Books

BADALTA GAON,  BADALTA DEHAT: Nayi Samajikta ka Uday by Satendra Kumar. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

 

THE long tradition of village studies lost its charm at the beginning of this century as the processes of urbanization accelerated. Consequently, we seem to know more about everyday life in Delhi, Banaras, and Trivandrum than about contemporary village India, where the majority population still lives. It is hard to come by a study that looks at villages through the lens of community participation, local knowledge, solidarity, lush green cycles of agricultural life, informal democracy of face-to-face discussion on small issues. Our villages are on the verge of becoming cities and losing their identity. Economic liberalization since the 1990s accentuated this process. Keeping the theme in mind, Satendra Kumar’s book, Badalta Gaon, Badalta Dehat, investigates the changes in the social and cultural milieu of rural areas. He conducted his deep ethnographic fieldwork for 15 years in western Uttar Pradesh, particularly in Khanpur village of Meerut district. Badalta Gaon describes the emerging and diverse process of rural life in the India of the 21st century.

 Western Uttar Pradesh had undergone many rapid development changes before 1991. Changes in irrigation technology in terms of the canal networks, groundwater access and, of course the Green Revolution, completely changed the landscape of the area in the 1970s. These changes created a class of wealthy farmers belonging to the locally dominant caste groups such as Jats. These rich farmers also became a part of several political formations, influencing local politics. In western UP in the late 1980s, the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) attracted national and international media attention, demanding a raise in farm subsidies and free electricity. However, the gains of the Green Revolution did not last very long. By the mid-1980s, a sense of stagnation had taken over the Indian countryside. Subsequently, in the early 1990s, the introduction of new liberal reforms further enhanced this sense of stagnation. A decline in public investment in agriculture and rise of farm subsidies coincided with climate precarity, leading to severe stress on the agrarian economy of the region.

The book begins with a discussion of the political and economic fabric of this hugely irrigated tract with active state involvement. It shows the effects of economic uncertainties in the agriculture sector and dynamic changes in cropping patterns across different farmers belonging to different caste and socio-economic backgrounds. The harsh reality in today’s rural landscape is that agriculture has lost its significance as the central economic activity. It has ceased to be the social and cultural pivot in the village. This has changed the nature of production and the village’s culture as a place of living. Kumar remarks that many small and marginal farmers with limited resources and reduced productivity cannot bear high input costs for fertilizers, expensive seeds and labour and are thus forced to seek non-agricultural activity for survival (p. 2).

Small farmers and even wealthy upper caste farmers are also trying to diversify their economies and agriculture by establishing other types of businesses to gain more social and political power in their community. Villages are now experiencing the development of a new kind of economy, culture, politics, and people-land relations. Kumar notes that small farmers from lower castes are not willing to depend on big upper castes farmers for their livelihoods and prefer to work independently in cities with dignity (p. 13). People are now connecting with urban spaces for their survival. This way not only has the relationship between people changed, but the relationship between soil and farmers has completely changed. Farmers now treat soil as a commodity and extract high profits at the expense of soil life.

Along with the commodification of natural resources caused by the Green Revolution, the liberalization policies since 1990 encouraged several private pharmaceutical companies and agencies to use their marketing skills to persuade farmers to intensify input use. This intensification was done at the cost of local ecology, health and knowledge systems (p. 22). As Vandana Shiva said, such interventions not only pushed nature to the edge of ecological breakdown, but it also appears to have pushed society to the verge of a massive collapse.1 Though the author touches upon these issues, a more detailed discussion on the impact of intensive farming by upper caste farmers on the water level of wells and the issue of growing water scarcity could have been attempted. Many studies show how farmers exploit valuable natural resources like water for water-intensive crop production to pursue high profits in Uttar Pradesh.2 The ‘common access’ to these resources has resulted in their unchecked and rampant use, resulting in their degradation. An increase in population, urbanization and industrialization have also led to overexploitation of the resources having common access in the area.3

Shifting village economy from agriculture to rural non-farm service linked to the urban has changed inter-caste relationships. The second chapter of the book discusses rural political mobilization in western U.P. in the agrarian crisis. Wealthy upper caste farmers in non-agricultural activities got political mileage based on money and muscle power. Today, to win an election in a rural competitive process, what is needed is good quality liquor, famous caste leader’s photo on campaign posters, and religious propaganda (p. 30). It seems as though elections and the rising culture of bribes by candidates, have demonstrated the unique magic of democracy by allowing poor, lower caste people to participate and identify the value of their votes and rights regardless of caste and interestingly harmonize the public discourse (p. 28).

