Agricultural Societies

  1. Cultivation of land through the plough as this invention enabled the people to make a great leap forward in food production. It increased the productivity of land through the use of animals and bringing to the surface the nutrients of the soil.
  2. Combining irrigation techniques with the use of the plough increased the productivity and the crop yield It also brought fallow land under cultivation. The size of the agricultural societies increased as it lessened the burden of large number of people who engaged themselves in other activities. Agricultural societies lead to the establishment of more elaborate political institutions like formalized government bureaucracy assisted by the legal system. It also leads to the evolution of distinct social classes -those who own the land and those who work on the other’s land. Land is the major source of wealth and is individually owned.
  3. This creates major difference between the social strata. Agricultural societies provide the basis for the establishment of economic institutions. Trade becomes more elaborate and money is medium of exchange. It also demands the maintenance of records of transaction, crop harvest, taxation, governmental rules and regulations. Religion becomes separate institution with elaborate rituals and traditions.
  4. The agricultural societies support the emergence of arts and cultural artifacts due to surplus food production people tend to divert their attention to other recreational activities. There is far more complex social structure. According to Ian Robertson the number of statuses multiplies, population size increases, cities appear, new institutions emerge, social classes arise, political and economic inequality becomes inbuilt into the social structure and culture becomes much more diversified and heterogeneous.

Agrarian class structure

Agrarian class structure in India have been shaped by long historical and politico- administrative process. The traditional Indian society was organized around caste lines. The agrarian relations were governed by the norms of jajmani system. However, the jajmani relations began to disintegrate after the colonial rulers introduced changes in the India agriculture. The process of modernization and development initiated by the India State during the post-independence period further weakened the traditional social structure.

  1. Caste stratification, according to some scholars, is associated with the rural and class stratification with the urban situation. Yogendra Singh has held that this statement is based on fallacy; it is not based on socio historical evidence. Some western scholars held the view that early India was a static society, where not change but continuity was a dominant feature. But this fallacy of‘ static India’ hypothesis has been criticized by scholars like P.C.Joshi, Yogendra Singh, B.
  2. Cohn and Romila Thapar. Many classes like priests, feudal chiefs, merchants, artisans, peasants, labourers, etc., existed in early India. Merchants did not occupy low position in social hierarchy. The base for their mobility was their economic relationship. Their caste status did not clash with the class status. Yogendra Singh holds that the position of many castes altered over time, and wealth and properly played an important role in achieving an improved status, particularly among the merchant class.
  3. The period after 1000 A.D. saw the growth of classes of traders, artisans etc.,in cities. In the Mughal period too, since a large share of village produce was taken to the urban market the dynamism of the class structure of both the cities and villages continued. This implied not only the existence of agrarian classes in villages but also a stable class of merchants, middlemen and bankers in towns and cities.
  4. In the British period, the policy of trade and commerce affected the artisan classes and led to their large-scale migration to rural areas. Further, the British policy of favoured treatment to the port towns; neglect of vast number of other towns, policy of taxation and many others. Socio-economic policies led to the decline of the traditional Indian economic structure as well as the class structure. The class structure in the rural area was also affected due to land settlement policy.
  5. At the same time, the British policies created new foundations for the emergence of a feudal agrarian class structure. While caste continues to be an important social institution in the contemporary Indian society, its significance as a system of organizing economic life has considerably declined.
  6. Though the agricultural land in most parts of India is still owned by the traditionally cultivating caste groups, their relation with the landless menials are no more regulated by the norms of caste system. The landless members of the lower caste now work with the cultivation farmers as agriculture labourers.We can say that in sense; caste has given way to class in the Indian countryside.
  7. The agrarian system that evolved in the rural areas during the British regime were based either on the zamindari or the ryotwari type of land systems. The zamindari system had three main agrarian classes: zamindars, tenants and agricultural labourers. The ryotwari system had two main classes: ryot landlords and the ryot-peasants.
  8. The agrarian class structures everywhere in India had a feudal character. The zamindars (i.e., non cultivating owners of land) were tax-gatherers, the tenants were real cultivators (often without security of land tenure), and the agricultural labourers had the status of bonded labour. With the support of the rulers power, this highly exploitative system continued to persist till the political independence of the country, despite peasant unrest the peasant movements.

In pre-British period Agrarian class structure was based on self-sufficient village community. So there was no class structure. During British period broad category of agrarian classes emerged Landlords, Tenants, Peasant Proprieters, Agricultural Working Class.

