Some questions about agrarian structure in contemporary India – Blog article, open for comments

May 15, 2007

By Dipankar Basu, Sanhati (courtesy RadicalNotes)

The first thing that probably needs to be clarified in the study of agrarian structure in India (and other parts of the periphery) is to understand agrarian structure as an articulation of various modes of production under which socially necessary labour is being undertaken. The concept of socio-economic formation, as an articulation of various modes of production, but distinct from the concept of mode of production itself might prove useful here. I feel that this is a very important point that is often ignored in much Marxist theorising.

Once we agree to understand agrarian structure as an articulation of various modes of production, several questions immediately arise. One, what are the various modes of production that are articulated in various forms in India today? Capitalist and pre-capitalist modes. That much is clear and widely agreed upon.

The next important question, of course, is this: which is the dominant mode of production in this social formation, in this complex reality formed by the articulation of the capitalist and pre-capitalist modes of production? Which, in other words, is the mode that is dominating the others, shaping the others so as to fulfill it’s own needs of reproduction? Which is the dominant and which is the dominated mode of production? In this regard, the tentative hypothesis that I would like to advance is the following: contemporary Indian reality suggests that the capitalist mode of production is the dominant mode. It is capitalism, decidedly of a dependent variety, that is calling the shots in India today. All vestiges of pre-capitalist modes are articulated to the capitalist mode and are serving its needs in various ways. But it would be a mistake to allow the vestiges of these pre-capitalist modes to define social reality in rural India, its agrarian structure.

The question that will naturally follow is this: how to explain the stagnation in Indian agriculture? How to explain the rising rural distress? This is an extremely important question, but I don’t think it is necessary to take recourse to semi-feudalism to explain rural stagnation and distress. Dependent capitalism, of the type that has developed elsewhere in the periphery of the world capitalist system, is precisely a capitalism which entails stagnation, pauperisation and distress for the majority while a small minority grows at a very high rate. That has happened in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and is now happening in India. This is another tentative hypothesis that I would like to advance.

A very close friend of mine, who has been studying agrarian relations in Punjab for some time now drew my attention to three very important characteristics of rural reality in Punjab. These are: (a) the intrusion of ideological factors like “social pride” into the process of mechanization of agriculture (he informed that the possession of tractors in contemporary Punjab is more a matter of “social pride” of the peasantry than any capitalist incentives arising from production conditions); (b) the existence of a class of middlemen who procure agricultural product from peasants and also function as money-lenders, thereby givng rise to partially interlinked markets; and (c) the widespread use of migrant labour in agriculture.

What are the implications of these three characteristics for our understanding of agrarian structure in contemporary India? I would tend to interpret these three characteristics as the many factors, among others, which reproduce capitalist stagnation; I do not see this as providing evidence of the presence of semi-feudal relations in rural India.

The question that immediately came to mind regarding the first charateristic is this: What is the material basis of the “social pride” that comes from the ownership of tractors? An answer suggests itself almost naturally. The tractor manufacturer would gain enormously from the widespread existence of such “social pride”. Let us recall several campaigns by the local capitalist class (for example the “hamara Bajaj” campaign) where ownership of scooters and motorcycles and four-wheelers and tractors are given other, social meanings (like national pride, etc.)? Could something like that be in operation in Punjab too?

Existence of a large class of middlemen is important but does not really lend support to any semi-feudal thesis. The class of middlemen, to my mind, are representatives of mercantile capital; a class which makes profit by buying cheap and selling dear. It is important to remember that they have come up under the shadows of a partially paternalistic State and the pressure of rich and middle peasants for minimum price policies. Through them mercantile capital is getting accumulated in rural India. The fact that the credit market is partially interlinked to the product market through this class reminds me of the “putting out system” during the early phases of the industrial revolution in England. But, this system, I am told, has made a comeback through various kinds of “contract farming” in other parts of India too. For instance, Pepsi Co, HLL, Procter and Gamble and many other companies often do the same. They provide credit and other inputs to the farmers and the contract is that they will buy the product at pre-arranged prices. So, even though markets are getting interlinked, it is in a context that is very different from those studied in the early 1970’s by Amit Bhaduri and others. In this case, the capitalist character of many of the participants is beyond all reasonable doubt. So, instead of understanding this as an instance of semi-feudal relations of production, it is probably more helpful to see this as the specific manner in which the articulation to dependent capitalism takes place.

The importance of migrant labour, as my friend pointed out, can hardly be denied. But as I have suggested earlier, while it is important to understand the articulation of modes of production, it is equally important to identify the dominant mode? Moreover, the existence and growth of migrant labour, footloose labour according to Jan Breman, also seems to suggest that the various kinds of bonds that tied down labour to a particular plot of land or village or area is loosening. Doesn’t that gradually erode the semi-feudal basis of power in the rural areas?

