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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 44

Peasant in Present-day India

Monday 22 October 2007, by Girish Mishra


Looking around, we find a great deal of confusion in present-day India, especially in the Hindi press, as regards ’peasant’. Quite often it is used interchangeably with ’farmer’. Technically, these two are different concepts with connotations of their own.

While ’peasant’ has been in existence ever since agriculture began, ’farmer’ has come into being only with the advent of capitalism when profit became the main motive of agricultural work. Strictly speaking, a peasant is one who has the right to cultivate the piece of land he has in his possession. He works and grows crops on this plot with the help of his and his family’s labour. The main aim of production is to satisfy the needs of his and his family, to have sufficient cattle-feed and to provide seeds for the next sowing. Since he cannot produce all the requisite goods and services to meet all his needs, he has to sell a portion of his produce to get money in order to buy goods and services he needs so that his consumption is enriched Thus he indulges in simple commodity production and the formula for this is commodity-money-commodity. The function of money and market here is just to facilitate exchange. Normally, he does not produce anything that he does not consume. In India, a peasant, for ages, has been getting the services of barber, washer man, carpenter, blacksmith, potter, priest, etc. on the basis of jajmani, that is, giving a share in the produce fixed by tradition and custom.

From time immemorial, the peasant had been paying rent to the feudal lord or some other representative of the supreme ruler in the form of a fixed proportion of the produce. In India, it had been known as bhawali (produce rent). Before the introduction of new land systems by the British, cash rent was not prevalent at all. As a result of the prevalence of bhawali rent, the state was also made to bear risks arising from drought, excess rains, floods, earth quake, attacks by locusts, etc. In old records one finds that the ruler was under obligation to provide irrigation and other requisite facilities to peasants.

As the peasant’s activities remained confined to his village, his mental horizon was extremely limited. He was rarely aware of the happenings outside his locality. He used to go only to local markets, not very far from his village and, a few times, on pilgrimage. Most of his relatives were in or around his village. Obviously, his outlook and values of life remained narrow.

Agricultural activities remained dependent largely on nature. He was always troubled by worries such as: would rains come on time and adequate quantum? Would the rains be properly spread during the season so that sowing and ripening of crops could take place without any difficulty? The uncertainties associated with these questions made him superstitious and a staunch believer in astrology, religion, rituals, etc. It is needless to add that, in the olden days, there were neither meteorologists nor agronomists. He had to depend on the almanac and conventional wisdom. Most of the festivals were connected with various stages of crops. Gods and goddesses too had connections with agriculture. For example, the Hindus worshipped Indra for rains. Since the rate of growth of population was extremely slow and the average life span was very short, certain gods were especially worshipped for children and their long life. The struggle against nature was so difficult and prolonged that he did not have time to think of other things and be bold and brave.

Generally, peasants did not take much interest in the struggles to grab state power or the foreign invasions because they were busy eking out a living. The change of rulers did not affect them or their pattern of life in any significant way. One may recall what the maid servant Manthara told her mistress, the queen, in The Ramayana of Tulasidasa (translated into English by F.S. Growse): “Whoever is king, what do I lose? Shall I cease to be a servant and become a queen now?” Similarly, when the great battle of Mahabharata was fought for eighteen days, peasants remained unaffected nor did they take much interest in the progress of fighting. They went undisturbed with their chores. There is a story connected with Lord Buddha that illustrates this point more vividly.

It is said that, after achieving enlightenment, Buddha proceeded towards Varanasi, the most important cultural centre of the day to spread his message. Just before crossing the Ganges, at dawn, he found a peasant hurrying with his oxen and plough. Buddha hailed him and told him that the world was full of sorrows and sufferings and there was a way out of them and that way he had discovered and was eager to reveal to him. The peasant bowed to him and told him with great humility that he had no time to spare because his first priority was to plough and sow his plot before the moisture disappeared. In the evening he would come to him and listen to his sermon. Buddha crossed the Ganges and the Varuna and went to Sarnath where he got the only son of the richest trader of Varanasi as his disciple who was eager to listen to him.

