Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Vexations of agrarian India

Agriculturists's woes are not just forms of a crisis, but also indicate the deceleration of the agrarian economy

Unseasonal rain, falling commodity prices, increasing input costs, decreasing size of land holdings, and now the political move to “acquire" all land into the globalizing market.

The agony-list that agriculturists can make of their current situation can be even longer for all these are not just forms of a crisis, but also indicate the deceleration of the agrarian economy.

No longer synonymous with only village or agriculture, rural India is currently a mosaic of conditions which include vast tracts of impoverished habitations, small pockets of prosperous commercial agriculture, zones dependent on remittance economies, belts that are getting absorbed into the real estate grid, and regions that are integrated into the global extractive, mining industries. Migration seems to have intensified, from the earlier forms of seasonal and circular migration, to longer stretches and distances.

The growth of peri-urban areas and the movement of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled labour from the north and eastern belts to the southern regions of the nation have become significant. Within this mosaic, the life-conditions of the majority reflect the complexities of the economies that mark them and the overall failure of the political system to provide ameliorative mechanisms.

Instead of addressing the structural inequities of the rural worlds, there is an increasing focus on altering the rural through policies that privilege only the entry of capital and markets. Land markets, infrastructure, agricultural commodities, trade, pricing, productivity and patents are presented as panacea that in reality are enhancing rural inequities.

The continued neglect of marginal cultivators, or those who own or cultivate less than two hectares of land and who constitute nearly 80% of all cultivators, is the key reason why agriculture as an economy and a way of life continues to be entrapped in a deep morass. A complex agrarian structure where caste and class largely overlap and which determines life opportunities to a large degree continues to be the operative unit of rural India.

Over such a constellation of rural structures there is the layering of new models of agriculture in which high technology, increased capitalization and risk-laden markets play key roles. Each of these has only increased the debt burden of agriculturists making agriculture not only a risk-ridden enterprise, but also a potentially self-destructive one.

The promotion of genetically modified crops is only one more indication of the extent to which there is the oversight of the voice, agency and representation of agriculturists and the privileging of the interests of agri-business who are now being abetted by politicians and compromised scientists.

In most states, the promise and potential of the panchayat system is largely derailed by the capture of local power by regional satraps and their families. A range of illegalities and leakages mark most transactions and several welfare programmes are yet to provide succour to the most deprived. In what must be the most ironic situation, one key programme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, that seems to have provided some relief in several regions, is now sought to be diminished.

The results of interlinked structural inequities manifest as a range of vulnerabilities. These include the declining variety and quantity in the food basket of the working poor, which is resulting in malnutrition, including stunting, of children. And for those who seek their opportunities through migration to the cities, the weak manufacturing base and the new service economy provide no long-term support. In what is a major contradiction, there is both the simultaneous decline of women in agricultural labour and the growth of a feminization of agriculture in some regions, where women now bear the burden of retaining families in agricultural production.

Key questions that remain unaddressed include: What should be the new imaginaries by which the rural can be sustained? What diverse types and patterns of agricultural practices would be relevant for both livelihoods and ecological stability? How can public institutions especially those that pertain to health, food provisioning, and education be made viable and functioning? What type of linkages must the rural have with the urban? And what kinds of administrative structures are required to enhance the overall governance of rural areas? These are only a few of the issues that largely remain unaddressed.

The desperate conditions of rural India are marked not only by problems of declining livelihood opportunities, but also by growing ecological devastation. Dried lakes and rivers, depleted soils and fields, polluted water bodies, decreasing biodiversity are only some issues that make eking a livelihood difficult.

Added to this are new aspirations among youth who seek lifestyles and dreams that the all-pervasive satellite media provides and among whom the rural is as redundant as it is for most politicians. Youth exodus and distance from agriculture have resulted in a peculiar contradiction: of excessive population in the rural areas and yet the shortages of labour for agriculture.

If any genuine change in the agrarian sector and rural worlds are to be initiated, then it must come in the form of recognizing the citizenship rights of all rural residents and in integrating their viewpoints and ideas, recognizing the ecological specificities of varied agricultural zones, localizing food production and distribution, and promoting collective production and marketing abilities among the most marginal cultivators.

Only a focus on enabling an equitable society and a sustainable resource base, in which food security and rights to culturally diverse forms of living are central pillars, can the viability of a vibrant rural economy and society be assured.

New imaginaries of the rural are required, which will not treat rural residents as supplicants, patients, refugees, vote banks, or dependants. Recognizing that rural residents are central to strengthening the democratic and economic fabric of the nation will prepare us to face the complexities of addressing the iniquitous agrarian structure, and trends in global warming, food security, and the search for sustainable livelihoods and lives.

A.R. Vasavi, a social anthropologist, is based in Karnataka.

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