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Thursday, January 12, 2012

The resource curse of land ownership

by Ajay Shah.

Land ownership in pre-modern India

In India, 50 or 100 years ago, land was a defining feature of wealth. The stock of land generated a flow of income. The landless were low-paid agricultural labour. The landed gentry of rural India were the kings of their heap. They had power, prestige, position, prosperity.

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 forward into the present, and there has been a sea change in the fortunes of the owners of agricultural land.

Agriculture is less important

Particularly after we escaped from the Hindu rate of growth (3.5%) in 1979, the share of agriculture in GDP has dropped sharply. In relative terms, the wealth created through firms in industry and services has dwarfed the wealth of the landed gentry. The richest man in India today is born of one who started out with no land. Government interventions continued to stifle agriculture, but shifted to a greater laissez faire approach in industry and services; this helped accelerate the decline of agriculture.

The plight of those who stayed back

Rural to urban migration has unleashed new forces on the role and status of the landed lords. Within rich families, high IQ children may be going off to the city to a greater extent, e.g. based on the filtration by competitive examinations where outcomes are correlated with IQ. To the extent that such a process has been afoot, it has given a selection bias where the low IQ children were the ones more likely to stay back in the `idiocy of rural life' (as Marx characterised it). Over a couple of generations, the interplay of nature and nurture can add up to substantial effects.

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

A defining issue of modern times, for an individual, is a continued and deep engagement with the market. For insights into this idea, see this interview with Tom Sargent. The Ljungqvist/Sargent story matters even more in India, when compared with what has happened in the West. At 7 per cent GDP growth, every few years, far-reaching change comes about in technology and processes. Each individual builds knowledge and human networks by continually engaging with the market. If a person is cut off from engagement with capitalism for even a few years, this generates a lot of human capital depreciation. At that reduced human capital, the person has to either accept an offer at a much reduced wage, or stay unemployed (which further undermines human capital).

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

At the edges of all cities, urbanisation is proceeding through developers buying land from the local landed rich and transforming it into the endless suburbs. In the short term, this has generated immense windfalls of wealth for the landed rich. But in some ways, this is a bit of a disaster for many of them. Lacking in knowledge about the market economy, they are scammed by insurance salesmen and such like. Much of this newfound wealth tends to get dissipated in a few years.

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

A few decades ago, the left-of-centre view dominated the thinking in India. It was felt that inequality of land was a major bottleneck that held India back. Many argued that the failure of Indian democracy to engage in a one-time bout of class warfare through `land reform' was a major mistake that was holding India back. It was argued that the Chinese path was the right one: to expropriate the landowners and then start a capitalist economy under conditions where everyone is equal.

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.


I am grateful to K. P. Krishnan, Suyash Rai and Mihir Thaker for insightful conversations.


  1. One of your best posts. It opens the mind to a very different point of view than commonly prevalent. Might we see some active opposition to this new Land Acquisition Bill from economists and social scientists? Or are such views considered as middle class elitist? Could this be backed with data? Even if it could, will anybody even have the courage to oppose those policies that sound so egalitarian? I doubt it, and I have the sad success of Mamata to prove it.

  2. What is a good store of value in a country that looks like falling deeper and deeper into misgovernance?

  3. I think similar thing happened to the landed gentry in England post the Industrial Revolution.

    As societies move from agrarian to industrial and now a post industrial world, agricultural land is one of the lowest yielding assets.

  4. Except that in England the landed gentry are still the aristocrats and from my guess, the most stable well-off group.

  5. I agree. The same applies to the Middle East (curse of oil). In geenric terms, both are inherited wealth and are way inferior to acquired wealth.

    Ajay's analysis is correct for big landlords. It applies in lesser measure to small landlords whose landholdings were sufficient for the livelihood but not attractive enough to keep them tied up to village set-up. This statement is based upon anecdotes without any detailed analysis. Attraction for education and upward mobility has not remained totally absent even with landlords.

  6. Very good post.

    The parents of the current or previous generations seemed to have suffered the most. Often there is a conflict as to which of the current sibling needs to 'sacrifice' their career to take care of ancestral land - that the parents went through great hardship to preserve against criminal politicians, encroachers and goondas.

    In fact with the right exposure and trust, a couple with good people management skills willing to manage rural land with laborers as a career can find 100s of acreage to manage with upwards of 50k salary per month, as the heirs of such aged landlords have immigrated abroad OR to the cities and lack the sophisticated man management skills anymore.



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