Agrarian class in India: All you need to know

India is renowned for the agricultural economy as it has been for centuries. It is the largest source of bread and butter in India. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 70% of the rural households are still dependent on agriculture and its allied activities. Given its varying geographic dividend, a huge variety of agricultural produce is seen in India. Let’s have a look at the history and the evolution of agriculture and the life of the agrarian class through the years.

Agrarian Class
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Pre-British era: Feudalism is one major characteristic of India before the British arrived. It was originally a system in Europe wherein the elite people redistributed their land among people so as to protect themselves from the invaders. These lands belonged to the elite while farmers called Serfs cultivated the land. The serfs were made to overwork but weren’t paid properly and were exploited. But in India, this system was about land grants. These lands, when given to Brahmins, were called Brahmadeyas. This system started in the Mauryan period. Here, the grantee could make use of the land but he wasn’t the owner of the same. The king still retained its ownership. But, in the Guptan period when the subordinate kingdoms or those that were granted land were considered Samantas who were originally officers who were given land grants instead of salaries. They owned the land while still being subordinates to the king. They were supposed to pay a part of the revenue to the king and provide him with armies whenever he needed it. But, some Samantas built castles- trying to dupe the rulers. Since the rulers didn’t control the subordinates well, they asserted independence. This eventually led to the fragmentation of power. These landowners exercised authority over the peasants and practiced forced labor. This system paved the way for the formation of hierarchies based on ownership of the land.

Initially, all the land could be used by anyone and none had any restrictions. But due to this system, the grantee had rights over the land and none could use that property. Due to this, the common right of the people over natural resources like ponds and barren lands was seized. The practice of Vetti (forced labor) began. Unlike in Europe, the peasants were made to work on the construction of roads, palaces, etc. The feudal system saw the rise of the Jajmani system.

Under the Jajmani system, which was based on caste, people of one caste (like Chuhras, Dhobis, Kumhars, Khatis, etc) had to provide certain services to people of other castes in villages. The people who served were called Kamins while those who were served were called Yajmans. This system was practiced on a hereditary basis, i.e., the future generations of an elite caste were served by the successors of those who served their ancestors. Since children were to follow the occupations of their parents, the practice endured for long and ensured the elite were served for a long period of time. The Jajmani system is one reason behind the caste system that had been perpetual for years together. This system, formerly, helped kindle the relationship between the two parties since they both knew they had to coexist for generations together. But, later on, this system turned out to be exploitative towards the Kamins. There was a feeling of superiority and inferiority that cropped up among people. This system also hindered the social mobility of people.

British era:

Many peasant movements took place during the British rule. Some sociologists call this peasant unrest a struggle while others call it a revolution. Five of the very many such movements have been discussed below:

  1. Champaran (Bihar) and Kheda (Gujarat) Satyagraha: This movement was started by Gandhiji. He experimented Non-cooperation on the lines of the same in South Africa and tried to mobilize the peasants. The British forced the peasants to cultivate indigo and restricted their freedom of cultivation and they hence fought against in this movement. During the Kheda Satyagraha, Gandhiji opposed the increase or imposition of taxes on the peasants in Kheda where the failure of crops led to the peasants not being able to pay them.
  2. Bardoli movement (Gujarat): In 1925, the region of Bardoli went through heavy floods and severe famines which affected the crops severely. Despite requesting the government, there was no consideration taken by the government- it raised the taxes, instead. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel helped organize this movement.
  3. Moplah rebellion (Kerala): Molpahs were Muslim peasants who lived in the Malabar region. The poor ones in this community were small agriculturists who worked under the high-caste Hindu landlords. The British officials and the landlords oppressed the Moplah peasants. They, hence, rebelled against the high rents, renewal fees, the security of tenure, etc. It was also complemented by the Khilafat movement that took place at the same time.
  4. Telangana revolt: The Jagirdars and Deshmukh’s (called Doras) were the intermediaries who collected taxes from the cultivators (called Shikmidars). These people collected a high rate of taxes from the cultivators and also manipulated the tax records and this system was considered legal and was called a Vetti system. These oppressed peasants revolted in order to express their dissent.
  5. Tebhaga movement (Bengal): Tebhaga means ‘three shares of harvests’. Earlier, the landlords took 50 percent of the harvest while the peasants were given the other half. The peasants demanded one-third of the share for the landlord and two-thirds for themselves. The peasants were dissatisfied with the fact that they were the ones who did all the investment and just the land was that of the landlords. Also, they were the ones who stored all the grains and the landlords provided no space for the same.

Post-British era: In today’s India, none wants to become a farmer. A farmer is equal to nothing these days. This pathetic condition of the farmers is due to the huge number of challenges a farmer has to face today. A few have been mentioned below:

  1. Indebtedness: The farmers have no collateral so as to acquire loans from the banks. They have no option but to take help from landlords who charge very exorbitant rates of interest. Consequently, the farmers fall into debt-traps. Also, due to their illiteracy, the moneylenders trick them into paying even higher amounts of money. Indian farmers are, hence, born in debt, live in debt and die in debt.
  2. Unpredictable weather conditions: Due to global warming, the monsoons have become extremely unpredictable. This has led to many crop failures in India. Due to this, there can be a scarcity of the products seen in the country.
  3. Primitive techniques: Though the world is advancing at leaps and bounds, there’s not much of a change in the agricultural sector of the country. Even if there’s a technological innovation in the field of agriculture, not everyone can afford to buy it. But the primitive techniques don’t get good returns.
  4. Lack of awareness: The educated people are aware of the schemes introduced by the government but the targeted beneficiaries are ironically not! They have no idea what help they can seek from the government.
  5. Fragmentation of land holdings: Due to the distribution of land among the next generation leads to a decrease in the size of the plot. Some might sell parts of the land and all this leads to smaller pieces of land. Consequently, the productivity decreases.
  6. Fluctuating prices: The prices of agricultural products don’t usually stagnate. This leads to obscurity in the value of the produce. The government needs to fix prices in order to help the farmers who are considered the backbone of our country.
  7. The low status of farmers: Farmers in India are not treated with respect. They are looked at as untouchables. And eventually, none would want to be a farmer.
  8. Scarcity of cold storages: There is not much provision for storing perishable produce like fruits and vegetables as such. The farmers in the remotest areas have no choice of doing this at all since they rarely have access to cold storage.
  9. No agricultural marketing: There’s no marketing being done for agriculture. Due to this, middlemen acquire the product from the farmers and sell them at high prices, thus getting profits. The farmers also have almost no access to telecommunication facilities as well as transportation facilities.
  10. Growing population: The population of India is growing very rapidly but the farmers are not. Due to this, there’s pressure on the farmers to use the scarce resources to feed the elephantine population of the entire country.

Agrarian class in India has been through many phases and it’s now time to save this sector from a huge crisis. If this is not stopped, the existence of Indians would be endangered since none can live without food.


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An undergraduate student of Arts, Uma Sathwika is studying in the University of Delhi. She is ardent about writing things- things that truly matter with great intricacy