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Agrarian Social Structure: Study of Agrarian Structure!

Andre Beteille has written long essays pertaining to India’s agrarian social structure
and the problems related to land. Surely, agrarian structure is the central theme of
rural sociology. Beteille observed that this problem was not seriously discussed by

The anthropologists had a long tradition in India of studying the material culture of
the society. But this kind of approach was abandoned by the middle of present
century. The anthropologists found it useful to study the agrarian system.

Beteille’s comments run as under:

An area of research which holds much promise but has so far been little explored by
anthropologists in India is what may broadly be described as the study of agrarian
systems. The meaning of the phrase may not be immediately clear but what is
implied is something more specific than the study of peasant societies and cultures
as this is generally understood by anthropologists.


Land problem has also been studied recently by economists. As a matter of fact land
is the source of state income. Then, land problem also agitates the state. If poverty
removal is one of the objectives of rural development, naturally, land problem has to
be solved.

Perhaps, it was P.C. Joshi who in a systematic way analysed the problem of land
reforms in India. Joshi has focused on the land reforms in terms of trends and
perspectives. He has also analysed some of the agrarian studies which were
conducted in post-independent India.
Land problem or agrarian social structure has also been taken for intensive study by
A.R. Desai. Desai, in fact, has brought out an edited work on the different aspects of
agrarian social structure. What is interesting to mention in this respect is that the
study of agrarian social structure has employed both functional and Marxian
methodologies. There are some other sociologists also who have discussed the
problem of rural agrarian system from the perspective of changing rural stratification.


Agrarian Social Structure: What is Agrarian Social Structure? – Answered!

The dictionary meaning of ‘agrarian’ means anything related to land, its
management or distribution. Related to land distribution is also the aspect of
‘equitable division of land’. It refers to the political movement in favour of change in
conditions of propriety in land. It is called ‘agrarianism’.

The agrarian problem also dwells on a new ground wherein a movement has been
started in some of the Asian countries which stands for the ownership of land in
favour of women. Agrarian system also includes land tenure system. Beteille has
defined agrarian social structure. To him agrarian system does not mean only

He observes:
The meaning of the phrase (agrarian system) may not be immediately clear but what
is implied is something more specific than the study of peasant societies and
cultures, as this is generally understood by anthropologists… The term ‘peasantry’
has variety of referents. But it is most meaningfully used to describe a more or less
homogeneous and undifferentiated community of families characterised by small
holdings operated mainly by family labour.
The study of agrarian system has been taken up as mentioned earlier by
anthropologists, sociologists and economists. On a broader plane, the agrarian
system as is conceived by social scientists in general, has been related to:

(i) land and its utilisation; and

(ii) productive purposes. He observes:

The study of agrarian systems will centre round the problem of land and its
utilisation for productive purposes. In a land-based social and economic system the
significance of this kind of study hardly requires emphasis.

Beteille, to refer to him again, it would be said that the land problem in India
and for that matter the study of agrarian social structure revolves round two
major issues as under:
1. Technological arrangements, and

2. Social arrangements

Technological arrangement means the management of land. It includes

landownership, control and” use of land. Technological arrangement is discussed in
relation to variations in ecological conditions. In other words, land is looked in terms
of the geography which surrounds the land. The ecological setting of agriculture in
India is highly variable. The diverse nature of ecological conditions in India has been
described by Beteille as under:

There are areas of heavy rainfall and areas with hardly any rainfall. There are
irrigated and unirrigated areas. Irrigated areas themselves differ according to the
dependability of irrigation…. The different regions show different patterns of diurnal
and seasonal variations in humidity, temperature and sunlight. All these factors have
a direct bearing on the kinds of crops that can be cultivated and the technology
employed in their cultivation.

The technological arrangements, thus, include ecological conditions along with the
new agriculture technology, such as water pumps, thresher, chemical manure,
improved seeds, etc. Another aspect of agrarian system is that of social

It includes land control and landownership. It is found that the Indian agricultural
communities have recently been highly stratified. It shows that there is close
relationship between the system of stratification and the division of work.

