Agrarian Structures and their Transformations in India

After reading this article you will learn about:- 1. Introduction to Agrarian Structures 2. The Indian Context 3. Agrarian Changes during Colonial Rule 4. Agrarian Changes after Independence 5. Agrarian Changes and Agricultural Labour.


  1. Introduction to Agrarian Structures
  2. The Indian Context
  3. Agrarian Changes during Colonial Rule
  4. Agrarian Changes after Independence
  5. Agrarian Changes and Agricultural Labour.

1. Introduction to Agrarian Structures:

All economic activity is carried out in a framework of social relationships. Production is organized socially, markets function as social institutions, and consumption patterns are shaped by social norms and cultural values. Agriculture is no exception.

The institutional framework of agricultural production determines how and by whom land is cultivated, what kinds of crops can be produced and for what purpose, how food and agricultural incomes can be distributed, and in what way or on what terms the agrarian sector is linked to rest of the economy/society.


However, agrarian structures and their transformations have not been the major concern of sociologists and social anthropologists. Western sociology, since the days of its classical traditions, has remained preoccupied with the study of social life in urban-industrial societies.

As Shanin rightly points out, in its most fundamental self-image, the western capitalist world defined itself as a ‘world without peasants’. The division of societies into ‘modern’ and ‘backward’ in the evolutionist schema of early social theory also meant that conceptually the agrarian populations, or the peasants, were reduced to an unspecified part of the mixed bag of ‘remainders of the past’.

In their search for ‘pure’ and ‘primitive’ cultures, early practitioners of social anthropology— the discipline that was supposed to study ‘pre-modern’ societies—invariably chose the pre- agrarian ‘tribal/folk communities’ for their field studies.

Even when they began to look at the ‘village’, they viewed it as a closed, unchanging community of ‘ascriptive groupings’ organized around a normative belief system that essentialized it into an ‘oppositional other’ of the western type of modern urban societies.


It was outside the mainstream western tradition of social sciences, in peripheral eastern and central Europe, that the ‘agrarian question’ became important on the political and intel­lectual agenda.

The famous debate between the populist thinkers led by the Russian economist Chayanov (1987) on the one side, and the Marxist class analyses of the Russian countryside by Lenin along with Kautsky’s work on the ‘agrarian question’ on the other, laid the foundation of what later came to be known as ‘agrarian studies’.

Though the ‘Russian debate’ during the early twentieth century made substantial contributions to the field, ‘agrarian studies’ could really take off only after the Second World War. The emergence of the ‘new states’ following decolonization during the post-War period played an important role in changing the research agenda of the social sciences.

The most characteristic feature of the newly emerged ‘Third World’ countries was the dependence of large propor­tions of their populations on a ‘stagnant’ agrarian sector. The struggle for freedom from colonial rule had also developed new aspirations among the ‘masses’ and the ‘elites’ of these societies.


In some of these struggles, the peasantry had played a crucial role. Thus the primary agenda for the new political regimes was the transformation of their ‘backward’ and stagnant economies. Though the strategies and priorities differed, ‘modernization’ and ‘development’ became common programmes in most Third World countries.

It was in this historical context that ‘development studies’ emerged as one of the most important areas of interest in the glo­bal academy.

Since a large majority of the populations in Third World societies were directly dependent on agriculture, understanding the prevailing structures of agrarian relations and working out ways and means of transforming them emerged as important priorities within ‘development studies’.

Western political interest in the rural inhabitants of the Third World and the growing influence of modernization and development theories also brought with them a good deal of funding for the study of peasant economies and societies.

It was at this time that the concept of ‘peasantry’ found currency in the discipline of social anthropology At a time when primitive tribes were either in the process of disappearing or had already disappeared, the ‘discovery’ of the peasantry provided a vast new field of investigation to the discipline of social anthropology.

As distinct from the isolated ‘primitive communities’ of tribal society, peasant communities were defined as ‘part societies with part cultures’. Redfield (1965) argued that peasant societies had similarities all over the world.

He particularly emphasized their attachment to land and the pursuit of agriculture as a way of life. Peasant societies, unlike tribal communities, also produced a surplus that was generally transferred to a dominant group of rulers in the city. Thus peasant society could not be seen as self-sufficient and isolated, for it was the surplus produced by peasants that partially supported the activities of rulers.

Corresponding to the idea of the peasantry having something generic about it, Shanin offered an ‘ideal type’ of peasant society with the following features. First, the peasant family was the basic unit of production and consumption in a multidimensional social organization.

Second, land husbandry was the major means of livelihood. Third, there was a distinct traditional culture linked to the way of life of peasant communities. Fourth, an elite living outside the community dominated the peasantry.

Whereas peasants were by definition pre-modern and hence were primarily seen as ‘subject matter’ for social anthropologists, or later for those in ‘development studies’, ‘rural sociology’ had come into existence in the United States much before peasant studies became popular.

The civil war in the late nineteenth century and the ensuing ‘farm crisis’ saw the emergence of farmers’ organizations demanding federal aid to solve the problems of rural areas afflicted by severe depression. Rural sociology, as an applied discipline, came into existence essentially in response to this crisis.

The main concern of ‘rural sociology’ came to be the understanding and diagnosing of the social and economic problems of farmers. More emphasis was placed on issues such as the internal structures of ‘community life’ and the changing composition of rural populations than on their relationships with land or the social aspects of agricultural production.

Theoretically, rural sociology remained caught up in bipolar notions of social change, where ‘rural’ often got defined as the opposite of ‘urban’. ‘Rurality’ was conceptualized as an autonomous sociological reality.

The identification of ‘rural sociology’ with ‘rural society’ has also raised questions about its relevanceinthe western context where no rural areas were left anymore and almost the entire population had become urbanized.

In response to these critiques of rural sociology, a new sub-discipline of sociology emerged that operated largely within the functionalist paradigm and was preoccupied with the study of the community life of rural people.

This sub-discipline, known as sociology of agriculture, focused its attention on understanding and analyzing the social framework of agricultural production and the structures of relations centred around land.

