Why Telangana election might just become a proxy battle between TRS and farmers
By CR Sukumar, ET Bureau | Dec 01, 2018, 11.00 PM IST
Agriculture is a major economic activity in the state, where about 41.75 lakh hectares or 37.25% of land is under cultivation.
Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) seems to be on a damage-control mode. With assembly polls due on December 7, he has been on a whirlwind tour of the state to ensure that a scheme his government launched to help farmers does not backfire.
Rythu Bandhu, the farmers’ investment support scheme announced in February, offer cash benefit of Rs 8,000 an acre (Rs 4,000 each in kharif and rabi seasons) annually to agricultural landowners. The scheme, however, excluded “tenant farmers”, or those who till the land but have no legal ownership on it.
The government issued “pattadar passbooks” to beneficiaries, the landowners, while deleting the column on tenants from the passbooks. The government said the idea was to clean up land records and help identify owners of the land. The state, which has earmarked Rs 12,000 crore for the scheme in 2018-19, said if the passbooks are not linked with Aadhaar, the land concerned could be considered benami.
Civil society activists and farmers’ union representatives, however, say it is a deathblow to tenant and tribal farmers in the state as they will not get any money despite being the cultivators. A sister scheme called Rythu Bheema offers group life insurance.
Telangana has 57 lakh agricultural landowners, according to government records. But there are no official records on the number of tenant farmers; estimates, however, say a large number of farmers are tenants.
Agriculture is a major economic activity in the state, where about 41.75 lakh hectares or 37.25% of land is under cultivation. In the 1980s and ’90s, thousands of landlords, mostly in the northern region of the state, had left their villages due to Naxal violence. The rebels distributed lakhs of acres owned by these landlords to poor and landless farm labourers. But these marginal farmers do not have the title to the land.
The tenant farmers pay the landowners rent or give them a share of the produce. The cultivator bears the risk of crop failure. With the fire of discontent due to Rythu Bandhu threatening to spread across the state, the KCR-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi has promised alleviating measures.
The party’s manifesto committee chief K Keshava Rao says the issues being faced by the poor farmers will be addressed. The final manifesto that will be released by December 2 will take care of the small and marginal farmers, he says.
KCR has promised to address the issues of tribal farmers and give passbooks to them, too, within six months of coming to power. He continues to be silent over the fate of tenant farmers. Downplaying the issue, TRS’ deputy floor leader in Parliament B Vinod Kumar says the government has after a deep and careful study decided to delete the “possession” column from the pattadar passbooks. This column was deleted to clean up land records and because the column was also leading to disputes between landowners and tenant farmers, he says.
“The government will extend the Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bheema benefits to tenant farmers provided there is a formal tenancy agreement with landowners.” To matters worse for tenant farmers, banks disqualify them from loans if their names are not on the passbooks. Having the government-issued loan eligibility cards is another way for these people to get credit access.
“The KCR government’s move has taken away the limited privileges that tenant farmer had for decades,” says Kanneganti Ravi, a member at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture and convenor of the Telangana Rythu Joint Action Committee. “Forget about getting Rythu Bandhu money, now these tenant farmers cannot even claim any government benefits or relief measures. They cannot access bank loans either.”
Almost all political parties are promising to extend the scheme to other sections of farmers and also increasing the sop to Rs 10,000 a year from Rs 8,000 now. However, an association of the scheme’s beneficiaries, Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bheema Labdidarula Samakhya, has raised objections.
L Pandu Ranga Reddy, president of the body, says it will be difficult to identify tenant farmers as the column in the passbooks pertaining to tillers has been removed. “No landowner would give in writing to a tenant that the land has been leased.”
In June, the TRS government said new passbooks were being issued to some 57.24 lakh farmers and cheques have been issuedto 52.64 lakh farmers who have linked their passbooks with Aadhaar. About 90% of the beneficiaries have been covered and the balance 10% would be covered as soon as some technical errors were sorted out, it said.
The state has released Rs 6,000 crore in the first round. The second round of Rythu Bandhu cheques have also been disbursed but details of the number of farmers and amount aren’t available. The scheme has only helped rich landowners get financial assistance running into lakhs, says Bhutham Veeraiah, general secretary of the Telangana Rythu Kooli Sangam, an affiliate body of CPI-ML. During the first tranche of Rythu Bandhu cash disbursals, in May, there were several news reports of rich farmers coming to their villages in high-end cars to receive the cash benefit.
“The Rythu Bandhu scheme has benefited the absentee landlords more than the cultivating farmers,” says Veeraiah. Nearly 80% of agricultural land in villages are being cultivated by tenant farmers, he said, though government records show otherwise. A large number of tenant farmers have plots up to three acres to cultivate.
