India’s high growth has continued hand in-hand with rising inequality, and almost unchanged absolute level of poverty despite its falling incidence. A lot has been written about multi-dimensional measures of poverty, its impact on growth, its geographical location, its concentration among certain socio-economic groups, and about its causes and possible remedies. The issue of poverty and deprivation has been dealt with in a technocratic manner, and different methods which have been suggested to deal with this problem are based on success stories from different parts of the world. The book under review is an attempt at filling the vacuum created by the absence of context in the discussions around poverty and the process involved in its generation and regeneration.
The book brings out agrarian social relations in contemporary rural India; it attempts to contextualize contemporary changes in rural India, and investigates how different rural classes interact with each other and in the process how poverty gets generated.
Even though most of the analysis is based on what has been happening in the fieldwork locations, the author has tried to place the analysis in a larger political economy framework that takes into account things which are not confined within the fieldwork locations. By analysing specific forms of domination and exploitation, this book sheds light on how poverty is generated and regenerated by capitalism.
The analysis revolves around class relations between the dominant and the labouring class and how forms of domination have changed over time. Penetration of market economy in general and policies of neo-liberalism have brought about several changes in the village economy and society in general and production relations in particular. Old and traditional forms of domination and exploitation have given way to newer forms which are often mediated by the state. Outsourcing has become a norm resulting in atomized and diversified forms of production, and a fragmented labour market. Growing informalization of employment even within the formal sector has further weakened the collective voice of the workers in most of the developing world. It is in this context that this book explores different forms of accumulation in rural Karnataka which resulted in deprivation and destitution of a vast majority of rural workers.
The book identifies that the extent and form of accumulation depended crucially on the nature of diversification of the rural economy. In remote and less diversified rural areas, earlier forms of domination continue to exist, and all kinds of government interventions are successfully subverted by the dominant class. In areas where occupational diversification happened to a significant degree, direct coercive methods of
domination and exploitation give way to other forms of domination—but now
with connivance of the state, civil society organizations, and community based organizations.
While traditional forms of surplus appropriation and accumulation are on the decline in rural India, as also in rural Karnataka, particularly in areas where dependence on the landed class has been on the decline, newer forms of accumulation are emerging where the capture of local government institutions is a method by which the dominant class controls the labouring class. In this regard, five different types of ‘gatekeeping’ were identified in the study locations, and each type was characterized by the amount involved in the process of appropriation and the dominant class that appropriated it. Although the dominant class was different across different types of ‘gatekeeping’, the gatekeeper or the dominant class positioned itself at the interface of state and society. This process of ‘gatekeeping’ is rather complex and not simply a case of the rich keeping away the poor from different benefits provided by the State. There were certain types of ‘gatekeeping’ where the amount of accumulation was much less and the gatekeepers were individuals from poorer and marginalized sections who basically reproduced the status quo by guarding the interest of the dominant landed class. So, essentially, the entire ‘gatekeeping’ exercise is a top down approach where ultimately the interest of the dominant landed class is protected even though the gatekeepers at different levels belonged to different levels in the socio-economic hierarchy. This analysis has been carried out very succinctly, and it might be asked that if ultimately it was the interest of the dominant landed class that was being protected, what was the necessity of categorizing ‘gatekeeping’ into different hierarchical type? I think the answer lies in the different processes that are involved at different levels and the social nuances that are associated with it.
The last section of the book looks into the role of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) in grass-root mobilization and this is attempted through various case studies including a detailed one based on Jagruthi Mahila Sanghathan (JMS). In this section, the nexus between the government at the local level and CSOs has been analysed, and it has been argued that CSOs basically carried out and implemented the agenda of the government and in the process ‘crowded out’ the possibility of any formation of ‘pro-labour class organization’. Rather than creating an alternative platform demanding re-allocation of resources, CSOs and CBOs are largely dominated by the local dominant class who act as gatekeepers of funds flowing in from various departments and ministries and appropriate major portions of it.
By analysing interventions of JMS across different villages in Karnataka, this book has identified three possible outcomes of interventions by CBOs: (a) in villages where the working class was largely dependent on the dominant land owning class for employment and livelihood, there was very little role for CBOs, and any possibility of change in power configuration depended on availability of non-farm employment outside the village or government interventions like universal poverty reduction programmes or public works programmes which can reduce dependence on the dominant class; (b) even in a highly class dominated village, grass-root mobilization was possible around protest demonstrations on some issues or through activities like village land improvement promoted by CBOs; (c) micro initiatives by CBOs often could not result in labour mobilization as these initiatives were more focused on sustaining themselves in a highly competitive world.
While these observations are absolutely valid, there are certain issues which are to some extent overlooked. First, in a highly unequal power relation, success of grass-root mobilization depends on how long it can be sustained and to what extent it can keep alive the interest of participants on the issue around which mobilization happened. This is rather complex and difficult, but given the considerable amount of fieldwork that has gone into this work, exploring some possibilities would have been worthwhile. Second, the recent experience in MGNREGA and Food Security Act points out unequivocally to the importance of awareness campaigns because even to mobilize on crucial livelihood issues, some minimum degree of awareness is needed to reach out to the masses. CBOs can actually play a very crucial role in just this awareness campaigns. This crucial role of CBOs and its impact are largely overlooked and there seems to be more emphasis on legislation. Third, intra-household gender conflicts have significant implications for women’s participation in broader social movements and there are deeper socio-cultural issues which are beyond class relations. Intra-household resource allocation is an important determinant for the success of poverty alleviation programmes. Even though the method adopted in this work largely focuses on class-relational approach, some discussion on these issues would have added more value to this work. Finally, with the increasing mechanization of agriculture, we need to be careful how we define the dominant class, and there is a need to look beyond the definition which is based on the net buyer of labour.
Overall, this book is an important contribution to our understanding of the causes of poverty in all its complexities, and is particularly relevant for development practitioners and policy makers.
Partha Saha teaches Public Policy at the School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University (AUD), Delhi.