Economic historians and historians of Asia have been deeply involved in a debate with long roots: Why did modern economic development occur first and most consistently in western Europe in the seventeenth century, and why did China not capitalize on its many advantages in the early Qing Dynasty to take the lead? Those advantages included advanced scientific and medical knowledge; extensive population; and an effective central state governing a vast population.
There has been a strong case made by a group of historians led by Ken Pomeranz, Bin Wong, and James Lee that this way of characterizing world history embodies a host of misconceptions, including the idea that there is one best pathway to modern economic development (link). Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. and Wong’s China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience led the way in this line of thought. And this group also challenges the idea that the Chinese economy was backward in 1600; instead, they argue that agriculture was comparably productive and that the standard of living in China was also comparable to the standard of living of working people in western Europe. This group argues that more specific features of the historical setting led to the “great divergence,” including New World metals, the labor power of slaves, and the fortuitous geographical location of deposits of coal in Great Britain.
Bin Wong and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal took up this line of thought in Before and Beyond Divergence: The Politics of Economic Change in China and Europe. They disagree with a number of the positions defended by Pomeranz and Wong, and they argue that Late Imperial China was in fact a conducive business environment for modern economic growth, and that it possessed long-distance credit institutions that would have been comparably effective in supporting the expansion of business activity in China. But if it wasn’t differences in the economic environment that brought about divergent pathways in Europe and China, then what was the cause of divergence? They point to a new factor: the political and military competition that Europe experienced and China did not (link).
Prasannan Parthasarathi brings a new voice and new perspective into this extended debate (Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850). He focuses on India rather than China, and he argues against a number of the historiographic premises that infuse the current debate. In particular, he challenges the idea that there must be some small number of important structural or institutional differences that explain the great divergence — the acceleration of modern growth in Europe and the continuation of pre-modern institutions and slow growth.
Parthasarathi takes the view that there is no single large factor that accounts for differences in economic development among Europe, China, and India. He argues instead for a large number of contextual and contingent factors that were present in the three settings, leading to significant differences in development.
More critical for the arguments of this book, however, are findings that the economic “situation” or context shapes the decisions, choices and actions of individuals. These advances in economic thinking indicate that divergent paths of development need not imply — nor require — deep differences in economic institutions, for context matters.
The approach to divergence taken in this work moves away from seeing economic development in the eighteenth century in binary terms, as either leading to modern industry or its failure. Instead, it points to the existence of plural paths of change, which were the products of the pressures and needs that the dynamic and diverse economies of Europe and Asia faced. (1)
Parthasarathi offers an innovative set of methodological principles for comparative economic history.
First, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were a variety of economic and political goals which produced plural paths of development. Second, different paths of economic change were the products of human agency and choice, and were shaped by social, political and economic context. … Finally, there is a political dimension to economic life. State actions were critical in determining paths of development in both Europe and Asia from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. (9)
He finds that two pressures in particular account for a lot of the difference in development between Europe and Asia.
The first emanated from the global trading system, in which the position of Europeans was very different from that of both Indians and Chinese. …
The second pressure that differed across Europe and Asia lay in the realm of ecology, specifically in the supply of wood. While Britain and parts of France and central Europe faced shortages of wood, which was essential for fuel, building material and countless other uses, Scandinavia and Russia had plentiful supplies. Similar differences existed in Asia. (10)
Like Pomeranz and Li in the case of China, Parthasarathi finds that the standard of living in Bengal was comparable to that of England in the eighteenth century. He provides estimates of “grain earnings” for weaving labor in Britain, South India, and Bengal in mid-eighteenth century: 40-140, 65-160, and 55-135 lbs. per week (table 2.4). The ranges for both Indian wage estimates are higher, not lower, than Britain. This challenges the “immiseration” thesis that powered the Malthusian and Smithian interpretations of Asian economies. (Parthasarathi concedes that the estimates of real wages across countries are exceptionally difficult for the early modern period, and that Robert Allen’s estimates of Indian real wages are substantially lower.)
Parthasarathi also argues, surprisingly, that more recent price data about finished cottons show that Indian cottons did not enter the English market so strongly because they were cheap, but because they fulfilled specific market needs for higher quality textiles.
In many markets around the world Indian cottons were more expensive than locally made cloth. This was the case in Southeast Asia where low-quality cotton cloths were manufactured in large quantities, but higher-quality Indian cottons, despite being more costly, were in great demand. (34)
In the late seventeenth century consumers in Europe embraced the cotton textiles of India for their beauty, convenience an d fashionability. (89)
But European manufacturers were fast to imitate Indian cottons:
The future was to be with cotton, however. From its home in the Indian subcontinent, the art of turning the cotton boll into cloth of extraordinary beauty, comfort and versatility migrated to Europe.Imitation in the seventeenth century led 150 years later to Western Europe becoming the center of the world’s cotton manufacturing. The migration of this industry marked a great transformation in the global economy. (89)
This transformation involved several processes of great importance, including technology transfer and innovation and expansion of the slave trade.
