India’s Agrarian Crisis: Dismantling ‘Development’

Colin Todhunter

Image source.

In his 1978 book ‘India Mortgaged’, T.N. Reddy predicted the country would one day open all sectors to foreign direct investment and surrender economic sovereignty to imperialist powers.

Today, the US and Europe cling to a moribund form of capitalism and have used various mechanisms to bolster the system in the face of economic stagnation and massive inequalities: the raiding of public budgets, the expansion of credit to consumers and governments to sustain spending and consumption, financial speculation and increased militarism. Via ‘globalisation’, Western powers have also been on an unrelenting drive to plunder what they regard as ‘untapped markets’ in other areas of the globe.

Agricapital has been moving in on Indian food and agriculture for some time. But India is an agrarian-based country underpinned by smallholder agriculture and decentralised food processing. Foreign capital therefore first needs to displace the current model before bringing India’s food and agriculture sector under its control. And this is precisely what is happening.

Western agribusiness is shaping the ‘development’ agenda in India. Over 300,000 farmers have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to (GMO) cash crops and economic liberalisation.

Other sectors have not been immune to this bogus notion of development. Millions of people have been displaced to facilitate the needs of resource extraction industries, land grabs for Special Economic Zones, nuclear plants and other large-scale projects. And the full military backing of the state has been on hand to forcibly evict people, place them in camps and inflict human rights abuses on them.

To help open the nation to foreign capital, proponents of economic neoliberalism are fond of stating that ‘regulatory blockages’ must be removed. If particular ‘blockages’ stemming from legitimate protest, rights to land and dissent cannot be dealt with by peaceful means, other methods are used. And when increasing mass surveillance or widespread ideological attempts to discredit and smear does not secure compliance or dilute the power of protest, brute force is on hand.

India’s agrarian crisis

India is currently witnessing a headlong rush to facilitate (foreign) agricapital and the running down of the existing system of agriculture. Millions of small-scale and marginal farmers are suffering economic distress as the sector is deliberately made financially non-viable for them.

At the same time, the country’s spurt of GDP growth – the holy grail of ‘development’ – has largely been fuelled on the back of cheap food and the subsequent impoverishment of farmers. The gap between their income and the rest of the population has widened enormously to the point where rural India consumes less calories per head of population than it did 40 years ago. Meanwhile, unlike farmers, corporations receive massive handouts and interest-free loans but have failed to spur job creation.

The plan is to displace the existing system of livelihood-sustaining smallholder agriculture with one dominated from seed to plate by transnational agribusiness and retail concerns. To facilitate this, independent cultivators are being bankrupted, land is to be amalgamated to facilitate large-scale industrial cultivation and remaining farmers will be absorbed into corporate supply chains and squeezed as they work on contracts, the terms of which will be dictated by large agribusiness and chain retailers.

US agribusiness corporations are spearheading the process, the very companies that fuel and thrive on a five-year US taxpayer-funded farm bill subsidy of around $500 billion. Their industrial model in the US is based on the overproduction of certain commodities often sold at prices below the cost of production and dumped on the rest of the world, thereby undermining farmers’ livelihoods and agriculture in other countries.

It is a model designed to facilitate the needs and profits of these corporations which belong to the agritech, agrichemicals, commodity trading, food processing and retail sectors. A model that can only survive thanks to taxpayer handouts and by subsidising the farmer who is squeezed at one end by seed and agrochemical manufacturers and at the other, by powerful retail interests. A model that can only function by externalising its massive health, environmental and social costs. And a model that only leads to the destruction of rural communities and jobs, degraded soil, less diverse and nutrient-deficient diets, polluted water, water shortages and poor health.

If we look at the US model, it serves the needs of agribusiness corporations and large-scale retailers, not farmers, the public nor the environment. So by bowing to their needs via World Bank directives and the US-Indo Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture, what is the future to be for India?

A mainly urbanised country reliant on an industrial agriculture and all it entails, including denutrified food, increasingly monolithic diets, the massive use of agrochemicals and food contaminated by hormones, steroids, antibiotics and a range of chemical additives. A country with spiralling rates of ill health, degraded soil, a collapse in the insect population, contaminated and depleted water supplies and a cartel of seed, chemical and food processing companies with ever-greater control over the global food production and supply chain.

But we don’t need a crystal ball to look into the future. Much of the above is already taking place, not least the destruction of rural communities, the impoverishment of the countryside and continuing urbanisation, which is itself causing problems for India’s crowded cities and eating up valuable agricultural land.

