Some questions about agrarian structure in contemporary India

Deepankar Basu

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?

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