Indian agriculture too is trapped in the capitalist process which favours large-scale farming for viability and survival
Agricultural economics is not a matter of production and technology alone. Those who focus on the economic behaviour of a single farm in isolation miss the larger picture of the web of production relations prevailing in society and the economy at large, which determine not only the behaviour but also the well-being of those engaged in cultivation.
While the works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels contain the seeds of understanding the production relations in agriculture, it was left to V.I. Lenin to develop a framework for thorough analysis, particularly in the context of Russian agriculture. His classic work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, first published in 1899, is a pioneering effort from the viewpoint not merely of new insights but also of methodology and the type of statistical matrix he employed.
As Utsa Patnaik, editor of the volume under review, observes in her introduction, Lenin showed how relying on the averages masked the reality of a highly differentiated peasantry and pioneered a method that later evolved into ‘Lorenz curves' and ‘Gini ratios' to assess and measure inequality. Neither the historians of economic and statistical methodology nor the agricultural economists can afford to ignore this important work. Utsa Patnaik is an eminent Marxist scholar who has made valuable contributions to the understanding of the Indian agrarian situation. She has done well putting together Lenin's writings on the agrarian question drawn from his monumental work mentioned above and from other sources as well. In addition, the book has eminently appropriate articles by Rosa Luxemburg and Mao Zedong.
Lenin's primary objective was to make a balanced assessment of the position taken by populists, known as ‘Narodniks'. While doing so, he showed how capitalism was overtaking Russian agriculture. He was appreciative of Narodniks to the extent that they believed in demolishing feudal landlordism and establishing, in its place, peasant proprietorships in agriculture. Where they went wrong, as Lenin showed, was in taking peasants to be a homogeneous class and in believing that small-scale farming would be viable and thrive.
On the other hand, a quick transition was taking place from feudalism to capitalism in two forms: capitalist landlords and peasant proprietorships. Peasants themselves were categorised as rich, middle-level, and poor. There were also the landless labour in the agricultural sector. The differentiation persisted because neither the middle-level nor the poor peasants had viable holdings. While the intermediate group tended to migrate for this reason, the poor peasants tended to either sell or lease out their lands and joined the ranks of landless labour. The advent of machines hastened this process, favouring large-scale farming. And this in turn enlarged the home market for farm output as well as inputs, which was necessary for capitalism to thrive.
This analysis of Lenin has direct relevance to an understanding of Indian agriculture, a point Utsa Patnaik's introduction somehow does not bring out, although she must certainly be aware of it, as evidenced by her earlier writings. The point is that Indian agriculture too is trapped in the capitalist process which favours large-scale farming for viability and survival. On the other hand, due to severe constraints, a big chunk of the farmers are stuck with an occupation that is becoming less and less viable. Moreover, the growing vulnerability to risk and the uncertainty on several fronts (for instance, production, price, and credit) that have come to dog agriculture drive numerous farmers to end their lives.
Viability is not just a question of recovering cost but is also of the farmer being able to maintain a decent living standard, invest, and overcome risk and uncertainties. There seems to be no easy way out within the present organisational framework.
The job market in non-agricultural sectors is not expanding fast enough to absorb those are forced to give up farming because of non-viability; nor are these people able to migrate to foreign countries — an opportunity that was available to European peasants in the 17th to 19th centuries. During that period, European industry could expand fast and absorb peasants rendered surplus, because it had in the colonies a rich source of raw material at low cost as well as a captive commodity market — a point which Rosa Luxemburg makes.
Indian agriculture is not in such an enviable position. Clearly certain bold organisational innovations are called for, such as the one mooted by the Karnataka government recently. In the Karnataka model, a group of farmers in a contiguous area form a corporate body, with their land holdings as share capital, and manage the operations deriving the benefits that flow from such a large-scale exercise like setting up agro-processing units and warehousing facilities. Maybe, it is too early to say if this will provide a solution, but surely it is worth a try.