For instance, the census figures show that in Punjab and Haryana the proportion of
agricultural labourers in the total agricultural population is relatively low, whereas in
West Bengal, Tamilnadu and Kerala, it is high. In the three states the prevalence of
sharecropping is also high, but this fact is not easily recorded in the censuses and
large-scale surveys.

K.L. Sharma has discussed the problem of agrarian stratification and argues that
agrarian structures in India have always been uneven. Fie observes that despite the
abolition of intermediaries not much substantive change in agrarian relations has
come. The uneven structures of landholdings have also resulted in ‘diverse land
tenure systems’. The land tenure system, according to Sharma, has greatly affected
the social structure. He writes:

The variations in the relationship between land tenure system and social structure
created an uneven feudal order in the pre-British and British periods. The shadow of
the colonial and feudal inequality is still seen by us in various aspects of society.
Sociologists and anthropologists, who have recently studied agrarian system, have
very strongly argued that changes in land relations have affected the stratification
pattern of villages. The crucial aspect of agrarian structure is the control over land.

It is the basis of agrarian stratification. When agrarian social structure is discussed

invariably we refer to landownership, land control and use of land. Such an ap-
proach to land helps us to find out agrarian hierarchy. What has happened so far is
that the dominant castes who, have control over major portions of land, suppress
and exploit the subordinated classes.

Oliver Mendelsohn and Marika Vicziany, who have discussed the rural land reform
with reference to untouchables, argue that the subordinated people have gained
nothing out of land reforms. The present social stratification of the village is due to
our failure to settle land reforms. The authors observe as under:

Land control is the basis of the agrarian hierarchy and, therefore, the means by
which the dominants have subordinated untouchables the village. Small resources
like a home site of one’s own and even a very small plot of productive land can
effect a powerful liberation of the subordinate untouchables from total and arbitrary
dependence on their oppressor.

Yet, another aspect of rural stratification is the pattern of cultivation adopted by the
peasantry. If the cultivators take to crops which require hard labour, naturally it
would require larger number of agriculture labourers.

In the states of Punjab and Bihar where paddy is grown, larger number of labourers
is hired. Even landless labourers migrate from Bihar to Punjab for transplanting
paddy. The agrarian hierarchy, therefore, is the resultant of the crops grown by the
Beteille has discussed the rural stratification pattern in terms of land control and land
management. The productive organisation of land consists of three main patterns:
the first is based on family labour, the second on hired labour and the third on
tenancy conceived in a broad sense.

The three patterns of production have several variants. And it is interesting to note
that the production which requires hard manual labour such as that of transplanting
paddy the pattern may change. Beteille has categorised the peasantry on the basis
of production system.

He observes:
For in talking about production based on family labour, wage labour and tenancy, we
are talking also about landlords, owner-cultivators, tenants, sharecroppers and the
agricultural labourers. These categories and their mutual relations constitute the
heart of what may be described as the agrarian hierarchy… the most crucial
features of India’s rural social system and unless we understand its nature and
forms, our understanding of caste itself will remain incomplete.

The rural India’s basic problem today is the understanding of agrarian system.
Control over land determines the rural hierarchy. What is interesting is that the state
does not impose any income-tax on the far production.

As a result of this state policy, those who control larger portions of land, benefit the
most. The rural agrarian hierarchy has today become more complicated owing to the
land policy adopted by the state. But the state land policy, as we have in India today,
has not evolved overnight.

It is the result of the colonial land policy which we have inherited and have carved it
in post-independent India in such a way that it has taken a capitalistic mode of
production instead of minimising the hiatus between the big farmer and landless
labourer. We have intensified the social inequality. We now trace the land policy
adopted by the colonial rulers and later, the nationalist government.