So why would India want to let the foxes guard the hen house? Why mimic the model of intensive, chemical-dependent agriculture of the US and be further incorporated into a corrupt US-dominated global food regime that undermines food security and food sovereignty? After all, numerous high-level reports have concluded that policies need to support more resilient, diverse, sustainable (smallholder) agroecological methods of farming and develop decentralised, locally-based food economies.

Yet the trend in India continues to move in the opposite direction towards industrial-scale agriculture and centralised chains for the benefit of Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational players.

The plan is to shift hundreds of millions from the countryside into the cities to serve as a cheap army of labour for offshored foreign companies, mirroring what China has become: a US colonial outpost for manufacturing that has boosted corporate profits at the expense of US jobs. In India, rural migrants are to become the new ‘serfs’ of the informal services and construction sectors or to be trained for low-level industrial jobs. Even here, however, India might have missed the boat as jobless ‘growth’ seems to have arrived as the effects of automation and artificial intelligence are eradicating the need for human labour across many sectors.

If we look at the various Western powers, to whom many of India’s top politicians look to in order to ‘modernise’ the country’s food and agriculture, their paths to economic prosperity occurred on the back of colonialism and imperialism. Do India’s politicians think this mindset has disappeared?

Fuelled by capitalism’s compulsion to overproduce and then seek out new markets, the same mentality now lurks behind the neoliberal globalisation agenda: terms and policies like ‘foreign direct investment’, ‘ease of doing business’, making India ‘business friendly’ or ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ embody little more than the tenets of neoliberal fundamentalism wrapped in benign-sounding words. It boils down to one thing: Monsanto-Bayer, Cargill and other transnational corporations will decide on what is to be eaten and how it is to be produced and processed.

Alternatives to development

Current policies seek to tie agriculture to an environmentally destructive, moribund system of capitalism. Practical solutions to the agrarian crisis must be based on sustainable agriculture which places the small farmer at the centre of policies: far-sighted and sustained policy initiatives centred on self-sufficiency, localisation, food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture and agroecology.

The scaling up of agroecological approaches should be a lynchpin of genuine rural development. Other measures involve implementing land reforms, correcting rigged trade, delinking from capitalist globalisation (capital controls) and managing foreign trade to suit smallholder farmers’ interests not those of foreign agricapital.

More generally, there is the need to recognise that genuine sustainable agriculture can only be achieved by challenging power relations, especially resisting the industrial model of agriculture being rolled out by powerful agribusiness corporations and the neoliberal policies that serve their interests.

What is required is an ‘alternative to development’ as post-development theorist Arturo Escobar explains:

Because seven decades after World War II, certain fundamentals have not changed. Global inequality remains severe, both between and within nations. Environmental devastation and human dislocation, driven by political as well as ecological factors, continues to worsen. These are symptoms of the failure of “development,” indicators that the intellectual and political post-development project remains an urgent task.”

Looking at the situation in Latin America, Escobar says development strategies have centred on large-scale interventions, such as the expansion of oil palm plantations, mining, and large port development.

And it is similar in India: commodity monocropping; immiseration in the countryside; the appropriation of biodiversity, the means of subsistence for millions of rural dwellers; unnecessary and inappropriate environment-destroying, people-displacing infrastructure projects; and state-backed violence against the poorest and most marginalised sections of society.

These problems, says Escobar, are not the result of a lack of development but of ‘excessive development’. Escobar looks towards the worldviews of indigenous peoples and the inseparability and interdependence of humans and nature for solutions.

He is not alone. Writers Felix Padel and Malvika Gupta argue that adivasi (India’s indigenous peoples) economics may be the only hope for the future because India’s tribal cultures remain the antithesis of capitalism and industrialisation. Their age-old knowledge and value systems promote long-term sustainability through restraint in what is taken from nature. Their societies also emphasise equality and sharing rather than hierarchy and competition.

These principles must guide our actions regardless of where we live on the planet because what’s the alternative? A system driven by narcissism, domination, ego, anthropocentrism, speciesism and plunder. A system that is using up oil, water and other resources much faster than they can ever be regenerated. We have poisoned the rivers and oceans, destroyed natural habitats, driven wildlife species to (the edge of) extinction and have altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere to the point that runaway climate change seems more and more likely.

And, as we see all around us, the outcome is endless conflicts over fewer and fewer resources, while nuclear missiles hand over humanity’s head like a sword of Damocles.


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Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Mar 15, 2019 7:04 AM

Hierarchies, no matter where they are, foster corruption.
There is little time left with climate cataclysm on our doorstep.
Unless hierarchical rule is dismantled we are doomed.
How many will perish is incalculable.