It raised questions about how and on what terms the agrarian sector was being integrated into the system of commodity production and about the unequal distribution of agricultural incomes and food among the different social categories of people.

The sociology of agriculture also distinguished itself from ‘peasant studies’ on the grounds that its focus was on capitalist farming, where the production was primarily for the market, not on peasants producing for their own consumption by using family labour.

Thus, it claimed more kinship with the tradition of the ‘political economy’ of agriculture or ‘agrarian studies’. At the methodological level, historical inquiries became as relevant as ethnographic/empirical studies. This conceptual shift during the early 1970s also helped in bringing sociologists working on agrarian issues in the western countries closer to those concerned with agrarian transformations in the Third World.

Though the focus is on the contemporary agrarian scene, I approach it from a historical perspective.

2. The Indian Context

The Indian agrarian context occupies special status, both in the social scientific literature on India and in the literature on agrarian societies in general. However, unlike studies on caste, kinship, village community, or, more recently, gender, study of agrarian relations did not occupy a central position in Indian sociology.

Though some sociologists, particularly those working on developmental issues, were writing on agrarian issues, it was with the publication of Andre Beteille’s Studies in Agrarian Social Structure in 1974 that ‘agrarian sociology’ gained professional respectability within the two disciplines.

‘Peasant studies’, in a way, arrived in India with ‘village studies’. The vastly influential collection of essays, Village India, edited by Marriot (1955) with its emphasis on ‘little communities’ and ‘great communities’ was brought out under the direct supervision of Robert Redfield.

It is therefore interesting to see Beteille’s critique of the assumption that the village in India could conceptually be equated to peasant communities in Europe.

Beteille pointed out that the Indian village was characterized by a baffling variety of land relations and a complex hierarchy of ownership rights over land. By defining ‘little communities’ not in relation to land but through other social institutions, such as kinship, religion, and the social organization of caste, there was a shift away from looking at the rural population in relation to agriculture and land.

Caste hierarchy came to be defined in terms of ritual or social interaction over institutions of commensality and marriage.

Nearly universal acceptance of functionalism among the social anthropologists of the 1950s made them overemphasize the need to understand what produced social order. Even when they found evidence to show that neither the village nor the caste system was an unchanging reality, it was not reflected in the overall picture of the village that they presented.

There was a perceived dualism in thinking on caste and class. Studies of land and agriculture came to be associated with the domain of economics while the sociologist/social anthropologist specialized in caste.

Much before village studies were initiated by professional anthropologists during the early 1950s, social life in the Indian village and its agrarian structures were extensively documented by colonial ethnographers, though, as with many other practices of colonial historiography, the accounts were written in a manner that justified colonial subjugation of India.

Along with the earlier writings of James Mill, Charles Metcalfe’s notion of the ‘Indian village community’ set the tone for much of the later writing on rural India.

Metcalfe, in a celebrated remark, stated that: the village communities are little Republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves, and almost independent of foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts.

Dynasty after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds revolution; Hindu, Pathan, Mughal, Mahratta, Sikh, English are masters in turn; but the village communities remain the same. This construction emphasized the fact that these communities were harmonious, relatively isolated, and, above all, unchanging, thus blocking from view the impoverishment caused by colonial policies.

Perhaps the most critical element of this construct was the assumption about the absence of private ownership of land; land was thought to be owned by the village community collectively. Since there had been no private rights over land, the British believed that there would have been no significant economic differentiation in the Indian village.

Later historical research in different regions of pre-colonial India has convincingly shown that this was at best a superficial understanding of the Indian village. Since land was in abundant supply, there was no sale or purchase of land in most parts of the Indian countryside. However, not everyone had equal rights of cultivation or claims over land produce: these were instead based upon custom or upon grants made by the king.

Irfan Habib, writing on the Mughal period, points out that these rights could even be purchased and sold. ‘The village did not hold its land in common. Common were its officials and servants’.

Historians have also gathered enough evidence to show that claims that the Indian village was internally undifferentiated, self-sufficient, and stable were incorrect. According to Irfan Habib, during the Mughal period of Indian history economic differentiation had progressed considerably among the peasantry.

There were large cultivators, using hired labour, and raising crops for the market, and there were small peasants, who could barely produce food grains for their own subsistence. Beyond this differentiation among the peasantry, there was still sharper division between the caste peasantry and the ‘menial’ population.

Dharma Kumar also argues that there was a sizeable population of those who primarily worked as agricultural labourers in pre-colonial south India and generally belonged to some specific caste group.

The village was linked to the central authority through the revenue bureaucracy. Land revenue worked as the dominant mode of surplus appropriation during ‘medieval’ times. Mughal authorities discriminated between the classes of landowners while fixing the revenue demands.

The larger landholders, such as zamindars, headmen or a favoured community, were required to pay less per unit. Pre-colonial agrarian relations were also not free of conflicts and tensions. Whenever the revenue demands became unbearable, the typical response of the peasantry was to flee en masse to other territories where conditions were more conducive to land cultivation.

There were also instances of the peasantry revolting against local rulers. Most of these revolts, however, were unorganized, inspired by some religious ideology or a millenarian dream. The notion of the ‘jajmani system’ was also popularized by the colonial ethnography It tended to conceptualize agrarian social structure in the framework of exchange relations.

In its classical construct, different caste groups specialized in specific occupations and exchanged their services through an elaborate system of division of labour. Though asymmetry in position of various caste groups was recognized, what it emphasized was not inequality in rights over land but the spirit of community For instance.

Wiser argued, ‘Each served the other. Each in turn was master. Each in turn was servant. This system of inter relatedness in service within Hindu community was called the Hindu Jajmani system’.

Central to such a construction of exchange is the idea of ‘reciprocity’ with the implicit or explicit assumption that it was a non-exploitative system where mutual gratification was supposed to be the outcome of the reciprocal exchange.

How far is this construct correct? Later research has questioned the assumption that jajmani relations were non-exploitative. On the contrary, it has been argued that the dominant landlords used the system of hereditary obligations and occupational duties to perpetuate and legitimize the local variety of pre-capitalist/feudalistic relations.

