ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Agrarian Question amidst Populist Welfare

Interpreting Tamil Nadu’s Emerging Rural Economy

Tamil Nadu’s emergence as a developmental model rests on its ability to combine economic growth with poverty reduction and high levels of human development. Scholars attribute such outcomes to a set of social policies implemented in response to a long history of “democratic action.” It is, however, not clear whether such intervention through social policies can also enable a more inclusive trajectory of economic development. This paper uses the analytical lens of the “agrarian question” to examine this aspect of the state’s development. In doing so, the paper argues that while social welfare nets are crucial to negotiate the vulnerabilities of a market-driven growth process and open up new political and economic spaces, they are inadequate in a context where the secondary sector has not been able to absorb labour to the extent anticipated.

The author wishes to thank J Jeyaranjan, Judith Heyer, and A Kalaiyarasan as well as participants in presentations of earlier versions of the paper made at the French Institute of Pondicherry, Azim Premji University in Bengaluru and the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai.

Tamil Nadu has been recognised for its ability to sustain growth along with good human development outcomes (Drèze and Sen 2013; Kalaiyarasan 2014). Scholars attribute the emergence of this model to a set of social policies initiated in response to a history of collective action driven by social and political mobilisation among lower castes (Srinivasan 2010), resulting in a political regime described as “competitive populism” (Wyatt 2013a, 2013b; Noman 2010). While democratic action may explain the emergence of a more proactive welfare regime than most states in the country, it is still not clear whether populism can also influence the pattern of economic development so as to render it more inclusive and sustainable. If public action has accounted for the emergence of such a welfare regime, how does the welfare regime shape the domain of economic relations?

In recent years, it appears that the sutures that held the Tamil Nadu model together are being undone. Over 200 farmers have committed suicide in the state since the second half of 2016, reflecting a long-term crisis in the state’s agriculture and agroecology (Harriss and Jeyaranjan 2016; Janakarajan 2004). While the state’s welfare net is believed to have offset the negative fallout of agrarian distress to an extent, its limits are now evident. Affirmative action in employment policies have also become less effective due to reduced employment opportunities in the public sector in the post-reform period (Pandian 2011). Further, in a context of a nation-wide concern over jobless growth (Kannan and Raveendran 2009), it is not clear whether those exiting agriculture are able to access quality jobs, despite a relatively vibrant manufacturing sector and high levels of human development. This paper seeks to understand these developments in the state, particularly in relation to its welfare regime, through the analytical lens of the “agrarian question” (Bernstein 1996, 2006, 2016). To ensure a process of sustained accumulation and development in post-colonial economies, Marxist scholars consider the resolution of the “agrarian question” to be critical; it has been the subject of much debate in India (Lerche 2013; Thorner 1982; Patnaik 1986). Bernstein trisects the agrarian question into three domains (1996). The first draws attention to changes in control over productive assets in agriculture and the extent to which processes of differentiation and dispossession transform self-employed “traditional” cultivators into waged labourers on the one hand and capitalist farmers on the other. The emergence of such production relations is critical to the next problematique of the agrarian question, that is, capital accumulation. The agricultural sector should be in a phase of expanded reproduction that allows for surpluses to be generated and invested in the non-agricultural sector, the expansion of which can absorb those moving out of agriculture as waged labourers. The inability of the agricultural sector to generate surpluses and hence bring about structural transformation can therefore undermine the process of capitalist modernisation of the economy. Apart from the social justice imperative, land reform was therefore seen as crucial to this process as it generates greater incentives for surplus generation (Lerche 2013). Bernstein argues that under globalising conditions, ruling elites no longer look to the agricultural sector to source capital as they can overcome the capital constraint by access to global capital. More important, therefore, is the agrarian question of labour: the ability of “surplus” labour to move out of agriculture and that of the non-agricultural sectors to absorb the workforce productively. The final aspect of the agrarian question concerns politics around the first two aspects, that is, how different segments of the rural population respond to changes in distribution of productive assets and capital accumulation and, in turn, shape these domains.

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Updated On : 17th Nov, 2017
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