Sunday, October 23, 2011

Neem Green, Bitter-Sweet: India and a verdant revolution.

Tata and I stood amongst slender green stalks of pearl millet, each yellow head bowing against my waist. “Chatlu Raktham Thagtundhi”. The plants drink blood. I watched him, head low, millet in palm. There was another suicide in Kahjada Appa’s field. He looked out over my gaze. They found him, his tongue discolored from the chemical fertilizer. He looked over the swaying grain. The fifth this month. He looked to a silhouette of a bending women placing seed to earth. Bhoomi padipoyindi. So the earth fell.

India’s Green Revolution stands to be one of the most controversial development schemes. As national leadership such as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh laud the Green Revolution (Times of India), a diverse amalgamation of farmers, activists, and NGOs disagree over its impact on rural communities in India. Out of the debate influenced by development discourse, and colonial/ national agenda for rural development, several contested theories emerge and collide, overlapping and exposing postulations of identity and questions about development. In the book Post-Colonial Development: Agriculture and the Making of Modern India by Dr. Akhil Gupta,we explore the complexity of rural Indian identity and ‘unbundle’ the imperatives of market prices, scientific technology, “indigenous” knowledge, societal hierarchy, and development. By analyzing theories such as Development Discourse and Colonial/ Nationalistic recuperation of “indigenous” through development, Gupta suggests that the very identity of rural farmers of India is dualistic and encompassing of much more than what leading theories of development perceive. Through post-colonial theory, Gupta suggests, we are able to discuss the duality of rural Indian practicesof agriculture during the mass-utilization of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers as well as unbundle social, political, and cultural complexities that arise from that duality.

According to Gupta, the purpose of his book in his words is “an attempt to draw together disparate events, contexts, and levels of analysis to think precisely of the overlaps between the discourses and actions surrounding biodiversity of some Indian farmers and the cerebral machinations of highly placed politicians and bureaucrats acting on the world’s stage” (327). By his thesis, Gupta has illustrated his point through ethnographic analysis as well as theory to offer an alternative narrative to (under)development and the global order. Gupta constructs the“post-colonial” reality of farmers through analyzing agricultural methods of farmers influenced by factors such as market prices and bank loans to illustrate a duality of rural Indian identity.

In the following reflection I will describe and support his line of thought through a case study that evaluates techniques of India’s Green Revolution and descibe Colonial/ Nationalistic perception of the “indigenous,” Development Discourse, as well as post-colonial rhetoric to challenge historically dominant paradigms. In conclusion, I will then suggest as the beneficial implications for framing the dilemma of the green revolution in terms of post-colonial theory by drawing attention to the structural violence that stems from conflicting theories which have enabled for the inability of social mobility and the ‘underdevelopment’ of post-colonial India.

Akhil Gupta, before illustrating the post-colonial duality of rural identity and its value as an alternative theory to the paradigms of development, begins by describing the two historic trends that have influenced development in India. To understand the theories of development, Gupta explores how colonial powers, nation-states, and liberal institutions have viewed developing the “indigenous”. Gupta begins by discussing colonial notions of “indigenous”. India, according to Gupta, was seen as a static society that was both primitive yet naive by Colonial powers. India was either seen as a civilization that needed its culture to be preserved like an artifact buried in a hall of antiquities (Orientalists) or, according to Anglicists, India “was regarded as a native civilization with disdain” (170). The colonial perspective, either the Oriental or Anglicist notions of the “indigenous” does not take into consideration the societal hierarchy that stratifies India. This point segments into Gupta’s analysis of Nationalistic recuperation of “indigenous communities.” As colonial rhetoric did not draw attention to the changing demographics in India during colonial rule. Gupta quotes Homi Bhaba who so eloquently coins the term “not quite/ not white”. Indian elitists that were too brown to be considered “anglo” yet at the same time these elitists were too “westernized” to be ‘authentic’ natives (170).

After the Colonial power lost its control over India and the new democracy was able to establish itself, developing the ‘backward’ was certainly of interest of the Indian government. These ‘backward’ people, as the famous post-colonial scholar Partha Chaterjee states, was a convulsion of lower castes and obscure tribal people who were “ considered savage, simple, and primitive.” Although a diverse group with very little in common, these tribes and castes were placed in the broad category known as scheduled tribe and the Indian government felt that it was in need of uplifting (171). This is the foundation for Gupta’s grouping of Colonial and National recuperation as one. Gupta states that although Colonialism and Nationalism are two different political entities, even quite conflicting as illustrated by India’s history, both political constructs have viewed “indigenous” in the same way as a people that is in constant need of saving and liberation through development because as their ascribed identity as an antithesis to ‘high culture’ in what ever way that is defined by the theories(172).

Like Colonial/ Nationalistic recuperation to the ‘indigenous’ is constructed out of the constant need of salvation for the other, Development Discourse also strives to do the same but outside the confines of colonial or national boundaries. Liberal institutions like the World Bank tend to confuse the difference between ‘indigenous’ and ‘local’. The “indigenous” are fetishized for their so-called naturalistic insight into the protection of the environment and written about as keepers of the fate of the natural world (178). Gupta quotes one of the most famous post-colonial scholars of all in refuting the theory: Gayatri Spivak: “I cannot understand what indigenous theory there might be that can ignore the reality of nineteenth-century history... To construct indigenous theories one must ignore the last few centuries of historical involvement (178).

