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Subsistence Farmers: Where do they exist?
I want to start this post by giving a brief introduction on subsistence agriculture (SA) itself before moving on briefly to the politics of agriculture and the changing nature of farming in the rural areas of developing countries.
I have to admit that having grown up in Mumbai, I knew little or nothing about subsistence farming (SF). We had our agency that provided us with food: our local vegetable vendor who traveled several suburbs to acquire his share to sell from farmers, local grocery stores or kirana ghars that sold basic kitchen items on wholesale prices, fast food joints with standardized prices that gave no sign of where the food came from or the local migrant street food vendor who could be an abandoned subsistence farmer himself. We had no idea how to grow our own food and like most other young people, I did not care. I cared about the environment, risks of everyday living in a bustling city but still no clue of where the food came from.
So what did I care about? I became aware of the emphasis on deforestation, reclaiming sea land to house hundreds in order to increase land ownership for new residents. The counterarguments by the environmental lobbies hammered on the increasing vulnerabilities due to depleting mangroves in Mumbai and advocates for urban farming while growing up. Here is a balanced argument on health, environmental and economic risks along with mitigating strategies for Mumbai for additional reading.
So lets see, what is SF? It is a simple act of owning a small piece of land where you sow seeds of vegetables, food grains, fruits (your staple diet) while using all the available resources at hand such as cattle to till the land, children to pluck, hiring labour to separate the wheat from the chaffs ans so on. However the peasantry exists in combination with the environment and the state, other peasants and their community and not in isolation. Two simultaneous processes occurred at the same time to educate me on the SF households: Social class theories of Marx started to catch my attention and I undertook my first field visit to the house of a poor farmer.
It was a poor, drought-prone district in North India. The farmer and his wife owned a small cow dung home, one well, three goats, two daughters, one radio and a cooking fire. They were illiterate. In his backyard he owned a small plot of land (3 hectares) where they grew eggplants/brinjals, tomatoes, onions along with corn this kharif season. They were unhappy and their underlying fear was the possibility of the lack of rains that year. The well had dried up. The panchayat (local village governance unit) was full of corrupt government officials who did not provide them or their neighbors with a handpump as a water source even though they were entitled to it. They had sent their only son to a newly-urbanizing neighboring district to school. The farmer himself had a debt from the local moneylender, was paying a huge interest to him and they were steeped in poverty. They had just enough food to feed themselves.
Can this farmer with entitlements but without agency ever be a part of a revolution? In the caste-divided, class-manifested society such as India the idea of a swing in support of the peasantry that Scott’s ‘Moral Economy of a Peasant’ talks about is a bit of a pipe dream in modern-day India. The book in general links SA to the colonial roots, it dwells on the power of peasant rebellion in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. It is indeed a mystery how the most populous group of people in the world go so largely under-represented politically especially in developing countries. The new census data in India still show a staggering number of people surviving on agriculture. Data on people surviving just on SA is sketchy especially since they are often identified as “seasonal migrants”. Most Green Revolution technologies were not accessible to three-quarters of Indian farmers (Patel,2004) in Finnis (2006) and free hybrid seed distribution is common in village councils. Cash crop cultivation is small pieces of cultivable land puts the livelihoods of SF households at serious risk of perishing. In other words, the lowering of land fertility resulting from cash crop cultivation and its impact on sustenance of SF households are subjects that deserve national dialogue.
Why is it that the SF households have not merged with the Proletariat? Why are they still hand-to-mouth households? How has access (not just to modernization but even to basic access of human development) eluded this class of the population? These are some questions that need attention if the development in India has to be inclusive.
“I firmly believe that we need a new army of private businesses and nonprofit organizations to multiply their current level of investment in credit, retail of farm inputs, and other market-oriented businesses to reach subsistence farmers.”—
-Andew Youn, One Acre Fund
Read article here.