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Rural Change in Times of 'Distress'

Surinder S Jodhka ( teaches at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


This brief prelude to the current issue of the Review of Rural Affairs attempts to provide context to the five papers being presented. Even when they differ in their subject, perspective, and arguments, they all provide glimpses into ground-level processes of change and thus together go beyond the dominant narrative of crisis in Indian agriculture. The crisis is indeed real, but approaching everything from the singular narrative of crisis tends to conceal the diverse realities of rural and agrarian life. Such an approach also tells us little about the multiple ways in which it is experienced by those living and working in Indian agriculture in diverse regions. To do this we need to empirically explore and critically understand the ground-level processes and emergent agrarian realities by asking questions that are specific to the given regional/social context.

For example, the recent protest by farmers across different states in India appear to be very similar to the farmers’ movements of the 1980s. However, the two sets of protests/movements will appear very different when we locate them in history, political economy, and social dynamics of rural life.

Spectacles of Agrarian Distress

On the eve of 1 June 2018, almost every news channel on Indian television screens showed in their prime-time coverage, images of farmers in different parts of the country throwing their perishable produce, vegetables, and milk on to the roads. The spectacle of milk flowing on the roads seemed particularly bizarre and shocking in a country where millions of children are malnourished and many go to bed hungry. Tomatoes and fresh green vegetables that often sell in urban markets at a price that most people find hard to buy, lay rotting on the roads. Organised across six major states of the country, the farmers’ agitations had decided to stop supplies of their produce to urban consumers. The protests were to go on for 10 days with a call for an all-India strike on the last day of the protests (10 June). Even though they appeared to be spontaneous and were being presented to be so by some of the spokespersons of the rally, they did have a rather loose organisational set-up, a confederation of farmers’ organisations and pressure groups numbering more than a hundred.

Given the nature of the images flashing on television screens, these protests would have not only made the urban middle-class consumer anxious about their supplies of milk and vegetable, but they also made for interesting visuals. These images kept flashing the whole evening, and several news channels invited experts and representatives of farmers to discuss the issues and challenges confronting Indian agriculture. Some well-known facts and arguments were repeated. Almost everyone reiterated that Indian agriculture was in a state of crisis: low growth, low returns, and that the farmers were finding it hard to make ends meet. They blamed their local and national governments. Some also pointed to the neo-liberal economic policies and unnecessary imports of agricultural products. The fact that in many other countries agriculture was highly subsidised by their governments and that agricultural goods could be imported at a cheaper price also meant low demand and depressed prices for the farm produce of Indian farmers.

However, by the next day, the distressed farmer had almost completely disappeared from the television screens with more “interesting” and “sensational” stories emerging from India’s dynamic political landscape. The urban consumer—who suffered a temporary price rise in some regions and towns—also forgot about the protests as they did not have an impact on their lives in any significant way.

This, indeed, was not the first time in the recent past that farmers had come out in such large numbers to let the urban middle classes and the rich know, besides the state functionaries, about their desperate economic situation. In fact,these protests were planned to also mark one year since the tragic killings of five farmers in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh on
6 June 2017, when farmers were similarly protesting about their inability to sell their farm produce in markets at a viable price and were fired at by the local police. Though different in its social class milieu and imagery, another protest by farmers had caught media attention. During the first week of March 2018, a large number of poor farmers of Maharashtra had gathered in Mumbai, its capital, to register their growing distress. Walking long distances, from different parts of thestate, some 35,000 farmers arrived in the city, quite peacefully carrying placards and red flags. Most of them had walked on foot from faraway rural areas, some as far as 180 kilometres, and represented the poorer and the most marginalised strata of the Indian cultivating classes.

Interestingly, despite the visible difference in their class context, the demands of left-led poorer farmers were not very different from those of the farmers coming to towns on their tractors and throwing away vegetables or milk. They too spoke about their growing indebtedness, which they attributed to persistent unviability of agriculture. They too asked for waivers of bank loans and electricity bills. Similarly, they also reminded the local government about the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission that suggested ways of making agriculture economically viable. This also reflected the fact that today even smaller farmers produce cash crops and buy many of their farm inputs—seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides—from the market. They too wanted the state to be proactively involved in the management of agrarian markets, subsidising farm inputs, and supporting prices of farm produce. Agrarian distress is widespread and real. It affects everyone engaged in agriculture, even though its experience differs across landowning strata, gender, and caste. The most obvious manifestation of this distress has indeed been that of growing numbers and the spatial spread of farmers committing suicide (Nagaraj et al 2014).

