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A mode of production flux: the transformation and reproduction of rural class relations in lowland Nepal and North Bihar

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Abstract

The Eastern Gangetic Plains of South Asia represents a peripheral region far from the centers of global capitalist production, and this is all the more apparent in Mithilanchal, a cultural domain spanning the Nepal/Bihar border. The agrarian structure can be considered ‘semi-feudal’ in character, dominated by landlordism and usury, and backed up by political and ideological processes. Paradoxically, Mithilanchal is also deeply integrated into the global capitalist market and represents a surplus labor pool for the urban centers of Western India as well as the Persian Gulf in a classic articulation between pre-capitalist and capitalist modes of production. A review of the changes in the agrarian structure over recent decades in the context of globalisation, out-migration and climate stress, shows that while landlordism remains entrenched, the relationship between the marginal and tenant farmer majority and the landed classes has changed, with the breakdown of ideological ties and reduced dependence on single landlords. The paper thus ends on a positive note, as the contemporary juncture represents an opportune moment for new avenues of political mobilization among the peasantry.

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(Source: 2013 and 2015 survey)

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(Source: 2013 survey)

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(Source: Central Bureau of Statistics 1996, 2011)

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Notes

  1. The conceptualization is dealt with most systematically in the discussion on ‘Rent of Land’ from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

  2. As Bhaduri (1981, 44) notes: ‘Translated into the language of daily politics in India, our schematisation of the class structure in Indian agriculture corresponds to the coexistence of “feudal remnants” (or semi-feudalism) sustained by a nexus of forced commercial relations and “capitalist tendencies”.’

  3. Bois (1978) criticized the debate on the decline in feudalism in Europe initiated by Brenner (‘the Brenner debate’) as being overly theory laden and detached from complex spatiotemporal realities.

  4. Farm gate prices for primary products such as cotton, food grains, jute and sugar dropped by between 40 and 60 % between 1996 and 2001 alone.

  5. This leads to rising income among the upper tiers who purchase not local products but imported luxuries.

  6. The removal of government subsidies for electricity for industries and Nepal’s power crisis had made it impossible for local industries to compete with Indian and Bangladeshi products, and five out of 11 jute mills in Nepal had closed, with cultivation dropping considerably. See report in Kathmandu post, Sep 22, 2014. Demand drop leaves jute industry in doldrums and Gorakhpatra article, Aug 24, 2014, Jute industries in eastern region in crisis.

  7. Many of the men were engaged in migrant labour.

  8. These are classified as households with holdings below 0.05 ha.

  9. Despite a recent increase in cash wages in Nepal due to migration-induced labour shortages, this is reportedly offset by spiraling retail prices for food and the rising cost of living.

  10. Only farmers with less than 1 ha of their own land while also renting were considered as part-tenants, and the remainder were considered owner cultivators.

  11. The small industrial class in Morang and Sunsari was mostly from the Marwari community and reportedly had little interest in land or agriculture, with government jobs being the most common reported occupation of landlords.

  12. Data on farm sizes from just the central and eastern Tarai were not available.

  13. The growth potential of agriculture after reforms has also been cast into question in the context of neo-liberal restructuring and increasingly unfavorable terms of trade (Lerche 2013).

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Acknowledgments

This paper brings together research insights from multiple projects, including the authors' own PhD research in 2007/8. The author would like to thank the team of the CIMMYT led Sustainable and Resiliant Farming Systems Intensification project, which supported the 2014 survey. This project was funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Particular thanks goes to Panchali Saikia, Niki Maskey and Anoj Kumar for coordinating the data collection and the research team at Sakhi Bihar, Bihar Agricultural University (Purnea) and Nepal Agricultural Research Council. The 2013 survey was funded by the CGIAR programme on Climate Change and Food Security (CCAFS) and the smaller 2012 study was funded directly by the International Water Management Institute. For both studies the author is extremely grateful to the in-field support provided by Lalita Sah, Narayan Prasad Sah, Ashok Rai, Upendra Khawas, Yaman Sardar, Gajendra Sah, Basudev Khatiwada, Nitesh Parwat and Bijay Chaudhary, and in India by Neetu Singh, Ritesh Kumar, Abhay Nath Roy, Barkha Rani, Devbrat Kumar, Krishna Murari Prasad and Ayesha Fatima.

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Research involving human participants and/or animals and informed consent

Full informed consent was acquired from all research participants before collecting data. While in the context of North Bihar and Nepal, obtaining written consent was not possible—a common constraint in rural settings, the research team endeavored to give a clear indication of the purpose of the research and how the data would be used. Entry to the field sites was obtained using respected and long-trusted partner organizations and key informants. Minimizing harm to research participants is a priority, and all data collected is confidential and remain anonymous.

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Sugden, F. A mode of production flux: the transformation and reproduction of rural class relations in lowland Nepal and North Bihar. Dialect Anthropol 41, 129–161 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-016-9436-3

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