A Changing Landscape for Farmers in India: An Interview with Aarti Sethi and Tanya Matthan

Aarti Sethi and Tanya Matthan

In countries around the world, the “Green Revolution” has changed the scale and economy of growing crops, as pesticides, fertilizers, and new kinds of hybrid seeds have transformed the production process. In this episode of the Matrix Podcast, Julia Sizek spoke with two UC Berkeley scholars who study agrarian life in India, where farmers have been forced to adapt to changes in technology.

Aarti Sethi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. She is a socio-cultural anthropologist with primary interests in agrarian anthropology, political-economy, and the study of South Asia. Her book manuscript, Cotton Fever in Central India, examines cash-crop economies to understand how monetary debt undertaken for transgenic cotton-cultivation transforms intimate, social, and productive relations in rural society.

Tanya Matthan is a S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow in UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography. An economic anthropologist and political ecologist, she finished her PhD in Anthropology at UCLA in 2021. Her current book project, tentatively titled, The Monsoon and the Market: Economies of Risk in Rural India, examines experiences of and responses to agrarian uncertainty among farmers in central India. 

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Excerpts from the interview are included below, edited for length and clarity.

Q: You both study agriculture in India, but India has many different agricultural and ecological zones. Can you help us understand your research sites and how they fit into agricultural production in India more broadly?

Tanya Matthan: The region in which I work is called Malwa, which is located in central India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh. The history of Malwa is interesting, because prior to Indian independence, it was ruled by a number of princely states. Ecologically, it’s a semi-arid region, and it’s known for its very fertile black soil. And it is also a region that has always been tied to global networks of trade and markets, through the cultivation of crops such as cotton and opium  in the past, and now soybean and wheat, which are grown for national and global markets. Ecologically, it’s a very interesting region, and both different and similar to other parts of agrarian India.

Aarti Sethi: We work in regions that are both close by and also very far away. Subcontinental India is agriculturally very diverse and also very vast. I work in a region in east central India called Vidarbha. It’s about 500 kilometers inland from Bombay, in the state of Maharashtra. Vidarbha is part of the central Deccan Plateau, and it has black soils. Cotton is a very, very old crop in Vidarbha.

The reason I find Vidarhba to be a very interesting region to understand the long history of agrarian capitalism in India is because, in Vidarbha, local cotton production has been entangled with a global capitalist market — we could say a colonial capitalist market — for a very long time. We have evidence for cotton cultivation in this region for three millennia. But to take a more recent history, this is a region that became settled to the intensive cash cropping of cotton after it was taken over by the British colonial state in the mid-19th century. This happened in the wake of the fall in global cotton production and supply in the wake of the American Civil War. So there’s actually a very interesting historical relationship between Vidarbha and the American South.

This is the period when the British colonial state expanded what were called “settlement operations” and created new villages. A new peasantry came into being in what used to be an agro-pastoral region, that was specifically cropping cotton for a colonial market. And so you can see in Vidarbha a peasantry that is entangled wit international commodity markets in a very specific way. You can see this in the forms of land tenure that came into place at this time for instance. It’s an early form and moment of agrarian capitalism, and these processes that we see beginning in the late 19th century have a bearing on the cotton crisis in Vidarbha today. It is also an arid agro-ecological region that is very prone to droughts. These are the kinds of agricultural and ecological constraints within which agriculture in Vidarbha happens.

Q: You alluded to the fact that agriculture is changing in India and that farmers are facing new challenges, which both of you study in different ways. Can you tell us more about what those challenges are today?

Sethi: The specific challenges that we see vis-à-vis cotton production in Vidarbha today have to do with the emergence of a sharp economy of indebtedness, which begins from the mid-1990s. Over the next two decades, this becomes a very widespread mode of agriculture in Vidarbha. And this expansion of monetary debt as a critical component in the agricultural process in Vidarbha has had several economic and social consequences. One of the most tragic of them has been that Vidarbha is at the center (and has been for the last two decades) of a suicide epidemic where over a quarter of a million farmers have taken their lives across India. This is not a crisis only focused on Vidarbha, but Vidarbha is one of the earliest regions where the suicide epidemic began, so Vidarbha has become emblematic of a broader crisis in agriculture. The introduction of a new transgenic crop, Bt cotton, has sharply exacerbated the general prolonged agrarian crisis in which India finds itself.

Matthan: A place like Malwa also exhibits a lot of these same dimensions of this agrarian crisis. So you have, for instance, high levels of indebtedness, rising costs of production, extremely volatile prices of commodities. And ecologically we can see in Malwa the falling water tables. So many aspects of this crisis are evident in a place like Malwa.