After independence, comprehensive land reforms and rural development programme gave rise to the emergence of distinctive pattern of agrarian class structure independent of caste hierarchy. The abolition of the zamindari system took away the powers of the zamindars.

Yogendra Singh has referred to several trends in agrarian class structure after independence. These are:

  1. There is a wide gap between land-reform ideology projected during the freedom struggle and even thereafter and the actual measures introduced for land-reforms.
  2. This gap is the result of the class character of politician and administrative elite.
  3. The economic prosperity of the rich peasantry has increased but the economic condition of the small peasants has deteriorated.
  4. Capitalist type of lease-labour or wage labour agrarian system.
  5. The inequalities between the top and the bottom levels of classes have increased rather than decreased.
  6. Agricultural workers have not received the benefits of land reforms. The sociological process dominant in the current class transformations in the villages involves’ embourgeoisement’ of some and ‘prolateriatisation’ of many social strata.

P.C. Joshi referring to the trend in agrarian class structure has pointed out:

  1. The decline of feudalistic type of tenancy and its replacement by more exploitative lease arrangements.
  2. The rise of commercially oriented landlords.

Andre Beteille has referred to change from ‘cumulative’ to ‘dispersed, inequalities due to changing social stratification. However, the agrarian social structure is still marked by diversities. As pointed out by D. N. Dhanagare, the relation among classes and social composition of groups that occupy specific class position in relation to land control and land use in India are so diverse and complex that it is difficult to incorporate them all in a general scheme. However, despite the diversities that mark the agrarian relation in different parts of country, some scholars have attempted to club them together into some general categories, Amongst the earliest attempts to categories the Indian agrarian population into a framework of social classes was made by following sociologists;

Andre Beteille

Beteille studies agrarian class structures on the basis of three criteria’s. Those are ownership, control and use. On that live he classifies owners, controllers and users. Further he sub-categories these three. ‘

In that, owners/landlords are comprised of

  1. Traditional landlords, who uses land as symbol of status and power. Cultural roots are strong in sense of ownership they emphasis more on emotive connect than productively calculations.
  2. Enterprising land lords, who look for profits. They invest for return so they apply innovative method
  3. These are the one who has gone mostly for mechanization.
  4. Absentee level lords, those who migrate to cities for alternatives source of livelihood but does not wish to sell the land Therefore they loose interest in land They visit village only to collect rent They look neither into productivity or into condition of land.
  5. Cultural landlords, they are entitled to land through cultural obligations for example Brahmins are not allowed to plough but are given land for livelihood So they lease out the land.

Further, controllers are comprised of owner cum controllers, share croppers, tenants. They use their own labour or hire the labour. Users are comprised of user controller, only user, user owners etc. for example, Agricultural labourers use land to gratify their needs. Thus understanding of Indian Agrarian class structure gives the overall dynamic view.

Daniel Thorner. He suggested that one could divide the agrarian population of India into different class categories by taking three criteria :

  1. First of income earned from land (such as, ‘rent’ or fruits of own cultivation or wages’)
  2. Second the nature of right held in land (such as, proprietary or ‘tenancy’ or ‘share-cropping right’ or ‘no right at all’)
  3. Third the extent of fieldwork actually performed (such as, ‘absentees who do no work at all or ‘those who perform partial work’ or ‘total work done with the family labour’ or work done for others to earn wages’).

On the basis of these criteria he suggested the following model of agrarian class structure in India;

  1. Maliks, whose income is derived primarily from property right in the soil and whose common interest is to keep the level of rents up while keeping the wage-level down.They collect rent from tenants, sub-tenants and sharecroppers.
  2. Kisans, working peasants, who own small plots of land and work mostly with their own labour and that of their family members.
  3. Mazdoors, who do not own land themselves and earn their livelihood by working as tenants, sharecroppers or wage labourers with others.

Thorner’s classification of agrarian population has been very popular. Development of capitalist relations in agrarian sector of the economic has also changed the older class structure. For example, in most regions of India, the Maliks have turned into enterprising farmers.Similarly, most of the tenants and sharecroppers among the landless mazdoors have begun to work as wage labourers.Also, the capitalist development in agriculture has not led to the kind of differentiation among the peasant as some Marxist analysts predicted On the contrary, the size of middle level cultivators has swelled.

Utsa Patnaik conducting hes study of agrarian class structure in Haryana finds out 5 classes from the perspective of labour :

  1. Big landlords =Live on hired labour
  2. Rich peasants =occasionally use family labour with hired labour
  3. Middle peasants = development on family labour
  4. Small peasants = sell their labour after finishing their domestic work
  5. Agricultural labourers = absolutely live on wage.