Mar 15, 2019 3:37 PM
Reply to  Fair dinkum

Let’s just have in mind that some hierarchical elements are inevitable, if only due to the fact that we cannot let people with the most moribund mental reflexes make decisions affecting larger groups of us humans.
Dismantling the links between corrupt political ambition and money is surely the only important thing.
To take another example involving hierarchy: The many priests who are in the religion business merely because of its secure, decently-paid-job elements, undermine absolutely everything which Jesus Christ was trying to get us all to think and do. Clearly, for an evolved human society to have a fighting chance, the pay for both politicians and priests must, of necessity, be rather unattractive.
I say that as a person who has worked all his life at the top levels of arts education for wretched pay.
It can be done, and, culturally, I have no doubts that I have made a success of it, if results and feedback count for anything. Of course I would LIKE higher pay, but I can see that the higher aspirations of mankind are not necessarily enhanced by rewarding those higher aspirations with lots of money.
Gandhi got it right when he said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.”
Hope I don’t sound pompous, since that was certainly not my meaning.

Mar 16, 2019 12:35 AM
Reply to  wardropper

That’s the million Dollar question, but politicians have a very short stint in that career (measured on lifetime) and regardless how much you pay them they will always reach for more.

Bob Hawke is an example, AUS Parliament’s and PM’s extremely generous retirement funds were quite breathtaking for the average person. And yet, shortly after he resigned, he bought a million Dollar property (like 25 years ago) only to knock it down and build a 5 million $ property. That sounded like a rich man’s lifestyle for the son of a preacher. He raked in a lot. The late German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had industry buy his position (big money every year to Rainer Barzel, so he’d step aside).

The mentality to grab what’s on offer can be shocking and corruption is not a victimless crime because someone misses out. Only when your country has a good age pension system will you be able to not be ruled by greed in your working life. It is a huge dilemma in many countries.

Mar 15, 2019 5:57 AM

This is precisely why the nationalism of Modi’s BJP is such a sham. The BJP projects nationalism and Indian sovereignty through religion and territorial disputes, while selling out the sovereignty that truly matters: economic.

Mar 15, 2019 5:45 AM

Coincidence? While looking up D.Camoron’s net worth (which jumped to 10Million in offshore accounts after he teamed up with Sarkozy to destroy Libya) I saw that some of his business contacts are Indians resident in UK (Mittal, Hinduja). Hinduja bros were also friends of prev PM TB.Liar and his Oxford chum Mandelson.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s brother Olivier worked for Rothschild (Carlyle corp) during the same period that Sarkozy and Camoron destroyed Libya. Olivier’s net worth jumped to 60Million during this period. Sarkozy’s net worth was 10million after his tenure of office.

These PMs and Presidents are the “modest fortune” men (TB.Liar 80millios) who use the power of the State to make make billions for Capitalism. True descendents of Mussolini’s fascism, “The coercive power of the State allied to the persuasive power of Capitalism”.

Mar 15, 2019 5:49 AM
Reply to  vexarb

PS Mandelson who visited a Rothschild yacht.

Mar 16, 2019 1:32 AM
Reply to  vexarb

In the book ‘Goid Warriors’ Carlyle was described as soaking up the former politicians. It is not their time in office which nets them the big money, it said from memory, but that they get invited to be part of the Carlyle Group.

Godfree Roberts
Godfree Roberts
Mar 15, 2019 4:37 AM

If its government were honest and competent India could make great use of China’s success in this regard. No-one has been dispossessed.

In 2012, officials in poor rural Sihong County create a separate, land–management right, encouraging farmers to rent their land management rights and even pledge them as loan collateral so long as the land remained agricultural.

By 2015, one resident[1], Sun Zeshun, had leased his land to an agribusiness corporation and was a roofing contractor in a nearby town. With his doubled monthly income he built a new house and bought an SUV, “Life is much better now. I have more freedom and my income is less affected by weather”.

Pointing to Sihong’s success, Beijing encouraged rural governments to follow suit and, in 2017, land use reform began unlocking twenty-two trillion dollars of previously invisible wealth, bringing the dreams of China’s four hundred million rural people (almost the population of the EU) urban living a step closer. The government has promised that, when legislation is formally adopted the innovation will be part of the nation’s farmland rights.

Similar innovations have made Chinese property ownership the highest in the world.

Mar 15, 2019 8:39 AM

“No one has been dispossessed.”

Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and China’s rapid (but now stalling) industrialisation was founded on the largest dispossession in history. Peter Harvey puts the figure at 200 million of internally displaced people. Not all of them faired so well as the fellow in your example. 1.3 million were dispossessed during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam project. These are just examples.

