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Who decides for whom? As primary stakeholders, farmers wish to be heard

The Indian village has been relegated to the margins

Surinder S. Jodhka

Published: Jan. 30, 2024
Updated: Jan. 30, 2024

TALKING about agriculture has not been fashionable for quite some time. This is surprising because agriculture remains the single most important sector of the Indian economy. Its share in the national GDP has indeed been coming down over the past seven decades. However, it still makes for nearly 15 percent, which is not significantly any less than the manufacturing sector. Even more important, it remains the biggest source of employment in the country. Furthermore, the effective value of agriculture far exceeds its share in GDP figures or the number of workers to whom it provides full-time employment.

It continues to be a critical source of livelihood for many more, who may have found alternative sources of employment but have not completely given up working on their small plots of land. Besides the value addition to their household economies, owning and working on their agricultural land also gives them a sense of belonging and a dignified source of identity.

Surprisingly, it is not only agriculture that has seen a steady decline in the narratives on the Indian economy, the village too has been relegated to the margins in the national imagination. This is despite the fact that nearly two-thirds of India continues to be “rural”. It now only appears as a site of deprivation, seeking State benevolence and welfare schemes. The middle class-centric urban media actively reinforces such an image of the village.

Narratives on the rural are also marked by an utter ignorance of the nature of rural life across sections of the urban middle classes and the elite. The rural, for example, is often viewed as being synonymous with agriculture. Everyone living in a village is presumed to be a farmer/peasant. However, this is far from true.

The social organization of the Indian village has always been a very complex and diverse reality. The popular notion of a ‘peasant economy’, where families cultivated their small holdings with family labour and produced foodgrains primarily for their own consumption, was never the case in India.

The norm of caste did not allow nearly half of the rural residents to cultivate land. However, not all the artisans and Dalit castes in the village were dependent slaves of the local landlords. Many of them were skilled and specialized in producing a wide range of commodities. Today, a larger proportion of rural incomes comes from non-farm activities, across regions of the sub-continent.

 

COLONIAL NARRATIVE

The narrative of the village as a depressing place begins with its colonial representations. They popularized the view of it being a stagnant economic system, for centuries and millennia, caught in the whirlpool of caste and a self-imposed culture of isolation. And that the local people purportedly surrendered to the vagaries of nature and their pre-given karma.

In reality, however, the agrarian economy of the pre-colonial period had neither been a “backward” system, nor a homogenous universe or a sea of isolated villages. For example, Indian cultivators did not depend solely on rain. They had evolved a range of sustainable systems and modes of irrigation involving wells and ponds. The cultivators also produced a substantial surplus. Thriving urban centres and flourishing political empires of ancient and medieval times are proof of this.

Much of the wealth that the empires possessed, in search of which the European colonizers came to India in the first place, was sourced primarily from its agrarian riches.

However, by the time the British left, Indian agriculture indeed presented a sight of hopelessness. Driven exclusively by their colonial interests, the British experimented with cultivators, forcing them to pay land revenues in cash, which in turn made them switch over to cash crops such as cotton. The British exported cotton to their cloth mills running on power looms. These policies also killed the local craft in the towns and cities of India, resulting in de-industrialization and de-urbanization of the region. While the dependence of the population on agriculture grew, production of foodgrains declined, resulting in misery and hunger. Millions perished in frequent famines.

 

AGE OF DEVELOPMENT

By the 1960s the Nehruvian state managed to find the resources to invest in modernizing its agrarian economy. Helped by some global agencies, and using new technologies developed elsewhere, India moved onto a path of increased productivity. Though confined to a few promising pockets, the state investment in agriculture provided an impetus to growth. Within a decade or so, the country was producing enough food.

The success of Green Revolution technology during the 1960s and 1970s in select pockets was an important turning point in the development history of India. Its implications were not confined to economic growth. It transformed rural social relations and traditional authority structures in the regions where it succeeded. The face of the countryside began to change rapidly. In terms of social groups, the most visible beneficiaries of this change were the substantial landowners from the locally dominant caste groups, who had traditionally been landowners and cultivators.

