Small Is Not Beautiful

Small Peasants and Family Labour

R Mukherjee

It is no wonder that the United Nations has declared 2014  as "the year of family farms", which globally account for about 85 percent of farm holdings. These farms provide livelihood opportunities to about 2.5 billion people across the world, and 84 percent of them belong to the category of small holders or peasants owning less than two hectares of agricultural land. Available estimates show that about 87 percent of the world's 450 million small holders are in Asia and the Pacific region. China and India together account for about two-thirds of small holders, with those in India contributing about 50 percent of the total agricultural output. In China, the existence and persistence of the small holder individual peasants' farms in large number with family labour shows the continuance of the remnant of the past.

Seventy percent of the food consumed in the world is produced by small-scale farmers, while the industrialised farms produce 30 percent of the food consumed. Most of the production of food by the small-scale farmers are not traded across borders; only 15 percent of their food produce is traded internationally. Eighty-five percent is consumed by the small farming households, traded locally and sold in domestic markets.

While lately "developing" market economy countries, including India, have been promoting small holder peasants on the pretext of "small is beautiful", and there is no denying about their efficiency advantage, but their viability and sustainability is now being debated. Issues that raise concern centre around the disadvantages they face—economics of scale, inadequate access to information, services and markets. Moreover, it is being argued that the efficiency advantage they face, is evaporating with development, rise in per capita incomes, migration of some work force from agriculture, rising rural wages and cheap capital compared to land and labour and increasing population and climate risks.

There are growing concerns about the increasing number of landless labourers and small holder peasants owning less than two hectares given the slow decline in the dependency on agriculture and its rapidly diminishing share in the gross domestic product of India, which fell to about 13.7 percent in 2012-2013, when the agriculture sector still had employed about 51 percent of the country's work force. The dualism continues to grow and manifest over the years.

Lack of alternative employment opportunities and diversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes has led to overcrowding of agriculture, growth and proliferation of small holdings of less than two hectares operating mostly with family labour over time. The infraction and differentiation of holdings and their relative operational area in agriculture show the interaction of opposite forces in development and provide a concrete picture and a broad consistent idea of the inherent weaknesses and obstacles, and contradiction in the self-development, expansion and transition to capitalist agriculture in the Indian economy. For instance in India, 6.5 million relatively large holdings (above 4 hectares) accounted for 51 percent, or greater share of the operated agriculture area in 1951, while, after 51 years, 12.25 million holdings in that category had the same percentage of land in 2002-2003. Their average size of holdings actually declined from 9.04 hectares in 1951 to 4.48 hectares in 2002-2003. They accounted for as much as 51 percent of the agricultural area operated in 1951 but with their much-increased number of 88.5 percent over time they reported only 33 percent of the agricultural area operated in the country in 2002-2003. On the other side, the holdings (within 4 hectares) accounting for 49 percent of the area operated numbered 53.46 million in 1951, increased to 89.02 million in 2002-2O03. Their average size of holdings also declined from 1.06 hectares in 1951 to 0.59 hectares in 2002-2003. Further more, while the holdings within 4 hectares including the marginal, small, and semi-medium holdings had 49 percent of the operated agricultural area in 1951, they greatly increased their share in operated area from 49 percent in 1951 to 67 percent in 2002-2003, with a relative fall to 39.9 percent in 1960-61 and 46.6 percent of the operated area in 1960-61 and 1970-71. Against the pressure of circumstances and operation of forces at the base, centralisation and concentration of land—the principal instrument of production- and other means of production, and use of owned machines and employment of more day labourers for organising large-scale, capitalist production in Indian agriculture appear to have been narrow and largely thwarted, adversely conditioned and somewhat reversed and retarded with the passage of time. But, the use of pump sets, tractors and HYV seeds has increased, whose dealers operate in hiring and renting out business along-side the money-lenders, in the sphere of trading, merchant's capital and usury, who are generally not capable nor can they venture to undertake large-scale capitalist organisation and commodity production in agriculture with the employment of wage labour for obvious reasons of international rigidity and resistance. Moreover, imported foreign agricultural commodities compete in the Indian market and that brings more profitable business to the increasing number of internal traders and merchants at the cost of the domestic producers in agriculture.