Old’ and ‘New’ Farmers’ Mobilisations

Perhaps the most distressing and significant aspect of this “crisis” story of Indian agriculture is its persistence and steady expansion in intensity as well as in geography, over the past decades. It may be worth our while to remember that the story of agrarian distress is not new. It was during the 1980s, before the neo-liberal reforms had formally taken off in India that the question of economic viability of agriculture had been widely articulated by farmers from several states of India. Organisations like Shetkari Sangathana in Maharashtra, Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) in the north and several other such outfits from other parts of the country had quite successfully organised themselves around the “price question.” They had all come together to demand secure prices for farm produce and cheaper prices for farm inputs.

The historical context of these movements was the success of green revolution technology, which had produced a much greater integration of agriculture with the market. The increased mechanisation, land productivity, and growing popularity of cash crops almost completely transformed the social and economic edifice of agriculture. Those who took to new technology began to sell in local mandis (markets) almost everything they produced on their farms, and needed to buy from the market almost every input, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, and machines and the fuels required to run them. It was during this period that the farming classes had framed and popularised the binary of rural and urban as two nations, “Bharat” and “India.” In this binary, Bharat represented the cultivating classes who were being marginalised in the national economy and its power dynamics, and India represented the urban elite and the middle classes. The latter ruled/dominated and flourished at the cost of the former (the cultivating farmers) who produced value through their hard work. The skewed relationship between the two resulted in their surplus being transferred to the elite through mechanisms of unequal “terms of trade” between agricultural and the urban markets.

Even though the reports of farmers committing suicide were rare, their growing indebtedness had become an issue, which is evidence of their persuasive formulation.

However, the contexts and the political economy of those years of farmers’ movements were rather different. The new technology and green revolution were still limited to some pockets or states of the country and it was mostly from these regions that farmers mobilised themselves. Hardly any of the tribal farmers of Maharashtra who walked barefoot to Mumbai in March 2018 would have been part of those movements. Even when these had been popular movements by the cultivating farmers, they were led by the rich farming classes, who had in the post-independence period consolidated
 their position in the regional political economy, thanks to the introduction of the democratic process and green revolution technology.

Thus, the farmers’ movements of the 1980s, in a sense, signalled the rise of a new social category of rural people who had prospered from the green revolution and were connected closely to the market economy and saw their fate being conditioned by the market, but also aspired to go beyond the village. The agrarian economy could not satisfy all their aspirations for social and cultural mobility. Some of them eventually began to move out of the village, from their local seats of power to legislative assemblies in the state capitals. They also diversified their economic activities. The surplus they generated from agriculture went into education, urban trade, and other non-agricultural activities (Upadhya 1988; Rutten 1995; Omvedt 1992). By the 1980s, the social profile of this class had begun to change. The following lines of K Balagopal (1987: 1545) provide a lucid account of this process of growing diversification:

a typical family of this class has a landholding in its native village, cultivated by hired labour, bataidar, tenant or farm servants and supervised by the father or one son; business of various descriptions in town managed by other sons; and perhaps a young and bright child who is a doctor or engineer or a professor. It is this class that is most vocal about injustice done to the village.

The Emergent Agrarian

By the turn of the century, these processes of change had unfolded in diverse ways and the landscapes of Indian agriculture and the social frames of the Indian village had undergone many changes, a lot of which has been reported by social scientists through the pages of Economic & Political Weekly over the past decades and more (for instance, see Djurfeldt et al 2008; Jodhka 2012, 2014; Sharma and Rodgers 2015; Tilche 2016; Himanshu et al 2016; Sbriccoli 2016).

Perhaps the most obvious and critical indicator of this shift over the past two decades or so is the significant decline in the weight of agriculture in the national economy. Its contribution to the national income has come down to around 15% from more than half during the early decades after independence. The urban and non-farm sector of the economy has not only seen a corresponding expansion but has also been growing at a much faster pace than the agrarian economy. Though the experience of change is very diverse across regions of the country, the share of non-farm sources of income and employment has been growing almost everywhere in rural India. Even those who own agricultural land and cultivate it themselves often also have other occupation, a process that has come to be known as pluri-activity. A much smaller proportion of rural households today depends exclusively on agriculture (Datta 2016). Incomes from non-farm sources exceed those from agriculture even for the rural economy
of India.

