Farmers' Protests: An Opportune Moment to Review the Development Model of Land Grabbing

Engaging with the agrarian question must necessarily mean questioning the development model that is hungry for land but spits out the people that live on it.

Over the last few weeks, images of farmers from Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh engaged in pitched battles against the police, and by extension the state, have caught the nation’s attention as it forced the government into unconditional talks with a broad coalition of farmers’ organisations.

The opposition to the three new farm laws introduced in September this year has sparked outrage among farming communities, commercial farmers in particular. This is because the three new laws together undermine the system that had put in place certain protections to farmers from the volatility of global market prices. Opening the doors to the corporatisation of agriculture, the new laws sound the death knell for farmers in what is already a neglected and deteriorating sector of the economy.

Further, the agrarian sector is shaped not merely by agricultural policies alone, but equally so by land-related policies. Taking a closer look at the latter becomes imperative in order to engage with the agrarian question, and this implies an examination of how India’s development model shapes the health of the agrarian sector.

The place of small and marginal farmers in Indian agriculture

In purely economic terms agriculture has been steadily contributing less and less to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country. According to World Bank data, in 1973, agriculture, forestry and fishing together contributed 41% to India’s GDP. In 2019 that figure lay at 16%. Despite its marginal position in the economy, it continues to employ and feed the largest section of India’s working population. As per Census data of 2011, nearly 55% of the workforce in India continues to be engaged in agrarian production, either as cultivators or as agricultural labour.

So, agriculture remains the single largest sector of the economy that subsists the Indian population, and in this respect is neither marginal nor insignificant. Focusing on the Gross Value Added (GVA) to the GDP ignores just this reality. In this respect, agriculture must remain central to all discussions of the Indian economy, the crisis in which it finds itself today, and political thought on the way forward.

According to Census 2011, nearly 55% of the workforce in India continues to be engaged in agrarian production, either as cultivators or as agricultural labour. Credit: Reuters

Moreover, the farming sector in India is by no means a homogenous sector. In this context, it becomes important to recognise the diverse and complex character of India’s agrarian sector. Of those that engage in agriculture, the large majority are small and marginal farmers, and this figure has only been on the rise.

As per government data, in 1970-71, 70% of all land holdings fell within the small and marginal categories, implying landholdings of under 5 acres. This figure increased to 78% by 1990-91 and to 85%  by 2010-11. This implies that while the middle and rich farmers of the Indo-Gangetic plains form a powerful lobby, the one that we see descending on the national capital to demand a rollback of the new farm laws, as a percentage of the people engaged in agriculture, they do not constitute the majority. It is this cleavage that the government has been trying to exploit in order to push through the laws and uphold their legitimacy in a country like India.

Also read: Amid An Important Farmer Debate, Don’t Forget the Woes of India’s Landless Workers

It claims the new laws will benefit the small and marginal farmers, who will be ‘freed’ of the shackles of complex laws and the exploitative entanglements of middlemen to exercise that quintessentially neoliberal act of ‘choice’ in a presumable expression of freedom of the individual.

In the context of the government’s attempt at exploiting the class differentiation within the agrarian sector, it becomes all the more important to recognise, speak about and engage with this differentiation, instead of painting all farmers in the same hue. This neither discredits the current moment of opposition and challenge to the ruling dispensation, nor seeks to paint its demands as one that reeks of class interests. Instead, it exposes the claims of the government in seemingly working in the interest of small and marginal farmers.

This is brought amply to the fore if we skim through some of the other policies of the state that influence and shape the lives of small and marginal farmers across the country, the large majority of which engage predominantly in subsistence cultivation. This section cultivates primarily for subsistence and a small surplus, if at all, is sold only to the extent of cash requirements of the household and/or when the next crop is assured.

The Shanta Kumar Committee Report 2015 gives us the latest figures on the low outreach of procurement agencies for food crops, indicating that a large section of small and marginal farmers already sell to private traders. There is little evidence to show they have gotten a better deal than the minimum support price (MSP) in this process. The middlemen who purchase crops from this section invariably occupy a higher status in the social hierarchy of caste and community, and tight networks along these lines control the market in food grains, wresting all control out of the hands of cultivators.

There is no evidence in any part of India where small and marginal farmers exert any power or control over the market in agricultural produce. The state wilfully ignores the grossly inequitable structure in place while assuming small and marginal farmers have the possibility of exerting free ‘choice’ in entering a relationship with private traders, let alone agricultural corporations.

Subsistence cultivators and land acquisition

Subsistence cultivation is predominantly less capital-intensive, relying on seeds from the previous crop for cultivation, organic manure from cattle and dependent on rains in the absence of irrigation facilities. It has been dependent on a range of inputs and labour relations that lie outside of commodified markets, drawing on resources such as common grazing land for pasture; village common land that in many parts of India are occupied or cultivated by landless households; fishing in fields or local water bodies; those living in and around forests draw on a range of forest resources such as firewood, medicinal herbs and fruits and vegetables; in areas with rocky patches, these patches serve for material in the construction of local residents’ homes, and such like.

Labour may be exchanged between households, in the absence of the state, village infrastructure is often built up by community labour, and labour may be paid in kind, particularly agricultural labour. The state’s policy trajectory on land and development, particularly since the 1990s has lain waste to just these resources, institutions and arrangements of social relations.