The newly emergent agrarian elite farmer did not speak only for his own caste or class. He spoke on behalf of the entire village. However, this excitement about the new technology and growing incomes did not last too long. By the mid-1980s, the Indian countryside began to show a new kind of restiveness; this was particularly pronounced in the pockets that had been at the forefront of agrarian modernization. The surplus-producing farmers began to mobilize themselves into unions demanding subsidies on farm inputs and higher prices.

Farmers mobilized themselves in different parts of India quite successfully for over a decade. Their movements of the 1980s also signalled the rise of a new mobile social category of rural people. They had prospered, which had also brought them close to the market economy. Though they spoke for agrarian interests, they aspired to go beyond the village.

The agrarian economy could not satisfy their aspirations for social and cultural mobility. They were quick to move from their local seats of power to legislative assemblies in the state capitals. The surplus they generated from agriculture went into the education of their wards, and into urban trade and other non-agricultural occupations. Their educated children often found jobs in the local bureaucracy and other expanding departments of the state government. 

The neo-liberal reforms of the early 1990s proved to be a turning point for the Indian economy. The private corporate sector moved to the driving seat and its growth was rapid. The size of the national economy expanded but it did not generate too many new jobs. Thus, unlike the “classical” growth trajectories of the industrialized nations of the Global North, even when the share of India’s agriculture declined rather rapidly, a much larger proportion of the workforce remained employed in agriculture. Such a decline in the relative size of the agrarian economy in terms of its value addition has produced many imbalances, going beyond the sphere of income and employment.

The growing size and power of the urban and corporate capital also marginalized the agrarian economy in the national imagination, the effects of which began to also be felt by those working in the sector. For example, as mentioned above, the growth in agriculture had previously given enough income and aspiration to the landowning classes/castes to educate their wards, hoping that they would find employment outside the village. But in the new schema this was no longer the case.

Those who controlled corporate capital preferred their own, those from the urban upper castes and urban educated individuals with the required cultural capital, leaving those coming from agrarian backgrounds in the lurch. As the “reforms agenda” spread across the states, their ability to generate jobs began to shrink. With their own growing debts, the state governments had no choice but to reduce their salary budgets and cut down on hiring.

 

WAY FORWARD

What could be the way forward? From a purely market and growth driven perspective, agriculture is merely an economic activity which needs to be rationally incorporated and integrated into the larger corporate economy. Indian corporate capital also appears willing to engage with agriculture, albeit on its own terms. Food processing could be a big business in a rapidly urbanizing world with growing numbers of the middle class, within India and abroad.

To the neo-liberal policymakers of the Indian state, unwilling to invest in agriculture, this appears to be the most desirable solution for a sector complaining of crises for a long time. The eagerness with which the Union government legislated the three farm laws in 2020 is clear evidence of it.

However, Indian farmers have also come to see themselves as citizens, who not only have a sense of what is good for them but also want to be involved in the policymaking process. While the logic of corporate-led growth may make sound economic sense, the farmers’ anxieties of losing control over their livelihoods is not entirely baseless.

The challenge is not simply that of reconciling two divergent views. It is far more fundamental. Who decides for whom? As primary stakeholders, the farmers’ wish to be heard is hardly illegitimate in a country that claims to be a democracy.

However, the ‘Indian farmer’ is also not a singular category. They are diverse and divided, by their regional histories, climatic conditions and even social identities. Yet they are not anti-development. On the contrary, they too are eager to enhance their incomes, and improve their welfare and capabilities, as any  citizen of a developing country would be.

Thus, the answers too should not be visualized in the singular. Plural modes of development are not only possible but are also an urgent need of our times. The way forward does not lie in an alternative policy frame to be visualized by yet another set of experts. It ought to emerge from effective and meaningful conversations.

 

Prof. Surinder S. Jodhka teaches sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is the author of The Indian Village: Rural Lives in the 21st Century.

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