The households owning relatively large patches of agricultural land have been traditionally engaging the households with little or no land to sharecrop on their fields in a large part of rural India. This has been partly because of short supply of labour within the landowning households. More importantly, however, it is because a majority of landowning households belongs to the higher strata in the caste-hierarchy who were not inclined to directly engage in the low-status agricultural work. Agricultural work also involved drudgery, and the landowning community, in order to strike a trade-off between drudgery and agricultural income normally chose sharecropping over cultivating the land on their own. Sharecropping households (commonly referred to as tenants) were normally expected to supply the entire labouring input and bear half of the capital inputs to claim half share of the total produce.
Sharecropping as a social-economic phenomenon has not been adequately studied. However, in Indian Marxian writing tradition, sharecropping is viewed as a form of exploitation where surplus generated by the tenant class is appropriated by the landowning class by virtue of their possessing the means of production (land). Such appropriation is directly in terms of the produce and is not mediated through the market in terms of price and wages. It is thus closer to the feudal production relations. Sharecropping in this view is thus termed as semi-feudalism.
The practice of sharecropping is undergoing a large-scale modification with significant implications in Uttar Pradesh plains for rural social and economic structures due to introduction of technology, especially the tractors and mechanized threshing, and better provisioning of irrigation facilities. Use of technology in farming has reduced the drudgery and raised the status of agricultural work. This factor along with improvements in agricultural productivity due to better irrigation facilities and improved agricultural practices is encouraging the landowners to get directly involved in cultivating their own fields. At the same time this has also increased their bargaining power. The situation is further compounded by the fact that due to increase in population, landholdings have become smaller, and there are many more households looking for fields to sharecrop. The sharecroppers are thus finding it increasingly difficult to secure land for sharecropping.
Although detailed data for entire belt of Uttar Pradesh plains are not available, a sample survey of ten canal-irrigated villages in Ramabai Nagar (erstwhile Kanpur Dehat) district reveals that more than 40% of the land that used to be sharecropped earlier is now being cultivated by the landowners themselves. There is no security of tenure on the remaining land. Landowners try to split their fields among different sharecroppers. Investment terms are also negotiated and decided afresh every year. Excepting in cases of strong traditional landowner-sharecroppers relations based on the trust of landowners, the sharecroppers do not get the half share of the produce; it has been reduced to one-third, and in some cases, to one-fourth. Almost all the cases of half-share tenancy involve the absentee landowners, who find it convenient and safe to continue with their trusted sharecroppers.
While labouring inputs have to be provided by sharecroppers, capital investments are shared according to the agreed sharing pattern of the produce, i.e., either one-third or one-fourth. Competition among the sharecroppers however encourages the landowners to demand for extra capital inputs. It is very common for them to ask for additional sacs of fertilizers for securing the rights of sharecropping on their land. Such additional inputs are outside sharing arrangements and whoever offers such inputs in greater quantities gets the land to sharecrop. One villager says that this is because there is no unity among the sharecroppers and they try to ‘bribe’ the landowners to allow them to sharecrop on their land. There seems to be a pervading sense of helplessness among the sharecroppers, as Narayani of Pratappur village points out that ‘it is like we keep earning and keep filling their coffers’. On being asked why they keep doing that, she says that the landless households like hers do not have many livelihood options in the village.
There is another reason for their helplessness. Some sharecropping households have traditionally been keeping bullocks or he-buffaloes for tilling the land, as it is their responsibility to arrange for the means of tilling the land. In the changing scenario, they find it difficult to bear the expenses of the maintenance of animals if they do not get sufficient land to sharecrop. With one pair of bullocks they can easily manage to sharecrop ten bighas (approximately 3.3 acres) of land and that is why they are desperate to secure as much land as possible for sharecropping.
Usage of high yielding seeds has made the farmers dependent on seed companies. They cannot use the crop-yield as seeds beyond two to three years as the yield gets increasingly sterile with each cycle of sowing. Thus the sharecroppers need additional amount of cash to buy seeds at the time of sowing. Threshing is no longer done manually and the sharecroppers have to bear charges of mechanised threshers amounting to 10 kg of food grains per quintal of threshed grains. It is normally shared by landowners in case of paddy but not in case of wheat. In some villages, such expenses are not shared even in case of paddy. Thus the agricultural credit needs of sharecroppers have increased and are almost totally met by their landowners for want of any alternative. On the other hand, the changing sharecropping structures have resulted into rigid terms and conditions for such credit. Whereas the total interest at the time of harvesting ranged from one-third to half of the principal amount earlier, in case of new sharecropping arrangements, it is never less than half of the principal amount, which amounts to more than 12.5% per month.
Sharecropping is still much sought after as, in addition to meeting the agricultural credit needs of the sharecroppers, the landowners provide them with food grains for consumption in case of shortages that are common during some parts of every year. There is however a small group of people that does not want to engage with sharecropping, especially in the changing environment. They feel that wage labour is far more remunerative than sharecropping, where one has to keep investing in terms of labour and capital to be able to earn the returns at the end of four months when harvesting takes place. According to their calculations, their hard work is never adequately compensated within the sharecropping arrangements. The whole family gets engaged in the cropping but there is very little surplus after accounting for all the investments. This group not comfortable with sharecropping mostly consists of the younger and healthier people. They do not mind cycling for long distances to get the work, as wage labour work is not available in the villages very often, excepting for some local construction work and the times when MGNREGA work is on in their villages. They are also willing to migrate to other places for longer durations leaving their families behind. However for elderly people and the women, working on agriculture remains the best option, as they can neither go out in search of work, nor will be given work when younger and healthier men are competing for the same job. Most of the marginal and landless peasant households have such surplus labouring hands, and therefore they do want to secure some land on sharecropping to ensure availability of food grains to avoid starvation. In addition, many men do not want to cycle for long distances every day as it adversely affects their health for want of nutritious food. Some others do not even own bicycles.
Such changes in the age-old patterns of sharecropping are rapidly widening the already existing income and resource ownership gaps in the villages. They are further deepening and expanding the social fault lines in these villages and aggravating the rift between landed and marginal/landless farmers. These changing patterns, seldom, if ever, get reflected in the planning for development of the villages.