Saving the arable land
A meaningful legal framework for transfer of land, and reorientation of the acquisition process towards uncultivable areas are necessary to preserve arable plots
The declining contribution of agriculture to the GDP is said to be a characteristic of economic growth, termed as 'structural transformation' of the economy. The predominance of agriculture in the Indian economy is vouched by the fact that around 51 per cent of India's geographical area is under cultivation, compared to the global average of only 11 per cent. The health of the sector is crucial for 'agriculture labour productivity’, rise in household incomes and savings, and food security for the future. But ironically, though India made remarkable progress in food production over the last decade, labour productivity in agriculture grew relatively at a much lower rate vis-à-vis the average labour productivity in various other sectors of the economy. The decrease in agricultural labour and continuous increase in migration of agricultural workers to urban areas for non-farm employment indicate that the 'structural transformation' of the economy hasn't been smooth, unlike in the OECD countries. It has come with certain costs i.e., agrarian unrest, increasing rural poverty, and food insecurity for future. Out of numerous issues in agriculture, three require immediate attention as they pose imminent threat to the future of agriculture; they are: a) shrinkage of average farm size, b) depletion of arable land, and c) degradation of soil. The focal point of all the three issues is land which is the basic factor in agriculture.
Even as agriculture in India has been mostly subsistence farming, especially for the marginal and small farmers who constitute the majority, a continuous shrinkage in farm size has been a challenge to productivity and income. According to the Agricultural Census 2014, two-thirds of total 140 million landholdings were of an average size of mere 0.39 ha i.e., less than two acres. While the family inheritance factor is one reason for the fragmentation and shrinking of the farm size, poverty and non-viability of farming is another reason for alienation of land. Even the surplus lands distributed under the 'Land Reforms' drive, and lands given to the landless poor and ex-servicemen by the District Collectors, got fragmented into countless uneconomical small farms over generations.
A study by Sanjoy Chakravorty and others of Temple University, on the basis of Census data (2015-16), found that around 10 crore households in the agriculture sector in India were subjected to poverty as incomes grew in proportion to the size of farm or holding, and for the marginal farmers the growth in incomes was the least. Farm size was found to be the determinant for the rise in income, as the large farms had yielded doubled incomes as opposed to the smaller farms. Since 65 per cent of net sown area is rainfed dryland, and the cost of cultivation (CoC) has increased manifold over the years, agricultural incomes of small holding farmers have plummeted, making cultivation no longer a viable occupation. Between 2001 and 2011, a gradual decline in the number of cultivators (-0.70 per cent) and a rise in that of agriculture workers (3.06 per cent) was observed.
Secondly, depletion of agricultural land negatively impacts production and employment. In three years (between 2016-17 and 2018-19) alone, 2.45 lakh hectares of arable land was reduced in the country, and cultivable land as a whole was reduced to 18.09 crore hectare in 2018-19 from 18.18 crore hectare in 2013-14. While in Assam, West Bengal, UP and Rajasthan, the agricultural land was reduced between 5,000 to 70,000 hectares, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana and J&K had a rise between 2,000 to 50,000 hectares. The net loss is visible. The trend is, that the more a State is commercially and industrially attractive, the more is the decline in agricultural lands and consequent diversion for commercial purposes i.e., factories, business premises, housing projects, malls etc. The inverse relation is clear: as cities expand, agricultural land shrinks in. Gurugram in NCR is an instant example. Even the government's land acquisition process targets arable lands for allotment to industrial purposes of both the private and public sectors. The decline in the share of agriculture to GDP can be a sign of ‘structural transformation' of the economy, but the decline in cultivable land is ominous since about 57 per cent of arable land in India is devoted to crop cultivation, as against the world average of 12 per cent.
Thirdly, degradation of soil health is a larger issue which affects the small holdings the most. No doubt total production in India has touched 291.95 million tonnes in 2019-20, from 196.81 million tonnes in 2000-01. But the increase in productivity doesn't necessarily mean better yields from small holdings or a guarantee for an ecosystem of sustainability. According to the National Academy of Agriculture Sciences (NAAS), 2018, four reasons are responsible for soil degradation: salinisation, acidification, toxification through chemicals, and depletion of nutrients and organic matter due to unscientific use of fertilisers, pesticides and methods of cultivation — the unwanted consequences of 'Green Revolution'. The data from Soil Health Card (SHC) scheme shows low soil organic carbon (SOC) across the country, indicative of poor soil health. Besides, the ecosystem of sustainable production has been disturbed as the natural resource base for farming has shrunk due to climate change. Thousands of hectares of land turn sterile every year due to floods and natural calamities.
There are, of course, elaborate schemes to support the small farmers. The Fasal Bima Yojana guarantees compensation for crop failures while the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (2019) has directly transferred more than 1.5 lakh crore to 10 crore beneficiaries. Increase in MSP by 1.5 times the CoC, linking of farmers with Kisan Credit Card (KCC) for cheaper farm loans, solar power schemes to farms, and creation of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) are some thoughtful measures. But these piecemeal solutions are not good enough. As of now, no proper measure exists to prevent the fragmentation of lands, or to control indiscriminate transfer of arable lands. Likewise, with regard to soil health, except mobile soil testing labs, little is done in terms of encouraging 'adaptation' measures for sustainable agriculture. Some States have laws restricting the transaction of lands belonging to Aboriginal Tribes in the notified Tehsils, but such an arrangement is absent with regard to lands belonging to Non-Tribals. Practically, transfer of private arable land is unrestricted, resulting in loss of huge arable land. Rise in productivity not only depends on intense use of inputs, but also on per capita availability of land, which needs to be guaranteed.
Saving of agricultural land deserves to be prioritised with permanent solutions. It is time that a legal framework for regulating transactions of agricultural land is brought in to save the farm size from shrinking, and also to conserve and consolidate cultivable lands by putting a check on land grabbers. Reform is possible since the right to property is only a legal right, different from fundamental right. Secondly, the land acquisition proceedings can target uncultivable patches affected by salinity, acidity, etc, in place of fertile arable lands, for allotment to developmental, infrastructural and commercial purposes. Thirdly, schemes need to be revisited as per the demands of agroecology to strike a balance between productivity and sustainability, stressing on new ways of farming through reduced pesticides, enriching biodiversity, and revitalising small farms. India is committed to restoring 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. The government can also contemplate on innovative ways like managing agriculture through the public sector on an industrial scale, by consolidating small farms and revitalising barren lands, taking the small and marginal farmers on board.
The writer is a former Addl. Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal