The farmers’ agitation in India has attracted worldwide attention and support. This is as it should be. Farmers are our annadata. During the Covid-19 pandemic, while all the sectors were thrown into a tailspin, the farm sector has sustained us.
The post-Independence history of Indian agriculture has few parallels, due to the unique success of the Green Revolution. Within 12-15 years, the country achieved food self-sufficiency. Ending food imports helped us save vast fiscal resources which could be used for development and welfare. Unprecedented rural prosperity ensued.
However, national-level food self-sufficiency did not result in household-level food security. Poverty co-existed with prosperity due to inequitable resource distribution and concentration of land. Its alleviation and eradication necessitated welfare intervention through the Food Security Act, MGNREGA, etc. The absence of effective and equitable land reforms, thus, accounts for the persistence of poverty.
The story of land reforms in India is a dismal one. Being a state subject, various states implemented reforms with varying degrees of effectiveness and equity. But everywhere, the objectives were the same: Abolition of feudal landlordism, conferment of ownership on tenants, fixing land ceilings, distribution of surplus land, increasing agricultural productivity and production, etc.
Many of the objectives were achieved, many were not. Feudal land relations were abolished; tenants got ownership rights. However, owing to manipulations in land records, much surplus land was not available for distribution among the landless tillers of the soil, the majority of whom were the former “untouchables” and today’s Dalits. Less than one per cent of the total land in the country was declared as surplus. The programme was implemented in a country where non-agricultural sectors and activities were fast developing, absorbing increasing numbers of the rural population. The relevant criteria for land entitlement should have been employment and main source of income.
The ex-tenants, after getting land, became tenant-turned-capitalist-farmers who effectively made use of several programmes —Green Revolution technology, bank nationalisation and priority sector lending, urbanisation and expanding urban markets. They dominated the small and marginal farmers, and landless farm labourers. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an interlocking of land, labour, credit and product markets. Those who controlled land, controlled water, which later promoted water trade, including drinking water trade. They cornered a disproportionate share of various subsidies. Many members of rich farm households moved into industry, business and professions. Many migrated abroad for quality higher education and employment. Others returned to India and occupied important positions.
The tenant-turned-capitalist farmers formed political parties, which produced strong state-level leaders, who controlled state-level planning, fiscal policies and politics. In place of a strong Centre and weak states, came a weak Centre and strong states. Now, dismissing a state government under Article 356 is not easy. Regional satraps are democratically elected authoritarians with the power to block pro-poor changes. Bureaucracy and police have unprecedented powers. Individual freedom is often curtailed by rulers at the Centre and states.
Rich farmers have formed strong power blocs, with unquestioned clout and bargaining power, not only in north-western India but also in states like Maharashtra. Agriculturally rich states still attract large numbers of migrant workers; in some, the bonded labour system persists (with bonded labourers invariably being Dalits and Adivasis) to circumvent peak season labour shortage. The migrant workers were the worst hit by the pandemic. Atrocities against Dalits are rising practically in every state. Caste discrimination and prejudices persist.
Social restructuring needs agrarian reform, in the form of a land reforms programme, in addition to the measures that farmers are agitating for. Farmers are seeking legal safeguards against market fluctuations, especially against any downward pressure on agricultural prices. They are not anti-market. While they welcome every rise in prices, they demand legal protection against price falls, a legitimate stance.
Even as agricultural prosperity must be promoted,it should not be just shared between farmers (especially rich ones) and urban consumers, but by all. Farm workers, in particular, must benefit from it.
The relation between land and caste, between caste and labour has not been broken yet. Consider the social composition of agricultural labourers, scavengers, rag-pickers et al. Indisputably, agricultural wage rates have risen progressively. But farm workers deserve more than a rising wage rate. They deserve access to resources.
This calls for a programme of radical land reforms. Agricultural land should be pooled and equally distributed among farm households, based on the two afore-mentioned criteria. Non-farm households should not be permitted to hold farmland. The land reforms programme should not be left to the states, as it is likely to be sabotaged by regional satraps. Land reforms should be a central subject; while agriculture can remain a state subject. Such a programme will empower and enrich marginalised and excluded individuals and social groups. It should be the kernel of a justiciable universal property right that must form an integral/inalienable part of Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution. The right to life is hollow without a right to livelihood. Through an effective land reforms programme, let’s build a prosperous India based on equity and justice.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 28, 2021 under the title ‘The land question, and answer’. The writer retired as professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Tuljapur campus.