August 28th, 2009
By G.V. Ramanjaneyulu & Kavitha Kuruganti
Some recent developments in India’s agri-related laws might make former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s infamous dream of seeing “only 15 per cent of Indians in villages” come true much faster than anyone thought possible. Moves are afoot to ensure large-scale displacement of farmers and agricultural workers — the most blatant move is already underway in Andhra Pradesh, under Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. An experiment under the garb of “farmers cooperative” was approved by the state Cabinet recently, not very different from what his rival N. Chandrababu Naidu attempted some years ago. The arguments too are old: Small holdings lead to low productivity, low income, low investments and, this vicious cycle goes on.
This argument ignores the fact that more than 900 scientists from 110 countries have recently concluded an international process, called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), pointing out that small-holding ecological farming is the way forward. We are also familiar with the subsidies that prop up intensive, large-scale models of farming elsewhere, despite claims of efficiency. Numerous studies have confirmed the inverse relationship between the size of farms and the amount of crops they produce per unit.
A study from Turkey shows that farms less than a hectare are 20 times more productive than farms that are over 10 hectares! But why should anyone be looking at such data when the sizes of land holdings and their alleged low productivity is used as an excuse to grab land?
This is what the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister is proposing: Get farmers to pool their land into a cooperative/society/company. Farmers sell their land to the new entity in return for some shares, which will then take up all agricultural operations and pay dividends. Farmers can exit by selling their share to existing members and, if there are no takers, government will buy the shares at a pre-determined market price. Land cannot be obtained back. Though many questions remain unanswered — what will happen to the farmers and how will they take part in any decision-making? What will tenant farmers and agricultural workers do? Why will land not be returned to the farmers? — the state Cabinet has decided to take up a pilot project in 50 villages by investing Rs 5,000 crore and there are moves to introduce a new legislation along these lines.
To begin with, the entire reasoning that bashes small holdings is faulty. Two, an experiment taken up by Mr Naidu some years ago along these lines (“Kuppam Project”) failed in delivering the promised benefits and had environmental repercussions. Most importantly, this move will take away land permanently from farmers and is truly an exit mechanism.
Incidentally, it is in Andhra Pradesh that the world’s largest ecological farming project is unfolding, supported by the state’s rural development department, which is proving that farming can indeed be made viable through alternative technologies and people’s organisations.
This programme, yielding results on more than 20 lakh acres, all small and marginal holdings, has attracted great attention already. Is it by design that the state government chose to ignore such vastly successful models and set about “to make farming viable” through proven-to-have-failed models?
While this is happening in Andhra Pradesh, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu a bill was introduced in the Assembly and supposedly passed on a day when 30 bills were passed without much discussion. This new legislation, called Tamil Nadu State Agricultural Council Act 2009, is about setting up a council that will be empowered to inspect agricultural institutions, courses of study, examinations etcetera, all to ensure that standards are conformed to.
“At present, there is no law to provide for the regulation of agricultural practice… it’s been considered necessary to regulate agricultural practice and registration of agricultural practi-tioners…” states the object of the legislation. Sounds inane enough? However, the law says that no one can render agricultural services unless his/her name is registered in the “Tamil Nadu Agricultural Practitioners Register” with a formal agricultural qualification from Tamil Nadu (outsiders can register within 90 days of their entry!).
In a country which has always had a rich tradition of farming based on an oral and experiential knowledge and in a state where paddy productivity levels are recorded to have been up to 13 tonnes per hectare (in 1807 in Coimbatore) without qualified agriculture scientists, this move is an outright rejection of the vast untapped knowledge of our farm women and men.
Worse, in the name of regulating agricultural services, this seems to be a way of controlling the farmer-to-farmer spread of ecological farming in the state, which is led by farmers themselves, their networks and other civil society groups. Tamil Nadu is also the state where the anti-genetically modified protests against Tamil Nadu Agriculture University’s unthinking capitulation to agro-MNCs like Monsanto are running at a high-pitched level. A connection between the resistance movement and this new law cannot be ruled out.
This new regulation of “agriculture services” will effectively provide more and more markets for particular kinds of technologies at the expense of farmers, as the advisories will be driven by the mindsets that prevail in the agriculture education/ research system in the country and the commercial interests of the agri-services to be set up. This route of a “qualified” advisory system will obviously facilitate conflicting interests and help in improving exclusivity of “markets” by reducing competition, while ignoring the causes for the current agrarian crisis. While a law of this kind should regulate services provided by agricultural research and agri-business bodies to ensure accountability for their services, especially in relation to economic, environmental and social viability and sustainability of farming, it should not be used as a weapon to penalise farmers and civil society
groups which are trying to promote sustainable farming.
These two initiatives in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh are not to be seen as isolated attempts to create more markets for agri-businesses, but as an orchestrated move towards an unwritten “exit policy” for farmers.
These two moves will set a bad precedent for the rest of the country.
Given that agriculture is contributing a lower and lower share in the country’s gross domestic product, its importance in the mainstream economic development model might be diminishing for many policymakers. However, this is a question of livelihood for millions of Indians — without ensuring access and control over basic productive resources and without moving towards sustainable production technologies, the current saga of agrarian distress, including suicides, will only increase.
Such legislations and programmes cannot be brought in without comprehensive debates and without the government clearly stating its vision for farming livelihoods and how they would be liable when things go wrong.
* Dr G.V. Ramanjaneyulu is the executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad, and Kavitha Kuruganti is a trustee of Kheti Virasat Mission, Punjab.