India has a very complex agrarian social structures as it varies from region to region. Traditionally, Indian farmers used to produce what is sufficient for their survival, profit making was not their aim.
Agrarian relations in traditional Indian societies was based on caste. There was a system called Jajmani system which was peculiar to India. The different castes groups were divided into Jajmans or Patron who owned and cultivated the land, and Kamins or Menials who were obliged to work for Jajmans. Jajmans would pay a share of produce to Kamins in return of their service.
The Jajmani system was based on reciprocal exchange, but it was exploitative in nature. Kamins were from lower castes and were obliged to work for the powerful upper caste landowners. This system gave legitimacy to the caste system.
The Jajmani system disintegrated due to the advent of the British rule in India. In order to maximize their revenues, the British rulers introduced some agrarian policies. The Zamindari system, for example, gave zamindars or landlords full property rights over the land. A fixed amount of cash had to be paid to the rulers. The peasant who were earlier working for Jajmans, turned into the tenants of the new landlords, the Zamindars. The farmers were forced to pay land revenue at any cost, as zamindars had to save their rights to collect revenue.
The farmers used to do the subsistence farming traditionally, but they started growing cash crops under the British rule. In the pursuit of earning more and more revenue, neither zamindars nor rulers took any interest in improving the productivity of the land. The productivity of the land declined and the food crops were replaced by the cash crops which led to various famines.
Post independence, Government of India directed state governments to introduce land reforms. But, the initiatives bore fruits only in those states where farmers were politically mobilized. In most of the states, erstwhile landlords used their influence to escape the impacts of the legislation.
Today, the agrarian structure in India can be classified on the bases of Lenin and Mao categorization of peasants in a capitalist society.
- The uppermost layer : big landlords who escaped land reforms and manged to retain their land holdings. They are mostly present in backward regions of the country.
- The second layer : big farmers who have the resources to employ wage labourer and work with them in the farms. They use modern means of farm production and are mostly seen in agriculturally developed regions of the country.
- The third layer : middle farmers who work own their own and do not employ labour.
- The fourth layer : small and marginal farmers who own and work on very small landholdings. They also have to work with others as labourers to add to their earnings
- The fifth layer : landless labourers, most of them belong to lower castes and constitutes poorest of poor in rural India.