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English for Economists: Sowvendra’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st July 2016

Economists spend time studying mathematics because it enables them to formulate questions in a precise manner and provides solutions to economic problems expressed mathematically. This blog post, the first one in the series, finds socioeconomic issues articulated clearly in the short story ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ by Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar in his 2015 book with the same title. Likewise, subsequent posts in this series – English for Economists – will examine socioeconomic issues in the Indian context as found in novels and short stories (within the genre of Indian Writing in English).

Sowvendra’s story questions the current model of economic development which displaces adivasis from their home-land. The ensuing commentary follows the news about the setting up of a thermal power plant in Godda by a businessman.

The businessman, in fact, needed electricity for the iron and steel plants he was planning to set up in Jharkhand. The plant was to be set up for his own selfish needs; but if he were to be believed, the whole of Jharkhand would receive electricity from his plant. Whole towns would be lit up non-stop, factories would never stop working for lack of power. There would be development and jobs and happiness all over. (pp. 183-4)

The rhetoric of economic development rests on its supposed ability to create well-paying jobs. Displacement is seen as unavoidable within this rhetoric and is therefore compensated for in varying proportions. Of course, hardly is the compensation ever economically just.

All very happy with the progress, the development. The Santhal Pargana would now fly to the moon. The Santhal Pargana would now turn into Dilli and Bombay. The businessman was grinning widely. Patriotic songs in Hindi were playing from the loudspeakers placed at all corners of the field. ‘Bharat mahaan,’ someone was shouting from the stage, trying to rouse the audience, his voice amplified by numerous loudspeakers. What mahaan? I wondered. Which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? What jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do? Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier? (p. 185)

The above excerpt questions the current notion of development/progress. Who are the ones progressing? Who are the ones regressing? Mainstream economic theory is still obsessed with the fruit of ‘free’ markets – the trickle-down of incomes.

Land displacement happens in the name of economic ‘reforms’ and those who protest are seen as enemies of ‘development’. What is the state of the farmland?

Only a few of us still have farmland; most of it has been acquired by a mining company. It is a rich company. (p. 171)

The struggle to eke a livelihood is visible in the following passage. It is also a passage describing, what may be called, a class struggle (a la Marx).

This coal company and these quarry owners, they earn so much money from our land. They have built big houses for themselves in town; they wear nice clothes; they send their children to good schools in faraway places; when sick, they get themselves treated by the best doctors in Ranchi, Patna, Bhagalpur, Malda, Bardhaman, Kolkata. What do we Santhals get in return? Tatters to wear. Barely enough food. Such diseases that we can’t breathe properly, we cough blood and forever remain bare bones. (p. 172)

Socioeconomically, the current and previous owners of the land are highly unequal. The latter has lost a permanent means of livelihood and a physical asset, a provider of economic security. On the other hand, the former group – the current owners – live prosperously. Santhals are denied access to good education and health. Access to communication is difficult for the protagonist because the “big post office in Pakur [is] more than twenty kilometres away” (p. 180).

We come across two interesting passages on markets and pricing in this story.

Our music, our dance, our songs are sacred to us Santhals. But hunger and poverty has driven us to sell what is sacred to us. (p. 179)

Santhals don’t understand business. We get the coal easy yet we don’t charge much for it; only enough for food, clothes and drink. (p. 175)

Firstly, forcible commodification needs to be resisted. Secondly, the notion of value and prices varies in capitalistic and non-capitalistic societies.

The protagonist of the story asks: “What do we Santhals get? We Santhals can sing and dance, and we are good at our art. Yet, what has our art given us? Displacement, tuberculosis. (p. 178)” Indeed, one wonders what ‘development’ and ‘reforms’ really mean. Owing to poor economic conditions due to ‘development’ and ‘reforms’, many Santhals “have migrated, or migrate seasonally” (p. 178) – a form of distress migration. Economic distress is not an isolated event but has adverse moral and political consequences: “We are losing our Sarna faith, our identities, and our roots. We are becoming people from nowhere” (p. 173).

Sowvendra’s short story is a real story about real people who are economically, socially and politically disadvantaged. The disadvantages have exacerbated because of economic policies undertaken in the name of ‘development’ and ‘reforms’. I think that such ‘stories’ disseminate contemporary socioeconomic issues to a wide audience in a lucid yet poignant manner. Insofar as they do that, they add to the existing vault of socioeconomic data. Moreover, such short stories can be used in schools and universities while teaching economics.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Government | No Comments »

Prices, Competition and Markets

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st March 2014

It has become commonplace in India to point fingers at the central government when prices of essential commodities such as onion or fuel rise. The underlying arguments behind this accusation could be that: (1) the government is expected to maintain price stability and/or (2) the government should socially engineer agricultural markets in a ‘fair’ manner. But, is the pursuit of price stability not the job of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)? It is true that the RBI cannot do anything to combat inflation when it is caused by a supply-and-demand mismatch in the domestic vegetable market or the international oil market. What the RBI can do is manage inflation expectations, and that is for another post. The present post is motivated by the insightful analyses of Kannan Kasturi on the Indian vegetable market, published in the Economic & Political Weekly and other places. That is, this post takes up the second of the reasons mentioned earlier.

