Monday, October 10, 2011

Land-locked Govt

Devinder Sharma/ New Delhi

A Farmer's Income Commission is what agriculture needs to ensure a reasonable monthly take home package and thereby turn farm lands economically viable

Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh is visibly excited. He seems more than happy with the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement bill 2011 that he has presented in Parliament. Soon after introducing the bill, he told a TV channel that he is hopeful that the final bill which would be enacted into a law would not be radically different from what he has presented. He is expecting only a few minor changes in what he has presented.
Only a few weeks before Jairam Ramesh presented the LARR bill, the Supreme Court had lashed out at the growing incidence of violent land acquisitions: "This is a sinister campaign initiated by several state governments against the people. It is forcing them (land owners) to become slum dwellers or take to crime." It faulted state governments for using the 'urgency' or 'emergency' clause for private benefit. The nexus has grown thicker and wider - economists joining ranks with politicians, bureaucrats and builders.
Dismissing another petition filed by the Greater Noida Authority and several private builders, it observed: "The justification often advanced, by advocates of neo-liberal development paradigm, as historically followed, or newly emerging, is that unless development occurs, via rapid and vast exploitation of natural resources, the country would not be able to either compete on the global scale, nor accumulate the wealth necessary to tackle endemic and seemingly intractable problems of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and squalor."
Isn't this an argument that you hear every other day? That rural India is literally on a boil is of no consequence. After all, land is required for manufacturing and industry; more industrial development means more employment; more employment means less of poverty. This popular assumption is regardless of the recommendations of a 2008 Expert Group of Planning Commission, which had concluded: "the benefits of this paradigm have been disproportionately cornered by the dominant sections at the expanse of the poor."
Land grab is happening at a time when the country is already in the throes of an unmanageable food crisis given that the galloping demands for food in the years to come requiring more area to be maintained under agriculture. For instance, if India is to grow domestically the quantity of pulses and oilseeds (in the form of edible oil) that are presently being imported, an additional 20 million hectares would be required. On the contrary, with arable land - mono-cropped or multi-cropped -- being diverted for non-agricultural purposes, India is fast getting into a much worse hunger trap.
Preserving productive agricultural land for cultivation therefore assumes utmost importance. In the United States, the federal government is providing US $ 750 million for the period 2008-13 under the Farm Bill 2008 to farmers to conserve and improve their farm and grazing lands so as to ensure farmers do not divert it for industrial and private use. In India on the other hand, the State governments are a tearing hurry to divest farm lands and turn them into concrete jungles in the name of development. "When people protest against acquisition of their land, men are arrested and women raped," the apex court observed.
Well said. But the thrust on acquiring farm land is happening at a time when farmers themselves are more than keen to dispense with their meagre land holdings. In a Hindustan Times-GFK Mode opinion poll conducted across five worst affected villages in UP's Aligarh and Gautam Budh Nagar districts more than 48 per cent farmers have expressed their willingness to sell land. All they are looking for is a better compensation package.
The underlying message is loud and clear. Farmers are keen to dispense with their land because agriculture has turned into a losing proposition. This is quite in contrast to what the Supreme Court observed, although quite a sizeable percentage of farmers are not in favour of selling off their land at any cost.
Knowing that in an earlier National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey 42 per cent farmers had expressed the desire to quit agriculture if given an alternative, the contentious issue of land acquisition has to be viewed in the light of the terrible agrarian distress that prevails reflected in the spate of farmer suicides being witnessed across the country, the ongoing debate on land acquisition skirts the fundamental issues confronting the economic viability of the farm and the resulting food insecurity.
Economic development unfortunately has come to mean that farmers should be divested of their meagre land holdings. Policy makers say that with rapid industrialization, average incomes will increase. As a result, people will have more money to buy food from the open market and make more nutritious choices. But the bigger question as to from where will the addition quantity of food come from has been simply overlooked, at our own peril.
In Andhra Pradesh, over 20 lakh acres has been diverted from agriculture to non-farm uses. In Haryana, over 60,000 acres has been acquired between 2005 and 2010. In Madhya Pradesh, over 11 lakh acres has been acquired for the industry in the past five years. Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh are building up "land banks" for the industry and Rajasthan has allowed the industry to buy land directly from farmers setting aside the ceiling limit.
No one, in fact, has worked out how much agricultural land needs to be acquired to meet the industrial needs, and how much has actually been purchased. It is free for all; you can acquire as much land as you can. LARR merely facilitates the takeover of farm land.
Rahul Gandhi himself has alleged that along the proposed Yamuna Expressway in UP, roughly 44,000 hectares of fertile farm land is being acquired for townships, industrial clusters, golf courses and an Formula One racing track.
My own analysis shows that of the total area of 198 lakh acres under food grain crops in UP, one-third or roughly 66 lakh acres will go out of production. This will mean a shortfall in food grain production in UP alone to the tune of 145 lakh tonnes. The immediate question that crops up is: Who will feed Uttar Pradesh?
Keeping country's food security in mind what therefore must be done is to first draw up a land use map for the country. This has to be accompanied by a moratorium on the sale of farm lands for non-farm activities except for clearly defined 'public' purpose. At the same time, the proposed land acquisition bill must be integrated enough to include provisions for enhancing farm incomes.
At present the average monthly income of farm family ranges around Rs 2400. A chaprasi on the other hand gets a minimum salary of Rs15,000. A Farmer's Income Commission is what agriculture needs desperately to ensure a reasonable monthly take home package and thereby turn farm lands economically viable.

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