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Mainstream, VOL LV No 31 New Delhi July 22, 2017

Essays Honouring Prabhat Patnaik

Dissecting Contributions on Education, Industrial Workers, Agriculture

Saturday 22 July 2017



by Subhendu Dasgupta

Economic Challenges for the Contemporary World : Essays in Honour of Prabhat Patnaik edited by Mausumi Das, Sabyasachi Kar, Nandan Nawn; Sage, New Delhi; 2016.

This book is a collection of essays, contributed by the Ph.D students of Prabhat Patnaik, Professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, as a tribute to their teacher. ‘Prabhat Patnaik,’ write the editors of this volume, ‘has enthralled successive generations of the his exceptional ability to motivate, to inspire and to encourage students to constantly challenge the conventional wisdom and seek new answers.’ The students, now established scholars them-selves, have paid tributes to their teacher by contributing articles ‘ranging from political economy to modern monetary economics, from international economics to growth theory and from agriculture and industry to finance and environment’. The essays have utilised ‘diverse methodologies’, as commented by Kaushik Basu in his Foreword. Thus, even though the articles cover very important themes in Indian eco-nomics, the humble submission is that it will not be doing justice to these if one covers this wide range with diverse methodologies in a single article for a weekly journal.

Thus four of these essays have been taken up for comments. The basis of selection are the areas of interest of the reviewer. These essays deal with education, industrial workers as well as two on agriculture.

Sudhansu Bhushan’s article ‘Education, Equity and Development’ is an important contribution to this collection. The author explains the interconnectivity between education on the one side and nation-building, modernisation, development, productivity and equity on the other. And the role of the state in this sphere of interconnectivity. Going through the article the reader will find the use of the terms nation, nation-building, modernisation, development, equity and these terms are presented in such a way that one may arrive at the conclusion that these terms are bracketed into a single category of meaning. But actually they are not. For example, the author writes that ‘Education is crucial to nation-building and modernisation’. One may argue that ‘nation-building’ and ‘modernisation’ do not belong to a similar category.On the contrary they may be contra-dictory concepts. ‘Nation-building’ is primarily a political concept and ‘modernisation’ is primarily an economic concept. Again he writes: ‘In economic terms, higher level of education is associated with higher productivity and growth of a nation.’ The two terms ‘productivity’ and ‘nation’ are two unassociated concepts. Actually this is one of the reasons of the improper understanding of the objectives of education and the role of the government in fulfilling these objectives. This is true in cases of the education policies of all governments, governments of the Left, Centre and Right political parties.

A statement made in the paper also reflects the misconception regarding the role and placement of education in society at large. According to the author, greater educational investment for that section of students, who are ‘at a high risk’ on account of various other factors, will mean reduced crime. This is a common perception of the upper class of the society and the state administration that those who are uneducated are criminals. As if there is a correlation between less education and criminality.

The author has tried to both link and delink the two concepts—educational inequality and income inequality. This is true. Because in between educational (in)equality and income (in)equality there exists ‘politics’. The politics of the state. The state, according to its nature of politics, connects or disconnects the two. The author has understood the position of the state in this respect. He writes that human capital formation does not guarantee that it would result in growth with equity. To me, the important point in this regard is not the role of the state but the politics of the state. State is not a politics-neutral entity. Thus the ‘public expenditure on education’ has to be judged on the basis of questions such as education for whom, what kind of education, etc.

After bringing in ‘politics’ in the discussion, the author still remains unclear about the role of education or the relation between education and politics even at the time of writing the conclusion of the paper. He concludes: ‘Political agenda should be oriented towards breaking the hierarchy, guiding the development process towards the labour-intensive sectors and redefining education curriculum and peda-gogy of the oppressed.’ Again, creating ‘labour-intensive sectors’, an economic programme, and ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’, a political concept, are placed in the same bracket.

