In order to incentivize the implementation of these new scientific and technological inputs, the Congress Party made a series of unprecedented interventions. It established a state-regulated network of mandis (market yards), where farmers could sell any amount of grains at a guaranteed Minimum Support Price. It improved the existing Public Distribution System, and established new seed farms and research laboratories, nationalized banks and co-operatives, and built new infrastructure for irrigation and transportation. However, these interventions were not so much driven by the much-fabled socialist pretensions to “welfare” as they were motivated by the need to engender the appropriate conditions under which a new, capital-intensive mode of agrarian production could immediately take root.
As expected, once the postcolonial state subsidized the new scientific and technological inputs and guaranteed the farmers a definite return on their new investments, the farmers in Punjab started rapidly investing in the new inputs. By 1974-75, they had sown around 73 percent of the cultivated area in Punjab with the HYV seeds, and were using nearly 10 times more fertilizers and pesticides and 22 times more tractors per operational holding as compared to the rest of the country3Nirvikar Singh and Deepali Singhal Kohli, “The green revolution in Punjab, India: The economics of technological change,” Journal of Punjab Studies 12.2 (1997): 285-306..
The ensuing decades proved to be a veritable springtime for the new regime of agrarian capitalism, yielding a bounteous harvest of productivity rates and profits that remain unparalleled. By 1991, despite occupying less than 2 percent of India’s landed area, Punjab was contributing 60-70 per cent of wheat and 50-55 per cent of paddy to the India’s total grain production4Ranjit Singh, “The Green Revolution: An Analysis” in Social, Economic and Political Implications of Green Revolution, eds. B.S. Hama and A W Shukla (Classical Publishing, 1991), 12..
However, these burgeoning gains in agrarian productivity were premised on severe structural changes in Punjab’s agrarian life. Unable to afford the new scientific and technological inputs, marginal and small farmers began losing their land to increasing competition from middle and large farmers. Within a few years, thousands of marginal and tenant farmers were transformed into landless laborers, and by the mid-1970s, the number of landless laborers in Punjab had almost doubled, reaching up to 32 percent of the state’s agrarian workforce5Gopal Singh, “Socio-economic bases of the Punjab crisis,” Economic and Political Weekly (1984): 42-47.. By 1975, more than 75 percent of all wealth in rural Punjab was owned by 10 percent of the richest households6Harish K. Puri, “Elections and after,” Economic and Political Weekly (1985): 1681-1683.. And by 1980, nearly 40 percent of the rural population in Punjab lived below the poverty line7Pritam Singh, Punjab Economy: The Emerging Pattern (Enkay Publishers, 1995), 435-6..
By 1995-96, the relationship between the ongoing expropriation of marginal farmers and the ongoing consolidation of lands by medium and large farmers had become all but self-evident, even acquiring a baleful symmetry of sorts. The number of marginal operational landholdings had decreased from 37 percent to 18 percent, while the latter swelled from 38 percent to 57 percent8Government of Punjab. Human Development Report 2004: Punjab, (Chandigarh, 2004), 41..
Even if the introduction of the Green Revolution had rapidly increased the production of food grains, it had also dramatically diminished the number of people who could afford to buy them, thus evidencing, in real time, Marx’s famous assertion that under capitalism, “accumulation of wealth at one pole is … at the same time accumulation of misery … at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.”9Karl Marx. Capital: Volume 1 (Penguin, 1980), 799. And this equation has since become only more appalling.
If the Green Revolution was first introduced with the express intention of achieving food sovereignty, then the postcolonial Indian state seems to have long overshot this objective.
Currently, it is the largest exporter of rice and the second-largest producer of wheat and rice in the world. As per its estimates in June, the Food Corporation of India had accumulated grain stocks of 97 million metric tons in the Central Pool, more than twice the amount normally stipulated as the “buffer stock.” And yet despite such staggering progress in productivity, 4 out of every 10 children are currently undernourished, more than half of the country’s female population between 15 and 49 years is anemic, 32 percent of the country’s population is food insecure, and India accounts for 22 percent of total global food insecurity.
A recent pamphlet jointly issued by Shramik Samvad (Nagpur) and Mazdoor Samanvay Kendra puts these damning numbers in perspective: “the overflow (in production) is not due to surplus production, but the godowns are full because a large section of the Indian population is stricken by hunger … The country has enough grain because the vast majority has been denied access to it.”
