Reviewing Postcolonial Developments by Akhil Gupta

Updated: May 6

Akhil, Gupta. 1998. Postcolonial Developments – Agriculture in the Making of Modern India. Durham: Duke University Press.

There has been much theorizing on the development process and outcomes in contemporary India. The present work by Akhil Gupta tries to critically locate agriculture vis-à-vis the ‘modernization and development’ debate in India. The author, the anthropologist with many interests, has the remarkable ability to weave too many topics, theoretical issues and field work into readable, lucid form. In this book he intelligently and in a refined manner demonstrates what the ‘post-colonial condition’ means for the lives of rural people of North India. He substantiates his arguments in five chapters while providing us an ethnographic account of the lives of the ‘non-elite’ people living in the geographical region called Alipur which is in the western part of Uttar Pradesh in India.

This book explains what development has meant to people living in one village in north India. ‘Postcolonial-Development’ focuses primarily on how underdevelopment becomes a form of identity in the post-colonial world. Gupta argues that underdevelopment is not merely a structural location in the global community of nations, rather unemployment is also a form of identity, something that informs people’s sense of self. He termed this complex articulation of backwardness ‘the post-colonial condition’. An identity of ‘underdevelopment’ is thoroughly imbricated in nationalism because the nation is largely assumed as the ‘natural’ unit of analysis in the discourse of development. In the waning years of the nation as actor, is being revised by the ascendance of a neoliberal global economic agenda. Gupta says that ‘the neoliberal agenda is being resisted by grassroots group that objects to the form of (mal)development encoded in neoliberal policies. The challenge ideas of the nation embodied in global neoliberalism and in the responses of grass-roots groups to it problematizes the easy equation between the ‘grassroots’ and the local.’ In the following section an attempt is made to critically examine what Gupta has said in his book spanning five chapters and what he offers on the post-colonial condition and social lives of people living in a village in the north India.

In the first chapter titled “Agrarian Populism in the development of a Modern Nation” Gupta discussed about what constitutes the experience of modernity as ‘post-colonial’ in a country like India. He surveyed the contours after World War-II global economy and the “acceptance” on the part of independent state of India of the ideology of economic development that it inherited from the colonial state and the evolution of the agrarian sector vis-a-vis the Indian state. Development is the chief index to Gupta to measure the economic position of a nation state relative to others but simultaneously a crucial form of identity in the post-colonial world. He retreated the notion that ‘post-colonial’ does not mean the end of colonialism but there emerged new forms of ‘governmental rationality’(pp.33), then he refers to Foucault to analyze the new forms of institutional (i.e. World Bank, IMF, IARI etc.) modes of global regulation of ‘the nation-state and the people’ in the Third world. He locates agriculture in the center to discuss the ‘development as modernist discourses’ and he sketched out the similarities between discussions of ‘progress’ during the colonial era and the debates of ‘development’ today while bringing in the studies by Bipan Chandra (1991) and Ludden (1992). In this chapter he summarized critically the moments of interlinkages and conflicts between discourses of development, the world food economy, the green revolution in India (the high yielding varieties program). This reminds me of quite similar presentation of the arguments by Michael Goldman (2005), where he scrutinized the whole production of knowledge and hegemony created by the World Bank and how its agenda “overpowered” the economic policies of the ‘third world’. Gupta also looks at the local level politics of mobilization, how the development discourse has led to the ‘Redistributive Populist politics’ by Indira Congress prepared the ground for green revolution, how the Peasant movements and Agrarian politics by Bharatiya Kranti Dal (1967) and later BKU (Bharatiya Kisan Union led by Mahendra Singh Tikait) countered with another ‘populism’ (Bharat Vs India) against the Indian state.

In the chapter two (Developmentalism, State Power, and Local Politics in Alipur), Gupta tried to show how the nationalist project of developing a modern agricultural sector on the one hand and populist policies shaping the local politics and everyday lives of people of Alipur village. It focuses on the political history of the village, depicting the existing political divisions and the use of high yielding varieties and how it altered the nature of agriculture. In this process he mapped why upper caste rural elite supported the development programs targeted at lower caste and other poor people in the village. Gupta remains aware of the ways in which the local knowledge is shaped by the politics of class, caste and gender. Here Gupta examined the contradictions engendered by these aspects of national development and how they are locally experienced. He discussed in the course of chapter that how changing nature of agriculture due to state policies and programs led to sharpening of the cleavages between landowners and laborers on the one hand and the redistribution of marginal land to landless, also weakening the class antagonism and brought social mobility and enough changes in the caste ideology on the other.

