Agrarian Relations In India


  1. Introduction
  2. Agrarian Structure during Pre-colonial Era
  3. Agrarian Structure during the British Raj
  4. Agrarian Structure Post-Independence
  5. Agrarian Relations and Agrarian Struggles: From pre-independence to postindependence periods
  6. Summary


The word "agrarian structure" refers to the social interactions that govern all agricultural operations, including production, marketing, and consumption. How and by whom land is farmed, what kinds of crops can be grown and for what uses, how food and agricultural incomes can be distributed, and how or in what terms the agrarian sector is connected to the rest of the economy or society are all determined by the institution or framework of social relationships.
Monopolies over ownership of land and rural assets, coupled with caste-based oppression, endure in an agrarian nation like India where the bulk of the population still lives in the villages and is directly or indirectly related to agriculture as a means of living. A tight class system tied to land and land relations has emerged as a result of a few people holding the monopoly on land, credit, and markets. Agrarian relations in India have also been characterized by several struggles of the oppressed class.

Agrarian Structure during Pre-colonial Era

The ideas and lessons that are offered in the discourses about the pre-colonial Indian agrarian organization are remarkably consistent. The following characteristics of the pre-colonial Indian agrarian structure are highlighted by Sahay (2009):
  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 restraints
This orientalist interpretation of Indian socioeconomic structure has been successfully refuted by historical study conducted by Indian researchers, notably in post-independent India, which has demonstrated that:
  • 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. 
  • The land rights could even be purchased and sold. The agrarian society was internally differentiated in terms of class, and was unstable and not selfsufficient. 
  • There was a sizeable population who worked as labourer. 
  • The authorities discriminated between the different sections of landowners while fixing the revenue demands. The large landowners were required to pay less. 
  • Pre-colonial agrarian relations were also not free of conflicts and tensions. 
  • Production of crops, particularly cash crops, for market.

Agrarian Structure during the British Raj

The rural/agrarian society was reorganized under British colonial control in a variety of ways that made government simple, successful, and manageable. The most significant actions with wide-ranging effects are as follows:

The Land Tenure/Revenue System

  1. The Permanent Settlement System: The intermediate "Zamindars" (the tax collectors under the previous government) were given ownership rights over land under this legislation, although previously they had only been able to collect taxes from it.
  2. The Ryotwari System: This gave the actual land cultivators official property rights over the land. The Royat was a tenant of the state, and as long as he made his revenue payments to the public treasury, he was not subject to eviction.
  3. The Mahalwari or Malgujari System: The village was designated as the unit of assessment under this approach. A village's cultivator was given ownership of a piece of land, but the residents were expected to pay the rent as a group. The task of collecting the money was typically assigned to a member of the village's prominent family.
The village was designated as the unit of assessment under this approach. A village's cultivator was given ownership of a piece of land, but the residents were expected to pay the rent as a group. The task of collecting the money was typically assigned to a member of the village's prominent family.

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. One obvious consequence of this shift in cropping patterns was a significant increase in the vulnerability of local population to famines (Sen, 1976).

Commodification of Land

Colonial policies caused land to start resembling a commodity. The moneylender started to view his land as a mortgageable asset that he could use as collateral for loans after previously lending with the harvests of a peasant in mind.

De-industrialization of the Indian Economy 

After the industrial revolution, a flood of inexpensive goods from England exacerbated the de-industrialization process by destroying local artisans and placing enormous strain on arable land.

Land Alienation

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 (Sahay, 2009).

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 the ‘bourgeois property relations’ developed without corresponding development of capitalist relations of production and forces of production in agriculture (Patnaik, 1990). According to Hamza Alavi (1990), the 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 (cited in Sahay, 2009).

Agrarian Structure Post-Independence

An whole new era in the history of the agrarian structure began with the end of colonial control. The fundamental goals of the Indian state were to reform the sluggish and underdeveloped economy and to ensure that no one segment of society monopolized the advantages of change and prosperity. In light of this, the Indian government took a number of measures. The following are notable ones:

Land Reforms

The Preamble of the Indian Constitution, which is based on the four principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity, as well as other specific provisions, most notably the directive principles of state policy, provide the legal framework for land reforms in independent India. These principles state that the state shall, in particular, direct its policies so that:
  1. The citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood; 
  2. The ownership and control of the resources of the community are so distributed as to sub serve 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. 
The state made some of its most important efforts to accomplish these aims through land reforms. The Indian government issued directives to its states that they should do away with intermediary tenures, regulate rent and tenancy rights, grant tenants ownership rights, set holdings ceilings, distribute excess land to the rural poor, and enable holding consolidation. In a short amount of time, the state governments passed a considerable number of laws.

