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Consequences for agriculture and food security

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BHASKAR GOSWAMI

AROUND 160 years back political economist John Stuart Mill wrote, ‘Land differs from other elements of production, labour and capital in not being susceptible to infinite increase. Its extent is limited and the extent of the more productive kinds of it more limited still. It is also evident that the quantity of produce capable of being raised on any given piece of land is not indefinite. This limited quantity of land, and limited productiveness of it, are the real limits to the increase of production.’1 Never more do his words ring true than today in India.

With the pressure of billion-plus mouths to feed, and returns on agricultural inputs declining, it would seem prudent to protect the area under agriculture, if not bring more area under cultivation. However, what we are witnessing is the reverse. Faced with competing demands for land from the non-agriculture sector and rapid urbanization, large chunks of prime agriculture land are being diverted for non-agricultural purposes. This has serious implications for food security.

A little over 46 per cent of the country’s area is under agriculture. Between 1990 and 2003, the area cultivated went down by around 1.5 per cent. While in percentage terms this may seem insignificant, in absolute terms it translates to more than 21 lakh hectares. If this area was brought under wheat (for the sake of argument), it would amount to a mind-boggling 57 lakh tonnes, which can feed more than 4.3 crore hungry people every year. Had political will to prevent this diversion prevailed, the number of hungry would have gone down substantially. On the other hand, between 1990 and 2004, land under non-agricultural uses has gone up by 34 lakh hectares.

All across the country, agriculture land is shrinking. In Kerala, the area under paddy is around 3.5 lakh hectares as against 10 lakh hectares in 1980. As a result the demand for rice is about five times higher than what is produced by the state. Mineral-rich Orissa is losing agricultural land to mining and power projects. Even in the case of a small state like Himachal Pradesh the net sown area has declined by 33,000 hectares between 1991 and 2001.

In recent years this rate of diversion has gone up. For instance, across 25 mandals in and around Hyderabad, 90,000 hectares of agriculture land has been diverted during the last five years. Real estate major Emaar MGF owns over 4,000 hectares of agricultural land across the country while DLF controls a land bank of around 3,500 hectares more. To sustain the high rate of economic growth, major infrastructure development projects such as construction of new airports, roads, power generation plants etc. are coming up. All this and more through large-scale diversion of fertile agriculture land.

Diversion of agricultural land for industry is frequently justified by pointing towards cultivable wasteland – around 132 lakh hectares – which can be developed and put under cultivation. However, cultivable wastelands have also declined by over 18 lakh hectares between 1990 and 2004. Further, even if these wastelands are developed and made cultivable to grow food, the productivity will remain abysmally low for several years.

In addition to increasing production of foodgrains for ensuring food security, pulses and fats are necessary for nutrition security. On the one hand, feeding half of the world’s hungry who live in India will require at least 170 lakh hectares of additional land under cultivation. On the other, to achieve self sufficiency in pulses and edible oils will require 200 lakh hectares more. Where will this land come from? Forget agricultural land; there is not enough cultivable wasteland available to meet this requirement.

The fact is that there simply is not enough land to go around. The statement of the Commerce Ministry, ‘SEZs account for 0.000012 per cent of the country’s arable area’ therefore needs to be viewed through this prism. When the ministry states that just over two lakh hectares of land will be lost once the formally and informally approved SEZs come up, it ignores the fact that this can feed over four million hungry every year in perpetuity. These numbers have gone up recently. Check the Ministry of Commerce website for latest data. Further, the argument of the ministry that most land under SEZs had already been acquired by state governments is indefensible because prior to its acquisition, it would have been under cultivation.

Agriculturally rich states like Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh account for over 70 per cent of the land that is earmarked for approved SEZs. Punjab and Haryana which meet a bulk of the country’s foodgrain requirement are promoting SEZs on prime agricultural land. With the Ministry of Commerce announcing on 3 December 2007 that the 5,000 hectare ceiling on multi-product SEZs may be relaxed, it is music to the ears of big developers whose projects were stalled. Now with acquisition of land left to the SEZ promoters, agricultural land is bound to come under increasing pressure.

In addition to land, water is another resource that is limited in supply and increased competition for its use between agriculture and the industry is jeopardizing food security. As it is, barely 40 per cent of the cultivated area of the country is irrigated while the rest depends on unpredictable rains to produce crops. This limited area however accounts for more than half of the total value of output of Indian agriculture. Irrigation also has the potential to increase crop yield by 30 per cent and therefore its importance for ensuring food security cannot be ignored.

Between farming and industry, which sector will have a priority over the use of this scarce resource? The SEZ Act of 2005 and SEZ Rules (2006) do not answer this question. Legislations at the state-level are either silent on this issue or clearly allow SEZs to develop water supply and distribute to its units. Given the present rules governing groundwater resources in the country, there is precious little that a state can do to prevent SEZs from running the underground aquifers dry and leaving nothing for surrounding farmlands.

Not only groundwater, even rivers and reservoirs meant for irrigation purposes are now being put at the service of SEZs. Take for instance the Whitefield Paper Mills SEZ in Andhra Pradesh. Located within five kilometres of the river Godavari, the state government has permitted the SEZ to draw 100 million litres of water per day. While the river at present has ample water, it is noteworthy that more than half of the Godavari river basin is categorized as cultivable land and, naturally, any mass-industrialization along this zone will reduce water availability for irrigation.

In Orissa, the allocation of water to industries from the Hirakud reservoir to industries has gone up 30 times over the 1997 levels. Notwithstanding protests by farmers against diversion of water meant for irrigation, the state is going ahead with its plans to increase allocation for industries – many of which are SEZs – like the Hindalco industries in Sambalpur district and Vedanta Industries Ltd. in Jharsuguda. POSCO’s proposed SEZ in Jagatsinghpur has been allowed to directly draw water from the river Mahanadi.

While industries are being given a priority over water rights by the Orissa government, Padampur subdivision of Bargarh district of the state, which falls in the command area of Hirakud dam, has remained permanently in the grip of continuous drought and agricultural failure since the 1960s. This area has also earned the dubious distinction of being one of the poorest region of the world. Obviously somebody has been busy stealing water meant for irrigating the crops of poor farmers.

There is more. The Mundra Port SEZ being developed by the Adani Group in the Gulf of Kutch, Gujarat has managed to access six million litres per day of Nar
mada water for immediate use and they expect the allotment to go up. SIPCOT SEZ in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu will receive water from the SIPCOT water supply scheme. Government of Andhra Pradesh will install a pipeline capable of carrying dedicated capacity of 20 million gallons of water per day for the FAB City SEZ coming up near Hyderabad. The list is endless.

It is unfortunate that despite over 177 lakh hectares of barren and uncultivable land lying unused, scarce resources like rich agricultural land and water are being poached upon to promote SEZs. To feed a billion plus people, 350 million of whom are chronically food insecure, the government is pushing for diversification away from foodgrains to produce non-food cash crops. The cash generated through exports of these will be used to import food.

However, there are some who believe that there may be pitfalls with this approach. ‘It’s important for our nation to be able to grow foodstuffs to feed our people. Can you imagine a country that was unable to grow enough food to feed the people? It would be a nation that would be subject to international pressure. It would be a nation at risk. And so when we’re talking about American agriculture, we’re really talking about a national security issue.’

This was President George W. Bush addressing the National Future Farmers of America Organization on 27 July 2001. For once, Bush does make sense.

Footnote:

1. J.S. Mill, The Principles of Political Economy. Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1848.

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