Another related question that often comes to mind is this: are big and powerful feudal landlords left in India today, other than in small pockets? Does social, economic and cultural power in rural India reside with the class of feudal landlords? I have serious doubts that it does. I think, instead, that the social and economic power of the landlord class has been largely eroded. Rural power now rests in the hands of the middle and rich peasants, not in the hands of landlords. To a minimum that seems to be the case in large parts of India: Punjab, Haryana, Western UP, TN, Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala, West Bengal, Gujrat, Maharashtra. Therefore another question arises immediately: does this define the character of rural India or do the remnants of semi-feudal power in pockets of Bihar, Orissa, Eastern UP, MP, Chattisgarh, Jaharkhand define rural India?

7 Comments »

7 Responses to “Some questions about agrarian structure in contemporary India – Blog article, open for comments”

  1. Shamik Sarkar Says:
    May 15th, 2007 at 04:40

    The article is truly interesting and thanks for the article. But some questions remain, I think. What was the character of pre-capitalist rural production system? Was it essentially feudal? Or some kind of ‘common ownership’ was there also? I think the answer is necessary in order to imagine the resistance of rural masses against presently predominating ‘dependent capitalist’ mode of production and corporate onslaught.
    Thanks for the article, again.

  2. suvarup Says:
    May 17th, 2007 at 11:13

    For people like me, who hail from a pure metropolitan background and thus do not have any firsthand knowledge of the setup and its crisis, the essay seemed a little too short to comment. May be the author wanted the readers to ask questions so that he could clarify with facts figureas and examples. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.

  3. Debarshi Says:
    May 17th, 2007 at 16:49

    Since this falls under the heading ‘blog,’ one can presumably be a little informal. This latitude I would utilise to the hilt, as most of what follows is thinking aloud.

    Let us see if we share common understanding of the terms. Semi-feudalism, or pre-capitalism, to my mind, implies the following,
    a. Practice of employing hired labour (facilitated by separation of producers from the means of production).
    b. Market oriented production.
    c. Absence of reinvestment of surplus; hence stagnation.

    (refer to the Mode of Production Debate of Indian Agriculture)

    Now, if these features characterise ‘dependent capitalism’ as well, then it seems to be a matter of semantics. In which case, I would happily go with the hypothesis that dependent capitalism is the dominant mode. A little apprehension remains regarding the term ‘dependent’ – which seems to suggest that the peripheral economy is dependent on a metropolitan economy in its functioning. The theorisation of pre-capitalism or semi-feudalism does not seem to assert any such organic relations.
    (Amit Bhaduri’s 1973 article did not have colonialism in its formulation. Utsa Patnaik had the impact of British rule very much in her historical analysis. Nevertheless, hypothetically, an agrarian economy in the Bhaduri fashion may be conceived of).

    If, however, there is more to it than names, then it would be interesting to know the similarities and dissimilarities between pre-capitalist and dependent capitalist mode.

    To my mind, we witness stagnation in Indian agriculture because of several reasons. There is a high degree of fragmentation of holdings which leaves an overwhelming majority of farmers with little to reinvest. Failure of credit market, crop insurance market, monopoly, monopsony privileges enjoyed by the rural rich (who are not necessarily the big landlords), interlinked contracts reinforce the lack of investment. If the returns from trading or money lending are high enough (due to monopoly enjoyed by the rural rich) then why get into the hazardous business to investing in farming whose return is uncertain. Withdrawal of the State from the various roles in a sector with immense ‘positive externality effects’ has aggravated the crisis (Vaidyanathan’s article in Kaushik Basu’s “The Agrarian Question” details State’s roles). Neo-liberal policies, at various other spheres, have also contributed. In Marxist literature consolidation of landholding has long been seen as a necessary condition for the advent of capitalism in agriculture (Kautsky and Lenin had much to say on this). The factors listed above work towards fragmentation of holdings, rather than consolidation.

    All these match with the last two points mentioned in the article. Migration does loosen the hold of political and social power of landlords. But, pre-capitalism, to my mind, is different in nature from feudalism in a very fundamental way in that in the latter extra-economic power is the tool for surplus extraction. In pre-capitalism market forces are all-pervasive, surplus extraction obtains through an economic process.

    I am not sure how to fit in the tractors in this picture. Certainly, norms and conventions do play a role in economic decisions. And industrial capitalists would love to manufacture those aspirational benchmarks. But there might be definite, concrete, economic limits to this. A farmer may be tempted to purchase a tractor, rather than carry on with hired tractor rented from a fellow villager, if the difference of payoffs from these two acts is not significantly high. On the other hand, buying a tractor may be much more expensive than renting it and the difference may be higher than the “social pride premium” which the ownership of a tractor entails. In such a case, it is doubtful if the farmer would shell out the money.

    The evidence of incursion of market in rural economy do not preclude the possibility that there is stagnation and pre-capitalism.

  4. rama Says:
    May 31st, 2007 at 07:09

    Here’s a Letter to the Editor published in The Statesman (Kolkata), 31 May 2007.

    Areas where Vietnam scores over West Bengal

    Sir, ~ In the article, “The Vietnam experience” (10 May) Abhijit Sen has compared Vietnam with West Bengal in terms of their population, proportion of population engaged in agriculture, the principal crop produced and the per capita income.