Parthasarathi’s treatment of the role of scientific and technical knowledge in India is particularly important. Parthasarathi finds that the status of science and technology in India was substantially different than the standard narrative would have it. In Mysore, for example, he finds:
There is extensive evidence for a push towards agricultural improvement, with policies designed to expand irrigation, bring fertile land under cultivation and promote the adoption of valuable cash crops, including sandalwood, sugar and black pepper. A sophisticated system of revenue incentives was designed to meet these aims. In addition, under Tipu Sultan, efforts were made to improve the breeding of cattle, which were critical not only for agricultural operations, but also for the transport of goods and military supplies. The push for improvement in Mysore also extended to manufacturing. The European-style military that Mysore sought to create required the expansion of metal-working facilities, especially iron. In the 1780s, orders were issued for the construction of twenty new iron-smelting furnaces within the kingdom. Mysore also developed a major armaments industry, which cast cannon in both brass and iron. (207)
The stereotype of Indian “backwardness,” like its cousin view of Chinese “stagnation,” is not grounded in the facts.
Parthasarathi’s book is detailed and careful; but more importantly, it pursues economic history through a new lens. The reader is led through parts of the story that are familiar — the importance of coal for Britain, for example — but is then challenged to look at these developments in different ways. Parthasarathi offers a number of surprising but carefully supported claims: India’s cotton industry was substantially more sophisticated than the standard account would have it. The standard of living for Indian workers was comparable to that of English workers. The policies of the states of Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire had substantial effects on the nature and course of development. Pursuit of scientific and technical knowledge was an explicit priority for the states of India from the seventeenth century forward (186). Better history of science is needed in Indian history.
Almost all of these findings challenge one or another part of the standard narrative of economic development across Eurasia. Parthasarathi’s work is an important contribution to the debate.
One thing that is interesting about Indian politics is the fact that states have a great deal of autonomy, and there are parties based in various states that are distinct from both Congress and BJP. One of those parties is the Communist Party of India, which has evolved into a pro-poor, anti-capitalist electoral party that has renounced violent revolution, following a split in CPI in the 1960s. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM or CPI(M)) emerged in the 1960s as a serious electoral party, and it has governed directly or through left coalitions in West Bengal and Kerala since the late 1970s. CPM gains between 5% and 6% of the national vote, and currently there are 46 CPM MPs in Parliament (out of 790). (The Wikipedia entry on CPI(M) provides a detailed timeline of the party’s role in India since the 1960s. Here is a link to the People’s Daily, one of CPM’s key publications.)
Here is a table of seats won in elections between 1952 and 1987 in West Bengal:
(source: Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent, p. 274)
Many progressive Bengalis looked at the party as a pro-poor, progressive force in West Bengal during the 1980s. But substantial and rising criticism has developed in the past five years. So where is CPM today?
First, consider the positive view. Distinguished American political scientist Atul Kohli treated West Bengal in detail in his The State and Poverty in India (1989), and he credits CPM for much of the improvement of the status of the poor over a 20-year period in West Bengal.
It is argued that the capacity of the CPM to initiate a systematic attack on rural poverty stems from its political and class characteristics. The type of leadership, ideology, and organization the CPM regime brings to bear on the operation of political power enables it to perform two essential tasks: first, penetration of the countryside without being captured byt he landed classes; and second, controlled mobilization and incorporation of the lower classes to buttress state power as a tool of social reform. … To gain an understanding of the CPM regime in West Bengal, one must begin by analyzing the nature of its leadership, ideology, and organization. The important thing to note about the leadership is that is neither concentrated in the hands of an individual nor, as one might expect, in the party alone. While the party wields great influence, leadership is shared by the three “wings” of the CPM, namely, the party organization proper, the Kisan Sabha (the peasant wing) and the parliamentary wing. (96-97)
Kohli gives an overview of CPM in West Bengal in his 1991 Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability:
The Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPM), has repeatedly been elected to office in West Bengal since 1977. The party is communist in name only and is essentially social-democratic in its ideology, social program, and policies. The party’s disciplined, effective organization has minimized the debilitating elite factionalism and the related elite-led mobilization and countermobilization so common in some other states. The CPM has also consolidated a coalition of the middle and lower strata by implementing some modest redistributive programs. That systematic incorporation of the poor has reduced the attractiveness of populism and its emphasis on deinstitutionalization. And finally, the CPM has adopted a nonthreatening approach toward property-owning groups, whose roles in production and economic growth remain essential for the long-term welfare of the state. (267)
Here is Kohli’s summary assessment in 1991:
After having been one of India’s most chaotic states in the late 1960s, West Bengal has emerged in the 1980s as one of India’s better-governed states. Surely there are lessons in this turnaround for any study of India’s growing crisis of governability. For purposes of this concluding discussion, these lessons can be broadly divided into prescriptive and analytical.
