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Surendra J. Patel
Six years back, an economist called Surendra J. Patel passed away. He seems to have been both prolific and respected in his day—the Hindu’s obituary of him, from which a bit is reproduced below, suggests so. Perhaps his major works are still sometimes read by economists and historians in a library or two. At Permanent Black, however, there would have been no reason for his writing to be remembered had a section in one of his essays not struck an editor here as unusually felicitous—in fact, as prose much more expressive than any that editors in scholarly publishing, weather-beaten and teeth-gritten by academese, expect to see in an essay on the economics of agriculture. To be fair to the late Dr Patel, this compliment cannot be laid as a charge upon his entire essay, the bulk of it being what Dr Patel meant it to be, namely, sound agricultural economics. Orwell and Woolf don’t lurk between its lines. The whole isn’t remotely a stab in the direction of economics as art. It is, still, an excellent essay about the poor which tells us precisely how poor the poor were in (naturally) colonial India.
Editors who find themselves publishing scholarly books often emerge from departments of English. They tend therefore to be the sorts of people who have their eyes constantly peeled for the literary element in what they’re reading, editing, and publishing. In India, where idiomatic English prose is melting away faster than Greenland, the discovery even of little nuggets of such writing makes these editors fall down weeping and give thanks to the Lord for small mercies. For some members of this profession, who live in a constant state of despair about the fact that their entire earning lives will pass by with them having time to read virtually nothing but academic prose, these rare discoveries of heavenly Manna upon the desert sands of scholarly writing can constitute the entire raison d’etre of editorial existence. (Obligatory footnote: Speaking of Manna, Philip Larkin remarks that the Israelites, coming unexpectedly upon it in their days of starvation, may have exclaimed: ‘And what the fuck is this?’)

In the years after Independence and well into the 1980s, when a lot of Indian history was economic history and the rural poor comprised most of the country, one of the issues that greatly absorbed historians was, to put it simply, 'Who made us so poor?' Surendra J. Patel was among the earliest to argue that it was British rule that did us in. For this he was soundly scolded by, among others, the economic historian Dharma Kumar, on the grounds that Indian princes and regimes before the Brits weren't exactly benign and full of fellow feeling towards those they lorded it over, and that if you looked at matters closely enough feudalism didn't look all that much sweeter than colonialism. It sounded a bit anti-national to, implicitly, equate the Mughals and the Brits, and much intellectual warfare ensued over how much worse Queen Victoria was than Akbar and Aurangzeb. The fight continues in different shapes and forms, the arch-defender of imperialism Niall Ferguson being now the devil incarnate-cum-punching bag for the bulk of Indian historians: if Ferguson hadn't done us the favour of existing, we'd have had to invent him.
Be all this as it may, what merely struck someone in Permanent Black as an unusually expressive passage lies within a subsection on bonded labour in an essay by Surendra J. Patel entitled ‘Agricultural Labourers in Modern India and Pakistan’. No one, to our rather limited knowledge, shone a torch on Indian serfs in prose as nice as this:

Bonded or Semi-Free Labourers
In the economic literature dealing with agricultural labourers, this class has been generally designated as ‘agrarian serfs’. It is true that such labourers, though free de jure, work under conditions which resemble those of serfdom and, in some cases, of slavery. It should be pointed out, however, that freedom is not denied them through the exercise of force by feudal aristocrats, as was the case with feudal serfs. Neither are they like the Greek or the Roman slaves, who were largely prisoners, captured from defeated armies or conquered territories; nor are they like the African slaves, who were turned into an article of trade by ruthless man-hunting expeditions. These differences make it necessary to examine the nature of their bondage and its causes in somewhat greater detail.
It is generally agreed that the immediate cause of acceptance of such bondage in India at present is the need on the part of labourers to secure advances of money. Thus what appears to be an immediate cause is monetary and not so much the combined sanctions of custom, tradition, and personal power of the master. The relationship between the labourer and the master should not have been, under normal conditions, different from that of a debtor and a creditor. The reasons for the present bondage, however, are to be found in the particular evolution of Indian society in the last century and a half, during which the would-be debtor has become so desperate and the creditor so exacting that what would have normally been a free and legally equal position between two equal parties, mutually executing a contract of debit and credit, has, in reality, turned into a status of virtual slavery for the former and absolute dominance by the latter. Since a monetary loan is the characteristic of the bonded labour system, it should be distinguished very sharply from slavery or feudal serfdom. This type of ‘monetary bonded labour’ could not have existed in the essentially non-monetary economy of pre-nineteenth-century India.
In this earlier society, there were menials and domestic servants whose subsistence was guaranteed by an allotment of certain acres of land, or by granting them the claim to a certain proportion of the produce of each cultivator. These traditional arrangements of guaranteed subsistence were considerably weakened during the period of disintegration of village communities; the displaced menials, in the absence of alternative occupation, were forced to seek some form of guaranteed subsistence. It was this compulsion that forced the menials to accept bondage. The advance of money, for marriage or any other purpose, was more in the nature of a mutual recognition that the system of bondage was approved by both parties. To say, therefore, that marriage, and the advance of money which is generally used for it, are the cause of the institution of bonded labour is like saying that the exchange of wedding rings between a man and a woman is the cause of their marriage.

For people led by the above to ask where they can read the full essay, the answer may not, for now, be much help, because it was published in the Indian Journal of Economics, vol. XXXIII, July 1952. Are you near the Ratan Tata Library of the Delhi School of Economics? If not, wait a bit: the paper will be republished by Permanent Black in a collection edited by Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar, CASTE IN MODERN INDIA: A READER (Permanent Black, 2013). The indefatigable Sarkars have assembled this monument to caste, which will run to about a thousand pages, in two volumes. It will serve as a companion to their two-volume anthology, WOMEN AND SOCIAL REFORM IN MODERN INDIA, which has proved invaluable to students and teachers of gender relations in India over the past couple of hundred years.
Surendra J. Patel is one of several scholars resurrected within the Caste Reader. We feel additional affection for him because, being dead and having written this essay more than sixty years ago, his copyright had lapsed and we needed to pursue neither a live scholar nor heirs nor a literary estate for permission to reproduce his essay. For a publisher, literary turns of phrase make life bearable; not having to chase copyright permission makes it ecstatic.

Extract from THE HINDU of 19 December 2006
Surendra J. Patel dead

[…] Surendra J. Patel, an eminent Indian economist and distinguished international civil servant, passed away in Geneva on December 15. After completing his Ph.D. in economics in the United States, he briefly taught economics in Gujarat. He joined the United Nations in 1950 and served in various organisations in the U.N. system till his retirement in 1984. Subsequently, he worked in the World Institute for Development Economic Research (WIDER), a unit of the U.N. University located in Helsinki, Finland.

He was also a visiting professor at the University of Sussex in the U.K. and at Dalhousie and Saint Mary's universities in Halifax, Canada. Dr. Patel worked in many U.N. Regional Economics Commissions […] he published a five-volume study on technological transformation in the Third World (London, 1993). Dr Patel wrote his thesis on the secular trends in the evolution of the world economy.

He returned to this theme during the later stage of his career and produced seminal papers on the post-war trends in the evolution of the economics of the developing countries and on their arrival on the world economic scene. In spite of his preoccupation with international economic issues, Dr Patel remained concerned with the problems of India’s economic development. His works on the subject include The India We Want (1965), Essays in Economic Transition (1965), and Indian Economy Towards the Twenty First Century (1993). As a development economist, Dr Patel remained committed to equity, fairness, and justice in the international economic system, the philosophy reflected in all his works.


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