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Framing of the progressive interventions and agrarian transition: Lessons from the Indian experience.

                                                                                                                               Dinesh Abrol


Over the past sixty years the two most important intersecting policy perspectives influencing the discourse of the dominant forces in policymaking on agricultural development have been technological change and economic growth. In technological terms, the discourse of dominant forces is shifting away in the production-innovation framework of policy development from the mere spread of “green revolution” technology to the extension of “gene revolution” or “evergreen revolution / double green revolution”. In economic terms, the shift in discourse on policymaking can be seen from the emphasis on the regular development of “conventional agriculture” for food self-sufficiency, having its role in the provision of cheap food to urban population and in the transfer of resources and free labour to the industrial sector to the “new agriculture’ assuring plenty of food through the application of latest technology and diversification into horticulture, floriculture, poultry, etc. The new evergreen agriculture plays also its growth related role through export of food grains. It integrates agriculture with the production of processed foods targeted to meet the newly arising urban elite demand for processed foods in the country with the help of agribusiness. It generates more opportunities for the “rural non-farm systems” through the post-harvest operations as a residual adjunct in the supply chain being built by agribusiness entering into food retail in the country. It envisages through this new linkage the absorption of surplus labour becoming now available in plenty on account of the inevitable operations of the capitalist growth process. Simultaneously, as the structural reforms of the 1980s and the policies formulated on the basis of the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ have thrown a spanner in the design of the above described strategy of management of agrarian transition under perusal by the dominant forces, some of the policymakers also now speak not only of moving the people away from agriculture to the industrial sector but also are willing to introduce some supplementary schemes which are aimed at the development of rural livelihoods on the basis of bringing about an increase in productivity in small-scale agriculture through “sustainable agriculture”, with fresh spin-offs to the rural non-farm sector.

This article aims to put across an alternative perspective and pathway to the development of sustainable agriculture which seeks to integrate agro-ecological alternatives with the rural non-farm systems that are capable of organizing the operations of input supply and output processing within the boundaries of local economies. The rationale of this alternative is that the agenda of progressive forces needs to include such initiatives and demands which will reduce the farmers’ risk as well as generate local employment opportunities through the systemic upgrading of local economies. It suggests that the need of the hour is to undertake agenda making and collective self-learning for such a strategy of agricultural development which would make the production of diversified output of mixed integrated farms totally viable by linking the production and innovation system to the possibilities that can be captured from the local market demand itself through appropriate socio-technical innovations. It claims that such a strategy of agricultural and rural development would also allow the agro-ecological engineering alternatives to act as the growth engine for the development of enterprises of group enterprises of rural labour and self-help groups of women who are also interested to improve their own livelihood conditions.

Progressive traditions and policy discourse on agricultural development

Focus here is therefore on the question of what should we be doing to build the appropriate political response to the emerging challenges of agricultural development in the above described contemporary conditions in India. In particular how we should frame the future progressive interventions in order to effectively respond to the policy discourse of dominant forces and mobilize the people for their participation in the politics of shaping of development of agriculture and allied sectors which are also the target of forces arising out of the world of national and international agribusiness. We need to discuss the past experience of framing of the responses from within the progressive tradition to the policy discourse on agricultural development. We wish to achieve gradually much in the field too through this initiative in which the participants from diverse traditions have come together for the development of an alternate perspective where the dimensions of technological change and economic development would be suitably integrated for the empowerment of rural poor. It is our hope that we will be able to contribute to the knowledge and skills required for the development of resources to be utilized in the construction of a new pathway which would have much potential to combine the progress being made worldwide with regard to the development of the knowledge and practice of “agro-ecological engineering” with the possibilities of economic development being shaped on the basis of  the “upgrading of local economies” as relatively autonomous systems of production and innovation for the supply of food, fodder, fuel and materials to the local markets in India.


There is a need for an alternate perspective where the dimensions of technological change and economic development would be suitably integrated for the empowerment of rural poor.