The price mechanism – adjustments made by producers to the selling prices and consumers to the purchasing prices – is expected to allocate the commodities brought to the market amongst the consumers, in accordance with their needs, reflected in their willingness to pay. The prices therefore act as signals for the producers especially. Sellers can adjust quantity in order to affect prices; hoarding commodities is one such strategy. At equilibrium, producers earn a normal rate of profit, which contains a pure rate of return on capital advanced and a return for risk and entrepreneurship. If producers do not make normal profits in time t, they will cut down production in time t+1. During the equilibration process, producers who are unable to earn a normal rate of profit will exit the market. If entry costs are low, new producers will enter the market. Producers who have large financial resources (or access to easy credit) at their disposal are insulated from temporary alterations in demand. Producers who have enough accumulated earnings can shield themselves from such market volatility. In short, a competitive market is one where prices are not distorted (by the producers or by external intervention), no (especially, cultural and social) barriers to enter the market exist and workers are mobile within and across markets.

Of course, the agricultural markets in India are far from competitive. Since more than 50% of Indians derive their income from agriculture, and particularly because of the poverty of the farmers, these markets require government intervention. This is not to say that any form of government intervention will better the situation. Kasturi quite convincingly shows that the fault lies with the supply-side – the agricultural supply chain. This post will not discuss minimum support prices or other input subsidies, such as for electricity, irrigation and fertilizers. Also to be noted is the specific manner in which the agricultural input markets are inter-linked in India, which has been of an exploitative nature. Finally, social and cultural factors (pertaining to caste and gender) are seen to hinder competitiveness in Indian markets, not just in agriculture.

What are the problems with the agricultural supply chain? Kasturi points out the following: (1) Small farmers lack storage facilities in order to gain from the high market prices. (2) The middlemen (those who intermediate between farmers and final consumers), i.e. the wholesale traders and commission agents have the ability to hoard vegetables and consequently they reap the benefits of the high prices they themselves engineer; the Agricultural Produce Marketing Act governs the agricultural markets (mandis) and it is here where all the proceeds from higher prices are absorbed with nothing reaching the farmers. These traders and commission agents are ‘well entrenched in the mandis, having been in the business on average for 20 years’ (3) Agricultural pricing is not at all transparent and the mandi records are of no assistance in this regard.

To sum up, the nature of government intervention has to change, in such a way that is beneficial to farmers. Proper laws are of utmost importance, not just in protecting the interests of the small farmers, but also that of the consumers.  Moreover, intermediaries in any market perform useful functions but laws should be in place which ensures that they do not become monopolistic and exploitative. Agricultural infrastructure such as storage facilities is paramount in this context. A very detailed study of how these supply-chains operate will be of much help in our attempts to combat inflation.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Development Economics, Economics, Government, India, Inflation, Markets, Prices | No Comments »

Reflections on Chayanov’s The Theory of Peasant Economy

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 17th February 2013

Alexander Vasilevich Chayanov, the Russian agricultural economist published the essay ‘On the Theory of Non-Capitalist Economic Systems’ in 1924 and Peasant Farm Organization in 1925, both in Russian. This blog post presents a selective summary of the English translations of these two works, one of the aims being to comment on Chayanov’s method of doing economics. He wrote around 60 books and essays during his lifetime. This blog post, it must be noted, is not an exhaustive survey of the essay and the book.

I

Chayanov’s essay on non-capitalist economic systems questioned the dominant approach of economic theorising which is conducted in the framework of capitalism. One of the characteristic features of the capitalist system is the presence of wage labour. So, how does such a theoretical framework understand peasant economies, where wage labour is non-existent? This is Chayanov’s question. Since labour is entirely provided by the peasant family, there exists no labour market and therefore no concept of wage labour. Moreover, the peasant family undertakes agricultural production (and engages in simple manufacturing) with the family labour and the surplus (or net product) arising from production cannot be resolved into wages and profits. The notions of profitability present in a family run enterprise, according to Chayanov, is very different from a capitalist enterprise. Chayanov terms the returns from the enterprise as the net product.