The number of marginal landowners who seasonally migrate out of the village for work, some to far-off places, has been steadily growing, particularly in the depressed regions (Datta 2016; Jodhka and Kumar 2017). In other words, even while some of the diversification of the rural economy is positively entrepreneurial, a lot of it is also born out of desperation of poverty and sometimes out of aspirations for mobility for the younger generations. Even the poor wish to send their children to schools, preferably to those that use the English language as the medium of instruction.

Thus, the agrarian economy is not an autonomous world, nor is its social landscape confined to the village. The Agrarian village economy is an integral part of the larger economic process, regionally, nationally, and globally. Their crises also needs to be seen and understood in these larger contexts. Educated young men from the landowning dominant castes in Gujarat, Maharashtra or Haryana asking for inclusion of their communities into the list of Other Backward Classes is also an aspect of this crisis. So is the seasonal male exodus from parts of rural India, leaving agricultural lands behind to be cared for by women and the old.

India’s rural and agrarian economy has also always been a differentiated universe. This differentiation has only grown with time. A populist narrative of crisis often ends up concealing questions of caste, gender, and class that are also very significant for lives and livelihoods of the rural people. And most importantly perhaps, a singular narrative of “crises” tends to also overlook the profound processes of social, economic and political changes taking place on ground, some of which are producing new political actors and transforming the grammar of relationship. These changes are taking place at different levels: within the village or the agrarian economy; in the relationships of village/agrarian economy with the wider world; and in the modes of these engagements across diverse actors located within the agrarian and urban economies of India.

The five papers presented in this issue of Review of Rural Affairs try to engage with some of these processes of change, which have grown—directly or indirectly—out of what we have come to understand and describe as the “crises” of agriculture.


Balagopal, K (1987): “An Ideology of the Provincial Propertied Class,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 21, Nos 36–37, pp 2177–78.

Datta, Amrita (2016): “Migration, Remittances and Changing Sources of Income in Rural Bihar (1999–2011),”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, No 31, pp 85–93.

Djurfeldt, Göran et al (2008): “Agrarian Change and Social Mobility in Tamil Nadu,”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol43, No 45, pp 50–61.

Himanshu, Bhavna Joshi and Peter Lanjouw (2016): “Non-farm Diversification, Inequality and Mobility in Palanpur,”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, Nos 26–27, pp 43–51.

Jodhka, S S (2012): “Agrarian Changes in the Times of (Neo-liberal Crises): Revisiting Attached Labour in Haryana Agriculture,”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 47, Nos 26–27, pp 5–13.

— (2014): “Emergent Ruralities: Revisiting VillageLife and Agrarian Change in Haryana,”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, Nos 26–27, pp 5–17.

Jodhka, S S and Adarsh Kumar (2017): “Non-farm Economy in Madhubani, Bihar: Social Dynamics and Exclusionary Rural Transformations,”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 52, Nos 25–26, pp 14–24.

Nagaraj, K et al (2014): “Farmers’ Suicides in India: Magnitudes, Trends, and Spatial Patterns, 1997–2012,”Review of Agrarian Studies, Vol 4, No 2, pp 53–83.

Omvedt, Gail (1992): “Capitalist Agriculture and Rural Classes in India”Class, State and Development in India, B Berberogly (ed), New Delhi: Sage Publications.

Rutten, M A F (1995):Farms and Factories: Social Profile of Large Farmers and Rural Industrialists in West India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Sbriccoli, Tommaso (2016): “Land, Labour and Power: A Malwa Village, 1954–2012,”Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, Nos 26–27, pp 8–16.

Sharma, A N and Gerry Rodgers (2015): “Structural Change in Bihar’s Rural Economy: Findings from a Longitudinal Study,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 50, No 52, pp 45–53.

Tilche, Alice (2016): “Migration, Bachelorhood and Discontent among the Patidars,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 51, Nos 26–27, pp 17–24.

Upadhya, Carol B (1988): “The Farmer–Capitalists of Coastal Andhra Pradesh,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 23, Nos 27, 28, pp 1376–82, 1433–42.

Updated On : 5th Jul, 2018


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