Why are farmers resisting land acquisition, despite agriculture turning non-profitable?

Nesar Ahmad | DevelopmentDebate

The question of land is not as emotional as suggested by some economists making the case for easy land acquisition. They suggest that the land is required for industrial and infrastructural development and if there is a tougher land acquisition act it will constrain the development and hinder progress of the country. They also say that many many more people are stuck in the unproductive and low paying agriculture sector (which is factually true) and its keeping them poor and backward. Therefore, thus the argument goes, it is necessary to take the land from the people, even without their consent, for the development of industry and infrastructure, which will also help the poor people dependent on agriculture by moving them out of agriculture. All these arguments have been summarized here by R Jagannathan, a votary of free market economic policies and an ardent supporter of the Prime Minister Modi and his so called Modinomics.

However, the land question is far from emotional. It is a known fact now that a vast majority of farmers want to quit farming as farming is hardly economically viable. The crisis in agriculture has taken form of catastrophe in the last 2 and half decades, forcing thousands of farmers to commit suicide year after year. Still if the farmers remain in farming there must be some reasons which are far stronger than emotional.

The Census 2011 data reveal that actually the share of cultivators in total working population has gone down in the last decade (from 31.7% in 2001 to 24.9% in 2011) but the share of total workers engaged in agriculture has come down only by 3.3 percent (from 58.2% in 2001 to 54.9% in 2001). Instead what has happened is the cultivators have become now agriculture workers. The share of agriculture workers in total working population has increased from 26.5% in 2001 to 30% in 2011.

Not only has this, the vast tracts of agricultural land has also been transferred to non-agriculture uses in last decade. According to a government committee on land reforms more than 2.1 million hectares of agricultural land has been transferred to non-agricultural purposes during 1990-2003.

So why are the people not coming out of agriculture? The answer is simple because the other two sectors i.e. industry and service sectors are not able to absorb more people in spite of the growth in their share in the total economy. The share of agriculture and allied sectors in the GDP of the country has declined from 23.2% in 1999-2000 to about 13.9% in 2013-14. At the same time share of non-agriculture sectors have grown to more than 85% (Economic Survey 2013-14). This structural change in the economy is much deeper if we compare the contributions of various sectors in GDP in the decades and 1950s and 1960s and now. Yet the non-agriculture sectors provide employment to less than 50% of the workforce. The best available estimate puts the share of employment in non-agriculture sectors at 51.2% in 2011-12 (based on NSSO data, cited in the Economic Survey 2013-14). The service sector, which share in the GDP is 59.9%, provides employment to only 26.9% of the working population.

Additionally, whatever non-farm employment opportunity are available for most of the poor illiterate, semi-literate or less educated workers are of low paid jobs, in unorganised and informal sectors, without any job security or workplace facilities, safety measures and social security. In order to get access to those jobs, people are forced to live in urban slums, in small rooms, without basic amenities like clean and safe drinking water, sanitation and health and education services.

Obviously the poor farmers know that once their land is gone there is hardly any employment opportunity available for them in non-agriculture sectors and whatever employment is available is of extremely bad quality.

As far as the ease of land acquisition and availability of land is concerned, till 2013 the country had, the Land Acquisition Act 1894 which was enacted by the colonial rulers and gave unlimited powers to the governments to acquire any lands in the name of public purpose. Besides this there are many other central and state government acts which make land acquisition very easy for the state governments. There is no need for the governments to even inform the land owners before acquiring their land, let alone taking their consent. These land acquisition acts do not make any legal provision of either the study of social impact assessment of projects or the rehabilitation and resettlement of the people whose lands are being acquired. The impact of involuntary and forcible land acquisition and displacement caused by the development projects have been disastrous for the affected people and have been documented very well by many social scientists.

Still in spite of having such a favorable land acquisition regime so far the record of economic development in the country has been far from the satisfactory even for the growth hungry, pro-free market ideologues and the corporate sectors. So far the corporate sector and government owned PSUs have had almost free availability of land they needed for their projects by just giving a minimal compensation and without any burden of rehabilitation and resettlement. Not only this, the country has also adopted the regime of largely liberal and free market economic policy during the last two and half decades. Yet the corporate sector wants to continue with taking the land of the poor farmers with the help of government might and almost free of cost without being bothered about the social impact of their projects and without bothering about the food security of the country.

The 2013 Act, which is disliked so much by the corporate and the central and state governments, for the first time provided legal guarantee for the social impact assessment of the projects and rehabilitation and resettlement of people losing their land as well people losing their livelihoods due to the development projects. It also, for the first time provided for a consent clause, for the land being acquired for private sector and public-private-partnership projects. The LARR Act of 2013, though is not perfect, it has provisions which are quite pro-people. However, the most important lacuna of this act is, it has provision of exemption from all the important clauses of this law (like SIA, necessary consent in case of private and PPP projects, non-acquisition of multi crop land, special provisions for scheduled areas etc.) when the land is being acquired under 13 other central government acts. However, the other provisions like increased compensation and mandatory rehabilitation and resettlement are to be applied in all cases of land acquisition. Though, issue of the increased compensation has also been left to the state government.

The Ordinance, which the Modi government wants to shove down the throat of people of this country, has given exemptions to five types of projects, even when the land is being acquired under this new Act of 2013. That means that effectively the new features of the 2013 Act will totally be gone. At a time when taking free prior and informed consent of the land owners and social impact assessment of development projects is becoming a global norm, the Modi government wants to move backwards to please the national and foreign multinationals at the cost of the only source of livelihood available to the millions of poor people of this country.


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