The prescriptive lessons are limited. What has worked in West Bengal may not work in other states in India — and is even less likely to provide an all-India model. The emergence of the CPM as a disciplined ruling party in West Bengal is a product of an unusual sociopolitical configuration — its long regional traditions of elite radicalism and centralized organization, the weakness of caste as a principle for political organization, and the historical weakness of the Congress party….
In spite of the limited utility of the West Bengal case for generating any direct prescriptions, the analytical implications … are very important. The West Bengal case highlights the significance of a well-organized reformist party for generating political order. The roots of the political chaos between 1967 and 1977, though complex, were mainly two related political conditions: the fragmentation of the state itself, and virulent elite-led mobilization.
The emergence of the CPM as a ruling party tamed many of the conflicts within West Bengal. As a well-organized party with a clear electoral majority, the CPM was able to create a cohesive government and fill the existing power vacuum. Organizational discipline also enabled the CPM to limit elite factionalism and the debilitating elite-initiated political conflicts that often follow. Thus, organizational cohesion at the heart of the state was crucial for taming political chaos.
The CPM’s reformist orientation has enabled it to pursue some redistributive programs without fundamentally alienating property-owning productive groups. The CPM’s performance in West Bengal has by no means been spectacular; it has left quite a few problems unresolved, and it has created some new problems. At the same time, however, it is undeniable that a reform-oriented, disciplined party has generated moderately effective government in West Bengal. (295-96)
So Kohli’s assessment of CPM is quite favorable, at least through the early 1990s. Land reform and policies favorable to landless workers had a significant impact on poverty in West Bengal. Now move forward to the early 2000’s up to the present. Indian journalism suggests a high degree of discontent with CPM today. There are three large areas of criticism: cronyism and corruption; the use of political violence to silence opponents; and an economic development strategy that is too friendly to international business. And, for the first time in decades, the party is losing electoral support in West Bengal. Here is a fairly representative current critique of CPM in West Bengal (link). Here are a few key criticisms by Pratap Bhanu Mehta:
The governance failures of West Bengal, on virtually every indicator that matters — roads, health, education, nutrition, poverty, infant mortality — have recently been well documented in searing report by my colleague Bibek Debroy and his co-author Laveesh Bhandari. Even the much touted success in growth in agricultural productivity and decline in rural poverty has been tapering off for years. There is no question that West Bengal is ripe for a paradigm shift in its development model.
There is also no question that the local CPM has become a huge obstacle to the progress of the state. No matter how much Bengali intellectuals, out of a sense of misplaced nationalism, sanitise the issue, the CPM’s implication in violence, intimidation and coercion is extensive. It is now deeply implicated in the political economy of petty corruption in the state. It has virtually destroyed intellectual life in main institutions of the state.
One particular point of controversy has to do with the attempt to establish Special Economic Zones in West Bengal (link). Here is a searing criticism of CPM’s use of political violence against peasants from Mainstream in an effort to push forward with its plans to create a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram, involving largescale land confiscations:
The irony is that even though the CPI-M has become pro-capitalist, it has little respect for democratic norms or rule of law. So, even before the State Government machinery, centred in Kolkata, actually made any formal requests to peasants for taking over of their lands, a local party bigwig and a Member of Parliament from adjoining Haldia (it is a port town and is apparently booming) deemed fit to send out a circular stating that lands of villagers in quite a few villages will be taken over for the purpose of creating an SEZ. That created a furore among the villagers and a resistance started; they vowed that they will not part with their land which they have tilled for generations. The State Police tried to break the peaceful resistance of the villagers on March 14, and the deaths of innocent peasants led to a plethora of protests from the Opposition political parties and groups and also from independent intellectuals of Kolkata and beyond. Even Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the present Governor of West Bengal, found the killings to be a horrific incident and himself tried to visit the place where the deaths happened but was stopped mid-way by the CPI-M cadres.
The criticism is two-fold: that CPM’s current economic policies are too favorable to international businesses; and that the government has been reckless in its use of force against peasants and critics.
Here is a rebuttal to these criticisms from LeftVoice. The document is interesting because it provides a defense of CPM’s current policies and actions (link).
The primary political and developmental strategy of the Left Front had two inter-related components – land reform and decentralisation of political power from the state bureaucracy to institutions of local government (i.e. to panchayats and municipalities in rural and urban areas respectively). Right from the start, it was the contention of the Left Front, that refoming the way land was owned in the rural areas, where the bulk of the poor lived, was crucial to tackling the problems of poverty and under-development in the state. In this article we shall see what kind of property relations existed in the state before the Left Front came to power in 1977, how these relations created conditions of massive rural poverty, how the Left Front attempted to undertake land reforms to alter these property relations, how it realised that decentralisation of political power to local government institutions was the best way to undertake such reforms and how this whole strategy reduced rural poverty and also politically empowered the poor in the state to a degree not seen in other states of India.
So the hard question today is this: has CPM maintained the political commitments and integrity it evidently possessed in the 1970s and 1980s, so that it remains a positive force for social reform in West Bengal? Or has it devolved into “party politics”, leading to behaviors that have more to do with personal gain and party electoral success than social progress?