During pre-capitalist days, land revenue was a major source of state’s income and it was this that went into financing military expeditions, construction of palaces and marvels like Taj Mahal and Qutab Minar. Peasants tolerated the increasing burden of taxation only up to a point and beyond that they either rebelled or fled to some other kingdom or forests. It must not be forgotten that, even after the establishment of the British rule and introduction of new agrarian systems, for a long time, land was not a commodity, that is, it could not be sold and purchased. In the course of time, the situation changed and Bhawali (produce rent) gave way to cash rent and this freed the state and its agents from bearing any portion of risks connected with agriculture. Peasants had to find requisite amount of cash to discharge their rent obligations and pay for other goods and services, which were no longer locally produced or available. They had to produce such crops that could not be wholly or partially consumed by them and had ready markets. They began growing poppy, indigo, cotton, etc. The quantum of demand and the prices for them came to depend on international market. Thus ups and downs there had far reaching impact on their life.

In Bengal and Bihar European planters secured zamindari rights and forced peasants to grow indigo on a fixed proportion of their land holdings. Consequently, during 1859-62, the rural areas of the then Bengal Presidency remained disturbed. In north Bihar, peasants remained agitated till 1920. Both poppy and indigo cultivation vanished because of the developments in the international market.

During the mid-19th century, as a result of the American Civil War, the supply of American cotton to British textile mills fell and the prices rose. The British millowners turned to the purchase of Indian cotton. Increasing demand as well as prices induced farmers here to divert more and more land to cotton. They increased their consumption spending and incurred debts to finance them, hoping that the future would be equally rosy. As ill luck would have it, both demand as well as prices for Indian cotton slumped when the American Civil war came to and end the supply of cotton from the USA was resumed. Consequently, a large number of cotton growers in the Deccan region of India failed to discharge their debt obligations and moneylenders began grabbing their land and other possessions. This led to widespread riots that came to be known as Deccan riots.

Again during the Great Depression, peasants could not pay up their rents because their produce failed to fetch sufficient cash. Their land was auctioned off to realize the arrears of rent. This led to widespread peasant agitations in Bihar and UP.

From the last decade of the 19th century onwards, it was found that traders, lawyers, doctors, teachers, bureaucrats, etc. who could generate savings began investing them in the purchase of land and tenures to derive regular incomes and, at the same time, advance their social standing. They engaged servants to manage their holdings and labourers to cultivate and grow crops mainly for the sale in the market. After Independence most of the tenure holders, exploiting the loopholes in land reform laws, transformed themselves into farmers. There were others who leased in land from small and marginal cultivators and began farming. Agri-business corporations induced farmers of al size to go in for genetically modified seeds, chemical fertilisers. Insecticides, pesticides, tractors, etc. and borrow from private lenders to finance them. When the crops failed or market was down, these farmers could not discharge their debt obligations and went under. Some of them committed suicide. This phenomenon is still on.

Rural India is fast undergoing such rapid changes that it is just a matter of time that peasant will become an endangered specie. The eminent historian, Eric Hobsbawm, has this to say in connection with “the dramatic decline and fall of peasantry, which had until the nineteenth century formed the great bulk of the human race as well as the foundation of its economy”:

The fall in the numbers working in agriculture is obvious in the developed world. Today, the figure is 4 per cent of the occupied population in OECD…and two per cent in the US; and it is evident elsewhere. In the mid-1960s there were five states in Europe with more than half the occupied population working in this area, eleven in the Americas, eighteen in Asia and, with three exceptions… all of Africa. The situation today is dramatically different… Even Pakistan has fallen below the 50 per cent mark, while Turkey has moved from a peasant population of three quarters to one third. Even the major fortress of peasant agriculture in south-east Asia has been breached in several places… By 2006 even China, with 85 per cent of its population peasants in 1950, was down to 50 per cent or so. In fact, with the exception of most sub-Saharan Africa, the only solid bastions of peasant society left—say, over 60 per cent of the occupied population in 2000—are in the former South Asian empires of Britain and France—India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the Indochinese countries. But, given the acceleration of industrialisation, for how long will this continue to be the case?

This poser needs to be taken seriously because the reduction of the proportion of peasantry in the occupied population is going to have tremendous impact India’s social, cultural, economic and political life. The traditional parameters and paradigm of economics and sociology are going to become less and less relevant. The entry of big capital, whether Indian or foreign, through contract farming and retail trade is going to hasten the process of making peasantry redundant.

The author, a well-known economist, used to teach Economics in Kirorimal College, University of Delhi before his retirement a few years ago.

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