Agrarian Studies 5

How Do Small Farmers Fare?

Evidence from Village Studies in India

Edited by Madhura Swaminathan, Sandipan Baksi

This volume examines the characteristics and viability of small producers in different agro-ecological regions of India, locating them in the broader context of the capitalist development of Indian agriculture.
As in many developing countries, agriculture in India has been dominated by peasant farming, with a little less than half of total operated area under small holdings. In the voluminous literature on small farms and small farmers, there is a distinct tendency to  romanticise small farming. Various virtues are ascribed to the small farm. For example, it is claimed to be more efficient and ecologically more worthy of preservation than the large farm.

The essays in this volume seek to examine the socio-economic characteristics of small farmers in relation to other strata of the rural population, drawing on empirical material collected through carefully designed and conducted household and farm economy surveys of 17 villages located in 9 States of India. These surveys are a part of the ongoing Project on Agrarian Relations in India (PARI), undertaken
by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS).

The evidence presented in the volume points to a crisis of small farming in terms of the inability of small farmer households to generate adequate incomes to maintain a minimum standard of living.
A second striking feature of the evidence presented is of inequalities and differentiation both within the study villages and across agro-ecological regions. While small farmers account for a substantial
proportion of the rural population, they operate in a capitalist market economy where a small section of rural households control the bulk of the means of production. In this context, public policy support
is urgently needed to deliver economies of scale to small farmers and to ensure them a minimum standard of living. 


This book examines the economic and environmental sustainability of small farms in India. It is edited by Madhura Swaminathan, an eminent agricultural economist, and Sandipan Baksi, a young research scholar, and features contributions by 19 other scholars. The sequencing of chapters and their content ensures that the book emerges as a coherent whole rather than a disjointed set of contributions, often a feature of edited books. The data it uses has been collected through a socio-economic census of 17 villages located in different agro-ecological zones in nine large states of India. The survey is a part of the ongoing "Project on Agrarian Relations in India" undertaken by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies.

The book deviates from the hitherto used official definition of a 'small farmer' as one with less than two hectares of land, irrigated or unirrigated. Instead, it is assumed that any farmer with less than the equivalent of two hectares of irrigated land is small, with three acres of unirrigated land taken as the equivalent of one acre of irrigated land.

The study results show that the previously hypothesized inverse relationship between farm size and crop yield is not valid. Yet it finds that incomes net of resource costs per hectare from small farms are distinctly lower than those from large farms: small farmers often have to spend money on hiring machines and paying for irrigation water. These incomes, even when augmented by the use of labour outside agriculture, are so low that small farmers can barely afford the necessities of life. The study also challenges the romantic notion of small farms as ecologically sustainable units as their use of fertilizers is found to be far from optimal.

– Siddhartha Mitra, The Telegraph


"This volume is a very important contribution to development studies in India and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. The dynamics of agriculture remain a critical factor in the social progress of these countries, and this careful and detailed research will provide a basis for constructing more effective development policies in India and elsewhere. And the data suggest that the situation of the rural sector in India is in crisis: incomes for small farmers and landless workers are extremely low with few indications of improvement, and measures of quality of life mirror these findings." – Professor Daniel Little




Sandipan Baksi

Sandipan Baksi is Programme Coordinator, Foundation for Agrarian Studies, Bengaluru.