Agricultural policy discourse and the left challenge  

 In an important “progressive left” tradition of policy discourse the issue of the dynamics of the Indian agrarian transition has been debated in terms of determining the conditions and factors responsible for the completion / incompletion of all those changes in the countryside that are necessary to the overall development of capitalism, and to the ultimate dominance of capitalist mode of production in the national social formation of India. Debate on the theme of “whether or not peasant production continues to exhibit the tendency of class differentiation in India” is an important subject matter of the discourse influencing the framing of interventions. The outcome of this debate is expected to provide advice and guidance to the practitioners for the advancement of the resistance of those basic classes (peasantry and rural labour) that they also favour and support. While there are a number of analyses already made in respect of the arrested, blocked or incomplete transitions in the great variety of historical contexts by the students of this important tradition on the basis of their study of both types of national social formations, colonial and non-colonial, but as there is also much to be investigated about the contemporary conditions of economic growth and technological change. But even today the debate and theory are still focused mainly on the question of how much the class of peasantry continues to persist in a differentiated form without being transformed into capitalist farmers and wage labourers in India. In practice, the left politics has certainly been in the forefront of the opposition mounted in the country to the policy discourse of dominant forces over the last five decades. It has been a leader in respect of the the initiatives taken for the implementation of the land reforms, decentralized planning and environmentally sensitive technological innovations like the system of rice intensification (SRI) in areas where its influence exists.

In this tradition, however, much of the theory related literature still pursues this debate in the framework of a distinct approach to political economy of agrarian transition in which the problem of success and failure is viewed mainly through the lens of making of progress or development of barriers to the introduction and diffusion of new technology being introduced by the dominant forces. It does not take into account the possibilities of exploiting the instrument of socio-technological innovations itself for the organization of peasantry and rural labour. Discourse undertaken in this tradition is largely neglectful of the possibilities available to the leadership of these movements in terms of organizing the unorganized for undertaking the struggles for access to those technological and organizational innovations that have the potential to strengthen the alliance of peasantry and rural labour vis-à-vis the forces of agribusiness and empower them better vis-a-vis the large capitalist farmers whose power is also growing and denying easy access to resources, capabilities and markets to the peasantry and rural in the local economies. It remains concerned mainly with the making of investigations into the socio-economic effects of technology or institutional and policy changes in question that make the capitalist agrarian transition possible or impossible. Strike against the actions of dominant forces is seen to be limited to undertaking actions through the struggles countering them mainly on the questions of access to land, incomes and wages for peasantry and rural labour.

Agro-ecological alternatives and NGO approach

In the other emerging progressive tradition, in which there is much emphasis on the advocacy for approaches that focus on the introduction of ‘agro-ecological’, ‘sustainable’, ‘natural’, ‘low-external input’, ‘organic’, ‘biological’ farming systems, the contribution has been focused on developing mainly the understanding of what kind of agri-food systems and resource conserving technologies are compatible with small-scale agriculture. In addition, as they also focus on the question of how to tap into the knowledge and skills of farmers to understand and respond to the changes in environment and local agri-food systems and do not have support the formal systems of research in to the development of technologies for agriculture and allied sectors and rural industrialization, they have also ended up in focusing mainly on the potential of indigenous technological knowledge and traditional community based approaches. But it needs to be kept in view that agro-ecosystems are also part of wider socio-ecological (climate change) and socio-technical (class and gender) relations, embody inequalities and differentials in terms of access to resources, capabilities and markets, can be utilized by the dominant forces to advance their own agenda and be neglectful of the dimension of social justice. Studies are now available in respect of knowledge and labour constraints facing the socio-economically differentiated strata of peasantry and rural labour in respect of the implementation of agro-ecological approaches and the gaining of economic advantage from local-agri-food systems. These studies indicate that the complex trade-offs between the availability of house-hold labour and the gendered dynamics of family labour, markets for hired labour, off-farm income and migration and other agricultural activities.


