Farmers vs Government: The Benefits and Limits of Democratic Redistribution

In its period of rapid economic growth, Indian democracy was successful in redistributing gains from urban centered, globalization led growth to the rural agrarian economy. The redistribution of available economic and administrative resources among competing groups is a primary concern of democratic politics. The situation is very different in non-democratic polities. In the figure below, we see that during globalization led growth, the ratio of per worker agrarian income to overall per capita GDP drops to less than a half in China and Vietnam, while it remained above or close to one in India and Indonesia. In other words, agrarian workers in one-party China and Vietnam became relatively poorer while their country became richer, agrarian workers in India and Indonesia did not incur a relative disadvantage.

Ratio of agricultural income per worker to overall GDP per capita for four Asian countries. In democratic, farmer majority India, the rural populace could always command a major share of the state’s redistributive efforts. After an initial decline from 1.4 to 1.0, the ratio in India stabilizes. In one-party China and Vietnam, the emphasis is on efficient agricultural production, not producers, and resources are invested heavily in urban areas.

In India the vast rural population with more than a century long experience in political mobilization, has pushed governments to spend money in rural areas. Redistribution has occurred via irrigation projects, rural roads, NREGA, subsidies, loan waivers and recently, direct income transfers. Any negative externality arising from agrarian activity has been borne by urban residents (eg: Delhi smog) but farmers were not penalized. Aside from rural-urban dynamics, democratic redistribution has led to a spatial equalization of agricultural productivity across the country.

Left image is district wise agricultural productivity in 2005. Since then, as the right image shows, agricultural growth has been concentrated in the most backward areas (dark red on left). The primary drivers have been irrigation projects and rural roads.

Though the condition of Indian cities is depressing, the upshot of a democracy dominated by the rural majority is comfortable food security. In fact, even though India’s use of pesticide is quite low by global standards, and its agricultural yields, cold-chain infrastructure sub-par, it has become a major net agricultural exporter. This is in huge contrast to China which has become a massive net importer of food. This is an important strategic advantage for India.

Net agricultural trade balance for India and China since 1961. China reverts to a net import situation as soon as its economy starts booming in the 1990s. in contrast India’s exports zoom in its period of economic growth.

There are signs, though, that India’s redistribution toolkit might be reaching the limits of its efficiency. Concurrently, a more reformist Indian government, awash with surplus grain, wants to re-orient farmers towards higher return crops or even an exit from farming. An urbanising electorate may also not be as willing to redistribute their hard earned tax monies towards their rural co-citizens.

The reorientation of the Punjab-Haryana farmer away from rice and wheat will require tact and persuasion, not ordinance fiat. The set patterns are very comfortable from the economic (MSP + diaspora remittances + armed forces recruitment) and psychological (we feed and secure the nation) perspective. The simple promise of higher incomes might not convince historically agrarian communities who havent fully embraced the money economy.

The Prime Minister has proven to be a masterful communicator. We have not yet seen the same skill in his dealings with the farmers. The approach there has oscillated between genuflection and disregard. The potential is there for the 200000 sq. km tract of well irrigated, fertile land in India’s north west to become the new California Central Valley (47,000 sq km). India can then become the land that greatly increases global access to premium agro-products like fresh, dry fruits and vegetarian protein. The latter (beef-mukt world) will also resonate with many urban supporters of the government and even the farmers themselves.