The farmer’s strike has been shaking Delhi for the past three weeks. Whatever be the outcome of this agitation, no one can argue against the need for reforms in the Indian agriculture sector. We cannot ignore a sector that employs more than half of the population for long.
A sector that gives livelihood to more than 50 per cent of Indians contributes only less than 17 per cent of the country’s GDP. Should we look elsewhere for a reason for the poverty and debt trap that haunts the farmers? India has one of the lowest agricultural productivity in the world.
For many centuries, the Indian peasant was in the grip of Zamindars. In the wave of socialism that swept the country after Independence, a slew of reforms were swiftly passed to protect the farmer. The land ceiling act ensured some dignity to the peasants and was the need of the times. However, after seven decades, we find that the land has hopelessly fragmented due to subsequent generations inheriting the land and splitting up the shares, making it unviable to get a decent living out of it. As much as 86.08 percent of total farm holdings in India are marginal, with the average size hovering around 0.38 hectares. Investing in technology in such small holdings would be futile.
The green revolution served the food self-sufficiency at a time when the world was divided into two political blocks. The FCI that is overflowing with grains, while a creaky PDS system that leaks like a sieve, dole-outs like free electricity and water, highly subsidised fertilisers, loan melas and loan forgiveness melas, MSP etc. are the vestiges of that system now. When we say 50 percent of Indians are farmers, we should not forget that 49.49 crore Indians as per the 2011 census have no land to call their own. The one who gets the subsidies, free electricity etc belongs to a minority, at the taxpayer’s cost is the relative elite among the farmers. After a few crony capitalists, the wealthy farmers are perhaps one of the most pampered sections in the country.
All the subsidies, tax-free income and even the much-touted MSP, cater to a small but influential section of farmers in a few states. Over 56 percent of rural Indians have no landholdings. In a factory or an office, at least theoretically, the minimum wages are ensured. The landless labourer has no guarantee of even minimum wage, has no social or health security and is at the mercy of the landlord. Add the grip of the brutal caste system to this situation, and we will find that rural India is no fairyland of the noble farmer toiling hard in the sun and rain to feed the country.
What about the marginal farmer who holds the 86.08 percent of Indian farmland of meagre acreage? In the name of protecting such farmers, state after state passed bizarre land policies. If I am a marginal farmer, and I neither have the means nor the knowledge to invest in modern technology, my income from my meagre land is going to be a pittance. But the government, in the name of protecting me, has ensured that I cannot sell the land to anyone other than another marginal farmer. The only option I am left with is to continue farming, with obsolete technology, with no economy of scale and depend on the local moneylender for running my farm. There are only three ways to escape this trap.
Migrate to a big city to gain employment as a driver or a construction worker and live in squalor of the urban slum, or live in the perpetual poverty of the rural hell hole. The third one is the heartbreaking route of suicide that many unfortunately take. Even if I am a successful farmer, I cannot extend my land holdings legally by buying more land as there is an income ceiling to the buyer for purchasing farmland. In short, the farmer’s most valuable asset is worthless as it cannot be liquidated quickly. Hence, the marginal farmer cannot be blamed if he is unable to pay even the minimum wage to the landless labourer who works in his land.
Agriculture in India has been hijacked by a handful of elite farmers in a few states, aided by unscrupulous politicians. The present farm law threatens the privilege of the powerful farmer lobby who have cornered most of the benefits of the lopsided agricultural policies and is skewed towards a possible corporate takeover. However, the implementation or withdrawal of it is not going to change the destiny of the landless farm labourers or the marginal farmers unless land utilisation acts are changed. How does it matter whether one is exploited by a prosperous local farmer, the local agent, village money lender or a big fat corporate honcho when the fate of most of the rural farm labourers is to wallow in abject poverty in any case?
Anand Neelakantan firstname.lastname@example.org
Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy