Introduction: India’s rainfed agricultural dystopia1

Harriss-White, B. (2008) Introduction: India’s rainfed agricultural dystopia1. The European Journal of Development Research, 20 (4). pp. 549-561.

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The semi-arid tropics of India (SAT), home to about 40% of the country’s population (8% of the world’s), are distinguished by low and erratically distributed precipitation, heterogeneous soil catenas, a growing season of 2.5 to 6 months and a complex system of agricultural production adapted to conditions of high risk. At a very conservative estimate the SAT produces 37% of total agricultural output, covering a third of India’s irrigated agriculture, just under half India’s net cultivated area, and just under two-thirds of its cereals, oilseeds and other commercial crops (Rao, this volume). It is the SAT that is one of two epicentres of agrarian poverty in India, the other being the Ganges valley and its littoral – and that is the scene of its protracted agricultural crisis. And it is in the semi-arid tropics of India rather than the canal- and well-irrigated wheat/rice-bowl of the north-west, or the transformed rice production of the formerly landlorddominated north-east Ganges valley, that solutions should have been sought to two agrarian questions that are at the heart of agricultural development. The first classical agrarian question concerns the capitalist transformation of agriculture, its many trajectories and distributional consequences; the second concerns the economic roles agriculture must play to service the development of the rest of the economy, while the first transformation is taking place. The two are in obvious tension. The first is framed conceptually in terms of neo-Marxian political economy the second more in the problematique of development economics. For the first, private property rights over land must be established and enforced, while for the second agricultural land and its property relations must be yielded up and sequestered for non-agricultural activity and infrastructure. For the first, productive investment is necessary in agriculture and its linked sectors; while for the second, agriculture has historically had to be squeezed. For the first, family or un-free labour must be transformed into a wage labour force – either directly or indirectly through control by merchants and financiers of smallholding production.2 For the second, labour must be shed, but not at a rate which overwhelms the capacity of the urban-industrial economy to absorb it. States have been, are, and – even in a ‘market-led’ era – must be unavoidably implicated in this process. India’s agricultural sector has answered the call of the second agrarian question, performing the necessary role of providing food, basic agro-industrial raw materials and wage goods (such as cotton textiles), labour and financial resources for the development of the non-agricultural economy – while agrarian society provides a national market for its consumer goods. Although agriculture has more than doubled its foodgrains production, its share of GDP has fallen from being about 70% at Independence to about 25–20% now. Yet the agrarian questions remain as relevant now. This introductory essay will explain why, and set the contributions of this special issue on semi-arid tropical agriculture into context.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: Agricultural Production, Rainfed Agricultural,Transformation, Irrigated agriculture
Author Affiliation: Contemporary South Asian Studies Programme, Oxford University
Subjects: Atmosperic Science
Divisions: General
Depositing User: Mr T L Gautham
Date Deposited: 06 Dec 2016 07:38
Last Modified: 06 Dec 2016 07:38

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