Rethinking Revolutions: An excerpt

The deep black soil, the basalt rock underlying it, and the monsoons, have together, shaped water management practices and crop choices on the Malwa plateau. Soyabean came and changed all that. Water, which was considered scarce in this dryland region and was percolated in the fields during the rainy season, became excess when the fields were planted with soyabean. In conjunction with the advent of water-guzzling wheat, soyabean converted Malwa into a land of water scarcity. The government’s push for rural electrification and its intervention in agrarian markets by instituting minimum support prices (MSP) were the other factors which came together with these non-human forces. Farmers chose to use the remuneration from growing soyabean to invest in water-extraction technologies, which also became available at the same time, because growing wheat was becoming profitable. These forces, acting together, have created a crisis of enormous magnitude. There is barely any water for drinking in Malwa in the hot summer.

The story of water in Malwa is presented as a binary—either you stop growing high yielding wheat and lose income or you grow it and lose water. This binary is played out year after year while in the backdrop, water tables are steadily falling. Sooner or later, farmers stop facing this choice altogether. There is no more water left to grow wheat, so they shift to less-water intensive chickpeas or leave the land fallow. And there is hardly anything left for consumption needs in the summer.

By identifying the various forces involved in creating such an outcome, I argue, it is possible to think of alternative trajectories. For instance, through my research it emerged that the collective memory of the valuation of land as a source of water in this dryland region has been lost. The value of land is computed either through the metric of productivity of a monoculture or through that of a commodity as part of real estate. Older ways of valuing land for its potential to hold water have all but disappeared. The role of pre-colonial institutions like the state or religious bodies in ensuring water security in dryland regions has also been forgotten (Davis 2002).

Farmers who try to create water structures like village ponds and farm ponds are considered to be ecological romantics. Their actions are treated as a wasteful use of land in the new scheme of evaluation because the opportunity cost of lost income through potential soyabean cultivation or conversion to urban use, is very high.

Further, government policies governing water use are divorced from government policies governing agricultural markets, even though on the farm, these are intrinsically linked. Over the last decade, the state government has banned tubewells, and under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), it has built farm ponds and wells across the state (Esteves et al. 2013). But at the same time, it has raised the MSP for wheat every year (Krishnamurthy 2012). Malwa has become one of the largest producers of wheat but at the cost of being able to farm at all in the future.

By recognising the role of various actors and forces and mapping the genealogy of current outcomes, alternative trajectories can be imagined. Simply reforming government policy may not be sufficient. What economic redefinitions or sociocultural practices would be required to support and value the creation of a water body, overriding the allure of soyabean or real estate? Which political alliances could challenge the class and caste biases of the wheat MSP policy? What would it take to move beyond the binary of wheat vs. water and recognise the interconnection of these forces in framing the problem?

These are the kinds of questions that need to be asked, if we are to begin to understand the agrarian transformation of the region and think of ways to help the rural people of Malwa. It is crucial to recognise the associations between human actors and non-human forces and map the corresponding network to be able to identify points of intervention.

My second example of tracing genealogies and thinking of an alternative trajectory is about the evaluation of markets. The problems of market inefficiency and corruption that the choupals ostensibly sought to address were to be solved using technology—the internet to provide price information, the moisture meters to do correct quality valuation, and the electronic weighbridges to measure weight. These were the technologies of accountability. They were to break the power of traders by bringing in competition and, as a result, raising the price realisation for farmers.

Goyal’s (2010) research on the soyachoupals showed that the modal price of soyabean received by farmers in the mandi increased by 1-3 per cent and price dispersion across mandis decreased as new village kiosks were introduced in each district. She argues that the choupals brought about competition in the market, forcing traders in mandis to increase the auction price. Higher prices encouraged farmers to increase acreage devoted to soyabean, thus, improving their welfare. She cites my earlier research on the financial sustainability of the choupals (Kumar 2004), to argue that the investment was also profitable for the company. ITC had provided me data, which showed that it had obtained better quality soyabean through the choupals. This produced higher quality deoiled cake (DOC) and oil upon processing, which fetched them a premium in the export market. This was a win-win for both sides, while reducing the power of traders.

This kind of economic analysis, which I participated in producing myself, attributes causality to a technical intervention without opening up for scrutiny the broader set of elements that have shaped this outcome. To begin with, there are more than three sets of actors here—farmers, the company, and mandi traders—whose actions are shaping outcomes. There are other companies purchasing soyabean, commission agents, government officials, exporters, buyers of DOC abroad, other soyabean producing countries like Brazil and USA, the Chicago Board of Trade, and also, women, farm labourers, circular sorting machines, and the rain, to name just a few.