Changing pattern of Agrarian structure in India: A Preliminary Note

[Citation: Gaurang R. Sahay, Changing pattern of Agrarian structure in India: A Preliminary

Note(2009, Unpublished)]

The term agrarian structure denotes a framework of social relationships in which all agricultural
activities such as production, marketing and consumption are carried out. The institution or the
framework of social relationships determines how and by whom land is cultivated, what kind of
crops can be produced and for what purpose, how food and agricultural incomes can be
distributed, and in what way or in what terms the agrarian sector is linked to the rest of economy
or society.
Agrarian structure or its various dimensions and dynamics such as land reforms, Green
Revolution and agriculture labour have been the major concerns of Indian social scientists,
particularly sociologists and social anthropologists. They have tried to understand and analyse
them in different forms by using different concepts right from the time of independence. To
present a systematic and detailed picture of the Indian agrarian structure and its various dynamics
it has been proposed to divide the trajectory of the problem into three phases: pre-colonial phase,
colonial phase, and post-colonial phase.

1. Agrarian Structure during the Pre-colonial Period

The discourses on the pre-colonial Indian agrarian structure are quite homogenous in terms of the
ideas and lessons that they provide. The main concepts which were developed and used to
understand the pre-colonial Indian agrarian structure are: 1. Oriental Despotism (Montesquieu,
Hegel, Bernier and James Mills), 2. Asiatic Mode of Production (Karl Marx) and 3. Prebendal
Patrimonialism (Max Weber). The concepts are, more or less similar, similar to each other in
terms of their contents and meanings. They bring out following features of the pre-colonial
Indian agrarian structure:
1. Absence of private property in land
2. Possession and use of land on communal basis
3. State or king as the absolute owner of land
4. Torrid climatic environment
5. State controlled irrigation or public hydraulic works
6. Division of agrarian society into self-sufficient, autonomous and isolated village
communities or village as idyllic little republics
7. All kinds of relationships organized around the institution of caste or, to put in
different words, caste system as the basis of self-sustaining and self-producing Indian
village communities
8. Surplus labour as tribute to the despotic king
9. Absence of classes leading to servile social equality
10. Absence of hereditary nobility
11. General slavery or exploitation of the people directly by the despotic state or king
without any relationship of dependence and exchange at the lower levels and juridical
These structural features made Indian society, which was overwhelmingly agrarian, ever
static and historyless. Marx writes, ‘Indian society has no history at all, at least no known
history. What we call its history is but the history of the successive invaders who founded
empires on the passive basis of that unresisting and unchanging society’ (Marx 1968: 185).
Colonial ethnographers and British administrators-cum-sociologists such as Baden Powell,
Henry Maine and Charles Metcalfe followed both in words and spirits such an ‘orientalist’
understanding of Indian social formation and its agrarian structure. To quote Metcalfe, ‘The
village communities are little republics, having nearly everything they want within themselves,
and almost independent of foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts. Dynasty
after dynasty tumbles down; revolution succeeds revolution; Hindu, Pathan, Mughal, Maharatta,
Sikh, English are masters in turn; but the village communities remain the same’ (quoted from
Cohn 1987: 213).
However, historical research by Indian scholars, particularly in post-independent India, has
convincingly contested this orientalist understanding of Indian socio-economic structure, and
proved that
1. Everyone had no equal rights over land or land produce. The village did not hold
its land in common. Common were its officials and servants (Neale 1962: 21).
2. The land rights could even be purchased and sold. The agrarian society was
internally differentiated in terms of class, and was unstable and not self-sufficient (Habib
3. There was a sizeable population who worked as labourer (Dharma Kumar 1992).
4. The authorities discriminated between the different sections of landowners while
fixing the revenue demands. The large landowners were required to pay less (Dharma
Kumar 1992).
5. Pre-colonial agrarian relations were also not free of conflicts and tensions (Habib
1963; Moore 1966; Dhanagare 1983).
f) Production of crops, particularly cash crops, for market (Habib 1982).

2. Agrarian Structure during the Colonial Rule

The British colonial rule did many things and introduced many measures to reorganize
rural/agrarian society in a framework that make governance easy, profitable and manageable.
Most important noteworthy measures with far reaching consequences are following:

a) The Land Tenure/Revenue System

1) The Permanent Settlement System

Under this measure, the intermediary Zamindars (the tax collecting officials in earlier regime)
was granted ownership right over land from which they previously only had the rights to collect

2) The Ryotwari System

Under this, the actual land tillers were given formal property rights over land. The Royat was a
tenant of the state, responsible for paying revenue directly to the state treasury, and could not be
evicted as long as he paid his revenue.