One of the reasons I was interested in studying a region like Malwa, which is quite under-studied in Indian agrarian history, is because this region has been hailed as a sort of recent agricultural growth story. It’s emerging as a horticultural hub for the production of these high-value vegetables. But it’s also very recently been a site of protest. For instance, in 2018, six farmers were killed by the police as they were protesting crushingly low prices for their commodities.

One of the reasons why Malwa was interesting is because the state government has been at the fore of implementing and promoting a lot of risk management policies, trying to address some of these challenges through things like crop insurance, price support schemes, and so on. I was interested in how the Indian state is responding to these agrarian challenges and with what social and ecological effects. So, I’m looking at the crisis and some responses to it, and the implications of that.

Q: This seems like a complicated story. On the one hand, farmers’ debts are accruing, but there are also emerging forms of crop insurance that are presumably replacing other forms of government support that existed previously for farmers. From the Green Revolution to today, how have the forms of support for farmers changed? And what are the reasons why farming has become so much more expensive to do?

Sethi: If you look at cotton production over a recent historical durée — say, from the mid-19th century onwards — then we can think of three phases of cotton production: a precolonial economy of cotton, a postcolonial economy of cotton, and then a recent neoliberal economy of cotton.

The Green Revolution is very central now in the imaginations of the postcolonial economy, but the Green Revolution had a variegated uptake across the country. It was first introduced in the northern states of Punjab and Haryana, with wheat and rice as the primary Green Revolution crops. This turn to science and technology then had ancillary effects across the agrarian landscape.

The improvement of cotton has a very long history in India, beginning from the cotton improvement projects started by the colonial state. This is because cotton is such an important fiber crop in India. One thing to remember is that the Green Revolution produces a kind of economy of agricultural production that is entirely reliant on state support. Through the Green Revolution, the state undertakes different sorts of functions towards agriculture such as introducing a minimum price support for farmers, encouraging the use of chemicals and pesticides, creating pesticide and fertilizer subsidies and electricity subsidies, and very importantly, a state scientific establishment that is heavily involved in the development of new hybrid and cotton varieties. It is a public commitment that the postcolonial state undertakes towards agriculture in India. This included the All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton, the establishment of 21 agricultural research universities, and the Central Institute for Cotton Research.

What the state does, and what scientists working in the public scientific apparatus do at this time, is take a very central role in developing new forms of seeds, and, through state extension mechanisms, getting those seeds to cultivators. This is very important to the Bt cotton story, as it is through this moment of what we could call the Green Revolution that the first hybrid cotton seed is created for the first time in India. And these hybrid seeds have far greater yields than conventional cotton varieties. This is the moment at which farmers who have access to large land holdings begin to adopt these new technologies and increase cotton yields and cotton production.

Now, this also comes with its problems. But the point I want to make is that the Green Revolution has a complex history in India. On the one hand, it introduces a non-capitalized, but intensified form of agricultural production, which increases yields. On the other hand, it also produces an ecologically vulnerable form of production that is dependent on high outlays. And this sets the stage for what comes later.

Matthan: Much of that story is a story of Malwa, but Malwa wasn’t initially a Green Revolution state. This was very geographically variegated, and Malwa was not a region that was considered for the introduction of these technologies. So it has a different history, but with many similar effects over the last sort of five decades or so.

What Malwa did see, which is analog to and parallel with the Green Revolution, was what is called the Yellow Revolution in the 1970s, with “yellow” referring to the color of soybeans. As soybean cultivation was introduced and expanded, you see a huge number of transformations in agricultural production: the displacement of crops such as cotton, sugarcane, sorghum that were grown in this region, and a shift to this industrialized model of agricultural production, which is built on monocropping, a huge capital-intensive form of cultivation. So even though it wasn’t directly impacted by initial green revolution years, you see many of the same technologies and logics at work.

Q: The Green Revolution helps to lay out how the government became intimately involved in the production of these crops. But today, a lot of farmers are protesting against the government. How have the conditions changed?

Sethi: What changed was the 1991 liberalization of the Indian economy and the reforms that came with it. Agriculture all over the country was impacted after the reforms phase.  Many, many things change. One of the things that changes is that, prior to 1991, domestic agricultural markets are protected from market volatility. So, if you look at cotton for instance, in Maharashtra, there was something called the Monopoly Procurement Scheme for Cotton, which was meant to support cultivators and increase the cultivation of cotton from the 1970s onwards, all the way till 2002. During this period the state was a monopoly procurer of cotton. All the cotton that cultivators produced could only be acquired by the state, and the state acquired all the cotton cultivators produced. And import duties on fiber imports from other countries were very high.

