'We Earn Less than We Eat': Food, Farming, and the Caring Family in Bihar, India


Hayden S. Kantor

PhD defended at: 

Cornell University



This dissertation examines food and farming practices in rural Bihar, India. Given changes in the agrarian economy and rapid food inflation, rural Biharis feel their livelihoods under threat. The title quote – “we earn less than we eat” – points to a shifting calculus for rural households in which well-being is framed in terms of off-farm income rather than agricultural output. Although the recent intensification of Green Revolution agricultural practices has boosted rural incomes, farmers grapple with the accelerated capitalization of rural life in which land, seed, and labor are increasingly commodified. As a result, farmers who depend on the land for their subsistence must prepare for a future beyond agriculture.
I argue that food and farming practices provide a lens onto how small-scale farming families articulate an ethics of care in the face of precarious rural conditions. In rural Bihar, people’s aspirations and anxieties center on the family and are often expressed through the idiom of food. Given local histories of food insecurity, I frame care primarily in terms of food practices—the daily work of farming, feeding, and commensal eating that sustains the family. The forms that care assumes vary according to gender, caste, and role in the family. Attending to the logics of care thus points to neglect – whose interests can be ignored, which bodies can be put at risk – and the ways that violence is not separate from care but often mingled with it.
This ethnography attends to Biharis’ embodied experiences as a means of conjuring their sense of insecurity and enactments of care. The sensuous body – with all its hungers, labors, and vulnerabilities – sheds light on the intimate ways that people experience larger political economic formations. This project challenges the surplus/scarcity dichotomy that often frames scholarship on the larger global food economy. I complicate this binary by showing how sensations of poverty and abundance, pleasure and dissatisfaction, coexist within a single community, household, and even a single person. In turning to the sensations and appetites of the body, I show how people strive to sustain the family and refuse the logics of scarcity that govern their lives.