Image: frame from West of the Tracks
Cities capture much of what we mean by “modern,” and have done so since Walter Benjamin’s writings on Paris (link). But unlike the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, much of our imagining of cities since the early twentieth century has been dark and foreboding. A recent volume edited by Gyan Prakash, Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City, offers a collection of recent work in cultural studies that attempts to decode some of this dark imagery.
Several things are particularly interesting about the volume. Most basically, it represents an interesting conjunction of humanities perspectives and sociology. The articles are individually very good. And as a group they pose a series of important questions. How does a film set in Los Angeles or Shanghai serve to depict the city? Is there sociological content in a film that can contribute to a better sociology of the city? But also — what can we say about the cultural currents that produce a particular vision of the city? Are there post-modern sensibilities and fears that lead filmmakers to turn the ambience dark?
The volume treats cities and their depictions in many parts of the world — China, South Africa, Mexico, India, Europe, and the United States. What is unusual about the volume is the fact that it is not a collection in “film studies” or in “urban studies”, but rather a series of contributions taking seriously representation and the represented. Moreover, there is no effort to force the perspectives taken into a common theory of “noir representation”; there are common themes that emerge, but each contributor brings forward a singular perspective, informed by the specifics of the region and genre that he/she studies. It is a project on the nexus between imaginative representation and existing social realities.
Prakash’s excellent introduction begins with these observations:
As the world becomes increasingly urban, dire predictions of an impending crisis have reached a feverish pitch. Alarming statistics on the huge and unsustainable gap between the rates of urbanization and economic growth in the global South is seen to spell disaster. The unprecedented agglomeration of the poor produces the specter of an unremittingly bleak “planet of slums.” Monstrous megacities do not promise the pleasures of urbanity but the misery and strife of the Hobbesian jungle. The medieval maxim that the city air makes you free appears quaint in view of the visions of an approaching urban anarchy. Urbanists write about fortified “privatopias” erected by the privileged tow all themselves off from the imagined resentment and violence of the multitude. Instead of freedom, the unprecedented urbanization of poverty seems to promise only division and conflict. The image of the modern city as a distinct and bounded entity lies shattered as market-led globalization and media saturation dissolve boundaries between town and countryside, center and periphery. From the ruins of the old ideal of the city as a space of urban citizens there emerges, sphinx-like, a “Generic City” of urban consumers.
As important as it is to assess the substance of these readings of contemporary trends in urbanization, it is equally necessary to examine their dark form as a mode of urban representation. This form is not new. Since the turn of the twentieth century, dystopic images have figured prominently in literary, cinematic, and sociological representations of the modern city. In these portrayals, the city often appears as dark, insurgent (or forced into total obedience), dysfunctional (or forced into machine-like functioning), engulfed by ecological and social crises, seduced by capitalist consumption, paralyzed by crime, wars, class, gender, and racial conflicts, and subjected to excessive technological and technocratic control What characterizes such representations is not just their bleak mood but also their mode of interpretation, which ratchets up a critical reading of specific historical conditions to diagnose crisis and catastrophe. (1)
All the essays are interesting and insightful, but I was particularly interested in the Asian contributions — India, China, and Japan.
First is Li Zhang’s treatment of some current treatments of the dark side of Chinese cities (Shanghai and Shenyang) in “Postsocialist Urban Dystopia?”. She treats the Sixth Generation and New Documentaries movements in contemporary Chinese filmmaking, focusing on two recent works (Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks, about the decline of a rust-belt city in the Northeast, and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, about the lives of poor and disaffected people in Shanghai).
Both works serve as powerful examples of “noir urbanism” in a Chinese context. West of the Tracks is a nine-hour documentary capturing the lives and declining prospects of working class people in Shenyang following the reform of Chinese industry in the 1990s. (C. K. Lee describes this process in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.) Here is a link to West of the Tracks, well worth viewing. And Suzhou River captures some of the gritty, squalid aspects of life in contemporary Shanghai, but also dwells on the moral shift that China is undergoing, towards a consumerist, wealth-oriented corrupt society. Here is a clip from Suzhou River:
Zhang combines her own anthropological fieldwork in Chinese cities with her reading of these films, giving her essay a multiple sense of authority. Here is a brief description of West of the Tracks that illustrates the intersection of criticism and fieldwork:
While capturing the “raw and the real” experiences of workers, West of the Tracks offers a subtle yet powerful critique of the postsocialist state and its neoliberal turn. What is so striking in the story told here is the lack of government help and the indifference of society toward workers’ dilemmas. (137)
She refers to the bleak setting of the break room at the factory:
In their daily conversations in the break room, smelting workers frequently talk about how the managers and cadres of the factories steal public money to line their own pockets by taking kickbacks at the expense of the enterprise. The management and bosses rarely appear in the film. The longest presence is a banquet gathering at a local restaurant where factory managers and cadres talked about the imminent total privatization. They are well dressed in leather and wool coats with fur collars. (137)
So there are several key themes here: First, there is a critical perspective on the rising inequalities and dispossession of ordinary people that have followed from China’s growth policies; this is the documentary aspect of the films she discusses, and plainly reflects the filmmakers’ interest in capturing an important and disturbing contemporary social reality in China. And second, there is a critical vision of the moral dislocations that China has undergone, from Maoist egalitarianism to capitalist and consumerist pursuit of wealth. Zhang captures this element of contemporary China in her discussion of both films, but especially in Suzhou River. There is squalor and poverty, to be sure, but more pervasive is the sense of moral ungroundedness.