Goyal’s analysis assumes that mandi traders were skimming off more than their share from the soyabean supply chain and that competition from ITC-IBD forced them to transfer some of this share to farmers in the form of higher prices. But the structure of the soyabean market in Malwa belies this. The majority of soyabean was purchased by commission agents in the mandi, on behalf of private processing companies in MP and Gujarat, on a fixed commission basis. Since the 1990s, there was three times excess capacity in the processing industry compared to the total crop grown in MP. The commission agent system enabled companies to ensure enough supply of raw material, while allowing traders to make money through fixed commissions on every quintal of soyabean purchased at a given level of quality. This large volume, low risk trade brought better returns to commission agents as compared to arbitrage on price. It also ensured that farmers always found a buyer for their crop.

Further, the price farmers realised for their crop was shaped by the norms of quality. One out of five farmers produced very poor quality soyabean which was rejected at the choupal. The mandi was the only place where there was a buyer willing to cater to their needs. Ironically, even the best quality farmers were penalised at the choupal because it provided a fixed price for all quality above a certain threshold, whereas the mandi auction facilitated a premium price.

At the same time, it was simplistic to argue that the choupals discriminated against poor farmers by rejecting poor quality soyabean. Soyabean quality norms were defined based on its end-use as cattle feed. Farm practices such as the use of scientific inputs did not affect quality, but external conditions, such as the weather, did. Thus, it was possible for poor farmers to obtain very good quality soyabean and for rich farmers to end up with a poor quality lot.

The demand generated by excess processing capacity made it worthwhile for some traders to purchase the worst quality soyabean and employ resources to improve its condition. Since quality depended on external additions to the bean, it was possible to improve it through physical means. Since both the choupals and mandi traders were price receivers in the global soybean supply chain, there was limited possibility for them to compete on the price. Instead, the benefits of the choupals were associated with non-price elements such as better weighment and courteous behaviour, which are not highlighted by Goyal.

Private market yards such as the eChoupals were a tentative step towards integration of procurement from farmers, processing of standardized products, and sale to consumers through the Choupal Saagars (rural malls built by ITC-IBD), in the name of market efficiency. As of 2014, there were eleven such malls in Madhya Pradesh (ITC Ltd. 2014). This reflects a global trend towards vertical integration of the soyabean supply chain, which is controlled by four transnational firms. This ranges from control over farm lands in countries like Brazil, ownership of processing factories across the world (south America, Europe, China and the US), ownership of meat processing plants, and finally, of supermarket chains in the US and Europe, which supply the meat directly to consumers. These companies are able to dictate terms of employment, contracts for purchase, standards of products, and even shape diet preferences across the world (cf. Patel 2010).

The concentration of economic power in the world soyabean complex, and increasingly in India, has important implications for agrarian policy and whose interests it purports to represent. Encouraging private markets in the name of market efficiency and reducing support to the mandi system can have two detrimental effects. One, the mandi is both a public physical space and an institutional system, which allows for voices of farmers to be expressed and addressed by various state actors who are politically accountable for their actions. Market places like the choupals are private spaces of purchase with only limited government oversight, affording little possibility of collective action by farmers. Corporatisation of intermediaries typically shifts accountability towards shareholders and financiers, and sometimes to consumers. Corporations are more successfully able to subvert mechanisms of public accountability as they are able to frame accountability narrowly, as a matter of technical efficiency, rather than as a political form of responsiveness towards the needs of farmers.

Two, privileging certain private marketplaces in Malwa, like the choupals, may potentially transform the soyabean processing industry, but in ways hurtful to farmer interests. The hundreds of soyabean processing companies that dot the central Indian landscape rely upon the mandi system to procure raw material. The weakening of the mandi system may undermine their very existence. The pursuit of market efficiency through the choupals may, thus, destroy the very competition which makes soyabean a profitable crop for farmers in Malwa.

The process of tracing genealogies in this manner helps move away from techno-managerial ways of understanding and evaluating agriculture. It also helps to identify the forces and actors that contribute to creating physical, social and discursive structures of exclusion and oppression. It is only when the transactions of soyabean farmers are contextualised in the broader setting of the regional and global commodity chain of soyabean markets, that some of these larger processes come into view.

Excerpted with permission from Oxford University Press, from Rethinking Revolutions: Soyabean, Choupals and the Changing Countryside in Central India, by NIF Fellow Richa Kumar.

Examining the claims of prosperity and empowerment of farmers through the 'yellow revolution' and the information revolution, Rethinking Revolutions challenges the notion that science and technology can bring unparalleled economic growth and prosperity to rural India. 

The book is available on Amazon.

The New India Foundation