This standpoint of Patnaik is supported by Ashok Rudra, Parnak Vardhan and Arvind Narain Das who look into Agrarian class structure in Punjab, U.P. and Karnataka. Katleen Gough in the study of Tamil Nadu, from the perspective of capital finds out 5 agrarian classes:

  1. Big-bourgeoisie
  2. Petty-bourgeoisie
  3. Pure-proletariat
  4. Medium bourgeoisie
  5. Semi-proletariat

Kotovsky has referred to classes like landowners, rich peasants, landless peasantry, and agricultural labourers.

  1. In the last two decades, some economists have referred to classes of big landholders (with 10+ hectare land), small landholders (with 2-10 hectare land), marginal landholders (with less than 2 hectares land), and agricultural labourers.
  2. NSSO looks into agrarian class structure on the basis of landholding size. Accordingly, 50 acres and above land holding class is upper class, 10-49 acres land holding as lower class. However, this simplistic understanding suffer from diverse nature of India. For e.g. 100 acres of infertile land in a Arid region in inferior to10 acres in western Maharashtra or Punjab where irrigation has strong presence. In many parts of country, landless people are better off than the lower class i.e. marginal farmers. Therefore, agrarian class structure can’t be explained on the basis of land holding size.

Ram Krishna Mukherjee has referred to three classes in agrarian structure: landholders and supervisory farmers, self-sufficient peasantry and share croppers and agricultural labourers.

The classification that has been more popular among the students of agrarian structure and change in India is the division of the agrarian population given by D.N. Dhanagare into five classes :

  1. Big landlords
  2. Big Farmers
  3. Middle Farmers
  4. Small and Marginal Farmers
  5. Landless Labourers.

At the top are the big landlords who still exist in some parts of the country. They own very large holdings, in some cases even more than one hundred acres. However, unlike the old landlords, they do not always give away their lands to tenants and sharecroppers.Some of them organize their farms like modern industry employing a manager and wage labourers and producing for the market Over the years their proportion in the total population of cultivators has came down significantly. Their presence is now more in the backward regions of the country.

  1. After big landlords come the big farmers. The size of their land holdings varies from 15 acres to 50 acres or in some regions even more. They generally supervise their farms personally and work with wage labour. Agricultural operations in their farms are carried out with the help of farm machines and they use modern farm inputs, such as, chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds. They invariably belong to the local dominant castes and command a considerable degree of influence over the local power structure, both at the village level as well as at the state level While the big farmers are more visible in the agriculturally developed regions of the country.
  2. The next category is that of the middle farmers who own relatively smaller holdings (between 5 acres to 10 or 15 acres). Socially, like the big farmers, they too mostly come from the local dominant caste groups. However, unlike the big farmers, they carry out most of the work on farms with their own labour and the labour of their families. They employ wage labour generally at the time of peak seasons, like harvesting and sowing of the crops. Over the years, this category of cultivators has also begun using modern inputs, such as, chemical fertilizers and hybrid seeds. Proportionately, they constitute the largest segment among the cultivators.
  3. The small and marginal farmers are the fourth class of cultivators in India. Their holding size is small (less than five acres and in some cases even less than one acre.). They carry out almost all the farm operations with their own labour and rarely employ others to work on their farms. In order to add their meager earning from cultivation, some of them work as farm labourers with other cultivators. Over the years, they have also come to use modern farm inputs and begun to produce cash crop that grown for sale in the market They are among the most indebted category of population in the India countryside. As the families grow and holding get further divided, their number has been increasing in most part of India.
  4. The last category of the agrarian population is that of the landless labourers. A large majority of them belong to the ex-untouchable or the dalit caste groups. Most of them own no cultivable land of their own. Their proportion in the total agricultural population varies from state to state. While in the states like Punjab and Haryana they constitute 20 to 30 per cent of the rural workforce, in some states, like Andhra Pradesh, their number is as high as fifty per cent They are among the poorest of the poor in rural India. They not only live in miserable conditions with poor housing and insecure of income, many of them also have to borrow money from big cultivators and in return they have to mortgage their labour power to them. Though the older type of bondage is no more a popular practice, the dependence of landless labourers on the big farmers often makes them surrender their freedom, not only of choosing employer, but invariably of choosing their political representatives.


From the above studies it can be concluded that agrarian class structure in India has emerged out of multidimensional forces and their bearings in space and time.

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