Moreover, what was projected as a pan-Indian reality that had been in practice since antiquity was only a local system confined to northern parts of India with a rather short history.

3. Agrarian Changes during Colonial Rule

Apart from theories on the Indian village produced by the colonial empire, British rule also had far-reaching material effects on the Indian countryside. It may however be relevant to stress that although British colonial rule had a significant impact on the village economy, the initial representation of the village as having been unchanging and static in earlier periods does not stand up to historical scrutiny.

After having established its political supremacy, the colonial regime initiated the task of reorganizing local society in a framework that would make governance easy and manageable. This process began with the introduction of new property rights in land. The first, and historically the most controversial, was the Permanent Settlement introduced in Bengal in 1793.

Under this the intermediary zamindars (the tax-collecting officials in the earlier regime) were granted ownership rights over lands from which they previously only had the rights to collect revenues.

Moore argues that apart from simplifying things, the colonial rulers saw in the local zamindars a counterpart of the ‘enterprising English landlord’, who, they believed, had the capacity to ‘establish prosperous cultivation’ if provided with secure and permanent ownership rights over land.

Others have argued that the Permanent Settlement also had politico-strategic implications, for in the landlord the British rulers saw a possible support base in local society.

At least during the initial years, for the peasantry the new system just meant an increase in revenue demands. The additional economic burden also weakened the ‘traditional’ structure of patron-client relations between the zamindars and the local tenants, leading to a disinte­gration of what Scott calls ‘the moral economy of the peasantry’.

Contrary to the expectations of the colonial rulers, Permanent Settlement accelerated and intensified the trend towards ‘parasitic landlordism’. By the middle of the nineteenth century the entire area under Permanent Settlement was in a state of crisis.

Learning from the Bengal experience, the colonial regime tried a new arrangement in the regions of Madras, Bombay, and Berar. This came to be known as the ryotwari system. Under this, the actual landholders (ryots) were given formal proprietary rights.

The ryot in theory was a tenant of the state, responsible for paying revenue directly to the state treasury, and could not be evicted as long as he paid his revenue. Stokes argues that the growing influence of Utilitarian philosophy in England during the time also produced distaste for landlordism and led to the introduction of new systems of revenue assessments.

Another variety of land settlement known as mahalwari or malguzari was introduced in the United Provinces, Punjab, and the Central Provinces. Under this, the village was identified as the unit of assessment. As such the mahalwari system was not very different from the ryotwari.

Effective ownership of the cultivated land was vested in the cultivator here as well, but the revenue was collectively paid by the village. A villager of ‘good social standing’ was generally given the responsibility of collecting the revenue from individual cultivators and paying the assessment on behalf of the village.

Despite differences in arrangement, the patterns of change experienced in land relations were more or less similar in most parts of the empire. Though the new settlements changed the formal structures of authority, the colonial policies also reinforced and revitalized older, ‘quasi-feudal’ structures which for the peasant meant ‘not less but in many cases more intensive and systematic exploitation’.

The new land revenue systems also forced the peasants to become increasingly involved with the market, even when they did not have the capacity to produce surplus.

Commercialization of Agriculture:

The expression ‘commercialization of agriculture’ is used to describe two related processes: first, a shift in the agrarian economy from production for consumption to production for the market; and second, a process where land starts acquiring the features of a commodity and begins to be sold and purchased in the market, like other commodities.

Though it grew both quantitatively as well as qualitatively during British rule, production for the market was not an entirely new phenomenon for Indian agriculture. As Habib points out, the big peasants during the Mughal period produced cash crops such as cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane.

However, these markets were generally local in nature and the demand for such things was limited. Establishment of colonial rule changed the entire scenario. The laying of the railways and the opening of the Suez canal made the Indian village a part of the global market.

The Industrial Revolution in England around the same time generated fresh demands for some specific agricultural products required as raw material in the new industries. The manifold increase in the land revenue at the same time compelled the peasantry to shift to crops that had better market value, which effectively meant switching over from food crops to cash crops.

According to one estimate, in Rayalseema region of southern India, the area devoted to food crops declined from 78.2 per cent in 1901-4, to 58.2 per centin1937-49, while at the other end it increased from 17.0 per cent to 30.1 per cent for cash crops during the same period.

Similarly, from the state of Punjab a large proportion of food and non-food crops began to be exported. While there was a rapid increase in the agricultural production of the region from 1921 onwards, the per capita output of food crops experienced a decline.

According to the estimates made by G. Blyn for the entire country, exportable commercial crops grew more than ten times faster at 1.31 per cent annually, compared to only 0 11 per cent increase per annum for foodgrains from 1894 to 1947.

He also estimated that per head availability of food grains declined by 25 per cent during the inter-War period. This decline was highest in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa at 38 per cent, while the relatively prosperous state of Punjab also saw a decline of 18 per cent.

One obvious consequence of this shift in cropping patterns and a growing involvement of the peasantry in the market was a significant increase in the vulnerability of local populations to famines.

Forced commercialization of agriculture disintegrated the traditional systems of food security India experienced a number of serious famines, particularly during the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century According to an estimate, 3.5 to 4 million people (one-tenth to one-eighth of the total population of the region) perished during the 1876-8 famine in parts of southern India.

Similarly Bengal was transformed from a prosperous region to a region with frequent famines. In one of its .worst famines during 1943-4, nearly 3.5 million people died.

Though the official reports and ‘inquiries’ by colonial rulers attributed these famines to scarcity of food due to crop failures, the per capita availability of food in Bengal in the year 1943 was not substantially different from the previous year and there were no widespread crop failuresin1942.

According to Sen (1976) it was not the scarcity of food but the changes in the exchange entitlements’ that caused the 1943 Bengal famine. The year 1942-3 saw unprecedented inflation, mainly resulting from War expenditure, and the absolute level of prices moved rapidly, upward.

