What Can Indian Economists Learn From Sismondi?

Although J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) lived in Geneva and wrote on economics, history and public policy, his concerns about the role of political economy is valid even today, especially for India. Marx considered Sismondi to be the last classical economist. Sismondi engages with the economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and J B Say in his 1819 work New Principles of Political Economy: Of Wealth In Its Relation to Population. This work has been translated into English by Richard Hyse in 1991 (available at Google Books). According to Sismondi, the objective of Political Economy is to ensure that majority of the population live a happy life.

Indian realities

Sainath informs us that India has seen over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010. The total figure according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is 256,913. And, since 1998, at least 15,000 farmers have committed suicide very year. More unsettling is that fact that the total number of farmers have been declining significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, it is alleged that 90 farmers committed suicide, that too, in rain-fed areas, in the last few weeks.

The inflation of food articles has reached double digits. Food inflation doubly affects the actual cultivators. Since, the prices are fixed by the Government (minimum support prices), the price rise does not benefit the actual cultivators. Secondly, their ability to purchase their usual consumption basket also falls when price rise. It is in this context that M S Swaminathan’s reminders need to be understood. He rightly asserted: “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else can go right for this country.”

Very recently, Dreze and Sen pointed out the nature of the asymmetrical growth that is driving India with a majority of the population living without access to basic amenities. They concluded their article in the Outlook by stating that one of the ways forward is to have a “radical broadening of public discussion in India to development-related matters—rather than keeping it confined to simple comparisons of the growth of the gnp, and naive admiration (implicit or explicit) of the high living standards of a relatively small part of the population. An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues.” In other words, how much has the socio-economic condition of majority of the Indian populace (who happen to be farmers and weavers) improved?

Sismondi

In the hurry to build sophisticated DSGE models and while working out monetary and/or fiscal solutions to inflation and economic growth, it is often forgotten that actual human livelihood is at stake. How can Indian agriculture not be a necessary component of the curriculum in economics? Within economics, steep walls which cannot be crossed exist between agricultural economics, macroeconomics, monetary economics, labour economics, development economics, etc. The so-called specialization in these fields (to be understood as literature which is not easily accessible or comprehensible to an economist from another field) has reached alarming levels. Sismondi says the following on the nature of economic inquiry:

However, I believe I should protest against the manner, so often superficial, so often false, in which a work on the social sciences is judged in the world. The problem which they offer to resolve is tangled in quite another way than those that arise from the natural sciences; at the same time it appeals to the heart as well as to reason. The observer is called upon to recognize unjust sufferings that come from man, and of which man is the victim. We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy (Sismondi 1819: 13).

Maybe, the idea of modern science does not allow investigators to be moved by the ‘object’ under study. Nevertheless, as Sismondi reminds us, economic problems and their solutions affect people (who are not ‘objects’) in a significant manner. The state of Indian farmers and weavers is certainly to be given attention, especially in terms of livelihood building, through providing employment and incomes in a dignified manner.

The following lines from Sismondi echoes what Dreze and Sen recently pointed out as regards Indian growth:

If they find a tremendous accumulation of riches, an improved agriculture, a prosperous business community, manufactures which multiply without end all products of human industry, and a government that disposes of almost inexhaustible coffers, as in England, they call the nation opulent that has all these things, without stopping to inquire whether all those who work with their hands, all those who create this wealth, are not reduced to mere subsistence; whether every tenth member among them must not apply each year to the public welfare; and whether three-fifths of all individuals, in a nation that is called rich, are not exposed to more privation than an equal proportion of individuals in a nation called poor (Sismondi 1819: 22).

In India, the wealth creators, the farmers, are forced to live below even ‘subsistence levels’ as Sainath’s commentary on farmer suicides indicate. Even though we have 53 agricultural universities in India, their contribution to the farming population is circumspect. Three to four decades before, working on agricultural economics and debating issues related to agriculture was fashionable and ‘important’. Today, it is even more important but, perhaps, not very attractive. In fact, the Government admits that the farm sector has been neglected.

Admitting that the government is neglecting research in the farm sector, the agriculture ministry has sought more funds in the next Five Year Plan (2012-2017) for significant jump in food grain production.