“The scheme was not made applicable to tribal farmers either — this section cultivates on about seven lakh acres of forestlands. Similarly, tenant farmers cultivating around 1.5 lakh acres of endowment lands and waqf lands were also denied the scheme.”
In a state that comes second in farmer suicides, after Maharashtra, says Ravi, tenant farmers bear the brunt all the time. Land revenue officials had even stopped recording the names of tenant farmers for several years now, he says.
A study by his non-government organisation, Rythu Swarajya Vedika, and Tata Institute of Social Sciences showed more than 75% of the farmers in Telangana who killed themselves between June 2014 and April 2018 were tenant farmers, and 94% were marginal, small and landless farmers. The study also found that most farmers who killed themselves had no access to bank loans and were heavily dependent on moneylenders. Nearly half of these farmers had no outstanding bank loans but had an average of Rs 4 lakh per head of private loans.
“Our study showed that most of these tenant farmers couldn’t benefit from the loan waiver schemes often announced by governments as they were denied formal bank loans. Though the Andhra Pradesh Land Licensed Cultivators Act-2011 provided loan eligibility cards to tenant farmers, it was not implemented effectively. In some instances, thanks to certain proactive district collectors, a few thousand tenant farmers were granted loan eligibility cards.”
Referring to the body blow from the TRS government, Ravi says, “Some 20 lakh tenant farmers across the state are now frustrated that they have been denied Rythu Bandhu support, bank loans and loan waivers.” Rythu Bandhu has made landlords return to villages. They are threatening the tenant farmers tilling their land, says Veeraiah of CPI-ML.
“In many instances, the absentee landlords, now back in control as their names are on the pattadar passbooks, have forced the tenant farmers to buy their land.” He says the distress is high in the districts of Karimnagar, Warangal, Komuram Bheem-Asifabad, Adilabad, Khammam, Bhadrachalam-Kothagudem, and Jayashankar-Bhoolapalli, and some parts of Mahabubnagar and Medak. The situation has started getting more politicised now.
In its election manifesto, the Congress led coalition, People’s Front, has promised to extend the benefits of Rythu Bandhu to tenant and tribal farmers. “There has been widespread discontent among the farmers in Telangana since the TRS government’s land regularisation scheme recognised the rights of historical owners of the land rather than the tenant farmers, who account for over a third of the farmers in the state,” says Mallu Bhatti Vikramarka, chairman of Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee’s Campaign Committee.
Land rights were always central to many critical movements in the region, including the peasant rebellion of the late 1940s and the Naxal movement in 1960s and 1970s.
“The ensuing elections in Telangana will be a fight between the common people and feudal forces,” adds Vikramarka. In a communique dated October 13 that was distributed in the affected areas, state secretary of Communist Party of India (Maoist) Haribhushan said: “The TRS government has retrieved land from Dalits, tribals and downtrodden communities in the guise of land resurvey and handed the lands back to the landlords. The Rythu Bandhu and Rythu Bheema schemes were actually aimed at benefiting the rich farmers and landlords. These schemes have hurt the poor farmers.” Echoing similar views, Telangana Jana Samithi President M Kodandaram says thousands of farmers across the state have lost their rights because of the government’s programme.
“In many cases, farmers weren’t issued passbooks. They could not get Rythu Bandhu money or bank loans. The state’s farm sector is under severe distress today as agriculture products are not getting remunerative prices. The loan waiver promised by TRS is yet to come.”
Another factor has added to the farm distress. Tenant farmers who agree to pay landlords higher upfront rent to grow commercial crops such as cotton and chillis ended up with huge losses as market prices were unremunerated, says Veeraiah. Adverse feedback from lawmakers and ruling party cadre on the growing distress at the ground level may have made the chief minister rethink on denying benefits to tenant and tribal farmers, says political analyst Manchala Srinivasa Rao.
“For the first time, KCR has acknowledged the issues facing tribal farmers. At public meetings in north Telangana, which has a high population of tribal farmers, he was seen repeatedly promising them that he would soon confer them with rights to the forestlands that they have been cultivating on for decades,” adds Rao.
The farmer discontent comes even as the state is yet to address the woes of at least 50,000 farmers who lost their lands to government projects — especially the Kaleshwaram irrigation project and Singareni Coal Collieries’ open cast mining — but have not received compensation according to the Land Acquisition Act 2013, says Rachna Reddy
Bollu, the advocate who has fought dozens of farmer cases in various courts. Going by the turmoil in rural Telangana, the forthcoming elections might well turn into a battle over cultivating rights of agricultural land, and, therefore, a proxy battle between the KCR-led TRS and distressed farmers.