The capitalist spring of the Green Revolution was marked by increasing levels of agrarian productivity, which, in turn, were tied to increasing levels of agrarian mechanization. Over time, as the latter approached its upper limit, productivity gains also started to flatten out. Already by 1991, 96 percent of Punjab’s cultivable land had been successfully utilized, 95 percent of its total cropped area had been successfully irrigated, and the levels of cropping intensity—the fraction of the cultivated area that is harvested—had reached a staggering high of 176 percent10Pritam Singh, Federalism, Nationalism, and Development: India and the Punjab Economy (Routledge, 2008), 124.. Finally, in 2002-03, for the first time in the post-Green Revolution era, the growth of agriculture in Punjab actually declined at an annual rate of 2.38 percent. As the productivity and profitability of Punjabi agriculture plumbs newer depths of stagnation, the cascading crises of economic immiseration and ecological degradation become more conspicuous than ever.
Currently, around 65.4 percent of the farm households in Punjab are indebted, and in the wake of this growing indebtedness, 90,000 farmers have committed suicide between 1990 and 2006. More importantly, the twinned cycle of landlessness and indebtedness is clearly stratified along lines of caste. Put bluntly, if the upper-caste Jats constitute the majority of landholders, then the Dalits constitute the majority of Punjab’s landless workforce. Despite forming around 32 percent of the state’s population, only 3.5 per cent of Dalits own any agricultural lands. On the other hand, according to the National Sample Survey of 2011-12, 86 percent of agricultural laborers in rural Punjab are Dalits. Moreover, despite rampant agrarian modernization, the notorious practice of siri—where the bigger Jat landlords force Dalit men to work as “bonded laborers” for life—remains widely prevalent. According to one estimate, around 500,000 Dalits are currently working as bonded laborers in rural Punjab.
This ongoing political-economic tumult has been further compounded by the slow destruction of Punjab’s ecology. Around 92 percent of its agricultural land is currently dominated by alternating cycles of HYV wheat and paddy, and the ecological diversity of the region appears to have been irrevocably hampered. Meanwhile, the rampant use of tubewells and submersible water pumps has depleted the groundwater to alarmingly low levels. In turn, widespread dependence on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides has caused record levels of water and soil pollution. As a result, a host of genetic diseases, not least among them cancer, have become endemic to specific parts of Punjab.
2020: The Autumn Is Here
That the cycle of the Green Revolution has reached its limit point is hardly surprising. Nor is the fact that agrarian Punjab is lurching towards an ever worsening economic and ecological disaster. Already in the early 1970s, critics had portended this coming catastrophe, and with remarkable acuity at that. Capitalism is what capitalism does. That is, it breaks down. Crisis is its enduring pathology. But then, crises do not just disclose the fundamental infeasibility of capitalism; they also constitute new opportunities for capitalism to recompose itself, often on a much larger scale. Just when a cycle of capitalist accumulation seems to have broken down for good, one discovers that another, more expansive one has already started to spiral outwards.
And so, if anything, what is surprising is the febrile ferocity with which the BJP-led rightwing has passed these laws. Its stark refusal to even adhere to the conventions of parliamentary democracy should be seen as a sign of its desperation to facilitate this capitalist recomposition. To put, then, the current conjuncture in perspective: the springtime of the Green Revolution—a cycle of rampant gains in productivity rates and profits founded on the introduction of capital-intensive agriculture—has long run into stagnation. We have known this for the past two decades, if not more.
And if these recent agrarian bills are anything to go by, we are now entering a quite different historical cycle, one that seeks to break free from the limits imposed on it by the state-sponsored regime of Green Revolution. Repurposing Fernand Braudel’s famous phrase, I propose that a postcolonial autumn is around the corner. However, if in Braudel’s case the “autumn” had signified the world-historical flight of capital from industries to finance, then, in our specific postcolonial context, the “autumn” announces the peculiar return of commercial capitalism—“return” because commercial capitalism was the mainstay of the colonial agrarian economy.
In his seminal study of the Deccan peasantry during the mid-to-late 19th century, Jairus Banaji explains how the colonial regime of revenue assessments spawned a vast capillary network of commercial capitalism, whereby a capillary network of merchants, bankers, and brokers came to dominate and control the sphere of agrarian production in the Deccan region. As Banaji details, the increasing demand for land revenues by the British colonial state thrust peasant households into increasing dependence on moneyed capitalists, who, in turn, lent this dependence a unique capitalist form. Although the peasants formally retained the ownership of their lands, they were essentially operating as wage laborers. As Banaji astutely notes, the loans advanced by the moneylenders acted as the peasants’ wages. In return, the moneylenders appropriated most of the season’s harvest as their interest, which, as Marx presciently pointed out, was “just another name for surplus value.”