Chapter 3 and 4 deal with the nexus between the native agronomical knowledge of farmers and modern technoscientific knowledge of agriculture. Gupta, in the chapter three and four, made a thoughtful and meticulous deconstruction of the concepts employed in western development and environmental discourse and he juxtaposed these concepts with the concepts employed by the farmers of Alipur quite similar in fashion to Levi ‘Straussian Bricoleur’, sometimes hapless and at times opportunistic in the way s/he constructs everyday knowledge and practices which makes the modern agriculture possible. He explored that what it means to understand the agronomical terminology, knowledges and ‘indigenous practices of Alipur’s farmers vis-a-vis the bioscientific knowledge and terminology, how one can theorize the condition where the both coexist and interpenetrate each other, on the basis of the interviews of farmers in Alipur. Thus, he employed this analysis of epistemologies and practices of agriculture to delineate the ‘hybridities that characterize the post-colonial condition’, rather than ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ dichotomy, which is nothing more than chimera. He says that although farmers and natives are being influenced by the modern technology in agriculture but they have not fully embraced them. Again, with this stance of complex relation played in the discourses of development and progress, he contextualizes lives of the people in Alipur to understand their conditions in the transition period, that goes under the name of ‘post coloniality’. In the Fourth Chapter, Gupta has delineated the native perspectives on ecology, how the peasants in Alipur make connection between land, water and relating it to the body and social life. He extended his concern to know what do the ‘relationships between the soil, plants, air, water and human under the rubric of ecology’ mean to them. Do the peasants have become ‘greener’ because of the influence of the modern discourses or the story is vice-versa? An attempt has been made here to present the understanding and its articulations by farmers in Alipur about the relationship between their ‘environment’ and farming. Dealing with how do according to farmers different crops, changes in crop rotation and the crop mix, use of fertilizer, and weeds affect the quality of the soil Gupta finally analyzed that farmer’s discussions on water resources and the linkage between ‘ecological’ degradation with the perceptions of farmers about the decline the health of the population and particularly the ‘lower’ section i.e. Poor.

In the fifth chapter (titled-Peasants and Global Environmentalism: A New Form of Governmentality) he author forges a link between environmentalism, multinational capitalism and the nation-state as enunciated by the leaders of farmer groups. He critically examined the discourses around the environmental concerns, suggesting ‘environmentalism as a new disciplinary technology’ but at the same time he is analyzing farmer’s reactions i.e resistance to be more specific, to these ‘new institutions’ which affect the ecological practices and have many implications. The author has done an excellent job of presenting several view points and discussing what can be named as ‘global environmentalism’ as well as implications of this new form of governmentality for the future of nation-state and peasant communities within it, which again reflects quite similar to the argument formulated by Negri and Hardt(2000) who said that there is emerging a new constitution order i.e. Empire which means deterritorialization, declining of nation-states, a postmodern condition in which this empire governs every aspect individual’s life(bio-political production of social life) and there is ‘multitude’ which although resists its coming over but which itself call the ‘empire’ into being.

‘Post-colonial Developments’ succeeds at various levels, in its fine ethnography of the traditional anthropological location i.e. Village, its interdisciplinary study of agrarian populism, developmentalism, environmentalism and new forms of post nationalist governmentality. The book is an outcome of work that the author did for his doctoral thesis in a village of western Uttar Pradesh, but it is not made clear why he selected this village. Moreover, it can be questioned that in a heterogeneous country like India, how far it is justified to speak about the condition of ‘post-colonial condition’ in India on the basis of study of a single village, even when the most of the author’s observations and some of his conclusions are based on the opinions and views of certain individuals whom he interviewed in the village. The book provides valuable material to understand the debates in the field of anthropology, social theory, developmental studies and South Asian politics.


Goldman, Michael.2005. Imperial Nature: The world bank and struggles for social justice in the age of globalization. London: Yale University Press.

Hardt, Michael & Negri, Antonio.2000. Empire. London: Harvard University Press.

Dr. Suraj Beri


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