Moneymaking, market exchange, and pleasure-seeking are the dominant forces of everyday life. For example, the power of money erodes Mardar’s blossoming love for Mudan and eventually destroys her, the symbol of innocent, unpolluted love. Human greediness corrupts souls and drives violent acts such as kidnaping and murder. (139)
Zhang’s summary is explicit:
During market liberalization, Chinese society has irrevocably changed into a mass consumer society in which money increasingly controls people’s lives and determines their lifestyles. (139)
Another fine contribution to the volume shifts focus to India’s cities. Ranjani Mazumdar’s “Friction, Collision, and the Grotesque: The Dystopic Fragments of Bombay Cinema” focuses on the mental urban landscape — the way in which an Indian city is perceived by its residents, and the ways in which the residents are impaired by the city. Mazumdar discusses three “urban fringe” films, Dombivli Fast, Being Cyrus, and No Smoking. Here is a clip from Dombivli Fast:
Dombivli Fast is quite different from the films discussed by Zhang. It is reflective of the current social realities of Mumbai — meaningless work, endless commuting on super-crowded trains. But it is more personal and introspective than the Chinese works, in that it focuses on one man and his family; it attempts to reveal his inner anxieties and thoughts. The dystopia here is not crushing poverty — Madhav Apte and his family live a middle-class life in Mumbai. Here the dystopia is the pressure, stress, and callous injustice of society that drives Madhav to the breaking point.
Madhav Apte does not go back home for three days after he explodes. Armed with a cricket bat, Apte acquires a menacing persona as he moves through a city that is almost fated to collapse because of corruption, inequality, and indifference. In his journey across Bombay’s deadly streets, Madhav becomes an active figure whose rage makes him see the city with a heightened perception. (159)
(There are clips from Being Cyrus and No Smoking on Youtube as well. This is one of the fascinating realities of reading the volume: it is possible for us non-specialists to view segments from most of the films that are discussed.)
David Ambaras takes up Tokyo in its cultural representations in “Topographies of Distress: Tokyo, c. 1930.” He too highlights the discrepancy between official, ideological expressions of the city, and the underlying grinding reality that modern cities often represent.
Yet despite this ebullience, to many contemporaries, urban modernity signaled the destruction of Japanese social values by Western materialism and individualistic hedonism, of which the modern girl served as the prime example. (188)
Ambaras doesn’t work through cinema, but rather what he calls “slum discourse” and graphic pictorial representations of urban life. He highlights the popular and journalistic literature of the 1870s through the early 1900s as a barometer of the anxieties Tokyo residents experienced about their changing city. Stories of disease, child murder, beggars, and abject poverty permeate this literature.
These various forms of representation, … had combined to produce in the Iwanosaka case a set of images that both shocked the sensibilities of readers and investigators and were necessary to their understanding of themselves as part of a modern metropolitan social formation. They reinforced the sense, common to many interpretations of the modern condition, that modernity was best apprehended through contrasts — between, for example, utopian promise and dystopian reality — or in terms of dark mysteries concealed beneath the surface of social relationships, and that the modern (urban) subject was compelled to navigate anxiously between these two positions, ever unsure as to which was the “truth” or in which direction he/she was being led. (210-11)
It is worth sorting out the different perspectives on social knowledge represented in this volume. First, there is the question of knowledge of the object, the contemporary city. Does cinema shed light on the current social realities of Shanghai or Mumbai? Can cinema contribute to urban sociology? Second is the question of the mentality of a place and time; the way that contemporary Mumbai-ers or Shanghai-ers think of themselves and their society. Can cinema accurately capture some strands of social consciousness and anxiety that are real threads in the social landscape? Is cinema a legitimate form of ethnography? And third is the mentality and intentions of the creative class itself — the filmmakers. Can the critic discover threads in the filmmaker’s work that sheds important light on the preoccupations of this slice of contemporary society?
Finally, we can ask the question of perspectivalism: how many Shanghai’s are there? Zhang refers to the Maoist preference for social realism or socialist romanticism; there are the entertainment-oriented Shanghai thrillers; there is the global Shanghai as an exotic backdrop to drama; and there is the noir representation of the social problems of the city. Can we say that one depiction is more veridical than the other? Or perhaps, can we say that several of these perspectives are compatible with the truth of Shanghai; and that optimism and pessimism are equally distorting frames for social perception?
(I note that several of the essays refer to Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums; this is worth reading.)