But the prices of different commodities did not move in the same way while food prices went up, wage rates, particularly of rural unskilled labour, remained low

This was reinforced in certain regions of Bengal by a direct decline in employment arising from loss of agricultural activity due to cyclonic destruction, making the exchange entitlements worse for certain groups. While some classes benefited from the incomes newly created by the war economy, others faced higher prices of food without a corresponding rise in their monetary incomes and therefore starved.

Greenough adds that there were also some cultural patterns specific to Bengal which explains the selective starvation and death during the famines. There was cultural acceptance in Bengali society of ‘abandoning’ those dependents who were deemed inessential for the reconstitution of family and society in the post-crisis period and of protecting those whose survival was held essential for the future.

Commodification of Land:

While the new land settlements conferred formal and transferable/alienable rights over land, the growing revenue demands and the increasing market orientation of agricultural production created conditions under which land began to acquire the features of a commodity.

The new administrative and judicial system also introduced laws against defaults of legal dues that included default of rent, revenue, and debts. The moneylender, who until then lent keeping a peasant’s crops in mind, began to see his land as a mortgage able asset against which he could lend money. Further, an increase in population during the nineteenth century made good-quality cultivable land scarce.

Apart from an absolute increase in population, colonial rule also led to what has been called the ‘de-industrialization’ of the Indian economy Displacement of the native rulers after the conquest of India by the East India Company resulted in a sudden and almost complete collapse of old urban handicrafts in the absence of patronage.

The influx of cheap machine- made goods from England after the Industrial Revolution hastened this process. Economic ruination of urban and village artisans increased the pressure on land considerably. The net result was an ever-growing burden of debt for a majority of peasants.

Indebtedness as such was not an entirely new thing for the Indian peasant. Moneylenders as a distinct social category had always been a part of village social life. In most regions, they existed as a separate caste group. Whenever the peasant’s stocks finished, he could go to the sahukar (moneylender) for a loan of grain.

The local sahukar was also the customary source for peasants who generally needed an occasional loan. He was more of a functional category, a ‘crude balance wheel to even out periods of scarcity and prosperity’. He evaluated the creditworthiness of a particular peasant on the basis of his ability to pay back, and decided on how much could be advanced to a particular peasant.

The prevailing system of credit was perhaps close to what Weber conceptualized as ‘neighborhood help’.

As land became both scarce and transferable, and the economic environment began to change, the moneylender started advancing much more than before, provided the peasant was willing to offer his land as guarantee against a possible default.

At this stage rich landowners also entered the credit market, more with the intention of usurping the lands of smaller peasants than to earn interest. Thus began the process of ‘land alienation’.

Land alienation was a pan-Indian development irrespective of the system of revenue settlement: zamindari, ryotwari, or mahalwari (Dhanagare 1983). This impoverished the small and, often also, the middle peasant, and strengthened the position of big landowners and moneylenders in rural society.

The professional moneylender generally did not evict the peasant from his land. If the peasant could not pay back his loan, the moneylender asked for the transfer of ownership rights over land while the peasant continued cultivating land, but as a tenant of the moneylender. Where moneylenders were also landlords, the indebted peasant could end up being a landless labourer.

Thus tenancy as well as landlessness grew significantly in most parts of the British Empire. According to one estimate, out of the total population of male agricultural labourers in the state of Punjab, the proportion of those coming from peasant and landowning castes went up from 0.8 per cent in 1911 to as much as 29.7 per cent in 1931.

Similarly, in the case of Orissa, Bailey argues that once a market in land developed, peasants began to sell their lands whenever they were faced with a ‘contingent need’.

Peasant indebtedness and land alienation acquired such gigantic proportions that even the colonial administrators began to see this as ‘a problem’. Reports on growing discontent among the peasantry from different parts of the empire added to their worries. The Deccan riots of 1875 only confirmed these apprehensions.

Colonial rulers responded to the growing unrest in the countryside by passing legislations such as the Deccan Relief Act of 1879 and the Punjab Alienation of Land Act of 1901. The main thrust of these legislative measures was to stop the transfers of agricultural land to members of non-agricultural castes.

However, in the absence of any significant change in the revenue structure or in the overall politico-ideological framework of colonial rule, these legislative measures hardly brought any relief to the peasantry.

For the poor peasants the only difference these measures made was that they now had to depend more on the credit of the richer landowners from the cultivating castes. The discontent among the peasantry continued to grow and expressed itself in a series of revolts and protest movements, particularly during the first half of the twentieth century.

The study of these movements became quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s. While scholars such as Desai (1979), Gough (1979), and Dhanagare (1983) explored these mobilizations from the conventional perspectives of social movements and Marxist class analysis, the famous ‘Subaltern Studies’ pioneered by Guha (1982) raised the issue of the relationship between peasant mobilizations and the nationalist movement.

These studies questioned the dominant historiographies of the colonial period, which tended to subsume the politics of the peasantry within the broader framework of the nationalist struggle led by middle-class elite, thereby erasing the question of the agency of the subaltern classes.

Guha argued for a perspective that gave autonomy to peasant consciousness and looked at the ‘politics of the people’ independently of the domain of elite politics.

The question, ‘What did the agrarian policies of the colonial rulers do to the Indian village?’ has most frequently been raised by Marxist scholars. Marx himself had almost celebrated the colonial conquest of India, which he thought would break the earlier stagnant system and help private property relations, and hence contradictions, to grow in Indian society.

Though guided by its own ‘vilest’ self-interest, Marx argued that British rule was responsible for ‘causing a social revolution in Hindustan’.

Some later Marxists have also argued that high indebtedness of the peasantry, forced commercialization of agricultural produce, land alienation, and increasing domination of rich landowners and moneylenders over tenants and peasants was a specific form of ‘the primitive accumulation of capital’ which, in the ultimate analysis, led to ‘a formal subsumption of labour under capital’.

More popular has been the thesis of ‘conservation-dissolution’, which is that while colonial rule destroyed some of the local pre-capitalist structures, it also preserved many. As Patnaik argues, colonial rule ‘broke down’ the earlier structures without ‘reconstituting’ them and ‘bourgeois property relations’ developed without a corresponding ‘development of capitalist relations of production’ in Indian agriculture.