All of this changes in the post-reforms period. Agricultural products are brought under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and import duties on agriculture that used to be up to 100% for certain crops fall to 30% in the space of two or three years. The state raises rates on agricultural loans, and it withdraws from providing input support and infrastructure investment in irrigation and scientific research. There are upward revisions of the prices of diesel, of electricity, and of petrol. And all of this precipitously raises the cost of cultivation for farmers, without any change in the actual nature of production. There is no increase in irrigation. There’s no consolidation of land holdings. What you have is widespread adoption of hybrid seeds, which on the one hand, provide much more yield, but they’re also very vulnerable to pest depredation. So from the 1990s onwards, agriculture all over the country enters a huge crisis, and specifically cotton cultivation in Vidarbha.

Matthan: The Green Revolution was only a success, if it can be called a success at all, because of the state supports. So what happens when the state supports are withdrawn? You can see that in a range of arenas of agricultural production, whether it’s subsidies, agricultural extension service — so even the circuits of knowledge on which farmers depended now are increasingly privatized — and there’s less investment in agricultural infrastructures, whether that’s storage infrastructures, or irrigation, and so on. So since the 1990s, a lot of the state support for agriculture on which this model depended is taken away. And alongside that, not only is the cost of production increasing alongside the removal of these subsidies and support, but more broadly, the privatization of education, of health, and so on are also increasing the cost of social reproduction for agricultural households — where they send their children to school, what kinds of health services they access, and so on. So you have a situation in which costs of production are rising while state support and investment are declining.

Q: This obviously has tangible effects for the people who are trying to continue to farm. Both of you actually did research with individual farmers involved, sometimes being out there doing agricultural labor alongside them. Can you just give us an idea of what that looks like, especially since these aren’t big industrial farms that we might imagine here in the American Midwest?

Sethi: Let me answer that question in two parts. One is to actually address what Bt cotton is. I think that’s important because of the extraordinary change that that seed has produced economically, socially, and in terms of the labor regimes on the farm. Bt cotton is a seed that has been genetically modified to resist predation from a certain class of pests: lepidopteran pests. This is the larva of the gray moth, called the pink bollworm. Bt cotton is a trans-gene inserted into the plant, which makes the plant toxic to this larva. When the larva eats GM cotton, it dies. The justification for Bt cotton was that it offered a non-chemical solution to pesticide. And the reason that was important was, as I said, because of the introduction of these hybrid seeds, which are highly vulnerable to pest attacks.

BT cotton as a technology has a very interesting relationship to the legal regime, which is that what Monsanto did was, it nested this technology into a hybrid seed, which cannot be resown. All cotton grown everywhere in the world comes in two forms: something called hybrid cotton, and something called straight line cotton. With straightline cotton, you save your seed this year, you preserve it, and you resow it the next year, and you plant it in density across a field. So this is where I mean a laboring regime. A farmer will plow that field and then dribble seed into furrows in the field with lots and lots of smaller plants produced in a field. What hybrid seeds do is, you can’t resow them the next year. And so you are forced to buy that seed from the market. And the reason Monsanto did this was to protect its patent.

Hybrid seeds transform labor in a very big way. Fewer hybrid seeds are planted in a field, as they need to branch and bowl. Secondly, they have to be fed large amounts of fertilizer and pesticide. This increases costs, and the large amounts of fertilizer and pesticide actually produces huge amounts of weeds. And so things like weeding, which would be done a few times a season, is now done continuously through a season. Weeding is an activity primarily conducted by women. So it has increased the labor days that women spend on a field. Pesticide has to be sprayed very, very often because hybrid seeds foliage a lot, so all kinds of other pests get attracted, which means that men also now are involved in field labor in a different way. It means that women earn more income in their hands than they did earlier, because they have access to this kind of continuous wage labor. But it also means that their forms of domestic labor have vastly increased. So these are all the ways in which these new hybrid seeds and Bt cotton — besides the other social and economic costs — also transform laboring relations between farmers and their fields.

Matthan: I didn’t focus necessarily on one crop in the way that Aarti does with cotton, I found a slew of crops growing across the agricultural year: soybean, wheat, a range of vegetables. And the rhythms of agricultural production change according to the crop and according to the season. 

But in the day-to-day, these are very small farms. The average landholding in a place like India is about one hectare, which is about two and a half acres. These are extremely small farms, and a lot of the labor is done by people in the household alongside agricultural wage labor. It changes based on the crop and based on the season. Across the agricultural year, you have various kinds of activities going on in the field, from weeding, which happens a lot more in the wake of these new seeds and crops, to transplanting seedlings, in the case of onions, to long days of the difficult harvesting in the case of wheat. So you have very different kinds of work being done in the field, depending on the crop and the season. And even though a lot of my work involves going to fields and farms and walking and talking to people in these spaces, the nature of farming is such that it also entails a lot of work in the home, for example. There’s women who are cleaning seed in the home, or sorting produce in the home. There’s a lot of work that happens in the home, in the market, and so on. 