Shuji Uchikawa’s article ‘Employment, Growth and Informalisation of Workers in the Organised Manufacturing Sectors’ has highlighted one of the important problems of the present-day economy of India, that is, jobless growth. Uchikawa has presented a few results from the traditional areas of industrial production and labour. The author has stated that there has been stable and rapid growth in industrial production but at the same time employment did not increase. Thus the organised manu-facturing sector did not play an important role towards the creation of employment opportu-nities in India. The result was jobless growth. The author has mentioned several views on this issue. One, the growth of employment has been affected by the job security legislation. Two, as a reaction to the rising labour cost there was stopping of new hiring and retrenchment of existing workers for short run adjustment. Three, the proportion of unionised workers in the organised manufacturing sector has declined. Four, the composition of output has been changed in favour of less labour intensive industries and the adoption of capital intensive technology. Five, there has been an extension of working hours in a day and increase in man-days. If one separates the actions taken by the capitalists as reactions to steps by the govern-ment in favour of labour, one may arrive at the conclusion that in order to keep employment generation as it is or to increase the number of labourers the government should not take any pro-labour rules and regulations. So what is the solution? Will the government not take any step in favour of labour? Will the trade unions not fight for the interests of labour? If both these sections do not do so will the owners of factories, the capitalists themselves, solve the problem of jobless growth by increasing the number of labourers? Who will give the guarantee that they will do so? The Ministry of Labour? The Prime Minister’s Office? We, the common people, do not know. There is no clue in Uchikawa’s article.

In the last few lines of the article, ‘Agricultural Investment in India in Recent Decades: A Political Economic Note of Its Causes and Consequences’, the author, Debarshi Das, has raised valuable points regarding the issue of land acquisition by the government for its own purpose or for the owners of capital, and opposition to it by the peasantry. According to the author, agriculture may have been rendered unprofitable but that is not sufficient reason for the capitalists to take over the peasant’s land, uncontested. It is important in this context to deal with the term ‘unpro-fitable’. The profitability of land is measured only in terms of money value of the crops produced from the land.

The flaw in the argument is that the land of a peasant generates crops for his family, for the use of cattle reared by him, a plot for his residence, a ground from where the peasant collects materials for fuel, for the construction and repairing of house, the materials for making and repairing the household goods, the raw material for artisan products. A plot of land provides the space for his social and cultural existence. All these elements cannot be translated into money value to calculate the price of a plot of land, which is in essence ‘priceless’. A plot of land to a peasant is basically the sign of her/his existence, however hard the existence is. From this point one should understand the resistance of the peasantry or the rural community against land acquisition.

The author is quite right in what he has observed in the concluding line: ‘It is more important to understand these resistances than to get imprisoned in questionable formulations.’ The formulations of the capitalists and of the government are truly ‘questionable’. And thus, though the author has said that ‘the old slogan of the land to the tiller can become increasingly ineffective’, it has become increasingly effective from the point of view of the present context. Presently there are growing incidences of large scale land acquisition and thus uprooting of peasant communities from their ‘place of existence’.

In the context of the remark of the author on the ineffectiveness of the slogan ‘land to the tiller’, it has to be pointed out that ‘land to the tiller’ is not a single unit slogan. It is connected with several other measures, specially govern-mental measures, packaged into the ‘Land Reform Programme’. It has been understood that sheer distribution of land cannot be effective in the long run. It has to be supported by other measures, for example, co-operatisation of agricultural services. The importance of the land reform programme has been undermined both by the government and by the political parties, including the Left parties which were supposed to hold aloft the cause of the peasantry. This issue is becoming even more significant from the context of ineffectiveness of the migration from the agrarian sector to the industrial sector, including the informal sector. The author of this essay has accepted this point by mentioning that the ‘the poor working conditions in the informal sector do not encourage permanent migration’. Even after demonetisation there have been evidences of reverse migration. And thus this reflects the importance of land to the rural community.

Praveen Jha in his article ‘Political Economy of Contemporary Indian Agricultural and Rural Dynamics’ has raised the issue of the application of neoliberal economics in Indian agriculture. The author has mentioned that private players, including multinational corporations, have been allowed to have a significant say on the course of events. Actually the existence of a few ingredients of neoliberal economics in Indian agriculture has led the author to conclude the dominance of the capitalist form of agricultural production in India.

One could contest this hypothesis by raising a few questions. The dominance of ‘capital-less’ peasantry in production, the series of unending suicides of cultivators, the failure of the market, the continuous agitation of the peasants on the demand for ‘right’ price, the ‘non-capitalist’ form of demand for loan waivers—all these signify the failure of neoliberal economics in Indian agriculture. And at the same time raises questions about the viability of the project of the gradual withdrawal of the government from and the penetration of capitalism in the agricultural sector of India. The previous debates on the character of Indian agriculture had also faced the problems of making ‘pure’ categorisations.

The reviewer is a former Faculty, Department of South and South-East Asian Studies, University of Calcutta. He can be contacted at subhendu.dg[at]

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