China debt funded its internal housing and infrastructure market, overdeveloping both. It then debt funded the mortgages to partially sell some of the overbuilt housing stock. All of this added to the Holy Grail of GDP: but are not measures of true prosperity.


Mar 16, 2019 12:51 AM
Reply to  BigB

Yes, but China has developed in a shorter space of time than anybody else. Think like a businessman, when the ledger is tallied there’s been a win.

Don’t you think that the people who were dispossessed by the 3 gorges dam would have been been affected in exactly the same way had private capital built it? What was the alternative? More gas fired power stations? Not enough gas in China then at the time. More coal fired power stations? Oh no. No electricity? Let people sit in the dark and your whole surveillance system does not work? (That applies to all countries, e.g. the NSA could not check all telecommunications if there’s no electricity.) Reduce the population so that new electricity generation is not needed?

The beef of the West with China is about companies owned by government entities. They can react quicker than private consortia and the population can later have some influence which you do not have with private investors like Carlyle or BlackRock. You move faster with some segments of this kind. If we started to graft our system onto China, like we tried with Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the risks in the much larger countries China and India are quite substantial.

Mar 15, 2019 4:30 AM

Article nr xx on Off-Guardian tying India to GMOs. On China & GMOs zero. This while in January 2019 Chinese regulators approved the import of 5 genetically modified US crops (soybean, corn, canola + ) https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-opens-the-door-to-u-s-gmos-11548376118

Why assist someone’s personal crusade against one country?

Mar 15, 2019 10:11 AM
Reply to  Editor

No time to write articles.

I left the Guardian in search of less censorship which I found here at Off-Guardian, kudos.

The other issue I had with the Guardian was the lack of balanced reporting. On an issue it was hammering one viewpoint or one country. There happen to be more facets to each case and also no country should be singled out in cases where others are doing the same or worse. This is still lacking here , I understand now due to want of send in articles.
Another path would be to ask authors of existing balancing articles for permission to reproduce here, but that will give more work for you.
Between a rock and a hard place?

Mar 16, 2019 1:26 AM
Reply to  Antonym

I have not left the Guardian. I consider it important to slot in something occasionally.

Mar 15, 2019 5:34 PM
Reply to  Editor

I don’t know how these things work, but I would very much recommend Yves Engler’s articles. They are not very widely disseminated even in Canada but they are very good.

Mar 15, 2019 5:41 PM
Reply to  Editor

Could you please fix the typo in the last graf. It should be “hang” over humanity’s head not “hand.” It mars an otherwise impressive piece of writing.

Mar 16, 2019 7:25 PM
Reply to  Antonym

I don’t usually respond to people who post anonymously. But it’s as if some people either do not read the articles (and the links provided) or fail to grasp them. Let’s make something clear. It is not a “personal crusade against one country”. I’ve written a great deal on issues relating to food and agriculture and many have focused on India (but not just India). But why India? Because I’ve lived there for many years and there is a huge crisis in agriculture affecting hundreds of millions of people and this is in great part due misguided policies imported from the West. You cannot analyse the situation in India without connecting events to World Bank directives and US geopolitical/strategic designs for the country. So whether you live in the West or live in India, the issues are relevant to us all. I suggest you read the work of Devinder Sharma and P Sainath. Would you rather have India further capitulate to outside forces, surrender its food sovereignty and let farmers continue to rot all to boost the bottom line of (foreign) corporations? If you think writing about this is some kind of ‘personal crusade’ against India, you’re sorely misguided.

Mar 15, 2019 2:18 AM

The opening paragraphs, with their cod-academic tone, mark this writer out as a Counterpunch contributor (confirmed by a Google search). Dire stuff.

Mar 15, 2019 5:32 AM
Reply to  kingfelix

King Felix: “Dire stuff”.


Mar 15, 2019 1:55 AM

If India and China can find a way to move together, neither the US nor the EU can succeed in influencing operations.

But the so called democracy always ensures that people fight each other (the other side in the two party system) to get to the positions. Realising this, they might work to agree on some things and agree where to disagree.

Then they should, India and China together, find a way to live in peace with Pakistan and progress together.

Mar 15, 2019 2:33 AM
Reply to  Wilmers31

In 1800, before the worst rampant imperialist exploitation, China and India accounted for 50% of the world economy. This is in the natural order of things, accounting for half the world population between them.

Mar 16, 2019 1:29 AM
Reply to  mark

Yes, and electing another one of Nehru’s descendants is stale. When this family no longer gets elected, that would be a sign of maturity of the Indian people. They need to do something productive with their lives. People should not martyr them, either.

Mar 18, 2019 2:35 PM
Reply to  Wilmers31

What’s wrong with dynasties? Works perfectly well for North Korea and the US.