Still, at the same time, the entire competitive election process has created casteism and sectarian alliance and led to new local religiosity. This political transformation in rural areas of Uttar Pradesh has only benefited Hindu candidates, and Muslims are still at a disadvantage due to minority status and lack of support from other Hindu backward caste people. Kumar examines how poor, backwards castes and even scheduled caste people prefer a high caste, wealthy Hindu candidate to a Muslim one because they believe the Hindu candidate has a better socioeconomic status that enables them deal with disputes (p. 48). Rather than any realistic development propaganda, candidates can get votes from backward castes based on religion, caste leaders’ photos, and false promises. This entire process has widened the gap between Hindus and Muslims in western U.P. and resulted in the outbreak of several communal riots. For example, the riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli reflect a concerted shift in elite calculations about Hindu-Muslim violence.4 Kumar deftly uncovers the new political practice and electoral strategies in the era of Hindutva. 

Kumar has shown that villages have made some progress in this vast medley of democratic processes. However, it is disappointing that the government or any leader has not paid attention to the aspirations and resentment of the young generation to improving job opportunities or even good primary education. The third chapter in the book explores that the lack of opportunities for quality education, guidance, and resources, as well as the rat race to get government jobs for better marriage prospects, are some of the significant reasons for the youth lagging behind in the job market in urban spaces (p. 76). This, in a way, is one of the negative impacts of liberalization and globalization on employment opportunities for the non-skilled youth. There is a wider gap between the existing demand of the market and the skills of the young generation from rural areas. The old conventional teaching in Hindi medium schools did not prepare students to cope with the skills required, even for a small post. Here, the author also critically examines the failure of education policy and employment programmes in rural areas.

Poor education, poor access to the English language, adjustment issues with urban company culture among others, are some of the factors that have created a disconnect between them and the job market. Social media and mobile phones can provide some hope for the village youth to connect to the world and understand the trends and skills needed for a job. The young generation has adjusted to the era of social media and interestingly connected themselves to the globe, among other things, for marriage arrangements and relationships. The story of Praveen from Khanpur village and Adriana from California is a vivid example (p. 91). Social media, mobile phones and improved transport facilities have widened the perspective of their users in rural settings. Though they have acted as a medium to facilitate communication and time management, they have also affected socio-cultural spaces negatively as people now rely more on technology rather than direct, in-person interaction. Sadly, this has formed a new community of stranger-hood in rural settings.5

The author has emphasized that social media has paradoxically impacted on economic, political, and social relationships, and they now mediate social processes within connected social spheres. He argues that although mobile phones have made life easy in connecting relatives and services, they have also resulted in the extinction of cultural identity and old ways of maintaining public relations (p. 96). Social media has played a multifaceted role in spreading rumours, mobilizing people along communal lines, organizing mobs, promoting political agendas, and so on. The riot in Muzaffarnagar is a prime example of how social media can play an active role during times of communal tension.6 

In the fourth and last chapter, Kumar emphasized that villages are confronting changes in jobs, technology, and politics. He demonstrates how a range of caste-based fault lines is being merged into a new community constituted by Hindutva elements. He argues that the activities performed in the name of religion have created violence among people because of the support of the government in western U.P. The story narrated by Ram Naresh about the fight between Hindu and Muslim people, setting a hotel on fire and breaking buses (p.117) urges us to understand that this new form of religiosity indirectly leads to violence and strife among various religious groups. Kumar’s bold and commendable standpoint in the book, written in the Hindi language, contradicts the idea of a new form of Hinduism. 

Being written (in Hindi) by someone firmly rooted in the society and culture of western U.P., this book carries a strong flavour of the major shifts in rural society and politics of the region. It shows how the villages in western U.P. are in the process of acquiring new identities and are converted to hubs of emerging forms of socialism and communalism.  Another concern which Kumar emphasizes is that since villages are now acquiring a new identity, we need to revisit and refresh our conceptual understanding of the binary of rural and urban. As villages get urbanized and become new entities, we need to revisit the rigid theoretical definition of rural and urban borrowed from the western academia. Fluidities in society are reflected in the internal and external change in power structures that are also reflected in the daily lived experiences of ordinary people. His book is well argued, conceptually rich, and accessible even to people outside academic circles – a courageous attempt to write social science in a regional language.

The slight dissatisfaction that the book leaves us with is that while it provides a new and different understanding of the rural society of western U.P., it does not make a serious attempt to draw parallels with changes happening to the rural elsewhere in India. The issues that he mentions and the need for a fluid understanding of the new forms of rural are felt in other parts of India as well, albeit in different forms. Badalta Gaon must be read by rural sociologists, or anyone interested in understanding contemporary rural India.

 

Laxmi Sharma

Masters student, Shiv Nadar University,

Delhi

 

THE GOVERNMENT OF BEANS: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops by Kregg Hetherington. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2020.

