Erosions of the rural and celebrations of the global
Between these two perspectives, the rural and the agricultural have been bereft of any real recognition of their specificities, conditions, needs and viabilities. These in turn are reasons for the reproduction of significant problems such as the iniquitous agrarian structures, extant forms of maldevelopment (explicit in widespread malnutrition and low indices of social development), serious environmental degradation, and even the large number of suicides by agriculturists.
The most glaring fact to indicate that the rural as a sector and agriculture as an economy continue to be neglected is evident in that national budgetary allocation for agriculture has been on the slide downwards. Since the fourth plan (1966-69) outlay of 31 percent for agriculture, there has been a steady decrease resulting in a mere 10.6 percent outlay in the tenth plan (2002-2007). Recent budgetary increments are a slight improvement over this neglect but continue to override the overt and covert concessions made to the corporate and private sectors. The impact of this financial neglect has been the decline of public infrastructure and institutional programmes, which in turn have adversely affected agricultural production and market terms. Subsequently, the brunt of such priorities has been the overall livelihood sustainability of a large proportion of rural citizens who have been subject to declining levels of income, exposure to multiple forms of risk, and to a deepening of their vulnerabilities to poverty.
The decelerating agricultural economy has produced in its wake a deep form of distress— that of agriculturists committing suicide. Initiated in 1997, with five highly commercial agricultural belts accounting for the majority of death, and continuing sporadically until now, government data itself indicates that nearly two hundred thousand agriculturists have resorted to suicides. Loss of crops, poor agricultural prices, heavy indebtedness, declining household resources, and a deep sense of loss of honour and meaning to be alive account for such acts of desperation. Adding to this symptom of deep distress are data and trends which indicate that large proportions of agriculturists, (as much as 40 percent in the government’s own sample survey) would either like to leave agriculture as a livelihood or would like their children to seek other livelihoods. The significance of this abandonment of agriculture is also manifest in recent data that indicates that urban India has added more to its population in the census of 2011 than that of rural India. In the burgeoning urban regions and the metropolises the migrant rural poor provide cheap labour, and for their toil and trouble are awarded with living conditions that would make Dickensian London look like paradise.
Rather belated responses to such ‘agrarian distress’ have seen the government deploy a range of programmes, more to placate the angry voter than to really address the systemic and structural problems that have led to such forms of distress. Moratorium on debts, ‘new deal’ packages that include improving infrastructure and civic amenities, and employment guarantee programmes are new forms of welfare governmentality. While the allocation of such largesse should be appreciated, the failure to institute and implement adequate structures and processes of accountability, transparency and grievance addressal and the overall poor administrative mechanisms and processes have meant that much of the funds do not filter down to the most deserving. Middle men, ‘political agents’, and a range of development intermediaries siphon significant proportions of such welfare inputs. The only measure to have provided some modicum of accountability is the new Right to Information Act which, promoted through a network of activists and concerned civil society actors, has provided succor to the most marginalised in some parts of the country.
Corporate sectors that first reacted to such largesse as another form of wastage of public funds have now capitalized on the flush of new funds into the rural areas and have sought to make inroads into rural markets. Subsequently, the rural has become both, a site for populist palliatives and a target for mass marketing of consumer goods. This largely accounts for the visible paradox in large swathes of rural India; even as agriculture is largely moribund and beset with a range of problems, the towns exhibit the spread of commercialism, with an array of goods and services now available there and presenting a mirage of growth and development.
The inability of agriculturists to mobilize politically and on an all-India level has meant that policies and programmes now largely bypass democratic processes. Ignoring the inputs, agency, and requirements of rural citizens, new policies are either ‘vision’ documents formulated by well-paid consultants or populist programmes that cater to the needs of the wealthy and influential farm lobby. Another source of new policy directives are conducted under closed-door conditions, and include international collaborations such as the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative, which seek to promote high productivity, marketisation, and global competitiveness of Indian agriculture. New voices of expertocracy, such as those by science-administrators and techno-engineers, overlook the local knowledge bases, biodiversity and regional variation of India’s agriculture and seek to alter agriculture through new and high technology including the promotion of BT seeds and GM crops.