3) The Mahalwari or Malgujari System

Under this system, the village was identified as unit of assessment. Though an individual
cultivator in a village was made owner of the land, the villagers were asked to pay the revenue
collectively. A member of the dominant family of the village was generally given the
responsibility of collecting the revenue.
These colonial measures introduced ‘more intensive and systematic exploitation’ (Guha
1983: 7) and forced the peasants to become increasingly involved with the market, even when
they did not have the capacity to produce surplus. These measures brought about major changes
in the agrarian structure. The most significant ones are following:

b) Commercialization of Agriculture
It means a shift in the agrarian economy from production for consumption (food crops) to
production for market (cash crops). The demand of raw material in British industries and the
manifold increase in the land revenue compelled the peasantry to shift to cash crops (Blyn 1966).
One obvious consequence of this shift in cropping patterns was a significant increase in the
vulnerability of local population to famines (Kumar 1982; Sen 1976).

c) Commodification of Land
Due to colonial policies land began to acquire the features of a commodity. The moneylender,
who until then lent keeping a peasant’s crops in mind, began to see his land as a mortgageable
asset against which he could lend money.

d) De-industrialization of the Indian economy

The influx of cheap goods from England after the industrial revolution hastened the process of
de-industrialization by ruining the village artisans that also resulted into the massive pressure on
cultivatable land.
e) Land Alienation
It was a pan-Indian phenomenon irrespective of the system of revenue settlement: Zamindary,
Ryotwari, or Mahalwari (Dhanagare 1983). In the past the professional moneylenders generally
did not evict the peasant from his land but made him tenant if he did not pay back the debt,
whereas the landlords evicted him from the land and made him landless. Thus tenancy and
landlessness grew significantly (Bhattacharya 1985; Bailey 1958).

f) Conservation and/or Dissolution of the elements of Pre-colonial Agrarian Structure

There is almost a consensus among scholars that while colonial rule destroyed some pre-colonial
elements of agrarian structures, it also preserved many. It broke down earlier structures without
reconstituting them, and, as Utsa Patnaik argues, the ‘bourgeois property relations’ developed
without corresponding development of capitalist relations of production and forces of production
in agriculture (Patnaik 1990; Banaji 1990). Alavi argues that colonial rule brought about
peripheral capitalism in India which generated a disarticulated form of ‘generalised commodity
production’ because the surplus agriculture produce was reinvested not in the local economy but
in the metropolitan centers (Alavi 1990: 170).

3. Agrarian Structure in Post-colonial India

Independence from the colonial rule marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of
agrarian structure. The main objective of the Indian state was to transform the stagnant and
backward economy and to make sure that the benefits of transformation and growth were not
monopolized by a particular section of the society. Keeping this in background the govt. of India
introduced various measures. Significant ones are following:

a) Land Reforms
Land reforms in independent India finds its raison d être in the constitution which begins with
the Preamble that is based on the four cornerstones of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, and
further strengthened by certain specific provisions, particularly the directive principles of state
policy, which set out that the state shall, in particular, direct its policies such that:
1. The citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of
2. The ownership and control of the resources of the community are so distributed as
to subserve the common good;
3. The operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of
wealth and other means of production to the common detriment.
Land reforms measures were among the most significant efforts of the state to achieve these
goals. The govt. of India directed its states to abolish intermediary tenures, regulate rent and
tenancy rights, confer ownership rights on tenants, impose ceilings on holdings, distribute the
surplus land among the rural poor, and facilitate consolidation of holdings. A large number of
legislations were passed by the state governments over a short period of time.
The actual implementation of these legislations and their impact on the agrarian structure is,
however, an entirely different story. Most of these legislations had loopholes that allowed the
landlords to tamper with the land records, evicting their tenants, and using other means to escape
the legislations (Joshi 1976; Radhakrishnan 1989).
Despite over all failure, land reforms succeeded in weakening the hold of absentee landlords
over rural society and assisted in the emergence of a class of substantial peasants and petty
landlords as the dominant political and economic group (Bell 1974: 196; Chakravarti 1975: 97-8;
Byres 1974). However, it was only in rare cases that the landless, most of whom belonged to
class of dalits, received land. The beneficiaries, by and large, belonged to middle level caste
groups who traditionally cultivated land as a part of the calling of their castes. Otherwise, the
land holding structure continued to be fairly iniquitous.