 

AS a scholar of political anthropology with interests in environment and infrastructure, Kregg Hetherington, in his latest book, sets himself the ambitious task of ‘writing the Anthropocene’ through a case study of the life of soy in Paraguay. His book The Government of Beans is based on almost a decade of fieldwork conducted there. Over 222 pages (without notes), and in seventeen short chapters, Hetherington takes us on a deliberately stuttering journey across farmlands and offices, using different methodological tools and tempos at his disposal.

The key theoretical paradigms Hetherington borrows from are political economy, Foucauldian genealogy, and science and technology studies, without, he clarifies, trying to resolve their tensions in a new synthesis. Each of the three parts of the book delves into a separate conceptual problem: how human and nonhuman lives were affected by soy, how the government of Fernando Lugo’s leftist political party sought to regulate the soy sector, and what successes and failures they had before a massacre led to the fall of the government. The book tells us of the ruptures soy brought about in Paraguay, a short chapter in the longer story of monocrop cultivation in the Global South, yet marked by serious implications of its own.

At the heart of it, Hetherington’s book is an ethnography of the Anthropocene – a concept originally coming from Earth systems’ scientists in the early years of the 21st century and which is anticipating a paradigm shift in social theory and the humanities, including Anthropology. The Anthropocene moment in social theory has given rise to a number of debates on issues such as the (im?) possibility of separating geological time and world-historical time;1 whether humans constitute a geological force as a species and the alternating status as subject and/or object of the Anthropocene;2 whether specific groups of people, or even the species as a whole, can be held accountable for the present ecological crises.3 Most of the tension in such conceptualizations arise from lack of recognition of the human scale of action which has planetary consequences only when multiplied millionfold.4 Hetherington, wisely enough, has bypassed the mess of confused timescales, and attempted to look at the story of Paraguayan soy as an exemplification of the Anthropocene moment, at very meticulously established local (individual farms), national (Paraguay),  regional (Latin America), and global levels.

Hetherington begins the book with a description of the 2012 event of the Massacre of Curuguaty where several landless campesinos and police officers were killed, and contends that the event did not fit the kind of storytelling in which people and their intentions were protagonists. While it was a criminal event, Hetherington suggests, the actors and actions concerned were also part of a larger, more complicated assemblage which included geopolitics, settler colonialism, emerging technologies of plant governance, and soybeans themselves. This massacre marked the end of the Lugo government; like other stories of the Anthropocene, there was no closure to what really went wrong, or who ought to be held responsible for it.

Preceded by cotton and wheat in Paraguay’s ‘first Green Revolution’, soy’s humble beginning was as a rotation crop for wheat; but with a crop failure here and an embargo there, it soon became the primary monocrop cultivated in Brazil and Paraguay, even transforming their national diet (p. 26). Its specificity for Hetherington lay in its flexible usage – both inside and outside the food chain (p. 6) – which created high demand for it the world over, and the particular geopolitical circumstances towards the end of the 20th century which set the conditions in place for Paraguay to become a key exporter of it. Moreover, the changes it brought about to the landscape and its ecosystem – homogenizing it and soaking it in pesticide – made it a complicated social, political, and environmental actor. Its violence on human bodies was slow and multi-sensory: emerging as unpleasant smells, toxic accretions, rashes and eventually cancer clusters.

Hetherington makes a case for soy being a ‘character of the Anthropocene’ in two ways: one is the extensive, exclusive, and mechanized nature of the crop as driver of climate change and mass extinction – all features of the Anthropocene, seen as an age of monocrops. Second, it is so because of how it participates in this particular historical conjuncture. Soy rode on the back of post-WWII ideals of welfare and international development which ended up accelerating use of fossil fuels5 leading to the green revolution in various parts of the world, but which ultimately left out a large chunk of people from such‘growth’.6 And all that while direct producers kept getting separated from their means of production as frontiers took on new roles as monocrop farmlands and lost the complex ecologies that existed before.

In both those features of soy that makes it a ‘character of the Anthropocene’, the presence or perceived absence of ‘the state’ becomes a point of contention. Hetherington focuses on government and state as an analytic to counter the popular belief that since soy expansion started from the Brazilian border and by wealthy Brazilian immigrants in Paraguay, reasserting national sovereignty in border areas where the state was known to be ‘absent’ might help keep the expansion of soy in check. The state, like soy itself, seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once.7 Even those activist-bureaucrats who set out to deploy the state as regulatory apparatus, eventually found the same apparatus to be a facilitator of the soy sector. Hetherington, therefore, uses different terms to signal these two functions of the state: ‘Government of Beans’ to refer to the attempts to regulate soy’s expansion and keep it in check, and ‘Soy State’ to refer to the way the soy industry used the state to help itself expand. Between these two functions of the state and the gap between laws and their application, there was a lot of room for the exercise of exceptional power or sovereignty.8 Hetherington is interested in how the practice of law occurs through the back and forth of responses between an ensemble of state and non-state actors, humans, and non-humans. In that sense, I also found the book useful as a multispecies ethnography of the agricultural state.