Many are missing the wider point about how to encourage appropriate innovation systems which will consciously empower the groups of poor peasants and rural labour.


Even from the advocacy of NGOs it is apparent that their reification in the implementation is missing the wider point about how to encourage appropriate innovation systems which will consciously empower the groups of poor peasants and rural labour better to take care of the diversity of needs of highly differentiated farming communities, and how, through such kind of knowledge and skill enhancing processes, offer to the local economies a wide range of technology choices , deploying scientific and indigenous knowledge. Pathways to sustainability need a focus on more than developing resource-conserving technologies and practices of integrated practices to be followed on the farms by farmers. Innovation systems must encompass the complexity of resource and capability use by addressing both the biophysical and social dimensions of agriculture, including equity of distribution of benefits. In this tradition, there is need to focus on broader processes emerging in respect of the influences on agri-food systems, including processes concerning the conservation and conversion of natural resources, efficiency of production, processing of food, marketing and consumption issues. There is a need to look at how the national and global food chains are interacting with and impinging on local food systems.

Participatory agricultural technology development and NGOs    

The other related progressive tradition of “participatory research and development” approach to innovation system building has had its own share of failures. Today a wide array of people-centered approaches falling under the banners of ‘farmer participatory research’, ‘participatory technology development’ , ‘participatory rural appraisal’, ‘stake-holder analysis’, ‘sustainable livelihood research’, ‘community based natural resource management. These diverse yet interrelated approaches are aimed at enabling the rural people to engage with the processes of research and development to understand and improve their own agri-food systems. One important area of work in the field of participatory development of agricultural technology has been participatory plant breeding. It has shown some success in bringing about yield increases in rain-fed agro-ecosystems. Nevertheless, they have also shown their limitations and have not been able to deliver all the anticipated benefits with regard to the empowerment of rural poor. In particular, they have not been able to address intra- and inter-community differences of power and the social tensions that exist over access to control over resources, capabilities and institutions.

Towards an effective peoples’ democratic politics for the advancement of appropriate socio-technical transition


This politics will have to explore how through what routes the goals of environmental security and social justice would be available in a better way and the space available for the introduction and diffusion of pro-poor technological and institutional innovations has to be expanded by the social and political movements in the contemporary conditions in India.


In no way our analysis of the various approaches discussed above implies a repudiation of these traditions; in fact we believe that this analysis should take us forward and can facilitate the coming together of these approaches for the creation of a united progressive strategy in respect of building our common resistance against the policies and systems that the dominant forces are imposing in the current context on the rural poor in India. It does call for a reflection on the politics, and each and every tendency must consider how this reflection can be made a systematic affair in which the elements of capability building, experimentation and struggles to be undertaken by the rural poor for the enhancement of their own access to resources and markets are an integral component of the politics. This politics will have to find out in practice what kind of space is available to the social and political movements to mobilize the peasants and rural labour for the organization of technological and institutional innovations to affect a change in the socio-technical conditions prevailing in the country.

It is however clear from the above analysis that this politics will have to apply the lenses of co-evolution / co-shaping of productive forces and production relations to explore precisely the important neglected question of political economy of technological and institutional innovation. This politics will have to answer the inter-related questions of whether the prevailing socio-political conditions in respect of the introduction of selected appropriate technological and institutional innovations in the society are favorable for the development of peasant worker alliance. This politics will have to explore how through what routes the goals of environmental security and social justice would be available in a better way and the space available for the introduction and diffusion of pro-poor technological and institutional innovations has to be expanded by the social and political movements in the contemporary conditions in India.

The author Dinesh Abrol is a Scientist at National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS),Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and convener of AIPSN Sub-committee on Agricultural S&T interventions; prepared for the Workshop on Emerging Challenges in Agriculture and Allied Sectors, Ananatpur, September 29-October 1, 2010.


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