Labour, Livelihoods & Political Narratives: A Study of Social Structures, Globalisation & Development in the Coconut Economy of Kerala

Sportel, Terah
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University of Guelph

The research is part of a larger study that seeks to examine the manifestations and influences of globalisation and liberalisation on the rural economy and rural livelihoods in different parts of India. The work contributes to this overarching objective through its focus on the coconut economy in the south Indian state of Kerala, the country’s main coconut producer. This economy has experienced various market changes after India’s agricultural liberalisation in the mid-1990s. Indeed, the Government of Kerala has indicated these changes, including increasing imports of palm oil and new trade agreements, have led to a crisis; an issue of considerable importance to the state economy and farmers’ livelihoods. More recent government explanations for the crisis include a labour shortage; particularly an inadequate supply of coconut pluckers. The dissertation takes this 'crisis' as its starting point. Through detailed ethnographic, comparative case study of two distinct regions, the research provides a more comprehensive view of change within the coconut economy. More generally, the research furthers understanding of uneven agricultural development and wider processes of agrarian change. The research explores issues at the macro-, meso- and micro-scale. This allows for elucidation of key aspects of change beyond those derived from current neoclassical, macro-level studies. Weaving the work together is the recognition that geography, history and political-economy of a region, and the mediating role of social structures, have important implications for the manifestations of globalisation on livelihoods in rural economies. The research, presented as three articles, makes important empirical and scholarly contributions through: (1) a nuanced, spatially disaggregated explanation of the changes in the coconut economy that beyond the common macro-level and sectoral analyses; (2) a structure-and-agency understanding of the relationship between coconut market change and the agricultural labour market; (3) a regional comparison of livelihood dynamics and the ways in which they are spatially structured; and (4) scholarly contributions to development, labour geography and livelihoods studies.

Development, Agriculture, Agrarian Change, Globalisation, Livelihoods, Rural, Agency, Social Structures, Unorganised Labour, South Asia, India, Kerala