India is the world’s largest democracy. It also is home to one of the more persistent and deadly Maoist insurgencies in the world, the Naxalite movement in eastern India (Communist Party of India (Maoist) (CPI/M)). The Naxalites were a splinter group that separated from India’s Communist Party in the 1960s, and their hallmarks have been a commitment to violent revolution and a determined effort at mobilizing India’s most disadvantaged rural people. Here is a review article about the movement from The Economist in 2006 and a review in the New York Times in 2009, and here are several updates from The Economist (link, link, link). (The Hindu provides frequent coverage of the Naxalite insurgency; for example, here.)
The 2006 Economist article was occasioned by a deadly attack against a police camp by Naxal guerillas in Chhattisgarh State. The attack signalled the fact that this movement continued to possess organization, followers, and deadly intent. This map (reproduced from the Wikipedia article on the Naxalites) indicates the regions where the Naxalites currently have organizational presence; it is a large swath of rural India. Estimates of the number of active fighters range from 14,000 to 20,000, with several times these numbers of local supporters and militias.
Naxalite attacks have continued since 2006. Here is a chronology of attacks since 2006 compiled by NDTV (link). Particularly widely noted in the world press was an April 2010 attack against Central Reserve Police Force, killing 75 police personnel, also in the forests of Chhattisgarh (link). And the insurgency appears to be growing; in 2009 just under 1000 people were killed in Naxalite attacks — almost triple the 2008 figures.
The leadership of CPI(M) has focused its mobilization efforts almost exclusively at the poorest of the poor and the most disadvantaged people within the caste system; and they have had particular success among tribal people living in India’s forests. But extending back to the 1960s the movement also has had some appeal to educated elites in cities and universities — people on the left who believe that India has made no serious efforts to ameliorate poverty or caste.
What is surprising about this 40-year history is the fact that a violent revolutionary movement has managed to survive and conduct operations within the interstices of a democratic India. Atul Kohli provided some context for this question in his 1991 Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability. Here is how Kohli summarized his assessment twenty years ago:
India is still, of course, a functioning democracy, but increasingly it is not well governed. The evidence of eroding political order is everywhere. Personal rule has replaced party rule at all levels — national, state, and district. Below the rulers, the entrenched civil and police service have been politicized. Various social groups have pressed new and ever more diverse political demands in demonstrations that often have led to violence. The omnipresent but feeble state, in turn, has vacillated; its responses have varied over a wide range: indifference, sporadic concessions, and repression. Such vacillation has fueled further opposition. The ineffectiveness of repression, moreover, has highlighted the breakdown of the civil machinery intended to enforce the law and maintain order. Inorder to protect themselves, citizens in some parts of the country have begun organizing private armies. The growing political violence has periodically brought the armed forces into India’s political arena, whereas the armed forces were considered apolitical. (3)
The main national parties in India, Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have contested for control of the national government. But India’s states have consistently demonstrated a wider range of parties and politics. West Bengal has been governed for decades by the Communist Party Marxist (CPM). Kerala has been governed through left-coalitions including the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI/M). Both these parties have renounced revolutionary violence and pursue a poverty-oriented set of economic and political policies. Other states are governed by right and center-right coalitions, with a rhetoric that is much more focused on Hindu nationalism and pro-market ideology.
Kohli’s study of governability focuses on West Bengal, Gujarat, and Bihar, and his goal is to identify some of the political and social processes that have led to a national and regional governability crisis. Kohli finds substantial inter-state variability in governability across the three states he studies.
The situation of total breakdown of order in Bihar, for example, has resulted from corrosion of the authority vested in the social structure and absence of cohesion in political structures. Increasing power struggles in the society and a highly factionalized elite have provided a combustible political mixture that ignites periodically, and in Bihar even the forces of repression are ineffective. Political violence in Gujarat has had a more purposive quality than in Bihar. It results not primarily from a breakdown of social order but from the calculated mobilization strategies employed by competing elites.
In contrast to the situations of these two states, the case of West Bengal demonstrates how the presence of a cohesive party can bring stability even in a highly mobilized political environment: Strong leaders and disciplined ruling parties — forces that can impart a degree of cohesion to state structures — can help moderate the impact of corrosion of authority in the social structure. The emergence of incoherence in both state and social structures, however, is a sure recipe for a breakdown of order. (15)
So how is it possible for a violent rural insurgency to survive and grow in a modern democracy? There seem to be several primary factors. One is the familiar fact that insurgents establish their bases of operations in remote, lightly-policed regions. The Naxalite movement has managed to secure its “base areas” in forests and other poorly developed rural areas.
A second factor is the fact that Indian rural society is generally only lightly policed by professional police forces. India is a “weak state” when it comes to local presence in the countryside. The local presence of police is very thin on the ground, and easily overrun by trained guerillas. Third, the Naxalites direct their mobilization efforts to the most disadvantaged and disaffected segments of rural Indian society; so their anti-state message is relatively well received. And, finally, it would appear that the ideology of class and class antagonism has its own resonance in Indian political culture, far beyond the violent extremism of the Naxalite party. This movement was a splinter from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), which now governs West Bengal on the basis of its electoral successes (at least up until the present). But CPM rhetoric sounds many of the same themes of anti-capitalism and anti-globalization that the Naxalites advocate. So it is possible for elements of the left to become frustrated with the electoral program of CPM and develop new resonance with the radical program of the Naxalites.