The hard reality thus can be deduced to the existence and development of the continuing and persisting middle stage in production of the small, scattered, individual form of land ownership with individual and family cultivation—which is the economic basis of feudalism—and that keeps the peasants in precarious condition of perpetual poverty and bondage.

A little bit of commercial production or a commercial turn in production however, is not disputed, but it cannot be strictly said as developed, large-scale capitalist mode of production with machinery and employment of free wage labour at a higher level. Prevalence of the semi-feudal mode of production in agriculture of India with small-scale agriculture and somewhat independent and semi-dependent handicraft thus continue to be the order till the present and so the United Nations graciously and benevolently declared 2014 as the "year of family farms" just to cover up the existing old mode of production and the pre-capitalist and semi-feudal survivals at large.

On the whole, Indian agriculture has witnessed and undergone a "steady transformation from subsistence to semi-commercial and commercial mode". During the last three decades, nearly 88 million landless labourers and 50 million holdings were added; and the landless grew from 88 million in 1980-81 to 138 million in 2010-2011.

The same period witnessed a decline in operated area by about 4 million hectares. In that time 88 million landless labourers were added, from 53 million in 1981 to 141 million in 2011. The net sown area in agriculture however remained stagnant around 140 million hectares since 1970-71, and consequently the per capita net cultivated land declined from 0.26 hectares in 1971 to 0.11 hectare in 2011. Also, the land/man ratio declined from 0.9 hectare per agricultural worker in 1972—7.3 to 0.68 hectare per worker in 2009-2010. Such parameters characterising the trend of development point towards the glaring problem of the tremendous pressure on agricultural land, with significant negative impacts on land use and labour productivity, confirming the very existence of the semi-feudal state of things and its extension and proliferation in the country's economy over the years.

During the last three decades the number of small-holding (less than 2 hectares) peasants, in Indian agriculture increased by 77 percent, from about 65.8 million in 1980-81 to 117 million in 2010-2011. They now account for about 85 percent of all the landholdings in India compared to 74 percent in 1980-81. With their number significantly higher, they controlled as much as 45 percent of the total operated area in 2010-2011 compared to 26 percent in 1980-81. The operated area of small holders increased from 43 million hectares in 1980-81 to 71.15 million hectares in 2010-2011 or an increase of 65.5 percent in a period of thirty years. The rise in their share of the operated area shot up from 26 percent to 45 percent or by 73 percent points in the same period. It is however important to note that "56 percent of the total operated area is still cultivated by medium (above 4 hectares) and large farmers, (above 10 hectares) meaning very few farmers are cultivating significantly in larger areas", P K Joshi observes. This speaks of a relative advance within the narrow middle stage condition of development. More-over, conservative estimates show that if the current trend remains unchecked, India will have more than 155 million small holders by 2020-2021 controlling about 51 percent of the total operated area in Indian agriculture, showing a general long-term reversal or regression against the development of capitalist mode of production in agriculture sector.

On average, the landholding in India declined from 1.84 hectares in 1980-81 to 1.15 in 2010-2011. The average landholding of a small holder is 0.61 hectare, 5.8 hectares for a medium farmer and 17.4 hectares for a large farmer. The small (less than 2 hectares) and semi-medium holdings (2-4 hectares) accounted for as much as 67 percent of the operated area in 2002-2003 and their share has increased further in the more recent period. Large land-holders' share declined over time. It is a matter of great concern that the number of marginal farmers (those holding less than one hectare) increased from 56 percent in 1980-81 to 63 percent in 2010-2011; however they control 22 percent of the area, with an average size of just 0.39 hectare. They, together with the landholders of above 1 hectare to less than 2 hectare, had 45 percent of the operated land in Indian agriculture in 2010-2011. These material pre-requisites under the prevailing conditions, largely influence and set the trend and pattern of landholding with still growing hundreds of millions of land parcels and attachment of labour in agriculture of the Indian economy in the twenty-first century.

