The Many Dimensions of Primitive Accumulation

Farmers’ Suicides, Abdication of Responsibilities in the Narmada Resettlement

C. N. Subramanian

We are today witness to the historical process which Marx had characterised as the 'primitive accumulation of capital'. ‘The process, therefore, that clears the way for the capitalist system, can be none other than the process which takes away from the labourer the possession of his means of subsistence; a process that transforms, on the one hand, the social means of subsistence and of production into capital, on the other hand, the immediate producers into wage-labourers. The so called primitive accumulation, therefore, is nothing else than the historical process of divorcing the producer from the means of production. ... (T)hese freedmen (peasants freed from feudal bondage - CNS) became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire. ... (T)hose moments when great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled as free and 'unattached' proletarians on the labour-market (are epoch making revolutions in the history of primitive accumulation – CNS). The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process. The history of this expropriation, in different countries assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods.1 (emphasis added)

Students of Indian agrarian economy for long have used Lenin's paradigm of the expansion of commodity production leading to peasant differentiation and the dissolution of the old communal peasantry and the emergence of a stratified agrarian class structure with capitalist farmers and wage workers. This often appears as a gradual and purely 'economic' process, an outcome of the process of rationalisation unleashed by competition in the market. We need to realise that what is at hand is much more than a process of economic rationalisation, it is a process engendered by conscious policy choices and accompanied by the open use of force both legally sanctioned and otherwise. Tribal or peasant societies have a limited use for commerce which does not necessarily dissolve the traditional ties of kinship or relationship to land. Hence it is the use of deliberate policy sanctioned by power and brute force which eventually integrates these societies with capitalist commercialisation and expropriates them of their means of production and subsistence.

The current spate of 'farmer suicides' is spread over virtually all states of the country but is more centred in the dry agricultural belts. The minister for agriculture, informed Parliament that agrarian distress accounts for nearly 20% of all suicides in the country. Even the bourgeois press was persuaded to draw attention to the gravity of the problem and force the Prime Minister to visit the suicide hit districts and announce amelioration plans. It should be remembered that political analysts had pointed out that the downfall of the BJP government was essentially due to its insensitivity to the mounting agrarian distress. The magnitude of distress in the dry tracts like Vidarbha should not divert our attention from the fact that the core green revolution areas like the Punjab have seen unprecedented agrarian distress and suicides.2. It is now widely recognised that this phenomenon is causally linked to the ongoing process of globalisation. The green revolution with its promise of scale free technology made the peasants dependent on capital intensive agriculture funded partly by public support through subsidised inputs. These subsidies in the long run have only benefited the industries by expanding their markets without any cost to themselves. The withdrawal of the subsidies under the pressure of the developed capitalist countries has not left the industries without a market as the peasants now just cannot do without their products. On the other hand it is the peasants who are bearing the burden of the withdrawn subsidy. This has made them dependent upon usury capital to sustain production on their farms. The relative decline or stagnation of agricultural prices caused by the dumping of agrarian products by the developed countries has aggravated the problem as the farmers are left with little to repay the local usurers. When the trend of farmer suicides began some years ago in Andhra Pradesh it was explained away as a result of crop failure resulting from defective or substandard seed or pesticide inputs. Similar explanations attributing the Vidarbha crises to monsoon failure have been given. It was suggested that the question was one of the public monitoring of standards of agrarian inputs, extension of the irrigation system or improved public banking and insurance services. The fact remains that the spread of farmer suicides questions all these assumptions.

During the first three or four decades of independence the Indian state adopted a policy of fostering a class of kulaks in agriculture by ensuring a favourable balance of trade and providing subsidised inputs.3 This ensured that virtually the entire agrarian sector came within the ambit of capitalist commercialisation forcing the poor and middle peasants to to take to intensive commercial agriculture and participate in the market. This integration of small and middle peasants was further strengthened by the Green Revolution technology which was termed as scale neutral. Unlike the earlier strategy based on farm mechanisation which was viable only on large scale holdings, the new hybrid seed based strategy was regarded as viable even in small holdings provided the necessary inputs were available. In order to ensure acceptance of the new techniques the government expanded the bank and cooperative rural credit network and made available subsidised inputs and also kept up the agricultural prices through the mechanism of support price and public procurement. Precisely these have been withdrawn under the new globalised regime.