The consensus view seems to be that the national and state governments in India have failed in efforts to suppress the Naxalite insurgency to date out of a failure of will, a degree of conflict of political interests in several states, and a failure to arrive at a winning strategy of police and military force combined with significantly more successful delivery of rural development successes. Villages that lack roads, clean water, education, and health clinics are certainly more likely to find a radical program of change more appealing, and India’s states have had little success in improving the quality of life for India’s poorest rural people.
People sometimes describe India as undergoing an economic miracle in the past twenty years. After decades of indolent economic growth following independence, a number of sectors of the economy have taken off with high rates of growth and increasing income. Deepak Lal addresses this assumption in “An Indian Economic Miracle?” (link). Here is the crucial graph from Lal’s paper:
As the graph indicates, starting in roughly 1980, both GDP and GDP per capita increased at a rising rate, greatly exceeding the disparaging “Hindu rate of growth” of the 1950s and 1960s. Lal’s paper is worth reading. But the overall impression is that India is finally moving forward — an impression reinforced by some of Tom Friedman’s comments in The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.
However, this impression is very misleading with respect to India’s rural population; or so V. K. Ramachandran at the Indian Statistical Institute argues. (Here is an interview I conducted with Ramachandran in 2008.) Ramachandran and his collaborator, Madhura Swaminathan, have pursued an important program of research on village India under the rubric of the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (link). They and their research teams have conducted a series of village studies over the past ten years that shed detailed light on the economic, social, and caste circumstances of rural India; and the picture they find does not conform to the idea of an “economic miracle.” Instead, they find patterns of social inequality and social domination that are continuing and increasing; patterns of landlessness that have worsened in the past decade or so; and levels of poverty that continue to challenge the idea of a fully developed human life for many hundreds of millions of Indian rural people.
A recent publication summarizes their studies of several villages in Andhra Pradesh (Socio-Economic Surveys of Three Villages in Andhra Pradesh: A Study of Agrarian Relations), and it is worth reading in detail. This book synthesizes the detailed surveys conducted in three villages in 2005-06. The authors describe the goals of the Project on Agrarian Relations in India in these terms: to study and analyse …
- village-level production, production systems and livelihoods, and the socio-economic characteristics of different strata of the rural population;
- sectional deprivation in rural India, particularly with regard to the Dalit and Scheduled Tribe populations, women, specific minorities and the income-poor; and
- the state of basic village amenities and the access of rural people to the facilities of modern life. (1)
Here are the three villages included in the survey (Bukkacherla, Ananthavaram, Kothapalle):
The villages are small, ranging from 292 households (Bukacherla) to 667 households (Ananthavaram). Here is a zoom view of Kothapalle village (372 households):
And here is A:
The surveys attempt to capture the important social and economic characteristics of the villages, including population, agricultural practices, social class composition, and caste composition. Class and caste are particularly important characteristics in the analysis. The researchers classify households as “landlord — big capitalist farmer — manual worker — peasant — other” (chapter 2). Here is how this classification works out for Kothapalle village:
- landlord / big capitalist farmer 1%
- capitalist farmer / rich peasant 9%
- peasant: middle 13%
- peasant: poor 5%
- hired manual worker 44%
- artisan and work at traditional caste calling 1%
- business activity 8%
- rents / moneylending 1%
- salaried person 11%
- remittance/pension 5%
In other words, about 50% of households are in socially disadvantaged positions (poor peasants, landless workers, and artisans).
Here is a snapshot of the three villages extracted from the study with respect to several important socioeconomic characteristics: percent scheduled classes and tribes, percent landlord and capitalist farmer, percent poor peasant and hired laborer, land ownership Gini coefficient, household income Gini coefficient, medial household income as percent of poverty budget, and percent female literacy for persons seven years or older.
Several things are apparent from this summary. First, the distributions of land and household income are very unequal in all three villages, with a Gini coefficient of .86 for land distribution in Ananthavaram. The Gini coefficients for the distribution of income hover around .60 for all three villages — a very high degree of income inequality by international standards (link, link)). And it is interesting to notice that Ananthavaram village enjoys the highest median household income and highest female literacy, but simultaneously the highest degree of inequality of property and income and the highest percentage of scheduled castes and tribes.
Second, all three villages represent a high degree of poverty among households. The income bar represents median household income as a percentage of a household poverty budget of 21,304 Rs. The median household in Bukkacheria falls short of this budget — as do the 50% of households below the median, implying a poverty rate of more than 50%. The median household in Kothapalle is slightly higher than the poverty budget, and only Ananthavaram has a median income significantly higher than the poverty budget (120%). So the poverty rate ranges between 40% and 55% in all three villages — very high.