Q: You mentioned that so many of these different crops that people are growing, they’re being grown throughout the year, it’s not just one period of time, and they’re also highly dependent on rainfall, and on different climatic conditions. Can you tell us a little bit about how this has changed and how it relates to the risk that farmers are taking when they’re participating in this market?

Matthan: As I mentioned, there’s a range of crops that are central to agrarian life in a place like Malwa. There’s soybean, which is the primary crop in the monsoon season, roughly between June and October. And then farmers move to growing a range of other crops, most predominantly wheat and gram (chickpea), but also things like onions, potatoes, and garlic, have become increasingly important crops in this region. Each of these crops has a range of different qualities, ecologically, politically, economically, and so on. 

Farmers are making a range of choices and decisions in deciding what to plant, how much to plant, and so on. For instance, things like, how long does this crop take to harvest? So one reason soybean is still popular is because it’s a short duration crop, and certain varieties of seeds have been introduced in Malwa that are extremely short duration. So within 80 days, you can harvest soybean, which allows you to then plant two or three more crop cycles on the same plot of land, which is really important to farmers who don’t have huge land parcels. They can get more and more out of the same plot. 

To go back to the question of how risk plays into this, farmers are making calculations based on engagements with risk and uncertainty. Wheat, for instance, is an extremely water-intensive crop. It requires irrigation, so you have to invest in irrigation. But it’s also considered a safe crop because it can be sold at government procurement centers for a fixed price. So you don’t have to deal with the volatility of the market, you can just take your wheat at the end of the season, and you can be assured of a price. So it’s considered less risky. 

Onions, for example, which are increasingly grown by farmers across class and caste in Malwa, is seen as a risky crop. It requires a great deal of investment in inputs and in labor costs. But it’s also seen as very high-yielding. And it’s risky, because onions are incredibly price-volatile. In India, there’s huge price risks associated with growing onions. Onion prices can shift dramatically within the span of days, and you could potentially garner huge profits, but also face crushing losses if prices crash. There’s a range of risks and opportunities associated with different crops, and farmers are actually making a lot of careful calculations in deciding what to grow and how much to grow and when.

Sethi: One of the peculiar things about the way in which risk is absorbed into an agricultural milieu — and I see this with hybrid GM cotton in a very intense form — is that risk has acquired a new valence in the agricultural milieu where on the one hand, cotton yields have vastly expanded. The potential of what you can reap from cotton has vastly expanded from the pre-hybrid economy of cotton, but so have the risks associated with cotton cultivation.

So the kind of calculations that farmers make is one where farmers both engage in this form of production, and it has produced a sense of an everyday wearing stress. The English word “tension” has now become vernacularized into village speech. Beyond the economic risks, which are manifold and which a lot of scholars and the press have written about, is that cotton cultivation is economically intense. It costs now 25,000 rupees. And the return on investment is very small. It’s about three to five percent. 98% of farming is unirrigated, the monsoons are completely erratic, every farmer has to make a calculation depending on how much debt you have, how long you can hold on to cotton, how you can play the market. If you can store your cotton, you will get a higher price later in the in the in the buying season. But if you are carrying a lot of debt, for your seed costs, your fertilizer costs, your pesticide cost, you have to pay back that debt, and so a lot of small farmers will offload their cotton as soon as the sowing season ends and the cotton procurement season begins.

Risk is both an operative emotion for farmers, because we are talking about a personal relationship to this no-longer-new economy of cotton, and also an economic fact of current agricultural production, which operates at every level of the socioeconomic agricultural order. It is operating at the level of financial risk. It is operating at the level of climatic risk. It is operating at the level of crop failure. It is operating also through family relationships in a really intense way, because everybody requires money to cultivate, and everyone is taking debt from everyone else. So people undertake debt within kinship networks. Which means there is a social and familial risk in which social relations are also placed at risk of fraying. Supposing you take a loan from your maternal uncle, and you can’t pay back that loan in time, then that’s a family relation that has been placed at great risk. So one way to think of risk is to look at it in this expanded sense.

Matthan: You put it beautifully about how risk sort of pervades, and elsewhere you’ve said that risk is the structuring condition of agrarian life. It permeates the economy, but also intimate relations within family. And so while I was interested in using risk as a sort of analytical lens into agrarian change, what I found was as with the use of the term “tension,” the term “risk” was used all the time in rural India. 

So everything was understood in terms of, what is the risk of this? People were using this term all the time to describe a range of activities and practices, not just in relation to farming, but also beyond. There are highly differentiated engagements with risk, based on caste, class, and gender. Many other kinds of calculations go into how people are dealing with with it.



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