In certain cases, colonial rule in fact introduced semi-feudal relations to perpetuate itself. ‘Unlike its parent mode of production in the West, distinguished historically by its continuous expansion of the productive forces, the mode of production installed in the colonies reduced the entire process of production to an immense super exploitation of the variable capital’.

The colonial West reinforced ‘backward relations of exploitation’ and transmitted to its colonies the pressures of the accumulation process in the metropolis without unleashing any corresponding expansion in the forces of production. Alavi also argued that colonial or ‘peripheral capitalism’ was not the same as ‘metropolitan capitalism’.

While it was an integrated process of development in the West, ‘peripheral capitalism brought about a disarticulated form of generalized commodity production’ because the surplus generated in agriculture was reinvested not in the local economy but in the metropolitan centres.

Though with a different emphasis, Guha too argued that the fusing of landlordism and usury by colonial rule made a possible development of capitalism difficult both in agriculture and in industry.

However, unlike Alavi, Guha emphasizes that the composite apparatus of dominance over peasantry and their subjection to the triumvirate—sarkari (of the state), sahukari (of the moneylender), and zamindari (of the landlord)—was primarily a political fact.

4. Agrarian Changes after Independence:

In many ways, independence from colonial rule in 1947 marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of Indian agriculture.

Having evolved out of a long struggle against colonial rule with the participation of the people from various social categories, the Indian state also took over the task of supervising the transformation of its stagnant and backward economy to make sure that the benefits of economic growth were not monopolized entirely by a particular section of society It is with this background that ‘development’ emerged as a strategy of economic change and an ideology of the new regime.

However, even though the political system had changed in a very fundamental sense, at a micro level the structures that evolved during colonial rule still continued to exist. The local interests that had emerged over a long period of time continued to be powerful in the Indian countryside even after the political climate had changed.

Speaking at the Delhi School of Economics in 1955 after his extensive trips to different parts of independent India, Daniel Thorner was among the first to conceptualize this fact.

He argued that the earlier structure of land relations and debt dependencies, where a small section consisting of a few landlords and moneylenders (who usually belonged to the local upper castes) were dominant, continued to prevail in the Indian countryside.

The nature of property relations, the local values that related social prestige negatively to physical labour, and the absence of any surplus with the actual cultivator for investment on land ultimately perpetuated stagnation.

‘This complex of legal, economic, and social relations uniquely typical of the Indian countryside served to produce an effect’ that Thorner described as ‘a built-in depressor’. Thorner’s formulation was, in a sense, symptomatic of the way in which agrarian issues began to be framed in the context of development studies and modernization of agriculture debates.

Land Reforms:

The ‘agrarian question’ had also been an important topic of discussion for leaders of the Indian freedom movement starting with Ranade and Dutt, who extensively wrote and debated on how Indian society and economy ought to be reorganized after independence from colonial rule. The ‘land question’ had become one of the most hotly debated topics during the final years of the struggle for Independence.

Land reforms also became a question of considerable academic interest and debate in the discourse about planning and development. They were viewed as necessary for initiating modernization in agriculture.

While there was a general agreement that the prevailing agrarian structures, marked by absentee landlordism and semi-feudal relations of production, needed to be reorganized, two extreme positions were taken on the following crucial questions- ‘What kind of agrarian reforms are required and which would work the best?’ and ‘Is there an economic logic behind land reforms?’

The competing answers to the latter question came to be known as the ‘farm size-productivity’ debate.

The first view was that of the ‘institutionalists’, who argued that the way out for Indian agriculture lay in a radical reorganization of land-ownership patterns that would not only democratize the village and revive the independent ‘peasant economy’, but also increase the productivity of land. Thus the slogan, ‘land to the tiller’.

They also argued that smaller-sized holdings gave higher productivity. The second viewpoint argued against the redistribution of land on the grounds that it was both unviable, as not enough land was available for everyone, and that it worked against the logic of ‘economics’, the modernization of agriculture, it was argued, required landlords’ reorientation.

They needed to be motivated to cultivate their own land with wage labour and using modern technology.

The land reforms, according to them, would only divide the land into ‘unviable holdings’, rendering them unfeasible for the use of modern technology. Speaking from a very different position, some Marxist scholars also argued against the ‘institutionalists’ who reminded them of the neo-populist Narodanics of Russia.

They thought that the argument in favour of small farms emanated from the Chayanovian logic of the peasant economy, which was in their view historically untenable.

However, the process of agrarian reforms is inherently a political question and not a purely technical or economic one. The choices made by the Indian state and the actual implementation of land reforms were determined by the ‘politics’ of the new regime rather than by the theoretical superiority of a particular position.

The Indian state chose to reorganize agrarian relations through redistribution of land, but not in a comprehensive and radical manner.

Joshi described it as ‘sectorial or sectional reforms’. The Government of India directed its states to abolish intermediary tenures, regulate rent and tenancy rights, confer ownership rights on tenants, impose ceilings on holdings, distribute the surplus land among the rural poor, and facilitate consolidation of holdings.

A large number of legislations were passed by the state governments over a short period of time. The number of these legislations was so large that, according to Thorner, they could be ‘the largest body of agrarian legislations to have been passed in so brief a span of years in any country whose history has been recorded’.

The actual implementation of these legislations and their impact on the agrarian structure is, however, an entirely different story. Most of the legislations had intentionally provided loopholes that allowed the dominant landowners to tamper with land records by redistributing land among relatives—at least on papers—evicting their tenants, and using other means to escape the legislations.

In the absence of a concerted ‘political will’, land reforms could succeed only in regions where the peasantry was politically mobilized and could exert pressure from below.

Despite overall failure, land reforms succeeded in weakening the hold of absentee landlords over rural society and assisted in the emergence of a ‘class of substantial peasants and petty landlords as the dominant political and economic group’.

