The focus on the land acquisition issue during the recently-concluded National Executive conclave at Bengaluru is most welcome. Even more reassuring is the recognition by the BJP’s top brass that it is faced with a quintessential political issue, which requires large-scale public mobilisation in its support. So, kudos to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for effectively calling the UPA’s bluff and taking the fight directly to the farmers.
It is not merely landownership but the much bigger question of modernisation of Indian agriculture at stake. Modi did well to point to the miserable living conditions of the large majority of our farmers, rising debt and suicides. His call to take the message directly to the farmers, 90% of whom are not affected by the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Larr) Bill or its amendments, in any way is well directed.
A survey of 5,480 farmers conducted in late 2013 by the Centre for Studies of Developing Societies (CSDS) showed that 62% farmers were willing to leave farming if they found an alternate job; 37% did not want their children to continue with farming; nearly half of the surveyed farmers believed their conditions were bad; and 22% have actually begun to dislike farming because of agriculture not being a viable occupation any longer. This is amply reflected in the average outstanding debt of Rs 47,000 per farmer household, which tragically results in farmers’ suicides during the smallest crisis.
As many as 59% of rural households do not own any land. Another 28% have land holdings of less than 0.5 hectares. Therefore, 87% of the rural population is desperate to end their dependence on agriculture. Only 0.5% of India’s farmers have land holdings larger than 10 hectares and in the vicinity of urban centres. They are the only ones who could be adversely affected by the proposed amendments to Larr.
Land acquisition is an issue that affects less than 10% of the farmers’ households. Also, Indian agriculture in its present state is simply not an economically viable occupation for the vast majority (nearly 85%) of the rural population. Modi should not flinch from his clearly expressed resolve to take the battle to the Congress and its allies. He should see this as probably the most important political struggle in post-independence India to wean the peasantry away from a backward and unviable agriculture and connect farmers with the dynamic modern Indian economy.
This will be a tough battle, but one that must be won for saving the vast majority of our farmers from a life of penury and deprivation. But first, the BJP will have to take the necessary steps to build the required trust between the farming community and the party, which is perceived widely as an urban, traders’ and businessmen’s party.
The trust will be built by convincing farmers that rapid development and modernisation of agriculture is the only way forward to end the continuing dualism between Bharat and India. It is up to the BJP and its allies to articulate this development urge in the Indian countryside and use it to mobilise poor farmers in support of proposed amendments. Indian farmers want to be treated as partners, not as policy objects.
Four additional steps are required. One, farmers have to be convinced that infrastructure development that needs large tracts of land will directly benefit them. Two, compensation being offered, together with the promise of employment for those whose livelihood is affected, must be — and must be seen as — a good deal.
Three, district administrators should be asked to draw up in the shortest time possible an inventory of land holdings by the government, its associated agencies and public sector units in their districts. This would help in convincing farmers that government will actively discourage land-grabbing by using available land for new projects.
Finally, land in the vicinity of urban agglomerations should be opened for multiple uses, in contrast to the current practice of project-specific change in land use. This will also eliminate the rampant corruption, inherent in the extant system. It will also drive up the price of all land to its marketdetermined levels in a most transparent manner and ensure that no acquisition can take place at lower than market rates.
It will also disprove those who assert that the present compensation package under Larr does not inordinately raise the prices of land. Aland market must emerge in India. This is a necessary condition for agriculture modernisation.