Indian policy imagination treats agriculture as a welfare sector instead of treating it as a vibrant sector that drives economic growth and needs economic vision’

Bengaluru: Prof. Barbara Harriss-White, economist and Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, Oxford University, and Dr. Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Senior Fellow at CPR and Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Ashoka University, addressed issues such as challenges of agricultural market systems and food systems at the XV International Conference on Public Policy and Management, hosted by IIM Bangalore’s Centre for Public Policy.

They were engaged in a special virtual conversation on ‘Public Policy for Food and Agricultural Markets: Planet Micro and Planet Macro’, this evening.


Pointing out that her research in this domain is “work-in-progress”, Prof. Harriss-White defined food, systems (invoking the work of Rolando Garcia), agriculture markets, and policy. “Food is impossible to produce or consume without water and we forget that at times,” she remarked, adding how when land use is changed from forest to agriculture production it causes enormous burden on the environment. “Policy priorities,” she said, “must address the food question – making sustainable food, identify key foods damaging to human health etc.”

Quoting Garcia, a meteorologist and epistemologist, Dr. Harriss-White observed how fluxes going into the food system like credit policies, technology etc and flows/ fluxes going out of the system like profits need policy to be fitted into food systems. “Garcia suggested physical, agro-productive and socio-economic sub systems,” she explained.

The system is full of concepts and ideas that might change in the process of researching them and so we propose seeking data/ evidence as we go out and hunt for our system. “Agricultural markets are indispensable links in the food system between production and consumption. India’s agricultural markets are seen either as oligopolistic and socially constructed and protected together with masses of petty trade or competitive and efficient. But, in practice, they are neither. They are complex and layered,” she remarked, drawing from an example of an agricultural market in West Bengal which she had researched in the 1980s and 90s.

Defining policy as “experience grating against concepts”, she said it is a system of four simultaneous process of bureaucratic politics – agenda (policy formulation), procedure (laws, regulations and institutions of claim), resources (money, personnel, technology, energy), and access (queuing and counter). “All of these have economic costs,” she said, noting that her research work involves working these costs into the food system.

Drawing from 16 collective published representations of contemporary global food systems to show how systems and sub systems are all different, Dr Harriss-White said organisations trying to model global food systems use different scales of aggregation. “These representations show that the system/subsystem drivers are available measurable quantifiable data not theorized processes. Among what is missing from all of them are gender relations, questions of money, waste, information and more,” she said, adding that the existing models are fuzzy and obscure and ignore policy, often reducing it to governance or idiosyncratic lists of specifics. “The food system exists and functions but conceptually it is broken – we are like blind men feeling the elephant! There is a great deal of work to be done and there is enormous opportunity for the nation state, the federal state and the local level as much of consequence for the food question in the 21st century has been missed out by these 16 models though they were also drawn from 21st century problems and data.”

In India, Dr. Harriss-White argued, agricultural policy has many agendas at the discursive level, there is regulation without enforcement, resources incentivize chemical agriculture though the rhetoric concerns sustainability, and access is blocked by entrenched economic interests.

‘Room to manoeuvre’

In the second half of the talk, Dr. Mekhala Krishnamurthy, from Ashoka University and the Centre for Policy Research, focused on India’s agriculture markets, their diversity, complexity and their uniqueness. “It amazes me how such a vital, vibrant sector of the Indian economy suffers from such a lack of empirical specification and is so inadequately theorized. Agriculture is again on India’s policy agenda during the COVID crisis as it is one sector which seems to be working in these extraordinary times. But the Indian policy imagination treats agriculture as a welfare/ residue sector instead of treating it as a vibrant sector that needs an economic vision and drives economic growth,” she explained.

Discussing the ‘One Nation, One Market’ reform recently announced by the Govt. of India, Dr. Krishnamurthy said, “We tend to forget that we do have a national physical agriculture market where complex transactions happen, where systems are dynamic and intermediaries play vital roles in this low margin, high volume business. Will this reform change anything at all? If it is to have an impact, it cannot continue to ignore regional diversity, commodity specificity and institutional pre-conditions. The terms of engagement must change.”

Explaining that India’s agriculture market is primarily private and informal with the state playing a regulatory role, she said it needed a new and grounded imagination to address the needs of this vast masses of small actors in this space.

Earlier in the evening, Prof. M.S. Sriram, Chairperson, Centre for Public Policy, introduced the speakers and thanked NABARD and GIC for extending support to the conference.

About the Conference:

The XV International Conference on Public Policy & Management, which was inaugurated on Monday (Aug 24) by Justice Madan B Lokur, former Judge of the Supreme Court, will see over 30 papers presented in two parallel sessions over three days. Due to the current situation, the conference is being held online.

The valedictory address will be delivered by Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist, World Health Organization, on August 26 (Wednesday), 2020, at 02.00 pm. The valedictory address will be live streamed on YouTube.

Please find attached the Conference schedule.

About the Speakers

Barbara Harriss-White drove from Cambridge to New Delhi in 1969 and has studied and taught about India ever since, working in political economy and economic anthropology. She has (co)published 40 books and research reports, over 250 papers and chapters and 80 working papers; advised 7 UN agencies; and has supervised 40 doctoral students. Her research fields are agrarian transformations and the food economy ‘Rural Commercial Capitalism’; India’s informal and criminal capitalism: ‘The Wild East’; aspects of deprivation: ‘Dalits and Adivasis in India’s Business Economy’; the economy as a waste-producing system; aspects of policy in these fields and the long-term study of a market town: ‘Middle India.’ In Oxford, she is Emeritus Professor of Development Studies, Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, and Senior Research Fellow in Area Studies, Oxford University. She’s also a Visiting Professor at JNU.

Mekhala Krishnamurthy is an anthropologist of the state and market in contemporary India. For over a decade, she has studied the changing social, economic and political lives and relationships of an agricultural market/mandi in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. As a result of prolonged exposure to mandi life, Mekhala has developed an abiding interest in grappling with the diversity, complexity and dynamism of agricultural markets, regional capitalism and economic life in India. She has recently completed fieldwork—in close collaboration with an economist and political scientists—on a major interdisciplinary and comparative research project on agricultural markets, agro-commodity networks and farmers’ incomes in Punjab, Bihar and Odisha. Mekhala’s other area of longstanding interest and research commitment, which she is pursuing in a number of field-based and writing projects, focuses on the institutional dynamics and everyday life of public systems and bureaucracies, especially on the lived experiences of frontline functionaries of the Indian state. She in on the faculty of Sociology & Anthropology at Ashoka University and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, where she directs CPR’s State Capacity Initiative.

Comments are closed.