Yet, the significance of the global on rural and agrarian India cannot be understood only in terms of the flow of global capital into the nation and its hinterland. That capital expands into all hinterlands and is also abetted by Indian capitalists is evident in the fact that in the new enthusiasm of the nation’s globalizing economy, successful agri-business farmers have lobbied to gain entry into Africa’s agricultural belts, proclaiming their abilities to turn arid fields into green havens of high production. Even as vast tracks of the nation’s once celebrated ‘Green Revolution’ belt are reeling with the negative fall- outs of inorganic agriculture, Indian ‘progressive’ and capital rich farmers are seeking to turn African lands into the new ‘Green Revolution’ belt.
What these trends indicate are the complex constitution of the agrarian social structure. Once landed and most significantly the dominant castes, are now emerging not only as rich commercial cultivators but also as agri-business entrepreneurs with strong investment networks in the rural and urban areas. The middle rank castes, especially the service and artisan caste groups, are largely displaced by the growing mechanization of agriculture and are now joining the armies of the low-caste ranked groups as they migrate in pools of ‘footloose labour’. The labouring poor then move not primarily from rural to urban sites but in pools that move seasonally and in circular forms from rural to rural regions or towards seasonal employment and residence in urban areas. In the high distress migration belts, largely bereft of working male population, women, the elderly and the young eke out lives of desperation. Only a few belts of the nation (such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala) are recording new mobilities and opportunities among the once poor. Sharp regional variations of ruralities are emerging and include the spectrum from the remote Adivasi/indigenous belts to those of the Punjab and Kerala which are integrated into the global circuits of capital and labour. The majority of agriculturists, despite vast regional variations, are marginal agriculturists who constitute 82 percent of all cultivators and whose average land holding size is only 1.3 hectares. Yet, it is this marginalised majority whose interests and needs are largely foregone in policy and politics.
The lack of global regulation and the free flow of international capital have meant that agricultural land is turning into the new magnet for investment, and speculative capital has rendered much of the nation into a real-estate grid. The most affected have been the remote hinterlands, where indigenous or Adivasi peoples were typically consigned, which are now seen as tracts of resource and mineral exploitation. The presence of dominant multinational players such as POSCO, Vedanta and the aluminum, iron-ore and other mineral cartels in these regions has only intensified the processes of dispossession of people and the destruction of fragile ecologies. Protests against such expropriation of land, often under draconian and poor market prices, have been met with the State deploying large para-military forces against resistors and protestors. That the State has resorted to a war against its own people even as ‘inclusive growth’ is made the slogan of the national economic drive speaks volumes of the contradictory trends. So rampant and intense have construction, resource exploitation and landscape alteration become that heavy machinery itself has gained new symbolic value. Mechanical diggers and fork-lifters ranging from Volvo, Larsen and Toubro, and Komatsu have become ubiquitous in rural areas and are now identified generically as ‘JCBs’ (from the omnipresence of lifters made by the JCB company) and have gained significance in being incorporated into the cultural motifs of local designs.
In its time of globalization, one key aspect of the overwhelmingly gloomy and despondent scenario of rural India continues to stand out: that of the resilience, ingenuity and commitment of the cultivators. That despite the political and economic structures that are largely stacked against them, the average cultivator continues to produce for the market is evident in the fact that produce of all varieties continue to flood the market and the storage of such volumes of produce remains a problem. And the tragedy is more in the conditions which do not permit the majority who produce for the nation to make a dignified living. That initiatives such as the Right to Food and the Right to Employment are now required to sustain rural citizens in conditions of minimal existence speaks volumes about the distortions and depredations that have set in.
It is these combined trends and conditions that account for the several contradictions of rural India; amidst a large and burgeoning population dependent on agriculture are narratives of labour shortage; even as some belts march to the beat of increased productivity there is lack of grain storage facilities for the new high productivity of select crops; despite indices of new agricultural growth (post 2004) there is widespread hunger and malnutrition; and even as land shortage becomes an issue there is increasing abandonment of agriculture. Herein lies the predicament of rural India - predominantly agricultural by population and occupation - but in a condition where agriculture and agriculturists have been rendered marginal and despondent in the new economic and social imaginaries of the nation.
Text: A.R. Vasavi
A.R.Vasavi, a social anthropologist, is a member of the Punarchit (Re-think) Collective and is based in Bangalore, India. This essay is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Suicides and the Predicament of Rural India.