Land ownership in pre-modern India
In the eyes of many, the initial conditions of high inequality of land ownership were a key barrier that held India back. It was argued that a one-time bout of bloodshed was essential, to expropriate the rich, and to transfer land ownership into a more equitable distribution. In India, this capacity for State-inflicted bloodshed was present in some places only. In much of India, the unequal distribution of land ownership found in 1947 was left intact.
Fast forwarding into the present, there has been a sea change in the fortunes of the owners of agricultural land.
Agriculture is less important
The plight of those who stayed back
That there was an easy option - to live off the land - was a `resource curse' which afflicted the households who had land. In contrast, for landless households, there was no conflict of interest in moving to cities (other than the recently introduced NREG, which tries to perpetuate poverty by hindering rural to urban migration).
The power and status of the landed lords was now twice undermined. Their quick-witted cousins who established themselves in the cities were connected into capitalism and getting ahead. Families of the landless have tended to move to cities, connect into capitalism, and get ahead. The erstwhile lords have started looking nervously at both groups of escapees, wondering whether land ownership was such a nice initial condition.
In a fascinating recent article, Devesh Kapur, Chandra Bhan Prasad, Lant Pritchett and D. Shyam Babu gave us some insights into these changing social structures. In their survey data, in 2007, 98.3 per cent of Harijans were contracting-out the work of tilling their fields to their erstwhile lords, the upper-caste men who owned and operated tractors. The upper tail of the Indian income distribution has, in a few generations, been reduced to operators of agricultural equipment.
The importance of engaging with the market
The Ljungqvist/Sargent story helps us understand the plight of adivasis in India, who have been away from the market economy, and are unable to plunge into it. It helps us understand the plight of the unemployed of Europe: the welfare state pays them dole to stay warm and well fed for many years of unemployment, but after this they are unable to come back into the labour market.
In this setting, consider the plight of a land owner, who has been living off the land, and has never engaged with modern India. Particularly in the post-1979 period, when India has experienced relatively rapid growth, each year of being a country hick owning land meant being further away from the skills required to participate in the contemporary Indian economy. The landed gentry of India lacks the skills to participate in the market economy. Income from the land, their resource curse, dulls their incentive to overcome the barriers. They are often too proud to accept low wage assignments which are the starting point through which the unskilled connect to capitalism. These problems have come together to give a unique vicious cycle of dis-engagement with modern India.
Sale of land in the outskirts of cities
Urbanisation and land development throws open vast opportunities for trade and industry. But the erstwhile landed rich tend to be uniquely ill equipped at harnessing these opportunities. They tend to be too proud to work for someone else, and inadequately equipped to stake out on their own. They experience a brief blaze of glory when paid fabulous prices for their land, and then fade away into insignificance.
Some politicians have been moved to advocate special legal protections for the hapless rural rich who sell land to the modern sector. It's quite a turnabout within a few generations: from landed elite that oppress the others, to witless folk who need to be protected by special laws that inhibit the sale of land.
The curse of land
With the benefit of hindsight, things look different. I think this story reiterates the dangers of social engineering. We are dealing with enormously complex systems that we only dimly understand. As far as possible, it is wise on our part to use the force of the State as little as we can, and to always avoid treading on fundamental human rights such as property rights.