Asian Drama Revisited

Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, 3 vols.
Gunnar Myrdal
New York: Pantheon, 1968

In early 1969, the bureaucrats roaming the halls of New Delhi’s Central Secretariat building were consumed by a mounting unease. The turn of the year had seen a spate of violence in villages across India: in Thanjavur, in the nation’s south, a group of Dalit farm workers had been massacred by high-caste landlords, upset by the campaign for higher wages in the wake of bumper rice crops. In Naxalbari, West Bengal, landless low-caste and tribal villagers had risen up against rapacious landlords and the policemen abetting them, setting off a Maoist insurgency, which continues to this day.

The violence was unsettling—and largely unforeseen by India’s politicians and bureaucrats. But there was a clear pattern to this upheaval, with incidents unfurling in areas that had seen the greatest gains from a new concentration of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides—the “new agricultural strategy” at the heart of an incipient Green Revolution. This strategy’s concentration of inputs in the hands of wealthier farmers—rather than a more equitable sharing of resources with smallholders and the middle peasantry—marked a new turn in India’s developmental strategy. A number of prescient bureaucrats, like the senior economic advisor V. K. R. V. Rao, had wondered whether this new “selective approach” might “increase inter-personal and regional inequalities among our farmers.”1 But few in power had anticipated the seething anger and grizzly scenes of 1968 and 1969. “The eyes of the small farmers, sharecroppers, and landless laborers,” the Financial Express reported, “are turning red with rage rather than green with jealousy when they see the big farmers in their village reaping the entire benefit of the green revolution.”2 And with villagers in West Bengal and southern India brandishing the hammer and sickle, observers in Delhi, as in Washington, suddenly wondered whether the Green Revolution might pave the way for a red sequel.

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