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Ethinicity in rural Bengal

Sreya Ray  |  New Delhi 

In 1981, West Bengal produced only 14 per cent of India's rice. The state had only 10% of power-operated wells for irrigation as Tamil Nadu. This pathetic level of infrastructure is thought to lead to the poor growth (or rather, decline) of rice productivity. Bengal at that time was compelled to import several tonnes of grain for plantation areas from the national trade surplus and the Food Corporation of India, leaving only 1% for the public distribution system. In 2002, West Bengal enjoyed a surplus and is the top-ranking rice producer in India. Yet, no subsequent alleviation in rural poverty and living standards has been observed.
Ironically, for the socialist state government, it is capitalism and market forces that drive and affect the agricultural economy in West Bengal. However, the government policy of protecting the local agricultural elite in terms of concessions and privileges (thereby shunting aside petty trade by unlanded or small-time farmers), its inaction in improving infrastructure and technology, and of looking inwards rather than working towards progress, are all direct factors in the historically up-and-down performance of the sector and the widespread poverty in the villages.
Barbara Harriss-White narrates the story of the agrarian economy and explains how the decline in the production, procurement and allocation of capital, input and grain, is anchored in the system of food markets. She seeks answers to the consequences of market movements pre- and post- liberalisation reforms of 1991, and explores several other aspects such as institutional diversity, cultural demographics of the landed and the rural workers, the public distribution system and the availability of informal finance.
The national and local trade markets for rice, potatoes and mustard have been conclusively found to power the current system of agriculture. This is in contrast to the common household belief that the rural poor and the landed gentry alike are in agriculture only because there is no option. It is these markets that have spurred vast improvement in production technology for milling paddy and polishing rice. This technological innovation has not been spread equally, though. There is still the band of petty farmers and traders, who use relatively primitive harvest and processing methods, for lack of capital.
Most interesting is the role of Marwari landowners and traders in rural Bengal. Undoubtedly, Marwaris have played a significant role in Kolkata's economic history with their business acumen and enterprise. Many others of their brethren took these skills to the countryside to try their luck in agriculture, thus far unpopulated by any trading or business caste, and experienced success and generational longevity. Harriss-White brings ethnicity into the picture. When Marwaris moved to rural West Bengal to fill the void of trade in agricultural goods, they wisely started small before expanding to the control of trade in wholesale and retail, import, export, stocking and cold storage "" basically, the whole market economy shopping list. They did not limit themselves to one type of crop, but diversified to various agricultural commodities. They have continued to pullulate their large share of the aggregate agricultural production and supply, as well as land ownership, trade privileges and feudal power. The deeply-rooted establishment of the Marwari business community is exemplified by their representation in the board of the Bengal Rice Millers' Association "" two-thirds are Marwaris.
More than 20 years of research (1981-2004), on the rural economy of West Bengal, have gone into this work, written by a distinguished British academic devoted to the issues of development in emerging countries. Harriss-White has worked with, and credited, many Bengali and Indian experts to gain insight into the intricate workings of the politicoeconomic system and the culture of ethnic, religious and tribal communities. She is no detached foreigner critically observing the Indian or state economy; she has developed a rare objective empathy that manifests itself throughout her writing.
Barbara Harriss-White
Oxford University Press
290 pages, Rs 695

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First Published: Fri, December 14 2007. 00:00 IST