In 2010-2011, the share of small holders in total holdings was more than 95 percent in the states of Bihar, Daman and Diu, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal. Their share in total operated area ranged between 76 percent and 81 percent. It is important to note that only 2 percent of medium and large holdings in Kerala and 3 percent in Bihar each control 24 percent of operated area. In contrast, Arunachal Pradesh, Punjab and Nagaland have less than 35 percent of total land holdings belonging to smallholders. In other states, the share of small holders in the total number of land holdings in India ranged between 50-60 percent and 90-95 percent in 2010-2011.

The average land holding of small holders is as low as 0.17 hectare in Kerala and about 0.31 hectare in Bihar. It is less than 0.7 hectare in more than half the states in India. With the profusion and proliferation of tiny Landholdings the number and operated area of small holders (less than 2 hectares) has been rising over the years. The largest increase in the share of small holders was observed in Maharastra (15 percent), Gujarat (14 percent) and Odisha (12 percent) in 2010-2011 compared to 1990-1991. The share of small holders in operated area increased by 19 pcrcent in Andhra Pradesh, 23 percent in Odisha and 24 percent in Bihar.

A little different scenario was witnessed in Punjab and Goa, where the share of small holders in agriculture declined between 1990-91 and 2010-2011. Sikkim, Delhi, Lakshadweep and Meghalaya too witnessed a relative decline in the number of small holders and also showing a decline in the area operated by small holders. While in Punjab it fell from 45 percent in 1990-91 to 34 percent in 2010-2011, in Goa the decline was marginal, from 90 percent in 1990-91 to 89 percent in 2010-2011 due to a shift in tourism industry. In Punjab, the share of small holders in total operated area declined from 11 percent in 1990-1991 to 9 percent in 2010-2011. The average size of their holding in Punjab only very marginally increased from 0.98 hectare in 1990-1991 to 1.03 hectare in 2010-2011.

There has been profusion of small holders in rain fed and marginal areas. They operate under a high risk environment, confronted by frequent droughts, floods and other eventualities. Their yield levels are way low than favourable and better-off areas. Most of them are at subsistence level with small marketable surpluses. In a highly competitive and globalised market these peasants face numerous hazards and challenges for their subsistence and survival.

Mapping of small holders at district level provides a more startling depiction. It is observed that their extent is expanding and operated area on the average, is contracting. In 2010-2011 there were 77 percent of all the districts, had more than 70 percent small holders. In 2000-2001 there were 70 percent districts having 70 percent small holders. Only about 24 percent districts have more than 70 percent operated area in 2010-2011, which was 14 percent in 2000-2001. These historical trends show that over time more districts are housing small holders with lesser operated area for cultivation and as P K Joshi observes, "efforts have been initiated to check such trends". Pauperisation causes destitution and leads to more tension.

These phenomenal developments along with growth of the small and semi-medium holders doing small-scale agriculture and its associated handicrafts (manufacture and domestic industry) mainly based on family labour consumption really form the very core of the economic basis of feudalism, and as the data confirm, it continues to sustain and expand in India, the semi-feudal base and its own old mode of production in the agriculture sector and rural areas of the country. It is in fact, more exacerbated with the competition, inroad and greater penetration of imperialist capital and operation of its comprador big bourgeoisie and merchants in the countryside of India.

It is mischievous, absurd and horrendous, under the anarchic conditions in the existing add prevailing order of things now to preach post revolutionary idea of agriculture, as "basis", and industry as our "future" by the adored 'left" in India, under the present rule and domination of international finance capital in the country. And, actually for this, their Government of West Bengal forcibly occupied peasants' rich ferule land only to serve the big business to establish industry thereby working in collaboration with the international monopoly corporations and imperialist capital at large.