I certainly agree with Gupta’s description of past theories and the words of both with Bhaba and Spivak on the dynamic nature of culture. The fact that the previously mentioned theories assumed that the “indigenous” was static and unchanging illustrated the ethnocentricity of each theories’ recognition of the other and how to change them through development. A theory like post-colonialism, however, does not see culture as static, but a fluid duality imprinted with historical, cultural, and political significance. Post-colonialism unbundles not only the dilemma between “indigenous” and “modernity” but also social hierarchies established by religion (caste system) as well as a global hierarchy of what constitutes as ‘underdeveloped’. The other theories mentioned then refuted by Gupta see development as a positive influence on the “indigenous” population (however the theory defines the ‘other’ to be). Gupta illustrates this throughout the book. One example, however, gets at the very essence of the complexities of the Green Revolution- not only agronomically and ecologically, but also socio-economically and culturally. In this case study, we understand how post-colonial rhetoric allows deconstruction of development and enables us to distinguish underdevelopment conceptually.

According to Gupta’s interviews, the farmers of Alipur prefer desi wheat for its taste, color, and fine quality. But if selecting this organic, indigenous seed, the farmers must face the following restrictions: 1. the wheat takes longer to grow and might not be ready for harvest for the second round of sowing crop. 2. chemical fertilizers can not be used on desi wheat because it is too tender and would perish under the harsh chemicals. So then the desi wheat would need natural fertilizer (cow manure) in order to mature but it is not so readily available. 3. desi seed is expensive to purchase. Poor farmers rely on loans in order to purchase not only desi seed but the high yielding seed and chemical fertilizer. The bank allows the farmers to take hefty loans while the bank has a collection of selected dealers on hand for the farmers to invest in. These dealers have old seeds. Thus, the farmers find themselves in a vicious cycle of debt because often the old seeds fail and the farmers purchase more and more fertilizer, thinking that thee seeds will grow. If the farmer can not pay his debt in time, the local bureaucracy will repossess his land. The farmer then feels pressure to make his pay and can not take time for the slower desi wheat to cultivate.

This example under the post-colonial lens is riddled with dualities. Firstly, when Gupta asked the farmers how they would fertilize their fields, the farmers would constantly switch between scientific terms such as ‘petrochemical’ as well as humeral Ayurvedic notions of agronomy such as ‘drink’ and ‘thrive’ and ‘breathe’. Here we see a duality that is not mentioned in the other two theories because of their perception that the other is static, or when ‘developed,’ is choosing one over the other as development is seen as change to ‘modernity’. But here Gupta has clear ethnographic insight on how farming in Alipur does not conform to the descriptions of “traditional” or “western” but rather a duality of both. Secondly, this narrative demonstrates that there is a hierarchy among farmers. Some can afford the desi wheat while others can not. Those who can not have no other option but to purchase the hybrid seeds in order to make a living. Even though they do not prefer the hybrid wheat to the desi wheat. This sets up up for point three. Thirdly- under the post-colonial lens, a structural disequilibrium is present. The persistent local government about exact and on-time payments illustrate the tension that poor farmers face. Their decision of seed is not based off of preference, rather, it is by the structural, societal, economic, and cultural restraints placed on him that influence him to purchase hybrid seeds. These are seeds that do not reproduce, illustrating the deep roots of structural violence in the bank-dealer-bureaucracy triangle. Where does the farmer go from here?

In my state of India, Karnataka, a state in the ‘suicide belt of India’ due structural violence from the (under)development of the Green Revolution, the small town of Raichur, my ancestral town where the fields were once my blankets, became graves. When I visited Raichur last January, ten farmers had committed suicide that month out of the inability to pay their cavernous debts. My grandfather, mayor of the town, grew alarmed and called for a town meeting. Although he understood that the situation was complex because of the inability for farmers to pay off debts and beat the vicious cycle, he could not ignore the 17, 368 farmers across five states who turned to suicide the year before. He called for a town meeting. Farmers from all over the province came to speak of the difficulties of farming and dealing with adamant bureaucratic officials. By unbundling the complexities of a dire and desperate situation, the community of farmers has gotten stronger and is working to mobilize with other villages in the area.

Through a grassroots, dialogue-based campaign amongst the villages, hidden towns like Raichur may be able to find support in those outside its walls. The very self-awareness of a previously unknown phenomena through deconstructing the complexities of underdevelopment is the first step to any attempt of social mobility- regardless of structural violence.


These farmers are not benefiting from development instilled by liberal and national policies. Rather, due to the deconstructing nature of post-colonial theory, we are able to evaluate whether the development policies of the Green Revolution are helpful or harmful to a rural community like India. Thus, from an anthropological perspective, the Green Revolution, although produces high crop yield, is a damaging system to a large majority due to the structural violence within the process of acquiring seed for cultivation to grow food. By framing development in post-colonial terms, we can now articulate the positives and negatives of the Green Revolution. Post-colonialism as a lens to analyze the Green Revolution can instill change in the hands of those who unbundle the complexities of such a dilemma. It is what individuals like Vandana Shiva and the farmers of Karnataka and my grandfather who utilize it in order to communicate intellectually, eloquently, and cultural-competently in order to contest neo-liberal structures and the Indian government.

Tata I greeted him on the phone, imagining him in a soft cotton lungi, shoulders dark from the sun, seed by seed. “Andaru vastunaru”. They are coming. I imagined him tying a dhoti around his head like the other farmers to stay cool from the heat. The town meeting would be a large fair: poppy-colored tents enveloping men who peppered in the words nitrates and irrigation in sentences, curling them between thick telugu words while sipping chai. “Ra ma ra.”Come. And so I was with him, smiling through the phone, organizing one after one like pearl millet steady swaying in the wind. Bhoomi Bhangaru. Precious Earth.