The University of Arizona

Development roles: contingency and performance in alternative agriculture in Telangana, India

Andrew Flachs


Paul Richards invokes the metaphor of performance in agriculture to highlight the ways in which farmers improvise and draw on repertory knowledge to address new and unexpected problems in the field. This skillset helps farmers respond to shifting weather patterns or changing pest cycles, but it also helps farmers take advantage of new markets, technologies, and development interventions – a question of planning and context as much as improvisation in the moment. This article discusses two intervention failures and one success in Telangana cotton agriculture, arguing that such agricultural interventions succeed when farmers can align development performances with their own visions of development and agricultural success. In doing so, it offers a political ecology of farmer performance on two levels. First, it brings attention to the ecological and socioeconomic factors that inspire performances and structure farmer improvisations. Second, it argues that development initiatives must recognize their efforts as embedded within local agricultural planning and contingent on local calculations of social capital. In two ultimately unsuccessful interventions, farmers withdrew from programs that required investments of time and agricultural methods but did not underwrite important social and agricultural vulnerabilities identified by participants. In one successful intervention, farmers found that an NGO's willingness to respond to their agricultural needs and provide a stage for the cultivation of a local celebrity more than compensated for the new demands of non-certified organic agriculture. In a rural Indian context, where farming is a moral as well as agricultural process, the performance of a development identity is an integral part of performances and plans that guide farmer decision-making. Because these performances create a knowledge that cannot be separated from actors, roles, and stages present, these contingent performances ultimately have lasting impacts on the agrarian landscape.

Key Words:  India, alternative agriculture, performance, knowledge

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