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Is It Really Worth Living The Life Of A Tiller In India?
- Sep 06, 2017 -

It has been a bad year for wheat production as rains have been erratic. The estimates suggest the overall production will be down by 14% but some small farmers are complaining of still larger losses. A farmer I spoke to said that he and his neighbours' production of wheat is down 40% from last year. These are farmers who have almost no irrigation for their crops and only depend on the rain gods.

Agricultural production

According to the World Bank, India has 60.6% of the land under agriculture and China has 54.8%. However, the yield of wheat in India is just 3.2 M/ha whereas in China it's 5 M/ha. The figures of yield of rice also describe the same story. In spite of having vast tracts of land under agriculture, the productivity of land in India is quite low.

There are several reasons for such an anomaly such as small land holdings, dependence on rainfall, lack of use of good quality seeds, inadequate implementation of land reforms etc. However, one of the major reasons for low agricultural productivity in India is landlessness. According to an article in Foreign Affairs, more than 20 million poor rural families across India own no land, and millions more lack legal rights to the land they work and live on.

With no ownership of land, the farmer who tills the land has no incentive to invest in the land to improve its productivity. Also, this farmer with no collateral, has no access to institutional credit to buy raw materials and equipment for tilling the land.

Tiller – owner of land

After Independence, one of the major tasks before the Government of India was the introduction of land reforms and ensuring its successful implementation. However, even after 68 years of Independence, the land reforms remain unfinished and incomplete. They have not been able to bring about any significant change in the economic conditions of the cultivator of the land.

There were four major reforms: abolition of zamindari (intermediaries), tenancy reforms to ensure security of tenure, ceilings on holdings and consolidation of land. The underlying objective of all these land reforms was (a) enhancing productivity of the land by improving economic conditions of the farmers, thus incentivising them to invest in agriculture (b) to create a system where tiller/cultivator is the actual owner of the land.

The land reforms achieved considerable success in the states of West Bengal and Kerala where CPI(M) was the ruling party but in the rest of India, their performance was way below the average. Operation Barga in West Bengal was instrumental in providing ownership rights to the cultivator but that also fizzled out by the second phase. Also, due to discrepancies and loopholes in the laws on land reforms, Zamindars retained ownership of majority of their land under 'personal cultivation' or registering the land in name of their family members. Thus, the tiller is still suffering and toiling day and night on a piece of earth that he/she can't claim to be his own.

According to an article in Landesa, 54% of the rural population in India lives without any ownership of land.

When one studies the figures of land use pattern of India, it is observed that almost 24 million hectares of cultivable land lies uncultivated. This includes the cultivable waste land and fallow land. One may wonder why these lands are lying uncultivated when we could produce food out of these and feed an impoverished nation like India where many people go hungry every single day.

Ambiguous land ownership

In Bihar, under the tenancy law, a tenant has the right to acquire land from a landlord without paying money if the tenant cultivated the land continuously for 12 years. However, this reform is of little benefit to the farmers of Bihar. This is because many small farmers have been tilling land on 'oral agreements' and do not have paper records to prove their 12 years of hard work. In India there is some effort at digitisation of land records and but still the organisation is not complete.

There have been instances when a farmer has been asked to produce legal records of his land. The documents produced are so old and have yellowed over the years that the text is erased and one cannot read it. Such episodes further highlight the ambiguity surrounding ownership of land in India. In Andhra Pradesh, 20% of land has ambiguous ownership.

An NGO working for land rights, Landesa estimates that at least 250 million rural men and 400 million rural women around the world lack secure legal rights to land on which they depend for cultivation. According to a report by McKinsey and Company, ambiguous land ownership and laws cut an estimated 1.3% off India's yearly GDP growth. And, according to an article in foreign affairs, if there are secure land rights, there can be a 60% increase in agricultural production and a 150% increase in family income.

Thus, there is a clear need for providing secure land rights to the cultivators to incentivise them to invest in their land and improve its productivity. Land is a limited resource. We can't generate more land but what we can do is produce more from what we have.

Land reforms in other countries

Implementing land reforms and developing mechanisms for land rights is not an easy task. However, countries that have invested their efforts in ensuring the same have seen remarkable improvement in the economic conditions of their rural communities and in turn the entire agricultural sector.

China has done some work on the farm land rights. In China, the largest poverty alleviation programme involved ensuring land rights reforms where communes were turned into family farms and farms households were endowed with 30 years of transferable rights to land. These reforms have considerably uplifted the economic situation of millions of farmers of China.

Rwanda in Africa embarked on the journey of key constitutional and legislative reforms in 2011-2013 with the focus on land rights "titling" process for its rural communities. After the introduction of these reforms, there has been an improvement in livelihoods and overall agricultural management and growth.

Recently, in India the Rajasthan government has passed the "titling" law for urban areas to ensure security of land rights. This is the first such law in the country passed in any state. It may inspire other states to also adopt similar laws.

One day the tiller will not just toil

About 3,00,000 farmers have committed suicide in India in the last 20 years. Many have described these as "debt deaths". The tiller seems to be having a tough time surviving. The land holding are quite small and it is their only source of income in many cases. When the crop fails everything in their life comes crumbling down.

Mahatma Gandhi deriving from John Ruskin's work "Unto this last", said,"The life of a tiller is a life worth living." Is it really worth living the life of a tiller in India?