In a village of Rajasthan, for example, though the ‘abolition of jagirs’ (intermediary rights) was far from satisfactory, it made considerable difference to the overall landownership patterns and to the local and regional power structures.

The Rajputs, the erstwhile landlords, possessed much less land after the land reforms than they did before. Most of the village land had moved into the hands of those who could be called small and medium landowners. In qualitative terms, most of the land began to be self-cultivated and the incidence of tenancy declined considerably.

The fear of losing land induced many potential losers to sell or rearrange their lands in a manner that escaped legislations.

However, it was only in rare cases that the landless labourers living in the countryside, most of whom belonged to the ex-‘untouchable’ castes, received land. The beneficiaries, by and large, belonged to middle-level caste groups who traditionally cultivated land as a part of the calling of their castes.

Otherwise also the holding structure continued to be fairly iniquitous though the proportion of smaller and medium-size landowners has been expanding (see Table 1).

 Changing Structures of Landholding during the Post-Independence Period

Provision of Institutional Credit:

While land reforms were supposed to deal with the problem of landlordism, the hold of moneylenders over the peasantry was to be weakened by providing credit through institutional sources, initially by credit societies and later by the nationalized commercial banks.

According to the findings of an official survey carried out immediately after Independence from colonial rule, up to approximately 91 per cent of the credit needs of cultivators were being met by informal sources of credit. Much of this came from usurious moneylenders (69.7 per cent).

It was in recognition of this fact that the Indian state planned to expand the network of cooperative credit societies. With the imposition of ‘social control’ and later their nationalization, commercial banks were also asked to lend to the agricultural sector on priority basis.

Over the years, the dependence of rural households on informal sources has come down significantly While in 1961, an average of only 18.4 per cent of the total credit needs were being fulfilled by institutional sources of credit, in 1981 the corresponding figure had risen to 62.6 per cent.

However, this is not the entire story. The assessment studies on the cooperative credit societies showed that much of their credit went to the relatively better off sections of rural society, and the poor continued to depend on the more expensive informal sources.

This was explained as a consequence of the prevailing structure of land tenures. The state response was to bureaucratize the cooperative societies.

Though in some regions this helped in releasing credit societies from the hold of big landowners, bureaucratization also led to rampant corruption and increasing apathy among those whom they were supposed to serve. Although banks were never controlled directly by the rural rich, the benefit of their credit has largely gone to those who had substantial holdings.

Yet, despite this inherent bias of institutional credit against the rural poor, its availability played an important role in making the green revolution a success, and it definitely helped to marginalize the professional moneylender in the rural power structure.

Community Development Programme (CDP):

As a strategy of development, the CDP was conceptually very different from both land reforms and the idea of making cheap institutional credit available to cultivators. While the earlier programmes reflected an ‘institutionalist’ perspective, the CDP had emanated from the ‘productionist’ approach to rural development.

It had been inspired by the agricultural extension service in the United States and was based on a notion of the harmonious village community without any significant internal differences and conflict of interests.

There was hardly any mention of the unequal power relations in the village. Its objective was to provide a substantial increase in agricultural production and improvement in basic services, which would ultimately lead to a transformation in the social and economic life of the village.

Its basic assumption was that ‘the Indian peasant would of his own free will, and because of his “felt needs”, immediately adopt technical improvements the moment he was shown them’.

The Programme was launched on 2 October 1952 in a few selected ‘blocks’ and it was soon extended to the entire country However, the enthusiasm with which the Programme was started could not be sustained. A non-political approach to agrarian transformation resulted in helping only those who were already powerful in the village. Most of the benefits were cornered by a small section of the rural elite.

5. The Green Revolution and After

Of all the developmental programmes introduced during the post-Independence period, the green revolution is considered to have been the most successful. It was celebrated the world over and has been studied and debated quite extensively in academia.

The green revolution led to a substantial increase in agricultural output, to the extent that it almost solved India’s food problem. It also produced significant social and political changes in the Indian village and, in a sense, did bring about an ‘agricultural revolution’.

In purely economic terms, the agricultural sector experienced growth at the rate of 3 to 5 per cent per annum, which was many times more than what the rate of growth had been during the colonial period (less than 1 per cent).

The green revolution conceptualized agrarian change in purely technological terms and was based on the ‘trickle down’ theory of economic growth. The expression ‘green revolution’ was deliberately coined to contrast it with the phrase ‘red revolution’.

It carried the conviction that ‘agriculture was being peacefully transformed through the quiet working of science and technology, reaping the economic gains of modernization while avoiding the social costs of mass upheaval and disorder usually associated with rapid change’.

The United States played an active role in its conception and implementation. Many have argued that this was because of the strategic, geopolitical interests that the US had at the time in the changing social and economic conditions in the countries of the Third World.

The term ‘green revolution’ had been first used during the late 1960s to refer to the effects of the introduction of higher yielding variety (HYV) seeds of wheat and rice in developing countries. However, the green revolution was not just about the use of HYV seed. It was a package.

The new varieties of seeds required fertility-enhancing inputs, i.e. chemical fertilizers, controlled irrigation conditions, and plant-protecting chemicals (pesticides).

The other components of the package consisted of providing cheap institutional credit, price incentives and marketing facilities. In order to back up the application of new technology on local farms, a large number of agricultural universities were also opened in the regions selected for the new programme.

It was under the direct supervision of the Ford Foundation that the Intensive Agricultural Development Programme (IADP) was started in 1961. Initially the IADP operated in 14 districts on an experimental basis; it was later extended to 114 districts (out of a total of 325) under the name of the Intensive Agriculture Areas Programme (IAAP) in 1965.

Its advocates argued that the new technology was ‘scale neutral’ and could be used with as much benefit by small as well as big landowners. However, in the actual implementation, small holdings were not found to be viable units for technological change.

Joan Mencher observed that the concerned agriculture officers were far from neutral. ‘What they thought was needed to further the green revolution was to forget about small farmers … because they could not really contribute to increased production.

To these officials, progressive farmers are those who have viable farms and who are fairly well-off. Interestingly, though, a study from Punjab showed that not only were the smaller landowners as eager to adopt the new technology but that their per acre income from land was slightly higher than that of the bigger farmers.