The strategy of fostering monoculture based on chemical fertilisers and pesticides has been an ecological disaster requiring the farmers to constantly increase the quantum of inputs with depleting soil fertility and sinking ground water levels. The chances of crop failure being high in the case of these crops (due to monoculture of hybrid varieties) and also susceptibility to volatile market pressures. This could be sustained only by making available cheap rural credit and subsidising inputs. Over the last decade the state has withdrawn subsidies on farm inputs forcing farmers to buy them at much higher costs. This has been accompanied by withdrawal of public support to rural banking as a result of which even loans for short term input purchases declined sharply. The farmers have had to resort to local private usury capital for such loans or depend upon unscrupulous traders who sold substandard inputs at exorbitant prices but on credit. Over the last decade agricultural prices have by and large stagnated as the support prices have remained relatively stable and public procurement declined due to overstocked godowns. This has triggered the present agrarian crisis. The universal pattern has been that the farmers have accumulated huge debts, unable to withstand either crop failures or price fluctuations, and without credit for raising the next crop have decided to end their lives rather than face the ignominy of facing the usurers.

Strangely enough most of the accounts of farmer suicides do not tell us about the strata to which they belonged - the rich, middle or the poor strata. However it seems that most of them belong to the middle peasant strata.  This is to be expected as it is this strata which has been blindly led into the debt trap and finds itself without any other source of employment to support itself. However, it should be noted that the distress is not confined to this strata alone but pervades the entire agrarian sector.

The response of the state to this crisis has been promising cosmetic sops and a few structural changes of far reaching import. The latter include opening up of agricultural marketing to corporate houses in general and to multinational agribusinesses in particular. This has taken two important forms - of direct intervention in purchase of agricultural produce (much to the discomfiture of traditional traders) and contract farming. The Imperial Tobacco Company (ITC) Reliance etc. are rapidly intruding into rural markets buying agricultural produce and also selling inputs. This is a phenomenon which has begun only in the recent past and has already pushed up agricultural prices. The second phenomenon of contract farming - by which farmers of a large area bind themselves to companies for production of specific crops (under close the supervision of the contracting company) over a crop season. The contracting company assures inputs and market and a predictable price at least for the crop season. Both these trends which are being encouraged greatly and seem to address some of problems being faced by the farmers. In effect they seek to ensure control of the multinationals and corporate houses over agrarian production and peasant labour. This is but a step away from the alienation of land to them and reducing the peasants to mere wage labourers on their own lands.

We have had occasion to comment on the Narmada dam issue. In one of our earlier issues we had been hopeful that the movement of the Narmada dam oustees will be successful in rolling back the dam project. It was when the movement had got an injunction from the Supreme Court stopping construction of the dam. Since then we have been witness to the systematic abdication by the Supreme Court of its responsibility of protecting the lives and livelihoods of the citizens and going back on its own rulings and commitments in the case. The Supreme Court and the Government of India have an obligation to ensure that the resettlements measures have been fulfilled before the dam levels are raised. It is precisely this that the two of them decided to throw to the winds and permit the construction of the dam beyond the stipulated height before the onset of the monsoon. They have ordered the continuation of the construction of the dam while even acknowledging that the resettlement is yet to be complete and also that it may not be possible to compensate the victims as per the Narmada Tribunal award. This effectively seals the fate of the people of the Narmada valley and also of the movement that shook the conscience of the nation. This once again points to the truth of Marx's contention that the Primitive Accumulation of capital is accompanied by blood and fire and plunder.


1. K. Marx, ‘Capital’ I, Moscow, 1977, pp 668-70.

2. Readers may refer to the special issue of Economic and Political Weekly devoted to Suicides by farmers; EPW XLI, No. 16 (April 2006) for detailed discussions on the subject.

3. Ashok Mitra, ‘Terms of Trade and Class Relations’, Calcutta, 1979, pp 106-121

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