The required consumption of each family member is set by custom and habit. Chayanov computes an ‘internal equilibrium for the well-being of the family’ which is given by the intersection of their well-being and drudgery functions (p. 5). The gross product can be increased if more land is cultivated and/or an increase in labour intensity; remember, that the number of workers are given for any peasant farm organization. (This can change, perhaps in the very long-run, if the birth rate of the family is greater than its death rate.) The net product is arrived at by deducting the necessary consumption of the family and necessary consumption of the capital equipment from the gross product. The increase in labour intensity has definite physical limits; according to Chayanov, the family as a farm unit will increase labour intensity (drudgery) until the point when the net product is sufficient to meet the consumption needs of the workers and their dependants (children, parents and grandparents). The family’s access to land will depend on the land price and their ability to buy/lease more land will be constrained by their net product.

After laying out the basic relationships prevalent in a peasant farm, Chayanov concludes the essay by listing the various economic systems (p. 25). The extreme forms are capitalism and communism. In between, he introduces the family economy, slave economy and the feudal system (comprising landlord economy and peasant economy). Chayanow wishes for multiple economic theories catering to the needs of different economic-systems, as his last sentence in the essay shows:

…we have no doubt that the future of economic theory lies not in constructing a single universal theory of economic life but in conceiving a number of theoretical systems that would be adequate to the range of present or past economic orders and would disclose the forms of their coexistence and evolution. (p. 28)

 II

In Chayanov’s 1925 work entitled Peasant Farm Organization, his team carries out a detailed analysis of the agricultural situation in various districts of Russia based on zemstvo statistics, state statistics, independent research and budget studies (p. 38). At the outset, Chayanov points out the ‘coexistence and evolution’ of the capitalist and non-capitalist forms. When the peasant as worker-entrepreneur is unable to make sufficient earnings (owing to a bad harvest, increased input cost or some other factor), he temporarily abandons his undertaking and becomes a wage-labour in order to avoid being unemployed (p. 40). A peasant farm, to reiterate, does not make use of hired labourers.

The peasant farm is an organization that makes use of family labour and receives a single labour income. And, the trade-off between physical effort and material results (already noted in the previous section) is re-emphasised (p. 41). Responding against criticisms against their employing the method of marginalist economics, Chayanov maintains that the trade-off between family member as consumer and as labourer (labour-consumer balance) determines the volume of family economic activity but he does ‘not at all consider it possible to deduce from this a whole system of the national economy’ (p. 46). His objective is not, in modern terms, macroeconomics. The concept of a family has its basis in ‘the purely biological concept of the married couple, living together with their descendants and the aged representatives of the older generation’ (p. 54). Moreover, the gross product of the labour farm includes income from ‘agriculture’ as well as ‘crafts and trades’ (p. 70).

Given the trade-off between manual work and well-being, ‘the annual intensity of labor declines under the influence of better pay, because to remain the same it is absolutely essential that the productivity of the year’s labor (and equally the standard of well-being) should grow in proportion to the increase in the pay of a unit of labour’ (p. 80). In conclusion, as Chayanov states:

Thus, any labor farm has a natural limit to its output, determined by the proportions between intensity of annual family labor and degree of satisfaction of its demands. (p. 82)

One of the problems of such a principle is the exclusion of the relationship between labour intensity and consumption needs of the labourers. For instance, when income increases, there might arise a heightened demand to consume more of luxury products. The consumption needs certainly have a lower limit or a floor, but it is not bounded from above. In other words, labour intensity and consumption needs are interrelated factors.

One final observation before we move to conclusions. Chayanov, with a view to aiding practical policy, was interested in finding the ‘optimal farm size’ because ‘the optimal combination gives the highest income, and any deviation from it gives the proprietor a reduced profit rate’ (p. 91). In part, and by large, the combination is based on the technical relations between inputs and outputs. Therefore, ‘[a]ny excess of production means available to labor or of land above the technically optimal level will be an excessive burden on the undertaking’ (p. 92). It is also on account of the technological relationship that  the ‘volume of agricultural activity is not a simple arithmetic derivative of the size of area used’ (p. 94). Some of these technological relationships can be better grasped by taking recourse to ‘the basic laws of contemporary agricultural science’ (see especially pp. 138-47 for a rich account of crop rotation, manuring, etc).

III

First, Chayanov is dissatisfied with economic theory studying capitalist systems alone. But, (neoclassical) microeconomics can perhaps explain certain features of the peasant farm, especially the trade-off between drudgery and well-being (the backward bending labour supply curve is a good example). Also, the search for the optimal farm size can also be conducted by certain microeconomic procedures. One does not need to accept the marginal productivity theory of distribution which is a central feature of microeconomics. To put it differently, the ‘science of choice’ can explain the trade-offs which Chayanov is talking about by making appropriate changes in the parameters.

Secondly, treating the farm output as being ‘determined by the proportions between intensity of annual family labor and degree of satisfaction of its demands,’ as noted earlier, assumes them to be independent of each other which need not be the case. But in his credit, Chayanov undertakes a very detailed analysis of the farm households which provides content to the maximization problem. Also, the tabular and visual representation of the data is remarkable.

