Problem of small holdings in Indian agriculture & Ambedkar 

April 2022.

In some of Ambedkar’s lesser known writings lies a remarkably detailed paper on ‘small holdings in India and their remedies’.  It is a detailed examination of what ails Indian agriculture and how can the identified problems be addressed. Ambedkar asks if the small holdings are also ‘compact’ holdings? 

‘Unfortunately they are not. A holding of a farmer though compact for the purposes of revenue is for purposes of tillage composed of various small strips of land scattered all over the village and interspersed by those belonging to others. How the fields are scattered can only be shown geographically by a map, with knowing how many separate plots are contained in a holding. These small and scattered holdings have given a real cause for anxiety regarding our great national industry. 

Journal of the Indian Economic Society (Vol. I.1918)

In the current year, we crop a total area of 17 acres which comprises four plots which are under a kilometer apart from each other. In every cropping cycle the inputs and machines have to circulate among these four plots. The efficiency gains from a single, consolidated lot would have been substantial. But this cannot be helped. 

Ambedkar then goes on to identify ‘two very noteworthy but equally sad facts regarding economic life in India’. 

  1.  that it is largely an agricultural country
  2.  that its agricultural productivity is the lowest.

Again, both these facts stand as relevant today as in 1918 when this paper was published in the Journal of the Indian Economic Society (Vol. I.1918).

Ambedkar argued that ‘the evil of small holding is the product of mal-adjustment of the Indian social economy.’ He seemed to have no patience for the idea of the agricultural sector as a sink for labour. On the contrary he reasoned that ‘a large part of the population of superfluous and idle labour exerts high pressure on agriculture.’

To increase agricultural productivity, Ambedkar suggested that land consolidation must happen. Further that this consolidation must be then perpetuated by regulatory and legislative measures. Reading his thoughts in 2022, they seem a century ahead of its time given that India continues to suffer on land governance aspects. He writes, 

Both these truths are painful enough to have startled many people into inquiring the causes of this low productivity. As a result, attention has now been concentrated on the excessive sub-division and fragmentation of agricultural holdings. Enlarge and consolidate the holdings, it is confidently argued, and the increase in agricultural productivity will follow in its wake!

Journal of the Indian Economic Society (Vol. I.1918)

There is a sharp analysis of capital, surplus and savings in the context of rural economy.

Consequently the remedy for the ills of agriculture in India does not lie primarily in the matter of enlarging holdings but in the matter of increasing capital and capital goods. That capital arises from saving and that saving is possible where there is surplus is a commonplace of political economy.

Does our agriculture—the main stay of our population—give us any surplus ? We agree with the answer which is unanimously in the negative. We also approve of the remedies that are advocated for turning the deficit economy into a surplus economy, namely by enlarging and consolidating the holdings. What we demur to is the method of realizing this object.

For we most strongly hold that the evil of small holdings in India is not fundamental but is derived from the parent evil of the mal-adjustment in her social economy. Consequently if we wish to effect a permanent cure we must go to the parent malady. But before doing that we will show how we suffer by a bad social economy. It has become a tried statement that India is largely an agricultural country. But what is scarcely known is that notwithstanding the vastness of land under tillage, so little land is cultivated in proportion to her population.

Journal of the Indian Economic Society (Vol. I.1918)

In the brief years of farming in this part of Central India, we have repeatedly encountered the problem of efficiency and low productivity, in a way that it seems hard to remedy. The lands we cultivate here are low on productivity and high on resource demand. Our attempts are to re-balance that equation for ourselves and the cluster of farmers around here.

2 thoughts on “Problem of small holdings in Indian agriculture & Ambedkar 

  1. It’s difficult to fault a genius and a great man like Ambedkar. Our constitution aline makes it almost blasphemy to disagree with him. But I can’t quite agree with his diagnosis, or maybe I don’t understand. To me small holdings are good because a farmer can intimately know his or her land and work with it instead of bulldozing over it. The real problem seems to be the lack of value ascribed to the produce. When farmers spends so much time and effort – indeed their entire lives – producing food that supports all other human lives, how can it fetch such a pittance? A pitiful amount that doesn’t even cover the costs? The truth is that we don’t value our food, or those who produce it.

    1. Thank you for helping me reflect on it. The utility of thinking in scale is perhaps about finding solutions to the disproportionate demands that are being put on available resources. For example, finite arable land vs expanding food demand. I am not sure how having larger land holdings can prevent knowing land intimately.
      On value, if I take just a subset of the problem – of remunerative pricing that can make a farm operation viable, then there are limits to that too. For instance, can value realization from wheat cropping cross a limit that is above prevalent market pricing? I don’t see how that can be addressed in a practical and sustainable way. I agree that food is undervalued. It is also true that appropriate valuation mechanism and sustaining that is also difficult in the current economic paradigm.

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