Neoliberal damage

A comprehensive analysis of the story of Indian agriculture since Independence.

Published : Feb 23, 2023 10:40 IST

Distress in the Fields is an exhaustive account of the agricultural policies enforced in India after the 1991 economic reforms and the agrarian crisis that followed.

Distress in the Fields: Indian Agriculture after Economic Liberalization
Edited by R. Ramakumar
Tulika (2022)
Pages: 508
Price: Rs.1,500

In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made a statement that Indian farmers would see their incomes double by 2022. The incomes did not double, and this was not an unexpected outcome considering the long-standing agrarian crisis in the country.

 The book is about how and why the country’s agricultural sector came to be in such a state. Prof. R Ramakumar, the volume’s editor, is a development economist and professor at the School of Development Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.

The 16-chapter volume discusses the post-liberalisation agricultural policies, the contraction of the role of the Indian state, and agrarian distress. It examines agrarian relations, state intervention, public spending, openness to trade and associated conditionalities, access to credit, food security, and the debilitating impact of liberalisation on costs, profits and incomes, among other themes. Twenty-one distinguished scholars have reviewed the major policy prescriptions under the aforementioned themes implemented in India from 1991 until the 2020s.

The book, however, does not restrict itself to the post-reform era. It takes readers through the history of Indian agriculture and policies related to it since Independence, and the Green Revolution, which sets the context for the macroeconomic changes being researched. These papers were first presented at a national seminar in 2019.

Market vs state dichotomy

Even during the Green Revolution, the benefits from the various measures undertaken were “unequal and far below potential”. One of the reasons for this is the “failed land reforms”. However, there is considerable evidence to show that state support was foundational to the success of the Green Revolution.

“Economic reforms after 1991 explicitly rejected the need for institutional transformation in agriculture,” writes Prof. Ramakumar in the introductory chapter. The neoliberal policy prescriptions imposed upon countries such as India l required the state to withdraw its protectionist disposition. The state was coerced or convinced to make way for a free, privatised, and financialised market. The consequent impact on agriculture was profoundly disruptive. The period from the late 1990s until the mid-2000s is described as “one of the worst periods for agricultural growth”. There was a “phase of recovery” after 2004 due to corrective measures by the state, but from 2011-12 it was downhill all the way.

Human Rights Forum members speak to the kin of a farmer in Tirupati district, Andhra Pradesh, in August 2022. The farmer had purportedly died by suicide due to financial troubles.

Human Rights Forum members speak to the kin of a farmer in Tirupati district, Andhra Pradesh, in August 2022. The farmer had purportedly died by suicide due to financial troubles. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The neoliberal policies impacted credit support, price stabilisation, the support to agricultural inputs and public investment in irrigation in varying degrees. How this affected farmers, primarily the small and marginal farmers, shapes the story of distress in Indian agriculture. Each chapter analyses the context for these policies, their proposed versus actual consequences, and how often the solution lies in an increased role for the state and the revival of public investment.

The landed and the landless

The three chapters in the “Land and Agrarian Relations” section study the extent of inequality, contextualise the relevance of land reforms in the post-liberalisation era, and explain how the impact of agrarian distress is a differentiated phenomenon.

Madhura Swaminathan delves into studying interpersonal inequalities such as landholding and household income using “Project on Agrarian Relations in India” surveys. Unsurprisingly, “small farmers tended to earn less per hectare than large farmers”. Dalit and Adivasi households “received a lower income” than non-Muslim households. The paper, although not generalisable, is an undeniable account of the worsening inequalities in rural India and their connection to the level of “access to land”, among other resources.

“The land question in India is inextricably linked to the caste question.”

— excerpt from Distress in the Fields

While the historical injustices committed against Dalits and Adivasis continued in the period after Independence, newer forms of land inequalities and alienation resulted from liberalisation. The “state became even more hostile” to the idea of implementation of land reforms. Corroborating the state’s retreat in this sphere is the fact that the proportion of rural landless (agricultural) households “increased significantly”.

A paper by Vikas Rawal and Vaishali Bansal discusses these aforementioned changes. The authors refute claims of the proliferation of “tiny, uneconomic holdings”. They also investigate the claim that large holdings have disintegrated. According to a comparison of National Family Health Survey data from different rounds, holdings in the largest size class (30 ha or more) have increased over the last two decades. The scholars have extensively reviewed land ownership and landlessness in India, the dismal history and equally “bleak” prospects for land reforms.