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 (Radhakrishnan, 1989).

Provisions for institutional Credit

The government of India introduced various provisions of Institutional credit to weaken the hold of traditional moneylenders over the peasantry. It 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 (Jodhka 1995).

The Community Development Programme (CDP)

On October 2, 1952, this program—which was based on American examples—was introduced. Its goal was to significantly boost agricultural production and enhance basic services, which would eventually result in the entire growth of all agrarian society's segments. However, it fell short of its goal and ended up primarily assisting the village's most powerful residents.

The Green Revolution

Higher yielding variety seeds (HYV) and other fertility-enhancing inputs, such as chemical fertilizer, controlled irrigation systems, and pesticides, are included in the Green Revolution agricultural development project. The project's components included affordable institutional price incentives, marketing tools, and research facilities.

The agricultural output significantly increased as a result of the Green Revolution. To every segment of the agrarian community, it did not, however, signify the same thing. Smaller farmers were more dependent on borrowing, typically from unregulated sources, while larger farmers had enough excess to engage in the new capital-intensive agricultural . The Green Revolution also led to a whole new type of farmer mobilization that demanded better terms for the agriculture industry . Did farm workers reap the benefits of the Green Revolution? One of the most contentious issues in research on agrarian change in independent India has been this one. Scholars nearly universally agree that although the Green Revolution improved rural life overall and widened economic disparities in the villages, it also contributed to rural poverty . Although farm workers' earnings have increased, their purchasing power has decreased as a result of rising prices . The Green Revolution also contributed to the liberation of farm labor from institutionalized reliance and patronage relationships . In general, it has been determined that the Green Revolution favored a smaller number of big peasants, who eventually achieved power over the broader class of agricultural laborers.

Agrarian Relations and Agrarian Struggles: From pre-independence to postindependence periods

Agrarian disturbance has existed for a long time. Agrarian insurrections, riots, and revolts of various intensities are documented throughout Indian history in numerous regions of the nation. In order to explain the agricultural discontent in the countryside, numerous models have been devised. Wherever they took place, pre-independence peasant conflicts were typically linked to either the "jagirdari" system of local governments or the semi-feudal land tenure system of the colonial power. The British raj's new plan to integrate these strata into the capitalist legal system lost sight of the landowners' protective stance toward their tenants. The expansion of the market for basic commodities was also very important. What was once a vague and adaptable relationship that offered survival insurance in lean times became explicit and rigid and oblivious to prosperous and difficult times . The main interpretation of this development was power politics, where the master was moving his risk to the underprivileged tenants. With the support of a colonial state, the landlords no longer felt the need to worry about the survival of the peasant farmers.

Tenant cultivators were treated no better than agricultural laborers in the subsistence economy. Landlords and moneylenders—their masters—kept personal stores of food while the agricultural laborers struggled and survived between harvests on credit. Even those middle-class peasants suffered because they had to pay a particular amount of "fixed rent," but there was no tolerance for the output's change according to the weather . The traditional agricultural class system, which had imposed restrictions on the middle and wealthy peasants' ability to engage in commercial agriculture, was something they attempted to moderate. Because the tax and commercial policies of the colonial authorities harmed both the rich and middle class peasants, they joined forces in their fight against the landlords because they had a common understanding. As a result, the political economics of the agrarian discontent frequently appeared to produce broad similarities of a certain 'class' character, i.e., peasants vs. landlords. However, the unholy partnership between landlords and the colonial power was able to localize peasant uprisings and, as a result of this isolation, utilized ruthless force to quell the discontent .

While the old system's legacies persisted in the post-independence era, new developments such as the green revolution (GR), commercialization of agriculture, land reforms, the expansion of literacy and public awareness, and the emergence of potent farm lobbies in state and federal legislatures gave the agrarian relations in the countryside new dimensions. In areas with reliable irrigation systems, the "size-neutral" but "resource-biased" seed fertilizer method of GR achieved outstanding performance. Additionally, a significant amount of current expenditures in the form of subsidies for fertilizer, energy, irrigation, and credit were eaten up by regions with greater financial resources.

There had already been some realignments in the countryside by the time the GR was prepared for the second phase. The intermediate peasants were able to gain significantly, albeit not proportionately, while the great landlords were able to get the majority of the input subsidies, public investments in irrigation, and remunerative pricing. The surplus-generating peasant castes and classes solidified their social hegemony in rural society and, as a result, became a significant determinant of Indian politics . Middle-class peasants realigned themselves with landlords due to their shared interests and caste ties. As a result, unlike in the past, the interests of the middle peasants and the large landlords generally tended to align throughout the post-GR era.