    However, he has found one striking dissimilarity. According to him, Communist Vietnam does not face any problem in acquiring land for industries as is currently being encountered by the Leftist government in West Bengal. Further, by introducing SEZs, industrial parks, software parks and so on, Vietnam has been able to move out from its “original agricultural base to become an industrial power house.” The author also tells us that “Vietnam has now become a leading food exporter.”

    With due respect to Mr Sen who is a great captain of industry and commerce in Bengal, I would like to bring to his kind notice the following facts:

    1) In 2002, the West Bengal government organised an international seminar on agrarian relations in which scholars from Russia, China, Vietnam and Cuba presented their papers and two noted economists VK Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan edited the published versions of those papers in a book entitled “Agrarian Studies: Essays on Agrarian Relations in Less Developing Countries”. The paper by the Vietnamese scholar, Noguen Tan Trin, depicted the condition of agriculture and the government policies in Vietnam from 1945 to the present period. His paper clearly reveals that land reforms and formation of agricultural cooperatives were the two major activities which helped Vietnam to achieve self-sufficiency in food crop and literacy. In West Bengal, according to government reports prepared by N Mukarji and D Banerjee (1993) and Jayati Ghosh (2000), let alone the cooperative movement, the process of land reforms became slow since the mid-1980s and landlessness began to emerge as an alarming trend! This is a major difference between Vietnam and West Bengal.

    2) Another dissimilarity between Vietnam and West Bengal is the new land law which the former enacted in 1993. By that law, land belonged to the people and the government only had administrative control over it. The law also empowered individual and communal owner of land to give the land in lease to others for large-scale cultivation, social forestry, pisciculture and salt production.

    The Vietnamese government is presently encouraging farmers to reclaim uncultivable land to form “ideal large farms” to avoid land fragmentation. At present, there are nearly 130,000 such farms in the country.

    In 1994, the West Bengal government introduced the new industrial policy to invite huge capital-intensive investment and began to acquire fertile farmland without changing the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The failure to check land fragmentation through cooperatives in West Bengal is well known. The Jayati Ghosh report strongly recommended the formation of agricultural cooperatives.

    3) In Vietnam, the government is targeting to bring down the number of persons engaged in agriculture to 50 per cent by 2010 through technological improvement in agriculture and not by large-scale land acquisition.

    Additionally, in Vietnam there is a strong emphasis on expanding village-based cottage industries, agricultural marketing and services in the rural areas.

    The West Bengal Leftists also had such plans and experts committees are still recommending such activities, but the government is paying all its attention to installing big industries and SEZ under the pretext of “successful land reforms”.

    ~ Yours, etc., Abhijit Guha,

    Vidyasagar University, 11 May.

  5. Sukla Sen Says:
    June 13th, 2007 at 01:55

    If the near-stagnation in agricultural output is to be explained in terms of “semi-feudalism” or “dependent capitalism”, then how does one explicate the boom since early seventies lasting for about two decades making the desperate food-scarcity of the mid-late sixties a nearly forgotten nightmare?

    How does one square such explanation with the overall boom of the economy since early eighties peaking further in the current decade?
    (It was 3.4% in terms of GDP growth rate for the first three decades since the onset of Five-Year Planning as opposed to variously estimated as 0.5 – 1.5% in the pre-Independence years, then 5.8% for two decades, the latest figure is 9.4%.)

    This is of course apart from the more fundamental issues regarding what are the defining markers of “semi-feudalism”? Is there something called “semi-capitalism”?
    Isn’t private ownership of means of production and production for profit (i.e. market) – precisely the path along which Indian agriculture is proceeding?
    Does not the political order in place determine the course/model of economic development including agriculture?
    How does one look at the different phases of economic development in India in a holistic manner?

    One may also in this context like to refer to ‘On The Class Structure of India’ by D D Kosambi at .

  6. bsrao Says:
    August 24th, 2007 at 02:00

    Dear Writer,
    In the process of origin and development of capitalism,It depended on various (then) existing factors and conditions through different forms in each and every country and still is depending.Capitalism is a product of history.So,naming it as ‘dependent’ or ‘independent’
    is absurd.Wherever capitalism rules,all those societies are capitalist societies,whatever may be the other factors.India is no exception.

    ‘Pride’ never creates or develops ‘market’.Only purchasing power and the productive necessity and cultural necessities develops market.

    Anyhow its a fine article in the right direction to understand the nature of Indian society.

    bsrao

  7. Datta Desai Says:
    September 19th, 2007 at 03:26

    Dear Basu,

    A stimulating article.Marxist have always tried to differentiate between Mode of Production and Social Formation.However, I would be thankful if you could please throw some light on this particular point raised by you with regard to its implications to agrarian relations, other than its implication in terms of the cause of stagnation and semi-feudalism.
    Also in Western Maharashtra, we can observe a process where new land concentration is gaining momentum where the rural rich/urban rich are acquiring land by using there positions /contacts in rural co-op structure. This includes builders, big traders and other rural business families. Also like elsewhere, in Maha. lands are being acquired by big companies under SEZs, and other big farming activities.Also, we cannot ignore the indirect control the companies are gaining (& will increasingly do so)over land through contract farming.
    Datta Desai,Academy of Political and Social Studies, Pune

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