Neoliberal Industrialization, the Rural Periphery, and Uneven Development in India

Principal Investigator: Raju Das (Geography)
Funding: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council

All countries experience geographically uneven development. But its urgency is more apparent in the context of the recent phase of industrialization occurring in the Global South since the onset of neoliberalism. How is this phase of industrialization causing new patterns of uneven development in spite of the increased mobility of people and capital?

The industrialization that is occurring now takes different forms. In many cases such as those in India, which is the geographical context of this study and where neoliberalism began in the early 1990s, industrialization is based on the transplantation of industries into what are hitherto rural regions, leading to the emergence of industrial cities where villages stood three decades ago. This makes it essential to ask: how does this new pattern of industrialization cause uneven development between the newly urbanized areas and existing rural areas, and within the existing rural periphery itself?

This project is important as it responds to the fact that much of the theoretical work on uneven development and contemporary research on industrial development in the South does not provide the kind of analytical treatment of the rural-urban dimension of development that it deserves. This is surprising given that rural families are increasingly adopting multiple livelihood strategies (farm and non-farm) cutting across the rural-urban divide (Bryceson, 2002).

Empirically, studying the impact of new patterns of industrialization under neoliberalism on rural areas is an urgent task in India. Among the emerging BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) economies, India is unique as 70 per cent of its population still remains in rural areas, and this massive population is unable to meet its basic needs including food (Patnaik, 2007). The per capita family income in rural areas is one fourth of that in Indian cities. A high level of rural deprivation and rural-urban disparity are politically dangerous as the majority of India’s voters are in rural areas, and large parts of rural India are already experiencing violent disturbances, including the Maoist insurgency (Das, 2010).

So it is essential to ask: is neoliberal urban industrialization (NUI), i.e. the new pattern of industrialization and the rise of new industrial cities under neoliberalism, benefitting rural areas? And if it is, is it possible that only some areas and some groups/classes in India’s rural periphery are benefitting? What is the relative role of the private sector, (neoliberal) state policies and political agency of workers/enterprises in the production of uneven development? In fact, my recent collaborative pilot study on the topic makes me feel confident about the theoretical and empirical relevance of these questions. They point to theoretical issues surrounding the relationship between the neoliberal state and accumulation of wealth. More specifically, the theoretical issues concern a) the interplay between what can be called ruralization of capital and what geographers have called urbanization of capital (Harvey, 1985; Christophers, 2011) and b) its relation to the political power of different social classes and the state.

The project asks the following specific questions:

  1. What is the geographical pattern of neoliberal urban industrialization (NUI) in India?
    a) Why does NUI occur more in some States than in others?
    b) Do some States have larger rural-urban and intra-rural disparity than other States, and why?
  2. How does NUI shape economic development in rural areas, in geographically specific ways?
    a) How does NUI increase demand for commodities and labour from rural areas, and how does this in turn help farm/non-farm enterprises and workers adopt new economic strategies (e.g. innovative farming; small-scale industries; combining factory work with farm work)?
    b)What are NUI’s adverse impacts on rural areas (e.g. loss of land to factories; technological changes in factories limiting demand for rural labour; growing inequality within villages)?
    c) How does the balance between NUI’s positive and adverse impacts vary between urban and rural areas and between rural areas close to urban industries and areas that are more distant?
  3. How are NUI’s economic impacts mediated by geographically-specific political forces?
    a) What government interventions at State and local scales influence the economic impacts of NUI on rural areas, and how/why might they not work in the same way everywhere?
    b) How does the political power, as exercised through collective organizations, of rural entrepreneurs and labourers, relative to those of urban entrepreneurs, influence the balance of NUI’s positive and negative impacts on rural and urban areas?