Also read: In State-Level Changes to Land Laws, a Return to Land Grabbing in Development’s Name

The scale of land acquisition in India has increased exponentially since the 1990s with the estimate for all displaced people having gone from approximately 25-30 million by 1990 to 60 million by 2004, doubling within a span of 14 years that coincides with the period of liberalisation. Amongst those displaced, Scheduled Tribes constitute a disproportionate 40% while their share in the total population lies at 8%.

Of the total estimated land acquired between 1947 and 2004, more than half is constituted by forest land and common property holdings. This indicates the extent to which land acquisition disproportionately affects small and marginal farmers and those engaging in subsistence cultivation. The states that have seen highest amount of land acquisition and displacement are states with relatively high proportion of Scheduled Tribes, including Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh (then including Telangana).

The Swaminathan Commission mentioned that they were referring to C2 cost when making their recommendation. Credit: Navaneeth Kishor/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The scale of land acquisition in India has increased exponentially since the 1990s. The land marked off as village common land or grazing land is often declared as government land and easily appropriated without requiring the consent of local residents. Photo: Navaneeth Kishor/Flickr CC BY 2.0

The land marked off as village common land or grazing land is often declared as government land and easily appropriated without requiring the consent of local residents. Forest lands are merely diverted for various purposes. The constant expansion of forest lands is itself the latest strategy to bypass mandated procedures for land acquisition under the new Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013. Lands taken up by the constantly expanding national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, tiger and elephant reserves do not fall within the purview of the land acquisition law, even as forest lands are constantly diverted away for mining, infrastructure, oil exploration, tourism and industrial activities.

The latest Environmental Impact Assessment Draft Notification 2020 seeks to facilitate Ease of Doing Business by clearing out ‘obstacles’ for businesses such that permissions are simpler to get, environmental impact assessment reports prepared by expert committees are easier to bypass, grievances are harder to file, and violations undone through fines.

Also read: Pushing States to Dilute their Land Laws Will Not Make Acquisition Easier

Even as the new Land Acquisition Law 2013 has introduced significant changes from the colonial 1894 Law, it serves to firmly keep in place the principle of eminent domain by which the state retains excessive powers over land and thereby facilitates the process of land acquisition in the long run.

The current ruling dispensation attempted to introduce significant changes to this law as soon as it took office in 2014 in the form of an Ordinance that sought to create exemptions from all the protections ensured under the new law for the large majority of projects for which land is acquired. This Ordinance was introduced three times and each time it failed to be passed by the parliament, owing once again to the massive resistance by farmers, including BJP’s own farmer’s wing Kisan Morcha.

Having failed in this attempt at the Centre, several state governments have formulated policies to facilitate the process of land acquisition such as Andhra Pradesh government’s Land Pooling Scheme, or Assam government’s Ordinance on Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises that expedites conversion of land use through a single-window clearance system.

The development model and Indian agriculture

Together these policy changes aid the process of land acquisition and further intensifies land dispossession. The theft of common property resources, access to forest resources and common grazing land have meant a greater dependence on cash for meeting the everyday requirements of life.

Fallback options that several of these informal land arrangements provided are being stripped away constantly, leaving subsistence peasants in increasingly precarious conditions and propelling them deeper into an unequal market that constantly reproduces their position at the margins, remaining most vulnerable to market fluctuations and volatility.

Trucks carrying bauxite race on the top of Kodingamali, a hill revered by local Adivasis in Koraput and a source of perennial streams that was cleared for mining by state-owned Odisha Mining Corporation. Ore from here has been making its way to Vedanta’s refinery in Lanjigarh at the base of the Niyamgiri hills, March 2018.

The reduction of pasture land along with a shortage of labour has lead to a steady decline in the capacity of small and marginal farmers to own a large number of cattle, thus reducing the quantity of manure available, making them more dependent on capital-intensive inputs to fertilise the land.

Squeezing peasants off the land has meant more intensive cultivation on smaller patches of land, reducing natural methods of shifting cultivation that allows fallow land to recuperate, and thereby reducing productivity of the land. Each of these breaks up systems of cultivation that relied on non-market inputs, protecting cultivators to some extent from the vagaries of the market and ensuring to varying degrees the most basic requirement of food to such households.

The agrarian question for the large majority of the country’s rural classes is directly linked to the development paradigm of the Indian state that seeks to ‘free up’ the ‘inefficiently employed’ agrarian sector of India to extract the highest possible revenue from the land.

However, in the context of jobless growth and capital’s growing need for land but not the people, such a paradigm continuously throws the people who occupy land needed for ‘development’ out of the system, with no employment opportunities to offer them, no requirement of their labour, and no place to settle them on.

In this context, even as conditions of precarity continue to mar small and marginal farmers, they hold on tightly to their lands as it offers the most basic security of food. Where they are eager to negotiate better compensation, such a condition has been carefully orchestrated by the creation of growing precarity, pushing people to seek livelihoods away from agriculture.

Alternative livelihood options, where they are available, offer little by way of upward mobility or a life out of precarity. Any model of economic development that plans to ‘release’ workers from the agrarian sector is necessarily one that will send the country into a deeper economic crisis merely aggravating the problem of unemployment.

Further, engaging with the agrarian question must necessarily entail engagement with the development model that is hungry for land but spits out the people that live on it. In other words, a healthy agrarian sector demands the destruction of the current development model.

Vasundhara Jairath is an Assistant Professor (Development Studies) at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.