Agrarian Change in the Lap of Neoliberal Growth: Field perspective from India

If I had to describe three central characteristics of the Indian economy—its three defining features in the neoliberal period—they’d be i) premature de-industrialization and expansion of the services sector, ii) growth in the absence of formal job-creation, and instead an explosion of informality, and iii) the declining share of agriculture in value added even as its share in employment remains sizeable. In June-July 2019, I did intensive fieldwork in Sangli, a village in Rewari district in southern Haryana, to make sense of the ways in which these processes interact with agrarian change and play out for agrarian households, i.e. the contemporary Agrarian Question [1]. 

Sangli is in Haryana, where Green Revolution techniques (high yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and agricultural machinery like tractors and threshers) were adopted early on. It also happens to be close to the industrial belt that extends from the national capital Delhi to its surrounding districts, where foreign capital has congregated in the neoliberal era. This makes it an interesting place to study processes of generation and re-investment of agrarian surpluses, and to peer into the relationship between “modernized” agriculture and neoliberal industrial and urban growth that has dwarfed the rural economy.

Agriculture after Green Revolution

Agricultural production, embedded in Green Revolution techniques, is oriented towards the market. While the bulk of cultivated land is inherited through kinship relations, cultivators buy seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides from local shops, and sell their produce either in government procurement centers (mandis) or to local private traders [2]. Some parts of the cultivation process, such as land preparation, sowing, harvesting, and threshing, are wholly mechanized. State support plays a critical role through the provision of subsidized electricity (which allows for the use of motorized pump-sets for irrigation), lower prices for some fertilizers, and in the setting of the minimum support prices for key crops like wheat, mustard, pearl millet, etc. 

Labor Processes in Agriculture 

The institution of caste has historically shaped the rural economy and Sangli is no exception. For centuries, caste-based servitude (the jajmani system) tied individual landless avarna households (formerly untouchables) with savarna landowners or zamindars into relations of forced dependence. Though jajmani ties have broken down, agricultural labor hiring out continues to be the domain of avarna landless households. Apart from local avarna labor, landowning households also hire (and certainly prefer) migrant labor groups for harvesting and threshing operations on piece-rated contracts. Migrants come from nearby states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar, and often comprise whole families (including children) who work together in large groups, are paid by the acre, and therefore finish operations more quickly—precisely why landlords prefer them to local avarna laborers.

Despite the adoption of modernized techniques and the “super-exploitation” of migrant labor, high input costs and small farm sizes exert pressure on surplus margins in agriculture. The vast majority of cultivators combine unpaid household labor with hired labor on the farm to mitigate this pressure and boost cash surpluses. Using Utsa Patnaik’s Exploitation-Ratio or E-Ratio, I find that half of the landowners in my sample rely primarily on unpaid family labor. Reliance on family labor further inhibits scale, especially if some household members are diversified in other lines of work. 

Pathways out of Agriculture

Virtually all landowners I spoke with were dissatisfied with returns from agriculture, especially given the dependence of surplus margins on intensive physical labor, and instead sought pathways into “service” (i.e. formal, often office-based) employment. This is noteworthy because Haryana is frequently presented as a Green Revolution “success story” with widespread adoption of modernized techniques and relatively well-functioning public procurement systems for several key crops. 

What I observed instead is that agricultural surpluses paved the way for diversification into non-agricultural activities for savarna landowning households. A large number of savarna landowners, 70% of my sample, earned the majority of their household incomes from non-agricultural sources—from wage employment, petty businesses, or transfers. Indeed, the average per capita income for diversified landowning households was twice that of primarily agricultural households. 

Some better-off savarna landowners, particularly banias (or merchant castes), are able to deploy surpluses towards setting up local petty businesses/merchant capital ventures like grain trading, fertilizer and seed shops, kirana (or grocery) stores etc. These households are likely to withdraw from the use of family labor on the farm, and are among the most well-off in the village. Others, predominantly ahirs and brahmins, are able to secure coveted jobs in the public sector, whether in the army, the electricity department, the police, etc., while continuing to cultivate the family farm through a combination of family and hired labor. Once diversified, landowners cease consistent investments in agriculture. 

Using agricultural surpluses to ‘invest’ in education, from local private schools to postgraduate programs in nearby cities, as well as knowledge and social connections cemented over generations of access to public sector employment, savarna landowners dominate the pathways into secure, non-agricultural livelihoods, though not all make the shift successfully. Many are not able to land formal wage employment in the public sector or in offices and factories of the nearby industrial belt. Some respondents revealed that they tried their hand at the work in factories but returned to cultivation because it offered a better livelihood. Land ownership therefore serves as a failsafe against the most precarious and low-paid wage work.

Avarna households on the other hand, who have neither the investible surpluses from cultivation nor the social networks of upper-castes, are precluded from access to formal employment. Engaged primarily in precarious daily wage work in agriculture and construction, the few instances of self-employment are confined to petty commodity production with very small asset bases (as street hawkers, seamstresses, etc.). The limits to formal job creation are more tangible for avarna households. 

Summing Up

The classic Agrarian Question, which engaged with the role of agrarian surpluses in a country’s trajectory of industrial development, may have been by-passed in the era of neoliberal globalization, but agrarian surpluses play a critical role in the realization of pathways out of agriculture. Caste relations, which have historically shaped access to resources and divisions of labor in the rural economy, also shape these trajectories, such that the extent of jobless growth is experienced differently by different caste groups. Savarna landowners seek livelihoods that offer an improvement over cultivation by deploying agrarian surpluses towards education or petty businesses. Landless avarna households are also compelled to diversify out of agricultural laboring but, in the absence of the support of generationally forged social networks or higher education credentials, are rarely able to secure formal employment as savarna landowners do. 

This overlap between segmentations along lines of caste, land ownership, and type of employment, or the “co-constitution of caste and class relations” is understood as Alpa Shah and Jens Lerche’s conjugated oppression. Conjugated oppression expresses the ways in which caste, tribe, region, and gender shape how sections of the working class ally with dominant classes and castes to preserve their pre-existing privileges from those below them in the social hierarchy. These complex hierarchies, entailing chains and gradations of inequality and oppression, fragment the overall power of labor and rupture class solidarities.   

Srishti Yadav is an Instructor at the Department of Economics, University of Manitoba. She holds a PhD in Economics from the New School for Social Research. She tweets at @Srishting.

This article draws from the author’s dissertation research conducted at The New School for Social Research, New York. The findings and argument presented here are a modified version of a journal article published online in the Journal of Agrarian Change: Caste, diversification, and the contemporary agrarian question in India: A field perspective.

Endnotes

[1] Name changed to protect the anonymity of respondents.

[2] This is the general trend, though households continue to retain part of the crop (especially food grains such as wheat and pearl millet, as well as crop by-product) to meet domestic consumption requirements and for the upkeep of milch animals (which the majority of landowners keep).

Photo: Manish Patel / Unsplash

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