Third, female literacy is often regarded as an important measure of overall human development in a poor region or country; and the rates observed by these surveys are quite low (42-47%), with a substantial gap to the rates for male literacy. Likewise, there are substantial variations in literacy across castes. Female literacy in Bukkacherla village is 43% for all households but is 28% for Dalit households; 37% for “backward class” households; and 53% for “other caste” households (160). In other words, the literacy rate for Dalit women is about half that of “other caste” women.
Put the point another way: these village surveys do not support the idea that social progress is occurring rapidly and broadly in India. Rather, these particular villages support the idea that inequalities in rural India are extensive and possibly increasing; that poverty is widespread; that class and caste continue to determine life prospects; and that human development is impeded by these conditions of inequality and poverty.
It is interesting to consider the question of representativeness that this volume raises. The studies provide data for only three out of thousands of villages in one Indian state. So it is productive to ask whether the findings provided here are “typical” of rural Andhra Pradesh — let alone other parts of India. Ramachandran and Swaminathan have surveyed villages in a number of states, and will continue the project into the future. Plainly, it is important to bring these micro-studies into relation with other larger-scope studies in order to assess the degree to which these developments are typical of rural India. The authors do a good job of trying to make these connections using national and state social data sources; plainly, both methods are needed in order to arrive at justified conclusions about the state of Indian agrarian society.
Second, it is interesting to read this report as an exercise in empirical Marxist economics. The studies are highly empirical and data-rich. At the same time, the categories of analysis are drawn from Marxist economics: exploitation, class analysis, productive relations, and social relations of domination, extraction, and control. The report provides a powerful illustration of the analytical value of a Marxian sociology and political economy in this context; relations of power, privilege, and property plainly have a determining role in the processes of social change in rural India today.
(For the interested reader, Ramachandran’s Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study is an important contribution to the political economy of India.)
(Thanks to Vikas Rawal for corrections on the locations of the villages and images of Kothapalle and Ananthavaram.)
How much social progress has India made since Independence sixty years ago? According to economist V. K. Ramachandran, not very much when it comes to life in the countryside. (Hear my interview with Ramachandran on iTunes and on my web page.) Ramachandran gives a profile of the social problems faced by India at the time of Independence — depths of income poverty, illiteracy, avoidable disease, and the worst forms of caste, class and gender oppression in the world — and then judges that, appallingly, these same problems continue in the countryside without significant change. And this failure derives from the country’s failure to solve its agrarian question. Poverty, inequality, and deprivation continue to be rampant in rural society. And this persistence derives from the failure to address the fundamental relations of property and power in the countryside. Moreover, the processes of globalization and liberalization have, if anything, intensified these problems.
Professor Ramachandran is a research professor at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study.
Professor Ramachandran takes issue with the view of India that appears to be emerging in Japan and the United States — as a country with shopping malls, hi-tech companies, and rapid economic growth. These images are true of some places in India — but they have little relevance to conditions in rural India. (And the population of India continues to be at least 70% rural and agricultural.) The progress that has occurred in the countryside is meaningful — agriculture has increased its productivity significantly since 1960, and India is now grain-self-sufficient. India is no longer locked into a “ship-to-mouth” existence. But these changes in the productivity of agriculture have not been associated with changes in the basic institutions present in the countryside — what Ramachandran refers to as the “agrarian structure.” And these social relations continue to create a system that entrenches inequality and deprivation for peasants and agricultural workers. Ramachandran maintains that three “new” inequalities have emerged — inequalities between regions, inequalities between crops, and inequalities between classes. (As an expert on agricultural workers, Ramachandran is in a good position to observe what has happened for this segment of India’s rural population.)
Ramachandran is an activist-scholar, and he is involved in a large collaboration with other scholars to provide a review of conditions in villages in a growing list of states in India. Ramachandran underlines the point that there is great variation across the map of India. The goal of these studies is to provide a detailed snapshot of the social conditions in the villages — studies of the oppressed classes, tribes, and women; the state of village amenities (sewerage, clean water, roads, education). Over a number of years the goal of the research effort is to arrive at a more nuanced description of the conditions of rural life across many states in India. This research is highly valuable, since it permits disaggregation of descriptions of the countryside that are often based on aggregated data.
An interesting feature of this research project is the fact that it is deliberately linked to the activist organizations of peasants, workers, and women. The researchers consult with the agrarian activists to discover what the most important issues are — and then to focus research effort on discovering the social details associated with these issues. And Ramachandran is emphatic in saying that the rigor of scientific investigation can and should be combined with this collaboration with the activist organizations. In fact, he indicates that the organizations themselves are insistent about this point. “Don’t lose your academic rigor,” the leaders of the organizations insist.
There is a lot more in the interview. But the bottom line is that Ramachandran offers a really good example of the engaged scholar. And the kind of social research that he and his colleagues are doing is well designed to help to diagnose some of the changes and public policies that are needed in India.