Geetanjoy Sahu’s field-experience-based paper about Palghar district in Maharashtra provides a commentary on the increasing role of NGOs and other non-state actors in the demand to recognise land rights. The “politicisation” of the land problem of Adivasis did aid in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. However, institutional support such as bank loans and help in accessing government schemes were missing. This chapter also provides an overview of the uneven performance of recognition of individual forest rights across the country.

Wide-ranging impact

With liberalisation treating existing support systems as harmful to the market, the agricultural ecosystem experienced, to varying degrees, the withdrawal of the state and changes in policies.

Assessing the merits of each chapter is beyond the scope of this review. However, some of the insights are summarised below.

S.L. Shetty’s chapter on agricultural investment in India notes that the “persistent neglect of agricultural investment” except during the Green Revolution period, the higher private investments, and the unequal access to subsidies led to an “accentuation of overall inequalities”. The chapter reiterates that public investment and putting focus on small and marginal farmers would be the most critical steps in rejuvenating agricultural growth in India.

Ashish Kamra has reviewed the cost of cultivation and profitability of farming in India. Under liberalisation, the cost of cultivation increased along with the privatisation of agricultural inputs and the withdrawal of subsidies. At the same time, government policies kept providing stagnant output prices in the form of MSP. The research deduced that smaller farms suffered a higher fall in profitability than larger farms. Aparajita Bakshi’s chapter follows up with an analysis of how farmers’ income levels from agriculture are “not even meeting their consumption needs”.

One of the promises that free trade held for India was the potential for “export-led growth”. Between 1990-91 and 2019-20, “agricultural exports grew by 13.8% and imports by 18%”. In only one sub-phase during this period did exports outgrow imports.

The “Agricultural Trade” section investigates why trade liberalisation was “systematically biased” against countries like India. It became an “unfair playing field” for Indian farmers, a majority of whom are “low-income or resource-poor” as against those from developed countries with advanced support systems in place.

An instance of an issue becoming a “contentious political” one and leading to some alleviating measures was the public distribution system (PDS). Post-1991, the universal PDS gave way to a targeted approach, which resulted in the exclusion of large numbers of the “needy population” by the mid-2000s. Then, in 2013 the National Food Security Act made “food subsidy a legal entitlement”. Anmol Somanchi’s analysis underlines the point that despite some relief, the “problems of exclusion persisted” because of the “technocratic approach” and stresses the need to return to the universal PDS to ensure food security.

Another example of the pivotal role of the state is when the country was able to “insulate” itself from the global food price spike in 2007-08 because it did not transform itself into a “fully free trade area” and retained its freedom to ban exports and raise import tariffs.

Strengths and weaknesses

One of the many strengths of the book is the introductory chapter written by Prof. Ramakumar. The concise summaries of each chapter evoke curiosity as they are woven into a broad historical overview of Indian agricultural development and its crisis.

The book delivers a fairly comprehensive analysis of the story of Indian agriculture from the post-Independence period until the phase before COVID-19 arrived. If a paper on the unending tragedy of farmer suicides had been included, it could have helped in comprehending the magnitude of the crisis. One of the other gaps is a lack of discussion about how climate change exacerbates the predicament of vulnerable sections of farmers. The introductory section by Prof. Ramakumar mentions that the book does not include some themes due to space limitations and that these will appear in another volume. Perhaps one can also hope for a deeper analysis of caste, gender and other stratifications.

One of the strengths of the book is the extensive evidence provided. The chapters rely upon data sets from, among others, the National Sample Survey Office’s surveys of land and livestock holdings, the National Family Health Survey, the Socio-Economic Caste Census, the Central Statistics Office, the Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households, and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

The volume also refers to data from Census-type village surveys conducted by the Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI) of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies. These surveys capture data on tenancy, landlessness, household income, and so on. The PARI data help on many fronts and provide insights into aspects like the “lesser exclusion of richer households”, which allows researchers to deduce nuanced arguments about the differentiated impact of the agrarian crisis. Not all schools of thought will agree about the extent of the adverse effects of liberalisation on Indian agriculture. However, the volume presents strong evidence-backed analysis.

Some of the arguments in the book will seem familiar as academics have been documenting the adverse impacts of liberalisation on agriculture for quite a while now. However, despite gaps and repetitions, it is still a remarkable book based on exhaustive evidence and impressive analytical writing; some new and unique dimensions and the range of themes covered make it distinctive. The volume will undoubtedly serve as a solid reference text for scholars studying agricultural development and the agrarian crisis in India.

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