But, participating in the green revolution did not mean the same thing to smaller farmers as it did to bigger farmers. While bigger farmers had enough surplus of their own to invest in the new capital-intensive farming, for smaller landowners it meant additional dependence on borrowing, generally from informal sources.

My study of three villages in a green revolution district of Haryana showed that their average outstanding debt from informal sources was the highest even in absolute terms when compared with other categories of farmers.

Although theoretically the new technology was ‘scale neutral’, it was certainly nor ‘resource neutral’. The new technology also compelled widespread involvement with the market.

Unlike traditional agriculture, cultivators in post-green revolution agriculture had to buy all farm inputs from the market for which they often had to take credit from traders or institutional sources. In order to clear the debts, they had no choice but to sell the farm yield in the market even when they needed to keep it for their own consumption.

They sold their farm yield immediately after harvesting when prices were relatively low, and bought later in the year for consumption when prices were higher.

Thus although the small farmers took to the new technologies, the fact that their resources were limited meant that these technologies ushered in a new set of dependencies. On the other hand, it has definitely strengthened the economic and political position of rich farmers.

One of the manifestations of the growing market orientation of agrarian production was the emergence of a totally new kind of mobilization of surplus-producing farmers who demanded a better deal for the agricultural sector.

Interestingly, these ‘new’ farmers’ movements emerged almost simultaneously in virtually all the green revolution regions. Though initiated in the late 1970s, these movements gained momentum during the decade of the 1980s.

Using the language of neo-populism and in some cases also invoking traditional social networks and identities of the landowning dominant castes, its leaders argued that India was experiencing a growing division between the city and the village. And the village, i.e. the agrarian sector, was being exploited by the city or the industrial sector through the mechanism of ‘unequal exchange’.

Those who led these movements were mostly substantial landowners who had benefited most from the developmental programmes and belonged to the numerically large middle-level caste groups, whom Srinivas had called the ‘dominant castes’.

The members of this new ‘social class’ not only emerged as a dominant group at village level but they also came to dominate regional/state-level politics in most parts of India. They had an accumulated surplus that they sought to invest in ever more profitable enterprises.

Some of them diversified into other economic activities or migrated to urban areas or entered agricultural trade. Culturally also, this new class differed significantly from both the classical peasants and the old landlords. As an observer comments:

A typical family of this class has a landholding in its native village, cultivated by hired labour, bataidar, tenant or farm servants and supervised by the father or one son; business of various descriptions in town managed by other sons; and perhaps a young and bright child who is a doctor or engineer or a professor. It is this class that is most vocal about injustice done to the village.

The changes produced by the green revolution also generated an interesting debate among Marxist scholars on the question of defining the prevailing ‘mode of production’ in Indian agriculture. Though the debate raised a large number of questions, the most contentious revolved around whether capitalism had become dominant in Indian agriculture or was still characterized by the semi-feudal mode of production.

A good number of scholars, with some variation in their formulations, argued that the capitalist tendency had started in India with the disintegration of the old system during colonial rule, and that after Independence the process of accumulation had gathered momentum.

Another set of scholars, on the basis of their own empirical studies mostly from eastern India, asserted that Indian agriculture was still dominated by a semi-feudal mode of production. This position was best articulated by Bhaduri (1984). He argued that landlords-cum-moneylenders continued to dominate the process of agricultural production.

Peasants and labourers were tied to them through the mechanism of debt that led to ‘forced commercialization’ of labour and agricultural yield. This produced a self-perpetuating stagnant and exploitative agrarian structure that could be at best described as ‘semi-feudal’. The internal logic of this system worked against any possibility of agricultural growth or the development of capitalism in Indian agriculture.

However, towards the end of the debate there seems to have emerged a consensus that though it may have its local specificities and considerable regional variations, the capitalist mode of production indeed was on its way to dominating the agrarian economy of India and most certainly that of the regions which had experienced the green revolution.

Agrarian Changes and Agricultural Labour:

Did the benefits of the green revolution ‘trickle down’ to agricultural labourers? How did it affect them relationally?

These have been among the most debated questions in the literature on agrarian change in India.

In a study comparing wage rates of a pre-green revolution year with those of a year after the new technology had been adopted, Bardhan (1970) showed that while cash wages of agricultural labourers had gone up after the introduction of the new technology, their purchasing power had in fact come down due to overall increase in prices.

Though not everyone would agree with Bardhan, few would dispute that though the green revolution brought an overall prosperity to the countryside, it also multiplied income inequalities both within the village and among different regions of the country.

In a way, it was in recognition of the failures of the ‘trickle-down’ thesis that ‘target-group’ oriented programmes for poverty alleviation were started during the second half of the 1970s.

During the decade of the 1970s, the proportion of agricultural labour to total population dependent on land also experienced a significant increase. According to one estimate it went up from 16.7 per cent in 1961 to 26.3 per cent in 1971. However, micro-level studies have shown that the increase was not an effect of land sales by marginal landholders.

A substantial proportion of the new labourers were tenants evicted from land after the land reforms or they were those who did not own land but were previously self-employed in traditional occupations. The green revolution made many of the traditional occupations redundant and the ‘jajmani relations’ disintegrated rapidly.

It is generally believed that the process of agricultural modernization is accompanied by a change in the social relations of production, leading to freeing of agricultural labour from relations of patronage and institutionalized dependencies.

Some scholars did report in their studies that such a process was under way in the Indian countryside, particularly in the regions where the green revolution had been a success. Breman (1974), for example, observed a process of ‘de-patronization’ being experienced in the farmer-labourer relationship in the villages of south Gujarat.

In a later study, he again argued that the inter-generational bondage characterized by extra-economic coercion no longer existed in south Gujarat and that the existing system of attached labour was no longer an un-free relation.

In his study of a Tanjore village in Tamil Nadu, Beteille (1971) had also observed a process of formalization in the relation of landowning castes with village artisans and landless labourers. They had ‘acquired a more or less contractual character’.

