Occupational diversification and social structure
Indian society is primarily a rural society though urbanisation is growing. The majority of India’s people live in rural areas (67 per cent, according to the 2001 Census). They make their living from agriculture or related occupations. This means that agricultural land is the most important productive resource for a great many Indians. Land is also the most important form of property. But land is not just a ‘means of production’ nor just a ‘form of property’. Nor is agriculture just a form of livelihood. It is also a way of life. Many of our cultural practices and patterns can be traced to our agrarian backgrounds. You will recall from the earlier chapters how closely interrelated structural and cultural changes are. For example, most of the New Year festivals in different regions of India – such as Pongal in Tamil Nadu, Bihu in Assam, Baisakhi in Punjab and Ugadi in Karnataka to name just a few – actually celebrate the main harvest season and herald the beginning of a new agricultural season. Find out about other harvest festivals.
Green revolution and it’s social consequences
We saw that land reforms have had only a limited impact on rural society and the agrarian structure in most regions. In contrast the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s brought about significant changes in the areas where it took place. The Green Revolution, as you know, was a government programme of agricultural modernisation. It was largely funded by international agencies that was based on providing high-yielding variety(HYV) or hybrid seeds along with pesticides, fertilisers, and other inputs, to farmers. Green Revolution programmes were introduced only in areas that had assured irrigation, because sufficient water was necessary for the new seeds and methods of cultivation. It was also targeted mainly at the wheat and rice-growing areas. As a result, only certain regions such as the Punjab, western U.P., coastal Andhra Pradesh, and parts of Tamil Nadu, received the first wave of the Green Revolution package. The rapid social and economic transformations that were seen in these areas stimulated a spate of studies by social scientists, and vigorous debates about the impact of the Green Revolution.
Agricultural productivity increased sharply because of the new technology. India was able to become self-sufficient in foodgrain production for the first time in decades. The Green Revolution has been considered a major achievement of the government and of the scientists who contributed to the effort. However, there were certain negative social effects that were pointed out by sociologists who studied the Green Revolution areas, as well as adverse environmental impacts
In most of the Green Revolution areas, it was primarily the medium and large farmers who were able to benefit from the new technology. This was because inputs were expensive, and small and marginal farmers could not afford to spend as much as large farmers to purchase these inputs. When agriculturists produce primarily for themselves and are unable to produce for the market, it is known as ‘subsistence agriculture’ and they are usually termed ‘peasants’. Agriculturists or farmers are those who are able to produce surplus, over and above the needs of the family, and so are linked to the market. It was the farmers who were able to produce a surplus for the market who were able to reap the most benefits from the Green Revolution and from the commercialisation of agriculture that followed
Thus, in the first phase of the Green Revolution, in the 1960s and 1970s, the introduction of new technology seemed to be increasing inequalities in rural society. Green Revolution crops were highly profitable, mainly because they yielded more produce. Well-to-do farmers who had access to land, capital, technology, and know-how, and those who could invest in the new seeds and fertilisers, could increase their production and earn more money. However, in many cases it led to the displacement of tenant-cultivators. For landowners began to take back land from their tenants and cultivate it directly because cultivation was becoming more profitable. This made the rich farmers better off, and worsened the condition of the landless and marginal holders.
Globalization, liberalization and society
The policy of liberalisation that India has been following since the late 1980s have had a very significant impact on agriculture and rural society. The policy entails participation in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which aims to bring about a more free international trading system and requires the opening up of Indian markets to imports. After decades of state support and protected markets, Indian farmers have been exposed to competition from the global market. For instance, we have all seen imported fruits and other food items on the shelves of our local stores – items that were not available a few years ago because of import barriers. Recently, India has also decided to import wheat, a controversial decision that reverses the earlier policy of self-reliance in foodgrains. And bring back bitter memories of dependencey on American foodgrains in the early years after Independence.
These are indicators of the process of globalisation of agriculture, or the incorporation of agriculture into the larger global market – a process that has had direct effects on farmers and rural society. For instance, in some regions such as Punjab and Karnataka, farmers enter into contracts with multinational companies (such as PepsiCo) to grow certain crops (such
as tomatoes and potatoes), which the companies then buy from them for processing or export. In such ‘contract farming’ systems, the company identifies the crop to be grown, provides the seeds and other inputs, as well as the knowhow and often also the working capital. In return, the farmer is assured of a market because the company guarantees that it will purchase the produce at a predetermined fixed price. Contract farming is very common now in the production of specialised items such as cut flowers, fruits such as grapes, figs and pomegranates, cotton, and oilseeds. While contract farming appears to provide financial security to farmers, it can also lead to greater insecurity as farmers become dependent on these companies for their livelihoods. Contract farming of export-oriented products such as flowers and gherkins also means that agricultural land is diverted away from food grain production. Contract farming has sociological significance in that it disengages many people from the production process and makes their own indigenous knowledge of agriculture irrelevant. In addition, contract farming caters primarily to the production of elite items, and because it usually requires high doses of fertilisers and pesticides, it is often not ecologically sustainable
Another, and more widespread aspect of the globalisation of agriculture is the entry of multinationals into this sector as sellers of agricultural inputs such as seeds, pesticides, and fertilisers. Over the last decade or so, the government has scaled down its agricultural development programmes, and ‘agricultural extension’ agents have been replaced in the villages by agents of seed, fertiliser, and pesticide companies. These agents are often the sole source of information for farmers about new seeds or cultivation practices, and of course they have an interest in selling their products. This has led to the increased dependence of farmers on expensive fertilisers and pesticides, which has reduced their profits, put many farmers into debt, and also created an ecological crisis in rural areas.
While farmers in India for centuries have periodically faced distress due to drought, crop failures, or debt, the phenomenon of farmers’ suicides appears to be new. Sociologists have attempted to explain this phenomenon by looking at the structural and social changes that have been occurring in agriculture and agrarian society. Such suicides have become ‘matrix events’, that is, a range of factors coalesce together to form an event. Many of the farmers who have committed suicides were marginal farmers who were attempting to increase their productivity, primarily by practising green revolution methods. However, undertaking such production meant facing several risks: the cost of production has increased tremendously due to a decrease in agricultural subsidies, the markets are not stable, and many farmers borrow heavily in order to invest in expensive inputs and improve their production. The loss of either the crop (due to spread of disease or pests, excessive rainfall, or drought), and in some cases the lack of an adequate support or market price, means that farmers are unable to bear the debt burden or sustain their families. Such distress is compounded by the changing culture in rural areas in which increased incomes are required for marriages, dowries, and to sustain new activities and expenses such as education and medical care.
The pattern of farmers’ suicides point to the significant crises that the rural areas are experiencing. Agriculture for many is becoming untenable, and state support for agriculture has declined substantially. In addition, agricultural issues are no longer key public issues, and lack of mobilisation means that agriculturists are unable to form powerful pressure groups that can influence policy making in their favour.