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Rethinking Agricultural Revolutions

Benjamin Siegel ( teaches at the Department of History, Boston University, Boston.

Rethinking Revolutions: Soyabean, Choupals, and the Changing Countryside in Central India by Richa Kumar, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016; pp xiii + 398; ₹875.

In 1970, agricultural economist Martin Abel laid out in his article titled “Agriculture in India in the 1970s” a predictive account of what Indian agriculture might become in the next decade, offering a set of contingent possibilities in the context of the new agricultural strategy (Abel 1970). Abel was among the most sensitive foreign students of Indian agriculture. A veteran of the United States Department of Agriculture, he had helped launch that country’s federal food stamp programme before being deputed to New Delhi at the request of the embassy, and charged with assessing India’s prospects for agricultural growth.

A Palace Revolt?

Arriving in 1965 and joining the Ford Foundation in 1968, Abel was an eyewitness to the most consequential half-decade in India’s agricultural history. The Ford Foundation’s Intensive Agricultural Development Project, despite results no more promising than what India’s most productive farmers could already eke out, had been extended for a second trial. Agricultural scientist G V Chalam had brought 2 kg of improved rice to India from the Philippines in his suitcase, and C Subramaniam had imported Mexican wheat stock to plant on his personal cricket pitch. Before long, the extension of the “package programme” of improved seeds, chemical fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation, and credit was yielding bumper crops in regions like Ludhiana, Thanjavur and West Godavari.

Yet, Abel’s analysis dashed cold water on more breathless reports of agrarian change. The dream of self-sufficiency in foodgrains, he concluded, was further off than starry-eyed planners could imagine, ignoring the fact that grains alone did not comprise a proper food basket. Seed technology was not yet fully adapted to Indian conditions, and water resources remained woefully underdeveloped. Most alarmingly, wages and incomes were diverging rapidly in the areas of the greatest advances in productivity, and the institutional bias against small farmers and tenants was keeping most agriculturalists from the new strategy’s benefits. Was the green revolution revolutionary, Abel asked, “or merely a small ‘palace revolt?’”

Abel’s jeremiad joined a swell of critical accounts that looked askance at revolutionary paradigms. On these pages, Wolf Ladejinsky, T K Oommen, B Sen, Daniel Thorner and others eviscerated the bullish reports coming from the Planning Commission and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (Ladejinsky 1969; Oommen 1971; Sen 1970; Thorner 1967). In the SPAmerican Economic Review, Harry Cleaver (1972) broke down putative gains by class and caste, revealing a revolution riven by contradiction. Francine Frankel’s (1971) early assessment pronounced the term “green revolution” to have “all the qualities of a good slogan. It is catchy; it simplifies a complex reality; and most important, it carries the conviction that fundamental problems are being solved.” Pointing to widening inequality and the contingent availability of inputs predicting success, she disavowed the notion that scientific advance could enjoy “the economic gains of modernisation while avoiding the social costs of mass upheaval and disorder usually associated with rapid change.”

These accounts should suggest that the green revolution’s revolutionary qualities have been heavily contested from the very beginning. Indeed, it was only a year after US Agency for International Development Director William Gaud coined the term that bureaucrats in the home ministry drafted their report on The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions, alarmed by the “widening gap between the relatively few affluent farmers and the large body of small landholders and landless agricultural labourers” (GoI 1969). Yet, in subsequent decades, a surprisingly small number of monographs have deepened our insight into the dynamics of major agrarian change. These include John H Perkins’ wheat-centred account, Akhil Gupta’s exploration of the conditions of agrarian postcoloniality, Ashutosh Varshney’s investigation of farmer’s politics and policymaking, and Nick Cullather’s view of the green revolution from Washington, SPDC (Perkins 1997; Gupta 1998; Varshney 1998; Cullather 2010).

Ethnographic Approach

The titular question of Richa Kumar’s Rethinking Revolutions: Soyabean, Choupals, and the Changing Countryside in Central India is thus not altogether novel. But, her skilled ethnographic study accomplishes much by shifting the conversation on agrarian change to the so-called “yellow revolution” of soyabean in central India. Kumar asks us to rethink the notion of revolution in two interlinked ways. By bringing the idioms of science and technology studies to bear on revolutionary accounts of agrarian change, she shatters vestigial and reductive notions of positive transformation that, if discredited by many historians and anthropologists, still hold sway over a preponderance of planners, politicians, economists, and managers.

Similarly, by highlighting the workings of the eChoupal internet agricultural marketing project of ITC’s International Bussiness Division as it played out in Malwa, Kumar identifies the counter-revolutionary qualities of technological intermediation in agriculture. Kumar’s ethnographic approach is a novel reworking of a fundamental question about green revolution transformation, and her interventions have important implications for the broader study of agrarian change in India.

Kumar’s account of the yellow revolution begins with the import of soyabean and soya material to India from the US in the mid-1960s. American agronomists sent from the University of Illinois, a major hub of soyabean research, attempted to grow yellow-seeded American varieties at the G B Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Uttar Pradesh and Jabalpur Agricultural University in Madhya Pradesh, oblivious to the black-seeded kali tuur being grown in the hill regions. The work was soon picked up by P S Bhatnagar, who took the reins of the All India Coordinated Research Project on Soyabean in 1969 before its ignoble shuttering two years later. Soyabean’s unmarketability as a food crop left unfulfilled planners’ dreams of ending the “protein gap.” Yet, millers succeeded where researchers had failed: the Shahara family of Indore began pushing soyabean as a commercial crop in the 1970s, milling edible oil and selling defatted cake as cattle feed. Soyabean production was given a further fillip at the end of the decade, as soyabean oil was pushed as a means of reducing India’s ₹1,000 crore edible oil import bill.

