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25 Years

The Moneylender's Power: Monetary Debt and Social Obligation in Contemporary Vidarbha

Fri, 04/13/2018 - 3:30pm
Event Location: 
537 Heller Hall
AARTI SETHI, Postdoctoral Fellow, Brown University
A quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide since 1995, a majority of deaths
concentrated in the central Indian cotton belt of Vidarbha. The post-liberalization withdrawal of state support and the
adoption of Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt-Cotton hybrids has trapped farmers in bad debts to  moneylenders and banks. This paper shows that the psycho-social force of monetary debt should be located not in the profitability of cotton cultivation, but in the financialization of social obligation. I argue that the intensive capitalization of cotton cultivation at the point of production and sale in a non-capitalized social structure has resulted in the monetization of community and intimate relations in this peasant society. With the hybridization of agriculture, cultivators can no longer save their own cotton-seeds but must acquire them every sowing season from the market along with chemical inputs, which can only be acquired with money. Since cash-money is now a constitutive component of the productive process, prestation networks through which goods and resource sharing occurred in village society are also the channels of money-debts. From a formerly proscribed caste-specific activity, kin and clan members now lend to each other on interest. Differential rates of interest negotiate community and familial proximity, making contractual the relations meant to signify reciprocity (kinship) and mutuality (clan/caste affiliation) in this peasant society. In ethnographically tracing the force of debt as social obligation and the imbrication of modes of production with symbolic cultural life, I demonstrate the inadequacy of an economistic obsession with debt as monetary liability, and reflect on the production of indebted subjectivities on the frontiers of neoliberal agrarian change.