Family Labour
The most inherent, endemic and fundamental has been the existence, continuance and predominance of family labour in the share of human labour in Indian agriculture over time. Human labour in total cost of production for the crops was 28.4 percent in 1999, in which as much as 15.3, or 53.9 percent was shared by producer's family labour and out of human labour cost of 28.5 percent, producers' family labour accounted for 13.7, or 48 percent in 2010. Share of labour costs comprising human labour, animal labour and machine labour in the total cost for all the six major crops of Indian agriculture increased from 38.9 percent to 40.5 percent but the share of other costs declined relatively from 61.1 percent to 59.5 percent during 1999-2010. There is however much scope and strong possibility for relative increase in the share of family labour against employment of casual labour by the ever increasing number of marginal, small and semi-medium land-holders as they find it more costly and difficult to hire casual labour owing to their low resource base, poverty and their efforts for substitution of family labour for outside casual labour in production in the anarchic market conditions, for their bare family subsistence. Foreign imperialist capital and its loyal indigenous big exploiters-traders and merchants-suppress, thwart the ever growing small holdings and their transition, real development and hound the labour both in agriculture and industry sectors of the Indian economy.

While the family labour in the human labour cost of Indian agriculture remained preponderant, there is higher degree of variation across the states in the share of family labour in total human labour use. For example, the highest share was observed in Rajasthan in all four major crops (88.6 percent in chickpea, 83.3 percent in (maize, 80.8 percent in wheat) with an average of 82.5 percent, while the lowest was observed in Andhra Pradesh with an average of 26.7 percent maize 36.5 percent, cotton 28.4 percent, paddy 31.6 percent and sugarcane 22.5 percent). Overall, in India, the share of family labour participation was higher in wheat (61.4 percent), chickpea (54.8 percent), maize (55.5 percent), cotton (46.5 percent), paddy (4-5.3 percent) and sugarcane (29.1 percent). It is observed that, with time, the growth rate in family labour use has become less to some extent for most of the crops and states. Highest negative growth was observed in case of maize (-3.43 percent) and cotton (- 2.65 percent), even paddy (-2.56 percent). For cotton family labour use significantly reduced in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, while it increased in Tamil Nadu, Maharastra and Rajasthan. Below -5 percent growth rates were observed for cotton in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, for in Madhya Pradesh, for paddy in Andhra Pradesh for Chikpea in Haryana and Bihar.

There has been a process of casualisation of agricultural labour as reflected in use of increased share of casual wage labourer in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharastra, Punjab, Gujarat and Haryana. However, in most of the crops in Odisha, West Bengal and in some crops in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan the share of family labour still remains high with low level of farm mechanisation and less labour productivity which reflects the prevalence of subsistence agriculture annexed in the semi feudal system.

The situation has been more complicated and exacerbated because the experience of globalisation of agriculture has not been favourable for the peasants of India and they are now facing greater uncertainties in terms of prices and returns.

India is now struggling to clear up corporate balance sheets due to recent sharp slowdown in growth. Companies are wrestling with more than $640 billion of debt or more the 40 percent of India's gross domestic product. In this background, the Reserve Bank of India is allowing foreign investors to buy corporate bonds that are either totally or partly in default, as a potential boost is the country's nascent distressed debt market. As a result, the masters of finance capital would rule the roost in tbie economy most in a big semi-colonial country like India.

All this exposes the coexistence and inter-relation and unity between the semi-feudal social formation and imperialist capital's domination in Indian agriculture.

Household of a farmsize doesn't necessarily mean and help altruism, growth of capitalist production and gender equality. The vast remnant of the past society, semi-feudal features, characteristics and encumbrances as shown, working mostly with old institutions, social habits and practices encounter and thwart development of modern agriculture and new relations of production, prohibit women's ownership and their running of the holdings of agriculture—and that certainly continues and strengthens the semi-feudal social formation and its characteristics in the affairs of the material agriculture sector.

From the material facts and developments, it becomes more cogent, revealing and concrete that the semi-feudal trap very much holds sway in the country. It is not only sustaining but also growing in the economy over time. This confirms the contention of Daniel Thorner and Alice Thorner (1982) who, after a thorough survey of the debate on Indian agriculture being capitalist or semi-feudal, concluded that although capitalist penetration has relatively increased in Indian agriculture yet it is difficult to say that capitalist mode has become dominant phenomenon. The same state of things extends, persists and manifests through the twenty first century in India.

Autumn Number 2018
Vol. 51, No.14 - 17, Oct 7 - Nov 3, 2018