Who is a farmer in India?
SEJUTI DAS GUPTA AND ISHITA MEHROTRA
The farmers’ protests in India since November 2020 has resurrected the question ‘who is a farmer?’, and with it, the agrarian political economy exercise of identifying rural classes and examining their nature. In classical agrarian political economy scholarship in India, the capitalist classes or the rural rich are variously identified as landlords, capitalist landlords, rich peasants, big farmers, malik, kisan, bullock capitalists and capitalist farmers. Across these categories, economic diversification is common. The flow of surplus is from the agricultural to the non-agricultural sector. In other words, they diversify to accumulate. In states like Gujarat, agrarian capital seldom returns to agriculture. Private ownership of land is seen as the starting point for accumulation while caste superiority and political connections play a crucial role in maintaining the dominant position held by the rural rich. Some states with tenancy reforms have seen Other Backward Classes (OBCs; the intermediate agrarian classes) join the ranks of the rural rich. It is also notable that the rural rich are almost always male. In the countryside, where older women participate in the production process, they are made invisible by patriarchal norms while their interface with the market is mediated by male relatives. Labour is exploited directly by the employer, without the presence of an intermediary, and often involves social ties which lead to interlocking of factor markets. In the case of female classes of labour, stories of humiliation, often linked to caste, and unpaid labour are a running theme.
Contrary to the analysis of classical political economy approaches described above, our preliminary research across four regions in India (the National Capital Region (around New Delhi), Raipur in Chhattisgarh, Surat in Gujarat, and Bangalore and Mandya in Karnataka) on the production of high-value and organic crops suggests the emergence of a new kind of agrarian capitalist class. We call this class the ‘nouveau riche rural capitalists’. Their emergence demonstrates the ongoing class differentiation in agriculture despite the apparent unity among farmers seen in the farmers’ protests.
The nouveau riche rural capitalists accumulate without owning land and their starting point is ready capital from sources such as industry, trade, profession and inheritance. They use this capital to invest in accessing land at premium locations close to metropolitans, highways and ports through methods such as lease and ‘operations contract’. So, a distinctive feature compared to traditional capitalist classes is that they represent a reverse flow of capital – from the non-agrarian to the agrarian. In Bangalore and Raipur, the owners were successful entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals who diversified into agriculture as a way of expanding their wealth or surplus. In Gujarat, this also included non-resident Indians, and in one case, a capitalist farmer whose son had a Master’s degree in Biotechnology and lived in the city. Many of these capitalists cite hobby and passion, concern for the environment and health, putting idle resources to use and/or having a break from stressful careers are some of their motivations for diversifying.
They concentrate exclusively on high-value crops like fruits, vegetables, flowers, decorative plants like bonsai, organic foods, biodynamic farming or permaculture. They also own greenhouses, farmhouses, highly advanced irrigation systems and in some cases, cold storage. However, like the rural rich, they belong to upper castes and OBCs and they have deep social capital and political networks, although not clamouring for political power directly.
Unlike the rural rich, it is not unusual for the nouveau riche rural capitalist to be a woman. These women are young or middle-aged, urban, highly educated with no background in or knowledge of agriculture. Describing themselves variously as entrepreneurs, farmers, environmentalists, these women farmers either own or lease land – in Chhattisgarh, the owner of a nursery is the wife of a local industrial capitalist while in Surat, the owner is a widow who inherited her husband’s land. These women also organise and control all farm operations, doing manual work only very occasionally, and engage with buyers directly and independently.
The markets for these agricultural enterprises are very niche – weekly farmers’ markets in five-star hotels and public parks, exhibitions in embassies, luxury and boutique hotels, online platforms, foreign countries, large institutions like hospitals, educational institutions etc. They may also offer other niche products and services, e.g. farm-to-table experiences on Airbnb, organic food cafes, hosting paid workshops and developing relevant course content for educational institutions, organizing cooking or gardening lessons and services, supplying air-purifying plants to government and private institutions, manufactured value-added products like hand-made soaps, juices, concentrates, and farm-based shops selling saplings, vermicompost, potting mix and board games made from recycled paper. ‘Their’ market is thus very different from the local markets in villages or the government-regulated Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs) or mandis.
The workforce comprises farm managers and labourers, both categories including a significant number of women. Technically skilled, in many cases with a college degree, managers oversee daily farm operations and are client-facing, often dealing with corporate houses to sell the products. These are sought-after positions, advertised on popular Indian employment websites such as Naukri.com.
Labourers are usually migrants from states such as Assam, Bengal, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, employed on a monthly salary and often living on the farms where they work. Work on these farms is not perceived as dirty mud work as the remuneration is higher (in some cases, the monthly salary reported was as high as Rs 18,000 a month which would be only Rs 4,000 to 6,000 per month in a regular village farm ) and timely-paid. In stark contrast to the conditions of labour in the countryside, they are not constantly monitored or harassed and exploitative interlocked markets are absent. Yet, these differences in labouring conditions should not be overstated – the appropriation of surplus value through the labour process is a defining feature. A labourer who is paid Rs 18,000 a month is working to create a bonsai which is sold for Rs 500,000 per piece after all.
As is typical of all capitalists, part of the surplus appropriated by the nouveau riche is used for self-consumption, some of it is reinvested in their farm and related activities and part of it is used to fuel more accumulation, for example, through the purchase of land (for productive and not speculative purposes) or expansion of existing business or investing in cold storages. It also serves the purpose of tax evasion as reported. These strategies are also likely to have implications for the wider political economy. For instance, the demand for land from them is intensifying competition and could increase the tendency towards the dispossession of smallholders.
Finally, these capitalists have benefitted immensely from a favourable policy environment that incentivizes privatisation, marketization and commercialisation, best exemplified by the agenda of the recently passed farm laws. The emphasis of the new farm laws on crop diversification at a pan-India level as the path forward for agricultural development works to the advantage of this class. Of course, diversification has been on the policy table for the past two decades but it only existed at the level of specific states ruled by the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP). They have also benefitted from subsidies for warehouses, solar energy, greenhouses, private irrigation etc. and it is worth remembering scholarship that informs us that these technologies and infrastructures are rarely resource-neutral.
Our intervention here is intended as a reminder that class is not a monolithic category and interacts in different ways with identities such as gender, weaving a complex web of inequality. Equally, the nouveau riche capitalists are different from other agrarian capitalist classes and their emergence indicates a shift in terms of land, labour and capital relations around agriculture. And so, the contentious farm laws may not cater to farmers as we understand them but to a very distinct class of capitalists who are farmers only in name!