Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Debt and Its Social Entrapments

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Debt and Its Social Entrapments

Article excerpt

Between 1997 and 2012, nearly two hundred thousand agriculturists committed suicide in India.1 Most official reports, studies, and testimonials considered indebtedness and the burdens of debt defaulting to be the key reasons for such distress.2 Yet indebtedness is not just an economic factor but also a social condition that marks the life-worlds of victims and their families. Debt, as part of the capitalization of agriculture and rural economies, is a signal aspect of the circuits of capital and is promoted as an inevitable process of economic growth and productivity. Even as debt forges new relationships between creditors and debtors, it generates a cultural grammar in which "repayment," "interest," "mortgage," "deferment," "reclaim," "seizure," and so on become part of the lexicon of the everyday life of debtors. In the telling words of Margaret Atwood, debt as a "human construct mirrors and magnifies both voracious human desire and ferocious human fear" (2008,2). And in the life-worlds of marginal agriculturists, whose already tenuous economic position is made more vulnerable by debt, the entrapments of indebtedness become the final straw that destroys their very reason for living.

The increasing integration of agriculturists into the market economy has led to reordering the cultural basis of Indian agriculture.3 Although it is well known and an established fact that the agrarian system has long been hierarchical, with caste-based allocation of rights over land and its resources, regional agricultural practices were conducted on a pattern of collectively shared knowledge forms and rhythms. Such agricultural patterns were also marked by shared agricultural knowledge and linked to local cultural patterns.4 Regional or agro-ecology-specific agriculture was based on a society-nature relationship in which society relied on a corpus of collective knowledge to appropriate nature within a range of hierarchical social and economic structures and relationships. While the structure of social activities was itself linked to the ecological and agricultural cycles, the key idioms and terms of cultural life were drawn from and linked to agricultural activities.5 Even as agriculture was based on differential rights and status, it provided a larger collective identity to a range of people who performed different functions in its processes. In addition, as studies (Amin 1982; Breman 2007) have elaborated, agriculture in India drew on a network of relationships in which cooperation and extension of assistance for a range of activities formed part of the production processes themselves.

But the changes induced by the capitalization of agriculture and the retained caste-based social bases of production have altered this collective orientation and exacerbated the multiple risks that most agriculturists face.6 This is particularly so for marginal agriculturists whose precarious economic position is worsened by the risks of the new capitalist order. As marginal cultivators, their position in the local and macro economy is one of marginality, not merely from their ownership or cultivation of limited plots and sizes of land (with an average of only 1.33 hectares per cultivating household) but also from the marginal political and social position they occupy in the immediate and larger political economies of the nation. What Sanyal (2007) and Akhram-Lodhi and Kay (2009) identify as markers of marginality is valid for all the households that experienced suicides. These markers include not only access to or ownership of limited landholding, but marginal cultivators also suffer from insecurity of ownership and tenancy, produce for both consumption and sale, are structurally situated in conditions where the surplus production is often transferred to dominant classes, and are subject to processes of semi-proletarianization and pauperization. Additionally, most marginal cultivators are also from the lower-ranked jatis and hence lack the social and cultural capital to emerge as successful or entrepreneurial agriculturists. …

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