The significant difference is that the broad 'class' nature of the past increasingly gave way to designations of 'caste. Perhaps this is not a surprise development given the concentration of extreme poverty and landlessness among particular population groups, including the scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST), and other weaker groups who make up a significant portion of the agricultural labor force. In the "semi-feudal democracy," landowners maintained their monopoly on violence and maintained control over local resources such as land, labor, and credit. They also used local government finances, administrative and police authority, and frequently private armies. "These merely resembled as an extension of customary powers wielded through caste dominance against subordinate castes," it was remarked. The local authorities were frequently seen by the poor peasants as being opposed to the law and on the side of the wealthy. In return, the agrarian communities' controlled segment became too organized in the guise of caste and communal cohesion. Caste taboos and community exclusivity, it is believed, were nonetheless able to reassert themselves at the political level despite breaking down at the level of individual social behavior .

Another significant difference is that, in contrast to the earlier radical peasant struggles (Telengana), which saw a fierce wave of grassroots resistance and later, more significant political manifestations at other levels, post-independence agrarian conflicts show organization and intervention from above even in the early stages. Armed peasant organizations have grown and spread significantly. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the peasants have formed the "Kisan Sabha" as a counterforce to the landlords' "Savarna Liberation Army" . In response to threats made by various senas of the landowners, militant peasant organizations organized "self-defence squads" and engaged in an agitation known as "dhan kati" (forcible harvesting of the landlord's crop) . Tension in the countryside was a result of the battle between radicalism and conservatism, the landlords' incapacity to understand the demands of poor peasants and landless labor, their eagerness to protect their interests, and their simple habit of getting things done through force.

As a conclusion, we could claim that there have been some changes and some continuities between the pre- and post-independence phases of agrarian relations. Consequently, on the one hand, there are still some traces of semi-feudalism in the interactions between landlords and peasants. Additionally, the commercialization of agriculture, which started under the British, has increased to new heights in the post-independence period, worsening the situation of poor farmers and agricultural laborers without access to land. On the other hand, the wealthy and middle-class farmers who have benefited from GR in some states have discovered a political voice. The caste dimension now dominates agricultural relations rather than class-based disparities. Additionally, the situation has gotten worse due to the increase in militancy and violence in agrarian struggles. In the conflict-prone states today, the conditions are already present for a large-scale peasant movement to assert itself politically and stake a legitimate claim to the benefits of development. This movement would be dominated by landless labor, small and marginal farmers from backward classes, and women would participate more actively in this movement. If a hopeful state allows it, the growing politicization of the agrarian workers movement might eventually push these extremists into the political mainstream.


The agrarian structure and the changes it has undergone across many epochs must be considered in order to comprehend agrarian relations in India. The precolonial period, the colonial phase, and the post-colonial phase can be used to roughly classify the changes in India's agrarian system. Although the state or the king was solely responsible for land ownership throughout the pre-colonial period, collective ownership and use of the land existed. Thus, the Indian agricultural society during the pre-colonial phase was separated into independent, self-sufficient, and remote village communities, in accordance with the orientalist idea. In these rural communities, caste was the organizing principle for all types of relationships.

However, the British developed a new land revenue system during the colonial era, which allowed for the commercialization of agriculture. Two social classes were established as a result of this new land income system: landlords and peasants. These two classes had repressive relationships, with the former acting as the oppressors and the latter as the victimized. Overall, colonial authority led to peripheral capitalism in India, which produced a disarticulated kind of "generalized commodity production" due to the fact that the surplus agricultural products was reinvested in the metropolitan centers rather than the local economy.

During the post-colonial era, initiatives were launched to boost agricultural productivity and change the repressive social relationships between landlords and the laboring rural masses (the peasants). The government's introduction of land reforms was its most important action. Land reforms were expected to result in the elimination of intermediaries, tenancy changes, land ceilings, and the consolidation of diverse landholdings. The situation of the peasants, however, did not improve as a result of the ineffective implementation of land reforms in several Indian states. Additionally, other initiatives like the use of contemporary technologies and the extension of credit were started. However, ultimately, the inefficient execution of land reforms was unable to fundamentally alter agricultural relations. This repeatedly sparked peasant uprisings and movements in various regions of India. The landlord castes responded by using their power, frequently through institutional means and occasionally by violence. However, caste attachments returned to agrarian relations and became a prominent factor in the agrarian fights after India gained its independence, which was a striking difference in the country's agrarian structure.


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