On the basis of her study in the same region, Gough too reported that the old type of attached labour that was mainly paid in kind was being replaced by casual day labour, paid largely in cash. Similarly, despite the elements of continuity that she observed, Bhalla reported that in the Haryana countryside relations between farmers and attached labourers were also changing into formalized contractual arrangements.

Highlighting the elements of continuity reported by Bhalla in her study, Bhaduri (1984) argued that the presence of attached labourers and their high indebtedness meant that the relations of production even in the green revolution belt of Haryana were ‘semi-feudal’.

However, Bardhan (1984) and Rudra (1990) strongly contested the argument that the prevalence of attached labour necessarily meant ‘semi-feudal’ relations.

Bardhan argued that the post-green revolution voluntaristic attached labour was very different from the feudal institution of bonded labour marked by hereditary and long-term indebtedness, entailing continuous and exclusive work for the creditor-employer.

On the basis of his own work, he contended that the modernization of agricultural technology had in fact increased the demand for attached labourers, as they were seen to be useful in overseeing the work of casual labourers. Similarly, Rudra argued that the attached labour in the post-green revolution agrarian setting was more like permanent employment in the organized sector than an unfree relationship.

Arguing in a very different mode, Brass (1990) questioned the claims that offered a positive conceptualization of attached labour. Contesting the assumption that the voluntarily of attached labour meant freedom.

Brass argued that ‘while the recruitment may itself be voluntary, in the sense that labourer willingly offers himself for work, it does not follow that the production relation will be correspondingly free in terms of the worker’s capacity to re-enter the labour market’.

Brass argued that in post-green revolution Haryana, where he did a field study, farmers used the mechanism of debt and attachment to ‘discipline’ labour and ‘decompose/recompose’ the labour market, which led to ‘deproletarianization’ of labour. He asserted that the indebted labourers of the Haryana countryside were in fact ‘bonded slaves’.

On the basis of my study in the same region, I have argued that while the attached labourers in Haryana were certainly not like permanent employees in the organized sector, as suggested by Rudra, and that elements of lack of freedom were obvious in their relationship with farmers, they could not be viewed as bonded slaves because of the overall change in the social framework of agricultural production in contemporary Haryana.

I have suggested that attached labour in the post-green revolution agriculture should be seen more as ‘a system of labour mortgage’ where labourers, despite an acute dislike for the relationship, were compelled to accept attachment for interest-free credit. However, their loss of freedom being temporary in nature, they could not be characterized as bonded slaves.

There were many cases where the labourers after having worked as attached labourers for some time, could leave the relationship.

The growing integration of the village in the broader market and the increasing availability of alternative sources of employment outside agriculture, along with the changing political and ideological environment, had been leading to a process that weakened the hold of landowners over labourers.

In some cases developmental schemes such as the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) being run by the central government also helped.

More recently, scholars have been exploring new questions relating to the process of development and agrarian transition. Some of these could have far-reaching implications for the classical theories of agrarian change. Such studies allow us to inquire into the specific effects of new agrarian technology on the changing position of women in the household and on the farm.

Apart from pointing to the ‘gender blindness’ of much of the development theory and the empirical surveys on issues such as poverty and land rights of women in the region, students of gender and agrarian change have also shown how the new technology had a clear bias against women.

It marginalized female agricultural wage labour both in terms of work as well as earnings. Similarly, the questions of ecology and displacement and the new social movements against the construction of big dams, once considered ‘the temples of modern India’, have raised serious critiques of the present models of development.


After his extensive tours of the Indian countryside during the early 1950s, Daniel Thorner (1956) suggested that one can conceptualize the Indian agrarian structure on the basis of the form of income derived from the soil, the type of right in the soil, and the form of actual field work that is done.

Conceptualized in this way, the Indian agrarian structure can be thought to constitute three main social categories- maliks (the landlords or proprietors), kisan (the working peasants), and mazdoors (the labourers).

Although speaking from a different perspective, around this time Srinivas conceptualized the structure of social relations in the Mysore village in a framework of patron-client relationships and vertical ties between landlord and tenant, between master and servant, and between creditor and debtor. He also mentioned that these relations did not always correspond with the structure of caste hierarchies.

Another set of formulations of the prevailing agrarian structure in India before it embarked upon the path of ‘development’ came from different groups of Marxist scholars. As mentioned earlier, Bhaduri (1984) saw agrarian relations in eastern India as a classical case of a ‘semi- feudal’ mode of production where the landlord virtually controlled everything through his monopoly over land and credit.

Similarly, Bhardwaj (1974) argued that agrarian relations in the Indian countryside were structured around a network of unequal exchange relations between those who possessed land, labour, and credit. However, these exchange relations were not among individuals with free will but were ‘interlocked’ with each other in such a manner that the prevailing structure worked in favour of the ‘strong’ and against the ‘weak’.

Common to all these formulations was a stress on the fact that a small section of big landowners dominated a large section of agricultural producers through control over resources and ideologies. They were the people who rarely did any physical labour themselves. As Beteille (1980) points out, there was, in fact, an inverse relationship between the extent of manual work performed and the degree of control over land.

Despite a considerable degree of continuity and significant regional variations, these relations have definitely experienced many changes over approximately the last fifty years. Independence from colonial rule and the launching of development programmes started a new phase in the history of Indian agriculture.

At a purely quantitative level, the limited institutional changes—i.e. partial implementations of land reforms, adoption of new technology, and state support to the cultivators—have led to considerable expansion in the area under cultivation and the total volume of production.

A substantial volume of the literature shows that the agrarian structure has transformed the direction of a capitalist mode of organization at least in areas that experienced the green revolution, which have extended from traditional crops such as wheat and paddy to new crops such as oil seeds and soya bean.

The Indian farmer has increasingly become outward looking orienting his needs to demands of the market rather than local conventions and earlier traditions, yet the impact of the change on the different categories defined by caste and gender has been a differential one.

This is why the changes in agriculture have not secured a better quality of life for all social categories in the agrarian structure of village communities.

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