Genealogical Account

Kumar’s excellent genealogical account underscores soyabean’s particular role within broader accounts of agriculture in modern India: a crop whose productive cultivation would yield larger returns in national industrial development. The sway of soyabean on Indian planners is, however, of an older vintage than her historical review suggests. From exile in Mexico in the 1930s, the Ghadar revolutionary Pandurang Khankhoje broke briefly from his work on maize breeding to imagine the role of soyabean in India’s national development. The crop was of similar interest to researchers working under Robert McCarrison and Wallace Ackyroyd at the Nutrition Research Laboratories in Coonoor before it was deemed unsuitable for Indian diets. And, a decade before the first trials of yellow-seeded US cultivars, researchers at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore piloted soya alongside groundnut as one of the key ingredients in its failed multipurpose food development project. These abortive experiments, if trivial, underscore Kumar’s notion that the crop’s “revolutionary” qualities were subsidiary to the contingent assemblage of “social actors” underwriting the crop’s later adoption.

The notions of social actors and “socio-technical arrangements” are at the core of Kumar’s disciplinary approach, rooted in science and technology studies and the actor–network theory. “Diverse outcomes for farmers,” Kumar contends in an illustrative passage, “are the result of a contingent coming together of socio-technical arrangements, rather than the product of intentional actions of either the state or the market” (p 42). This phrase and approach may vex readers who approach this text from a historical or sociological vantage, and who presuppose contingency in their disciplinary accounts of change. But, Kumar’s contribution is a lucid and elegant application of the actor–network theory to a subject that has broadly escaped this approach. Drawing heavily upon the work of Bruno Latour and Timothy Mitchell, Kumar leverages 10 years’ ethnographic research in Ranipura and Dhar district to show, with great precision, that the actions of farmers, traders, bureaucrats, researchers, and “non-human actors”—seeds, fertilisers, and the soyabeans themselves—were assembled and imbricated into a contingent configuration that proponents could subsequently cast as revolutionary (Latour 1987; Mitchell 2002).

Granular Approach

Kumar’s granular approach, executed with care and nuance, joins a very small corpus of published work that applies the actor–network theory effectively to Indian contexts. A decade ago, Vinay Gidwani deployed a similar analysis in his situation of agrarian capitalism and labour politics in central Gujarat. More recently, Lisa Björkman and Nikhil Anand have produced excellent monographs on water and hydraulic infrastructures in Mumbai that draw partially upon similar heuristics (Gidwani 2008; Björkman 2015; Anand 2017). It is, thus, not Kumar’s destabilisation of revolutionary paradigms in agrarian change that comprises this book’s major contribution; this work has been undertaken by careful scholars and policymakers since the late 1960s.

At times, Kumar strikes at paper tigers. She overstates the degree to which other scholars have bought into narratives of revolution, and her unsettling of the idioms of “productivity” in agriculture ignores both the longer history of ideas of agricultural improvement and the concrete boons to livelihood that productivity, for better or worse, still represents.1 But, it is in showing, through the language of science and technology studies, exactly how non-revolutionary qualities are obscured as triumphant accounts are produced that this book offers its richest rewards.

The great analytical insight that Rethinking Revolutions can actualise is manifest most clearly in its last several chapters, which comprise a skilled refutation of the narratives of empowerment embedded in the process of technological disintermediation. Kumar examines new information technologies in agrarian markets, and narratives that have cast the removal of intermediaries and the prioritisation of companies and cooperatives as central to farmers’ empowerment. In doing so, she highlights an accelerated set of transformations in agriculture that have promised emancipatory returns, while in fact, precluding them. Kumar’s diagnostic shines in these closing accounts, and she wields her disciplinary toolkit with great acumen. The yellow revolution, her work here and in the broader text suggests, was even less than a “palace revolt,” delivering less and claiming more than proponents suggested. Through the skilful use of the optics of science and technology studies in disassembling the events in Malwa, Kumar offers a novel take on the broader dynamics of agrarian change and stagnation in modern India.


1 On this longer history, see Sinha (2008).


Abel, Martin E (1970): “Agriculture in India in the 1970s,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 5, No 13, 28 March, pp A5–A14.

Anand, Nikhil (2017): Hydraulic City: Water and the Infrastructures of Citizenship in Mumbai, Durham: Duke University Press.

Björkman, Lisa (2015): Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai, Durham: Duke University Press.

Cleaver, Harry M (1972): “The Contradictions of the Green Revolution,” American Economic Review, Vol 62, No 1/2, pp 177–86.

Cullather, Nick (2010): The Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.>

Frankel, Francine R (1971): India’s Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs, Princeton: Princeton University Press.>

Gidwani, Vinay K (2008): Capital, Interrupted: Agrarian Development and the Politics of Work in India, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

GoI (1969): “The Causes and Nature of Current Agrarian Tensions,” Research and Policy Division, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, New Delhi.

Gupta, Akhil (1998): Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India, Durham: Duke University Press.

Ladejinsky, Wolf (1969): “The Green Revolution in Punjab: A Field Trip,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 4, No 26, 28 June, pp A73–A82.

Latour, Bruno (1987): Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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Perkins, John H (1997): Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War, New York: Oxford University Press.

Sen, B (1970): “Opportunities in the Green Revolution,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 5, No 13, pp A33–A40.

Sinha, Subir (2008): “Lineages of the Developmentalist State: Transnationality and Village India, 1900–65,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol 50, No 1, pp 57–90.

Thorner, Daniel (1967): “Coastal Andhra: Towards an Affluent Society,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 2, No 3/5, 1 February, pp 241–52.

Varshney, Ashutosh (1998): Democracy, Development, and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Varshney, Ashutosh (1998): Democracy, Development, and the Countryside: Urban-Rural Struggles in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Updated On : 12th Sep, 2017


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