Finally, the co-existence of different economic organizations like capitalist and peasant farms is characteristic of economies like India. Often, they are called a dual economy. Self-employment, as opposed to wage employment is a significant feature of the Indian labour force; so is informal versus formal employment. Understanding their innate dynamics as well as their interrelationships is of much use. They require a combination of good theory, data collection methods, statistical analysis and an understanding of the socio-economic history of the particular locality.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Communism, Development Economics, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, India, Informal Sector, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics | 1 Comment »

Wages in Economic Theory and Reality: Some Issues

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 2nd January 2013

Wages is the payment made to a labourer for the number of hours worked – sowing seeds, rolling tobacco, developing computer software or providing medical care in a hospital. How are these wages determined? Are they determined in a similar manner as that of commodities? That is, are they determined based on some sort of demand and supply mechanism? Or, are they predominantly set by non-economic forces which are not easily quantifiable? This blog post looks at the dominant neoclassical or marginalist viewpoint and contrasts it with the theoretical approach of classical economics. In this light, the post examines certain characteristics of the Indian economy relating to labour and employment.

The basic principles of neoclassical economics tell us that the price and quantity demanded and supplied of a commodity are determined by the intersection of its demand and supply curves. This is the demand and supply approach to economics. When extended to labour, the intersection of the demand and supply curves of labour is supposed to determine the wages per hour (the price of labour) and the number of hours worked (the quantity of labour). Therefore, an increase in the demand for labour relative to its supply is expected to raise the wage rate and a relative increase in supply of labour (say, from an increase in the working population commonly termed the demographic dividend) leads to a fall in the wage rate.

Classical economics, a distinct theoretical framework in economics, has a very different view of wages. It largely considers wages as an exogenous variable; that is, wages are not determined by market forces – demand and supply of commodities or of labour. Of course, temporary changes can be brought about by market forces. In the theoretical world of classical economics, wages are determined primarily by socio-cultural factors such as trade union strength, the collective notion of minimum wages for different occupations and the society’s views on trust, risk, etc. In this theoretical world, which to me, seems closer to the reality, an improvement in social institutions lead to an increase in subsistence wages. Wages, in this framework, has a subsistence (relatively fixed) component and a surplus (relatively flexible) component. Hence, classical economics allows for an increase in wages, in its surplus component, when GDP is rising on account of higher labour productivity.

A conflict is present in the distribution of GDP between workers and capitalists. Neoclassical economics eliminates this conflict by recourse to marginal productivity theory. By employing logically fallacious concepts (especially of capital), a theory of distribution has been erected where both labour and ‘capital’ are ‘justly’ remunerated. In this framework, trade unions distort the market and causes injustice! According to classical economics, the presence of strong trade unions and fair labour laws ensure that workers get a fair share of productivity gains, which will otherwise entirely go as profits of the capitalists. The Global Wage Report 2012/13 published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes that in several countries wage rises have not matched the increase in employment and productivity (see especially p. 28).

There are enormous disparities in wage rates across the states in India, with Kerala paying relatively high wages. One reason for the high wages is the presence of strong trade unions. As per the Labour Bureau (as part of the Rural Labour Enquiry) report on ‘Wage Rates in Rural India’ for September 2012, the average daily wage rates for men for engaging in sowing in Gujarat is 132 rupees; in Kerala, it is 500 rupees; and in Tamil Nadu, it is 222.02 rupees. A carpenter in Gujarat is paid 233.33 rupees daily; in Kerala, he is paid 514.05 rupees and in Tamil Nadu, he is paid 388.6 rupees. The differences are starker with respect to unskilled labour: a male unskilled worker in Gujarat gets paid 109 rupees; in Kerala, he earns 411.32 rupees; and in Tamil Nadu, he earns 223.54 rupees. The corresponding wages for a female worker are: 101.71 rupees in Gujarat, 266 rupees in Kerala and 159. 76 rupees in Tamil Nadu. Note the gender-wage inequality in Kerala. Also, the economic condition in rural Kerala is significantly better than rural Tamil Nadu; therefore, the statistics will have to be interpreted with some restraint.

Subsistence wage, as a concept, has enormous theoretical and practical significance. In fact, the legislations pertaining to minimum wages in India ought to look at socio-cultural factors too, such as gender, caste, geographic location, kind of labour (formal vs. informal, rural vs. urban) and so on. The enforcement of minimum wages has been beset with difficulties as evident from a recent study (published in 2011) by Patrick Belser and Uma Rani; the proportion of salaried workers and the proportion of casual workers below the minimum wage at the national level is 25.3 and 50.6 per cent respectively. Discussions on and about subsistence wages, and by extension, on minimum wage legislations are much needed. Moreover, discussions surrounding subsistence wages can also result in more dignified definitions of poverty and minimum wages.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Development Economics, Economics, Employment, India, Kerala Economy, Labour Economics, Wages | 2 Comments »