b) Provisions for institutional Credit

The govt. of India introduced various provisions of Institutional credit to weaken the hold of
traditional moneylenders over the peasantry. According to the RBI Report 1969, approximately
91per cent of the credit needs of the cultivators were being met by informal sources of credit.
69.7 per cent of it came from usurious moneylenders. The govt. asked cooperative credit
societies and commercial banks to lend to the agricultural sector on priority basis. However, the
studies showed that much of their credit went to the relatively better off sections of agrarian
society and the poor continued to depend on the servile exploitative sources (Thorner 1964;
Oommen 1984; Jodhaka 1995).

c) The Community Development Programme (CDP)

This programme, which was patterned on American experiences, was launched on 2 October
1952, and its objective was to provide the substantial increase in agricultural production and
improvement in basic services, which would ultimately lead to overall development of the all
sections of agrarian society. However, it failed in its objective and resulted in helping only those
who were already powerful in the village.

d) The Green Revolution

Green Revolution is an agricultural development project that includes higher yielding variety
seeds (HYV) and other fertility enhancing inputs i.e. chemical fertilizer, controlled irrigation
facilities and pesticides. The components of the project consisted of providing cheap institutional
price incentives, marketing and research facilities.
The idea of Green Revolution was based on the ‘trickle down’ theory of economic
growth. It carried the conviction that agriculture could be peacefully transformed through the
quite working of science and technology without the social costs of mass upheaval and disorder
(Frankel 1971: Chat. V).
The Green Revolution led to a substantial increase (at the rate of 3 to 5 per cent per
annum) in the agricultural production (Byres1972). However, it did not mean same thing to all
sections of the agrarian society. While bigger farmers had enough surplus of their own to invest
in the new capital-intensive farming, for smaller farmers it meant additional dependence on
borrowing, generally from informal sectors (Jodhaka 1995: A124; Harriss 1987: 231). The Green
Revolution also resulted into a totally new kind of mobilization of surplus producing farmers
who demanded a better deal for the agricultural sector (Dhanagare 1991; Brass 1994; Gupta
Did the benefits of Green Revolution ‘trickle down’ to agricultural labourers? It has been
one of the most debated questions in the studies on agrarian change in independent India. It is an
almost accepted fact among the scholars that the Green Revolution has made the countryside
prosperous in general terms, however, it has also increased economic inequalities in the villages
(Bardhan 1970). The wages of agricultural labour has gone up but, due to increase in the prices,
their purchasing power has gone down (Bagchi1982; Dhanagare 1988). The proportion of
agriculture labour to total population increased mainly due to depeasantisation (Aggarwal 1971).
The Green Revolution also helped in making the agricultural labour free from relations of
patronage and institutionalized dependency (Bremman 1974; Beteille 1971; Gaugh 1981; Bhalla
1976). It increased the ‘proletarianisation’ of labour (Brass 1990). Over all, it has been assessed
that due to the Green Revolution a smaller class of big peasants established dominance over the
larger class of agriculture labour.
The changes brought about by the Green revolution and other measures of the govt. of
India in the agrarian structure generated a debate among the Marxist scholars on the nature of
mode of production in Indian agriculture. The debate was started by Rudra’s (1970) claim that
agrarian India is still feudal. Most of the participants in the debate, such as Chattopadhyay
(1972a, 1972b), Gough (1980), Banaji (1972, 1973, 1977), Harriss (1982) and Breman (1985)
argue that capitalist mode of production indeed is on its way to dominating the agrarian economy
of India and most certainly that of the regions which has experienced the Green Revolution.
Some others, like Bhaduri (1973a, 1973b), Pradhan Prasad (1973, 1974), N. K. Chandra (1974)
and Ranjit Sau (1973, 1975, 1976) hold a different view about the nature of agrarian society.
They opine that agrarian mode of production in India exhibits some features of capitalism;
however, its basic nature is semi-feudal.