Nov 1, 2012 – “I run so very fast that all the trees get left behind,” says an excited little village boy to his father. The father replies: “Run with your cousins to know how fast you really run.”
Policymakers would have one believe that Indian farmers are running very fast on the road of progress. Reality, however, is far removed from the world of make belief. Without a fair examination of the context of the perceived pace of growth for farmers vis-à-vis the other participants in the great Indian race for progress, there is no means of knowing what the comparative pace of progress of the various players is; whether or not the race is fixed; what disadvantages some players are being put under; and what the resultant inequalities are.
The net worth of the 10 richest Indians is documented to be in excess of $100 billion, which is more than the wealth of the millions of marginal farmer families in the country who account for possibly nearly 30 per cent of India’s population. This glaring inequality is not palatable to those living on the margins. As a farmer, I wish I were wrong but wishes are not horses. The $100 billion translates to nearly Rs 600,000 crore, excluding the value of undocumented undeclared assets. The dozen zeros can boggle any brain, especially in terms of the immense inequality that is now becoming more appalling and visible. Numbers around the gross domestic product, touted as the right measure of a growth of a nation, have ceased to be relevant.
There are sharp stratifications in not only the three components of the human development index – economic, health and education – but also divisions in the crucial decision-making process in India. Nearly half of India’s population is directly employed in agriculture but it would be useful to find out how many members of the policymaking core group in New Delhi, chief ministers or other ministers have ever been dependent on agriculture for a living or, for that matter, have ever really worked the land.
How far India has deviated from the aspirations of the visionary freedom fighters! The skewed distribution of wealth gets translated into the choices made by the people who govern the country; who write policies for its growth; and who determine who is on the fast track to progress. It provides insights into policies that have led to vast tracts of the Indian countryside getting alienated from the mainstream.
The prime minister’s decision of UID-based cash transfers is an excellent concept. The proposed land acquisition bill is, however, another story altogether. Various government organizations together own more than two lakh acres of unused land at various places across the country. Most of these are well located for setting up industries. They even have environment clearances and very good infrastructure connectivity. In the national capital region of Delhi, there are hundreds of acres of unutilized land available for use with the government. These figures exclude the vast tracts of land owned by the ministries of railways and defence.
Instead of seeking to acquire farmers’ land against their wishes, the government would be well advised to first gather and tabulate information about its own unused land. This has never been done because government departments and public sector undertakings do not want to give up control of land allocated to them decades ago but still lying unused. Such lands could be offered at attractive prices for use to industry. Yet policy makers choose to ignore the obvious solution but lasciviously look at the land owned by poor farmers, treating their protests and agitation with ill concealed disdain. Alienation has begun to replace hope on the farms.
Land is not just the only source of income for a farmer, it is all that he has and that he will ever have in future. Cultivating it is the only knowledge that he possesses. Taking it away, even for a price, would mean denuding him of his only source of livelihood. Yet the state is like an unseeing empire passing laws to acquire land from unwilling farmers for purposes that are open to misinterpretation and at prices that can be influenced by arbitrary powers of the district administration. Farmers seek progress and do not relish being taken advantage of. Indeed, the private sector should seek to make an offer that the farmer cannot refuse.
Albeit the government is trying to mend its ways under intense public scrutiny. As India gets set to launch its 12th Plan with fresh hopes of reforms and investment, as India welcomes a new year, it is time for policy makers to accept all wise and credible counsel so that agriculture can be rescued from the hands of vested interest and good intention is backed by even better application of mind so that the end result is a resolution of the crisis facing Indian agriculture; the end of the heartache around land acquisition.