reader may turn to pages 130-131 for the relevant discussion).

Urbanised agricultural credit

R. Ramakumar’s paper on agricultural credit is a major contribution in this important area of inquiry. After discussing the well-known reality of the rising share of informal credit in loans as a whole, Ramakumar presents some data from which he draws challenging inferences. We learn how changes in definitions have served to present a misleading picture regarding credit to the public (and perhaps some “specialists”).

Consider this as one example. From 1997 onwards, short-term loans to coffee, tea, rubber and spice plantations began to be considered direct credit to agriculture, irrespective of the size of holdings. Even more startling, from 2007 onwards loans given to corporate partnership firms and institutions for agricultural activities such as beekeeping, piggery, poultry and fishery were treated, with some qualifications, as direct credit to agriculture. Along with this, agricultural credit has been getting slowly urbanised in that increased provision for credit is being made by urban and metropolitan banks. The share of long-term credit in all loans has tended to decrease with the result that there is a divergence between agricultural credit and gross capital formation. His conclusion, that the beneficiaries of revival of credit are not farmers who are direct producers but corporates and the like, compels attention. This must rank as essential reading on agricultural credit.

One of the case studies in the volume is by Staffan Lindberg and relates to an ex-untouchable caste, the Madharis, also known as Chakkiliyars, in the Tiruppur region of Tamil Nadu. They were once leather workers who prepared buckets for irrigation and also helped handle irrigation works. As one would expect, their employment fortunes fluctuated with technological advance and they have, over the years, experienced several downturns. The caste has also got converted to Christianity.

Lindberg identifies economic exploitation, cultural and gender discrimination, political oppression and the repercussions of environmental degradation as the problems the caste has had to confront.

Two important and insightful statements from this study need to be quoted. One relates to the Backward Classes who, in the author’s words, “included the local dominant and landowning castes in many regions”. Lindberg reaffirms a truth that is now sought to be camouflaged.

The presence of dominant castes in the Backward Classes is a case of “adverse selection” but is most often not admitted. Secondly, the paper brings to light the continuing pernicious influence of caste and how the entry of the lowest rung such as the Madharis into one church caused some of the higher ranking groups to move away to another church. On the whole, this is an interesting piece of ethnography.

Another case study is by Vikas Rawal et al. The paper is based on a study of land acquisition in Jharkhand. The aim is to trace how disparities arose among the beneficiaries of the compensation. In a context where land relations are unequal to begin with, the impact of land acquisition is bound to vary across classes. The paper brings this to light with evidence and, predictably, Dalits figure at the bottom of the pile. Also, the effect of displacement is found to be most severe on women and casual labour. Those who lost less than a prescribed minimum of land were not entitled to compensation through provision of employment. Tenants who cultivated land through informal contracts were considered ineligible for compensation. The net result was that inequalities arose among the displaced in terms of the compensation offered. The beginning of inequalities among the Dalits was also noticed. After placing before the readers evidence from the field study, the authors make an attempt at providing a theoretical frame for the analysis. The main point they discuss is whether land acquisition such as the one investigated can be classed as “primitive accumulation” in the Marxist sense.

Their conclusion is the following: application of this concept to the case would be inaccurate and, furthermore, would conceal wide variations that are crucial to understanding the nature of accumulation and class relations. While the case study is well brought out, one is left with a feeling of incompleteness. The theoretical discussion at the end appears to be an add-on rather than something built into the structure of the paper.

The final paper in the collection is by one of the editors, A. Narayanamoorthy, and is a case study of cotton cultivation. The inclusion of a paper on cotton is hardly a surprise given the fact that a large proportion of farmers who commit suicide are cotton cultivators.

Cotton cultivation

The case of cotton cannot be examined without reference to the introduction of Bt [a genetically modified pest-resistant cotton variety]. In fact, among cotton growers who commit suicide, a large percentage are Bt growers. Cotton has virtually selected itself. Narayanamoorthy’s diagnosis is that the profitability of cotton has decreased mainly because the cost of cultivation has been rising continuously.

He draws attention to what he calls a “hidden truth”, that profits from cotton had been oscillating even before the 1990s and assumed alarming proportions after this period. This is important in view of a perspective put forward that the adoption of Bt cotton is the major reason for crop losses and farmer suicide. This author’s study shows that the problem had started well before Bt cotton came into the picture. Narayanamoorthy rightly dismisses one-time quick-fix solutions such as loan waivers to bail cotton farmers out of the crisis. He emphasises that even raising the minimum support price is not a permanent solution but turns the light on measures to reduce the cost of cultivation. Among others, he advocates the use of drip irrigation. The paper’s strength lies in the manner in which it has situated the cotton crisis in a broad framework.

A problem that confronts editors of collected papers is the range of subjects the collection should span, as also how to ensure that a common theme underpins them to the extent possible. The volume reviewed here has a wide field to traverse, agrarian transformation in contemporary India. Inevitably, every dimension cannot be included. To its credit, the volume has managed to bring under its wing most of the important issues in this vast sphere.

However, a well-researched piece on agrarian distress and farmer suicide would have given the collection a sense of completeness. This is not meant to be seen as reluctance to acknowledge and welcome a fine and worthy effort. All in all, a fitting tribute to Venkatesh Athreya.

V.K. Natraj is the former Director of Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

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