The crucial intervention Hetherington makes in this book is to develop the concept of agribiopolitics.9 He brings in Foucault’s idea of biopolitics: a period of governing human life at the level of population who could either be aided to flourish through interventions in health and reproduction or allowed to die. Hetherington adds that this same period of human biopolitics necessitated the government of plant health – ‘phytosanitary regulation’ – for large-scale food production. Moreover, the mono crops coming up at this time were as vulnerable to pests as human populations in cities and needed to be governed just as much. He argues in the last part of the book that while earlier centuries had seen bio political and agrarian concerns being managed separately in the city and the countryside respectively, the 20th century increasingly globalized this separation.

This new moment created a global division of labour with Europe and North America building robust welfare states based on industrial growth while encouraging countries in Latin America and Asia to invest in agricultural development, based on the promise that they would eventually ‘catch up’ with the North. The now-familiar narrative of biopolitics had glossed over the bit where northern welfare states were built on the backs of extractive frontiers opened in other parts of the world at the expense of other forms of life. The difficulties in negotiating these relations are a failure of the imagination,
what Vandana Shiva has called ‘monocultures of the mind’,
10 where phytosanitary agencies are managers in a global system of exterminating species of all beings who are suboptimal to global capitalism. This is where he contrasts the ‘humanism’ of the ‘first Green Revolution’ which treated plants as tools to foster human populations, with the ‘posthumanism’ of the ‘second Green Revolution’: an intensified and more efficient version of the first, but in which it was now the plants that needed to be fostered and protected. As feeding the masses increasingly became less of an imperative for governments with the end of the Cold War, the ‘forms of killing’ changed and with that the decisions over which species to kill or let thrive.11

What Hetherington suggests as a different possibility is to subscribe to the ‘slow’ temporality of the soil: a kind of agroecological practice requiring patience and commitment towards fostering multi-species relations in the long term. This also means engendering an openness to maintaining diversity, for ‘the vital possibilities that mixing always creates’.12 The author wants us to see this story and the failure of the Government of Beans as more than the failure of any particular government. This is why he starts the story 150 years ago to show the momentum of the ‘long Green Revolution.’ There are deeper histories of the invention of monocrops, phytosanitary governance commencing in the 17th century, and further back to the Spanish colonial conquest of Paraguay setting up the logic of violent acquisition in the region.

How he writes up this ‘failure’ is an important lesson for future ethnographies of the Anthropocene, as it shows the importance of attention to detail and to tracing contingent assemblages that lead to specific outcomes. From this specificity emerges larger questions of intention, agency, power, and force, which are concepts still taking shape in scholarship as the anthropos of Anthropology and Anthropocene coincide. While this book might be of particular interest to scholars of political science, sociology and anthropology, its methodological interventions are also relevant more generally to scholars of humanities and social sciences as a whole.

 

Aishwarya Kazi

Doctoral student, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi

Footnotes :

1. V. Shiva, The Violence of the Green Revolution. Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics. Zed Books, London, 1991.

2. Pratyush Sinha, Naman Shandilya, Prashant Kishore, Vivek Kumar and Vishwa Raj Sharma, ‘Agroecology: The Science of Sustainable Agricultural Practices’, in Natural Resource and Their Ecosystem Services. H.S.R.A., Bangalore, 2020.

3. M.S. Salman and A. Munir, ‘Common Land Resources: The Present Status and Need for Their Conservation in North India’, in S. Shahid, F. Taha, and M. Abdelfattah (eds.), Developments in Soil Classification, Land Use Planning and Policy Implications. Springer, Dordrecht, 2013. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-5332-7_34

4. Aditi Malik, ‘Hindu-Muslim Violence in Unexpected Places: Theory and Evidence from Rural India’, Politics, Groups, and Identities 9(1), 2021, pp. 40-58. DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2019.1691020

5. H. May and G. Hearn, ‘The Mobile Phone as Media’, Inter-national Journal of Cultural Studies 8(2), 2005, pp. 195-211. doi:10.1177/1367877905052417

6. Sufal Bepari, ‘Role of Social Media in Recent Communal Violence in India’, International Journal of Advance Research and Innovative Ideas in Education 6(2), 2020, pp. 1181-1187.