School of GeoSciences

School of GeoSciences


Dr Fraser Sugden

PhD Candidate (Completed November 2009)

Thesis title:

Agrarian Change and Pre-Capitalist Reproduction on the Nepal Terai


Dr Andrea Nightingale

Dr John Cameron (Institute of Social Studies, den Haag)

Research Description

The impact of global neo-liberal hegemony through the integration of rural populations into global capital flows is increasingly well understood. However, little work has assessed how it has impacted regions dominated by pre-capitalist economic formations which are far from the market core. This research examines how neo-liberalism has manifested itself at a grassroots level in Nepal through discourses of rural development and poverty alleviation. Nepal’s donor led development strategy has been subject to a changed emphasis in recent years. This has entailed a reworking of the subject position awarded to the poor, from that of “the citizen with social rights,” to that of “the rational entrepreneur,” whereby each individual is expected to find their own solution to their livelihood needs through small scale market participation, in line with the values of neo-liberalism. Nepal’s recently reworked agrarian strategy epitomises this shift with its emphasis on small farm commercialisation. It assumes that by providing the appropriate services, infrastructure and a macro-economic environment, the “rational” small farmer will commercialise and lift themselves from poverty through the market, thus realising their neo-liberal subjectivity. However, nearly a decade after its initial implementation, Nepal's Agricultural strategy has failed to meet many of its objectives in encouraging market orientated production amongst the peasantry. These shortcomings have normally been framed with reference to poor governance and the failure of the Nepali state to provide the appropriate infrastructure and services that provide farmers with the incentives to commercialise. This research takes this critique further by investigating the shortcomings of Nepal's agrarian strategy through critically engaging with the neo-liberal discourses which underlie it.

Results from a case study in Nepal’s eastern lowlands demonstrate how a complex pre-capitalist class structure, the multiple forms of surplus appropriation that arise in such contexts, and the and associated relations of caste and gender, constrain small farms from performing the expectations placed upon them in neo-liberal poverty alleviation discourse.  Not only have such discourses failed to achieve their objectives in stimulating the development of populist rural capitalism, the focus on “self-help” and “entrepreneurship” as the core to poverty alleviation has served to divert attention from the relations of production which continue long fostered economic stagnation in rural Nepal.  Through a series of semi-structured interviews, participant observation and a statistical survey of farmers, merchants and industrialists of a community in SE Nepal, this research addresses the following questions:


This research aims to identify the path(s) of agrarian transition in rural Morang, and how this differs from the changes envisaged in neo-liberal agrarian strategy:  The three sub-questions are:

1) What are the primary mechanisms of surplus appropriation in both the relations of production and circulation?
2) How do these forms of surplus appropriation shape both the capacity for farming households to engage in profitable commercialisation and the trajectory of agrarian change?
3) What are  the ideological and political mechanisms associated with these forms of surplus appropriation and how have they shaped the trajectory of agrarian change?

In addressing these questions, attention is paid to the internal complexity and fluidity of the relations of production and circulation and how they are situated globally.


Sugden, F. 2010, Divergent state formations and patterns of migration in the Nepal-India borderlands, Forthcoming in edited volume

Sugden, F. 2010, From state landlordism to contemporary semi-feudalism: understanding the spatial subordination of the far-eastern Terai, Forthcoming in edited volume

Sugden, F. and Gurung, G. 2010, Absentee landlordism and agrarian stagnation in Nepal: a case from the Eastern Terai, Forthcoming as Occasional Paper for Nepal Institute of Development Studies

Sugden, F. 2009, Neo-liberalism, markets and class structures on the Nepali lowlands: The political economy of agrarian change, Geoforum, 40 (634-644)