Reimagining Agrarian Practice and Community in Post-‘Green Revolution' Punjab, India

Friday, June 24, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
201 Moses (Moses Hall)
Divya Sharma, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY
This paper analyzes how cultural autonomy is conceptualized and employed in the politics of agro-ecology. I examine an emerging farmers mobilization for a socially and ecologically sustainable food system in the Indian state of Punjab. Punjab has been the site of state-led technology and chemical-intensive agricultural modernization since the 1960s, known as the ‘Green Revolution’. The region received disproportionate amount of government investment in agriculture, relative to its size and population, which increased productivity and helped ensure national food grain self sufficiency. Agricultural modernization increased incomes for large and middle farmers, but also forced the small farmers on to the technology treadmill in the later years. However, mid 1980s onward yields and profits began to stagnate, cost of cultivation increased with greater requirement of chemical inputs and ecological degradation. This was also the beginning of withdrawal of state investment from agriculture. The moral economy of rural Punjabi households has thus been shaped by the rise and fall in agrarian prosperity through intensification, which began with the colonial state and was accelerated by the post-colonial state. In other words, these are farmers who followed what Jan van der Ploeg (2008) calls the ‘modernization script’ and are suffering because of it, not because of being excluded.

The crisis for farmers exacerbated with neoliberal restructuring and is known to be particularly severe in the Malwa region of Punjab with monoculture cultivation of wheat, rice and cotton. Severe pest attacks, falling prices of cotton in the last few years, chronic debt, and increasing incidence of cancer among rural households are some of the manifestations of the crisis. A grassroots organization is mobilizing rural communities to transform practices of food production and consumption since 2005, emphasizing the relationship between environmental sustainability and social well-being. Entrenched in the ethos of commercial cultivation, however, the process of shifting toward sustainable agro-ecological farming and consumption seems radical, risky and almost impossible to many farming households in the current institutional and policy environment. Based on ethnographic research in 2014-2015, I analyze the discourse, mobilization strategies and experiences of this activist group in relation to the understandings of the crisis among members of rural households. How activists generate resources to transform practices becomes a particularly pertinent question in the context of a ‘degraded landscape’, which is socially and ecologically poor. This degradation entails an erasure of the tangible kind –loss of indigenous seeds, tree species, water, and of the intangible kind- that is an ethos of collective practices and communality, and a rupture in inter-generational transfer of practices.

Unlike the widely accepted critiques of the ‘Green Revolution’ model of agricultural intensification, which have centred on deepening social inequality and environmental degradation, the activist group in Malwa posits a more fundamental critique. Their discourse frames the contemporary agrarian crisis as a product of the ‘economism’ unleashed by the Green Revolution with its exclusive focus on productivity. A regime of subsidies and technology, they argue established structured dependence of the rural community on the state, dismantling material and cultural autonomy. The region and its people were not only exploited through mining of water and land in the name of national food security, but that ‘Green Revolution’ practices disrupted the cultural ethos of the region infusing it with materialistic consumerism.

The activist group is critical of other oppositional groups for being confined to an economistic framework. The Leftist groups have narrowly focused on social inequality, and the populist farmers’ unions in Punjab that emerged in the 1970s, are confined to making demands for higher support prices for crops and input subsidies from the state. Resistance expressed in these forms, they suggest, does not challenge the Western epistemology that undergirds state-led development and neglects the ecological dimensions of the crisis. The activist group employs the mobilising discourse of a ‘civilizational crisis’ instead of an ‘agrarian crisis’ and suggests that shifting toward agro-ecological farming practices is contingent on transformation of values, and an assertion of lost cultural autonomy. Activists suggest that social malpractices such as increased expenditure on marriage ceremonies and other ritualistic practices, female foeticide, and widespread drug and alcohol addiction signal a deeper problem, and that these trends cannot be viewed as separate from the agrarian crisis. Health concerns, particularly cancer and reproductive health issues, are linked to a disconnect with the environment, through the abandonment of what they call ‘caring farming labour practices’ that also fostered social cooperation historically.

The new imaginary they offer is premised on transformation of farming practices through agro-ecological methods, which is conceived as the pathway for reconnecting with ‘nature’ and ensuring community self-sufficiency and farmers well being. It is produced at the intersection of recovering a glorified ‘past’, social memory of agrarian practices recovered by rank and file activists as well as learning from farming practices in other regions of the country that were excluded from the ‘Green Revolution’. However, this discourse premised on an indigenous/Western binary, that prioritizes cultural autonomy and a knowledge politics has had limited resonance among rural communities. Drawing on postcolonial theory and agrarian political ecology, I illustrate how the privileging of cultural and knowledge politics has reinforced social exclusions, failing to address the caste, class and gendered subordination. Activists have not been able to translate their articulated vision into commensurable organizing strategies. Over the past decade, the organizing strategies have shifted toward a more pragmatic framework to enroll larger number of farmers with the movement, accommodating their concerns about precariousness of agrarian and rural livelihoods.  Within this pragmatic framework, however, I argue that the mobilization has deferred to the ‘individualistic ethic’ and notions of ‘self-care’ that scholars like Wendy Brown (2003) and others have argued are constitutive of neoliberal political rationality. Even as the activist group discursively challenges precisely such an ethos of individualism, I explore why organizing has become narrowly focussed on organic production and marketing, and working with farmers’ households instead of fostering village or community level collectives.