Globalisation and Increasing Poverty

in Rural South India

Jean Ziegler, the UN’s right to food advocate claimed that “After all these years of pushing globalisation and genetically modified seeds, that instead of feeding the world, we have created a food system that leaves many more people hungry…….The ‘market’ at least as defined by agribusinesses is not working, We have a herd of market traders, speculators and financial bandits”, [1] which leaves the poorer strata completely exposed to the World markets. 

Globalisation with its free flow of finances and trade products prevents individual State Governments from protecting their own populations from any disadvantageous effects this may have on in-country economic development in general and the poorer strata in particular. According to the latest WFP (World Food Programme) Report India is failing its rural poor; 27 percent of the world’s undernourished live in India and 43 per cent of its children under the age of five are underweight. While India’s general inflation decreased from 12 per cent in July 2008 to 5 per cent in January 2009 the inflation of food prices almost doubled from 5 per cent to 11 per cent in the same period. The recurring World Food Crisis thus stresses the need for India to protect its millions of poor from a further deterioration in their life style.
Globalisation with its insistence on global free trade, increasing industrialisation and urbanisation accompanied by modern communication facilities such as the ready availability of mobiles, radio, television, and computers with access to internet brought about radical economic, political and social changes all over the world. In India the impact of these exogenous variables were re-enforced by the improved access to education and an official emphasis on securing gender equality and the elimination of caste differentiation. However, Caste is till one of the most important aspects of an individual’s place in India’s society. The fact that Caste identity can be hidden in the urban environment and that intra-village economic differentiation continues to increase is making Class a more and more important factor in the structure of South India’s societies.

Influences that affect South Indian villagers’ reactions to globalisation and the world food crises [2]

a) Rural Population still increases whereas total cultivable land availability remains unchanged.  Therefore, the average per household land availability continues to decrease. Moreover, the existing inheritance system and demographic accidents result in a continually increasing intra-village economic differentiation. Each child has the right to inherit the same share of their parental property. This and the number of heirs in previous generations thus determines the present socio-economic status of South Indian villagers. Since among previous generations there were only few families with only one heir there is now an increasing economic differentiation among villagers.  The few large landowners usually purchase more land from those whose land no more provides even for their subsistence. Thus the number of Landless villagers who depend on their income from work as agricultural labourer increases. The lot of the increasing numbers of poor villagers is made even worse by the increasing mechanisation the few large landowners introduce which reduces the demand for agricultural labour. As there are no other income-earning opportunities in the villages urban Migration becomes a survival strategy for growing numbers of South Indian Villagers. In 1955 there were no landless Peasant Caste households. By now about 20 percent of them are landless.

b) Profitability of cultivating different crops has hardly increased: As the cost of crop inputs has risen more than the crop prices farmers receive, their net earnings have hardly increased. Farmers also complain about the growing shortage of village labourers and the resulting rising daily wage rate .Yet there is a quite considerable discrepancy between what landowners say about their farm labourers wage demands and how the farm labourers themselves describe their employment conditions.
c) Changing crop prices: The falling price of sugar on the world markets in 2008 and the declining sugarcane prices this caused had a devastating effect on villages where sugarcane was the major cash crop. Many farmers went bankrupt and committed suicide. This and mechanisation led to a decrease in the demand for village farm labourers, whose poverty increased. Moreover, it made urban migration a survival strategy for increasing numbers of poor villagers. As there is still insufficient urban demand for the growing numbers of unskilled rural/urban migrants they swelled the urban slums which in turn led to increasing urban violence and crime. Even when crop prices increased on the World Markets farmers still complained that their conditions continued to get worse because the middlemen who sold the crops on the world market did not pass on to the producers the higher world market prices and moreover the costs of farm inputs also increased.

d) Farming lost its attraction: Most South Indian rural parents want their children to obtain a University Degree. A survey I conducted in 2011 among 15 year old village school children asking them what they would like to be doing 10 years hence indicated that only four out of 154 youngsters wanted to be farming in their villages while the rest all wanted to become certificated professionals. This seems to indicate the existence of a widespread Certificate Disease.

e) World Food Shortages: The world shortage of rice was responsible for the doubling of paddy resale prices within India and resulted in decreasing levels of living particularly among the landless rural poor. Whereas in previous years most landless labourers were SCs nowadays there are also numerous landless Peasant caste labourers in South Indian villages. In the past there existed hereditary labour relations between village landowning farmer patrons and their functionary and SC client labourers. This provided the patrons not only with a secure supply of labour but also with necessary ritual performances and the clients with a minimum of social security. This system has now disappeared because of the changing landowning pattern. The increasing numbers who therefore lives below the poverty line and whose health deteriorated makes it necessary for the Indian Government to establish appropriate welfare services.

f) Welfare legislation introduced by the Indian Government to alleviate poverty:

i) Widow Pensions: Every widow over 60 years is entitled to a monthly pension of Rs 400. However, since birth  certificates are a recent innovation these old ladies have to pursue difficult legal procedures to claim their age entitlement which many of them cannot afford
ii)  The Below Poverty Line (BPL) System aims to provide at least a minimum food supply for the poorest. However the quantities involved are not enough and for many landless villagers it is thus impossible to sustain their families as there are no off-farm income earning opportunities available in the rural areas and mechanisation of agriculture has reduced the demand for daily labourers. Moreover the BPL system was bedevilled by a lot of corruption. To get to grips with this corruption India launched in September 2010 in a Maharashtra tribal village the world’s largest and most complex biometric identity system. “It involves providing a unique number, popular known as Aadhaar (foundation), based on biometrics (photo, all ten fingerprints and iris scans) to every resident in India….The Unique Identification (UID) project aims to provide 600m unique numbers by 2014 to be a proof of identity as well as the ‘foundation’ for better access to both public and private services….. For a large section of India’s population the inability to prove their identity is a reality which leads to their marginalisation….The pace of Aadhaar enrolment has broad implications for India’s development agenda. The pace of Aadhaar enrolment has broad implications for India’s development agenda. Aadhaar is sufficient proof for opening a bank account as well as getting a mobile-phone connection”  [3]. This UID project seems at first sight very impressive. However, like so many of the ongoing ambitious technological projects it fails to take important socio-cultural factors into account. A large part of India’s population still lives in rural areas or urban slums many of whom are still illiterate and even those who are literate are not used to dealing with a bank account. Thus for the UID project to succeed as the Indian Authorities expect it will have to be accompanied by a Development Market Research [4] to find out how the majority of India’s poor perceive it and what help they require to operate it. Otherwise it will be of benefit mainly to India’s upper strata. In the meantime Migration to urban areas continues to act as a survival strategy. This makes South Indians consider their villages as “Old-age Homes”.

g) Life in urban slums: Every one of the numerous Bangalore slum dwellers I interviewed stressed that their move to the city was a survival strategy. In the villages from which they came they had lived in much better housing than the hovels without access to power, water and sanitation that are now their homes in the urban slum. Most of these urban slum dwellers would be happy to return to their native villages if there were some income-earning opportunities available for them. This throws into relief the importance of creating off-farm income-generating opportunities in rural areas.

h) A rural-urban partnership paradigm [5] might be one possible means to introduce alternative income-generating opportunities into villages which would offer the following advantages:

i) Villagers would no more have to use migration to urban areas as a survival strategy
ii) Villagers could meet their aspiration to return to or remain in their native places and village social systems could continue to function.

In rural areas where the increasing water shortages and existing agricultural technologies make it difficult to suggest further improvements in crop outputs the availability of readily available alternative sources of employment and/or income-earning opportunities would give villages a welcome further lease of life and thereby fulfil the aspirations of existing or potential rural migrants. At the same time the city administration would be relieved of the continually expanding urban slums with their needs of housing, water supply, sanitation, health facilities, education etc. and the high levels of urban violence and crime. The linking of urban centres with rural growth areas and growth centres would ensure an overall balanced development process. Such rural-urban partnership will create mutually beneficial network relations not only between farmers, agro-based processing enterprises and domestic industrial units in rural growth areas, but also between rural growth areas/centres and urban industrial centres (see Chart 1).

(Chart 1)

Unfortunately, the Global Free Trade System has so far resulted in growing poverty, worsening nutritional and health levels and disenchantment among village youth with pursuing an agricultural career. If the UN Millennium Development Goal (MDG) aim to half world poverty by the year 2015 is to be reached it will require an urgent change in the Global Free Trade System and/or a diversification of village economies by the introduction of alternative income-earning opportunities.


1.  The Nation 8 May 2008
2.  The following presentation is based on data I mainly collected from the two South Indian villages in which the author conducted Socio-economic Longitudinal Action Research since 1954 and also on case studies she conducted among Bangalore slum dwellers between 2007 and 2011
3.  The Economist – The World in 2012 , p.82
4.  T. Scarlett Epstein et. al. A Training Manual for Development Market Research Investigators BBC World Service, London, 1991.
5.  The notion of “A Rural-Urban Development Paradigm” is based on Mr. Thimmegowda pointing out the importance of Growth Centres, which he and the author subsequently developed into “A Rural-Urban Partnership Paradigm” using her Socio-economic Action Research over 55 years of the impact of a large irrigation scheme on two South Indian villages (Mangala, that got access to canal irrigation and Kalenahalli whose lands remained dry because they were above the canal level). For detailed information on these studies see:

T. Scarlett Epstein (1962) Economic Development and Social Change in South India, Manchester University Press and South India: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1973), The Macmillan Press, London 

T. Scarlett Epstein,, A.P. Suryanarayana & T. Thimmegowda (1998) Village Voices – Forty years of Rural Transformation in South India, Sage Publications, Delhi  


More by :  Dr. T. Scarlett Epstein OBE

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