But, focussing on aggregate food grain production is clearly insufficient. One needs to look at the ‘production conditions in Indian agriculture’. As Sismondi points out very clearly

Commercial wealth is augmented and distributed by exchange; and even the produce of the ground, so soon as it is gathered in, belongs likewise to commerce. Territorial wealth, on the other hand, is created by means of permanent contracts. With regard to it, the economist’s attention should first be directed to the progress of cultivation; next to the mode in which the produce of the harvest is distributed among those who contribute to its growth; and lastly, to the nature of those rights which belong to the proprietors of land, and to the effects resulting from an alienation of their property (Sismondi 1819: 133).

In 1974, Krishna Bharadwaj published a book Production Conditions in Indian Agriculture. In the same period, economists such as Amit Bhaduri, Ashok Rudra, Amartya Sen, K N Raj, C H Hanumantha Rao, Pranab Bardhan, etc wrote extensively on various aspects of Indian agriculture. The issues Sismondi pointed out were discussed and debated. Bharadwaj points out the significance of examining property relations, technology, local patterns of power, etc. Moreover, she notes that non-economic variables such as tradition, customs, caste and religion determine the economic position of a farmer and thereby determines their income and asset levels. The rise in food inflation has prompted many commentators to hold employment guarantee schemes (NREGA) responsible. If agriculture generated adequate incomes (to maintain a decent and dignified life) employment guarantee would not be necessary. In other words, employment on and off farm cannot be treated as independent of each other. Further, in India, markets are interlocked through both price and non-price links (with the Government playing an ambiguous role). These interlocked markets are exploitative as it denies the following freedoms to the agricultural farmer, who is very much an entrepreneur.

(1)   What to produce?

(2)   How much to produce?

(3)   For whom to produce?

(4)   When to sell the produce?

Conclusion

As Sismondi reminds us, we cannot ignore the majority of the Indian population who do not have access to the basic necessaries of life. Agriculture provides livelihood to more than half the Indian workforce. A farmer is an entrepreneur who produces food, the most basic of all commodities. Although, it might not be academically fashionably and profitable to study Indian agriculture but as Sismondi notes: “We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy.”

To Economists: please pay attention to the ‘real’ problems

A talk by Arundhati Roy and watching Peepli Live has motivated the contents of this post largely. I have been forced to rethink what ‘economics’ as a discipline should do in a country like India. How can it contribute to economic growth and human development. It is often forgotten that, economics studies the big black box that transforms the labour of the labourers into commodities for consumption by the labourers. People or rather, people who work, appear at both the ends of the tunnel. The black box or the tunnel consists of varied actors, markets, institutions, laws, power groups, social classes, etc.

Some economists try to make sense of this complex interaction using tools such as game theory, which throws light of certain aspects of the interaction. This in turn is supposed to aid in the design of better institutions. A few study labour, the main actor in the whole economic process. Some look at institutions and how various legal arrangements affect the economic outcomes. It remains to be asked: outcomes for whom? In this manner, the entire profession of economics has been divided into various sub-disciplines, each specialising in a particular aspect of the economy. And it is evident that communication between the above mentioned sets of economists happen rarely. Very often, the larger picture is forgotten. Each group presents their results with a tremendous sense of certainty, which is entirely misplaced. And, the joke that economists love their ceteris paribus clause comes true here. Except that, the clause in this case, assumes as constant the remaining processes or aspects of the economy!

Who are the real producers in an economy? What role do farmers (small, marginal and large) play in our society? Do they live in dignity? When inflation occurs, do these farmers get more incomes? Or do the intermediaries pocket the increase? Are proper institutions in place to provide them with adequate credit? Can these formal institutions compete with the informal ones, such as money lenders and chitti funds?

It is accepted that farming is not a profitable enterprise any more. Policy makers are calling for industrialisation. They want the farmers to come away from their lands and work in industries. And so arises the slums in and around major cities, where their living conditions are perhaps worse than in the villages. Or, most of them are forced to become construction workers. Urbanisation implies buildings, which creates construction jobs in plenty. Once the space in big cities are exhausted, the urbanisation will take place in small cities. Workers will be in demand. In short, labour migration and increasing labour distress, owing to improper housing conditions will become even more intense. It is time, serious attention is paid to farmers and the role of farming in the development of India.

To conclude, it is time we paid more attention to the condition of India and not blindly follow academic fashions. It is the duty of the civil society and especially, the academicians to study the problems and issues thrown up by the society. When the problems of the majority of the population in India –those who live in the rural areas, those who work in the informal sector and those who are farmers– are forgotten and relegated as “deviations from the normal” or “problems of the Indian economy” and not as characteristics of the society we live in, it is indeed a pitiable situation.