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Saturday, August 28, 2004

The issue of farmers’ suicides has remained in the headlines even after the April-May round of general elections. Our newly elected governments at both the centre and the state have promised to put land reforms on a fast track, in an attempt to provide relief to our distressed farmers. Moreover, in our state, the recent proposals made by the communist parties and the People’s War Group (PWG) have once again brought the issue of land distribution and reforms into the spotlight.

Agriculture contributes about 30% of the total income of the country and employs more than two-thirds of the total Indian work force. But this agrarian structure has sharp inequalities in the distribution of land ownerships and operational landholdings. As per the 2001 census, about 63% of the cultivable land in our country is owned by only 16.5% of the farmers (i.e. the more influential ones) while the rest 37% of land is in the hands of tens of millions of small and marginal farmers. Despite the much-publicised efforts at legislating land reforms by successive governments, since independence, the entire surplus land acquired (via ceiling) and distributed among the rural poor has been less than 1.7% of the total cultivated area in India.

At the centre of this land reform debate are the small, tenant farmers (the ‘kowl farmers’) who are forced to bear a significant burden of the agrarian crisis.

A proper and healthy credit system is the necessary prerequisite for sustainable agriculture. But these tenant farmers and sharecroppers cannot secure annual production loans from banks and co-operatives as they cannot furnish land titles as collateral. No guaranteed ownership simply means no chance of getting institutionalized credit. They are forced to resort to private money lenders who charge them ‘exorbitant’ interest rates. A single crop failure is enough to trap these small farmers into a vicious cycle of mounting debt. Some such deeply indebted farmers, facing the prospect of starvation as well as loss of assets, sometimes resort to the extreme step of committing suicide. Furthermore, a majority of these tenanted farmers have remained on the periphery of state-provided agricultural relief and benefits. Two key hurdles related to the ownership of agricultural land have to be crossed, in our journey towards rural prosperity.

The first issue is that of actual land ownership. There is merit in the argument that tenant farmers be given ownership over the lands they cultivate. But land redistribution via the ceiling route may yield only marginal and/or delayed results, under today’s circumstances. One possible solution is by taking our government’s current land redistribution policy a step further, and offering small and tenant farmers ownership or long-term lease options (at reasonable rates) over the Wakf and Endowments lands that they were traditionally tilling. This step must be complemented by ensuring that any and all affected religious institutions are adequately compensated for any loss of revenue. Additionally, there are also the Wakf and Endowments lands valued at several crores of rupees that are in the clutches of land grabbers. These lands too are potential candidates for distribution among the disadvantages sections of the agrarian community.

The second issue is that of documentation of land ownership. Surprisingly, for a highly agrarian country such as ours, land surveys have not been conducted in most states since the last Britisher left the shores of Bombay. For that matter, in our own Telangana region, a comprehensive land survey has never been conducted in its history! Even in the villages, most poor people have no clear titles to valuable land. If land titles are clear then poor and marginalized farmers can be assured in ownership. This unlocks a lot of capital, credit will be accessible and economic activity will be generated. But the administration seems to be distracted by secondary issues like digitization/computerization of existing records. Electronic data can only improve the information storage and retrieval process, but is not a substitute to clear, authentic titles.

Above all, land redistribution and guaranteeing ownership by themselves, are not cure-alls for reviving the health of our seriously ill rural sector. Agricultural reforms must include credible government policies in the areas of providing a healthy credit mechanism especially for small and marginal farmers, research and technological inputs for improving the agricultural productivity, building of rural infrastructure along with value-addition and market creation for our farm produce.

Settling the property ownership issue alone does not open the door to rural prosperity. But it is the first step to improving the condition of the small farmers and agricultural workers.