Coping with Seasonality and Drought Martha Alter Chen Publisher: Sage Publications, Delhi Price: Rs 225
IT IS perhaps unfair for an economist to review a book which was originally submitted as a PhD thesis in anthropology. Unlike other anthropological works, a doctoral dissertation is necessarily less than a good read. And, as an academic work, the reviewer inevitably shows a bias, wondering much of the time whether pure description is enough research and whether the questions being asked are the right ones.
Nonetheless, despite this reviewer's obvious bias, he did learn some new things, and that alone makes Martha Chen's book worth reading.
The book is about Maatisar, a village in a semi-arid part of Gujarat, and the focus is on the strategies that rural people adopt to cope with seasonality and drought in such regions. In typical thesis style, there are three parts: The first describes the village; the second focusses on seasonality; and the last, and most interesting, part is on coping with drought.
The village itself is described in great detail, with the obligatory potted history and caste / occupation / demographic details drawn from a painstaking census. But apart from two facts -- the continuing importance, despite land reforms and much political and social change, of the legatees of the erstwhile taluqdar; and the fairly prominent role of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in the village -- there is probably little to distinguish it from others in the region. It is somewhat more diversified, with a sizeable weaver community, but agriculturally it remains fairly traditional with little mechanisation beyond threshing and irrigation and a concentration on food, rather than cash, crops.
With less than a quarter of its cultivated land irrigated, agriculture in Maatisar displays marked seasonality in the pattern of activity. This was obviously Chen's original focus of research, which was widened later to incorporate a study of the response to drought. She goes about this part of the project in a carefully systematic manner -- enumerating the seasons and how seasonal changes in activities affect different occupational groups in various ways.
Her major observation in this context is that, despite the overwhelming importance of agriculture for the village, there are significant differences in the population with the result that market relationships among different groups help cope with seasonality. It is in this context that Chen views the operations of the local land, labour and credit markets, and describes them in considerable detail. But it is doubtful whether this adds significantly either to our knowledge of facts or to their possible interpretation because she does not conceptualise the impact of seasonality on the functioning of the different markets.
The major point about seasonality is that income and activity vary across the year and consumption has to be maintained by either savings or by diversifying across occupations. In what is essentially a market economy, both these responses are subject to uncertainty. And to the extent that non-market responses such as kinship ties and recourse to common property resources exist, the most interesting question relates to the social sanctions which determine whether these are sustainable or not.
Unfortunately, Chen does not deal specifically with the conceptual issues arising from either uncertainty or social mores. She does deal with drought in the final part, viewing this as an occasion where normal seasonal stresses become acute enough to put the normal market and non-market responses to seasonal variations under tremendous pressure. Here, her observations (somewhat fortuitous since the field work happened to have been in a drought year) are perhaps the most interesting parts in the book. And, for an economist, perhaps the most interesting of her conclusions is the one that relates to the order in which asset depletion actually occurs in conditions of distress. Unlike the government, which is mortgaging away the productive parts of the economy to sustain consumption, Maatisar residents are much more prudent, selling productive assets last.
Chen's fieldwork also shows that although usually derided, government drought relief measures were a major reason why the severe drought she witnessed caused less distress than similar droughts in the past. At the same time, however, Chen's observations about the much smaller but more imaginative and effective SEWA initiatives are examples of how NGOs can help in an emergency.
--- Abhijit Sen teaches economics at the Centre For Economic Studies And Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.