Originally written to protect small farmers, India’s land rights are failing them. Now, more of them are seeking work in cities instead.

Words: Apekshita Varshney
Illustration: Maria Grejc

“I had always dreamt of owning a car,” says Lakshmikant Kauthakar, a farmer in the village of Adgaon Khurd in the west central Indian state of Maharashtra.

We are on his family’s farm, watching a network of valves slowly drip water onto flourishing sugarcane and banana crops. At some distance, the black soil, usually hardened by the unrelenting heat of the sun, is freshly ploughed and heavy with moisture. The time is perfect to sow the region’s cash crop, cotton, but Kauthakar’s mind is on other matters.

Several years ago, an old friend who worked in Mumbai was passing through a nearby town and called to arrange a meeting. Kauthakar was happy to hear from him and offered to come to the train station to pick him up. But the friend said not to worry, he would be travelling “in his own car”.

After a few years of service in the nearest megacity, his friend had achieved something Kauthakar had never believed possible. He didn’t know how to react: “As the vision of a sleek sedan flashed in my mind, I blankly stared at my family’s vast 48-acre land, mentally calculated the hundreds of thousands of rupees of farm loan I was yet to pay off and called it a day.”

Half of the Indian population is dependent on agriculture and allied activities for their livelihood. This same 50% also earns far less than the other half. According to data by the National Sample Services Organisation, the average farm income is Rs 5,240 ($77) per month whereas those in other professions can earn up to Rs 9,463 ($139).

Multiple Indian governments have tried to improve farmers’ livelihoods by extending handsome benefits: keeping farm income exempt from taxation; offering lavish subsidies on seeds, fertiliers, electricity and water; loan waivers; crop insurance; and support prices. In 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party government announced a basic income of Rs 6,000 ($84) for small farmers as an attempt to double their incomes by 2022. And yet, as the numbers show, farmers still make the least money of all India’s professions, rarely reaching the basic taxation limit.

Unlike Kauthakar, most farmers would not dare to dream of owning
a car. There are multiple reasons for this clear economic divide, but a large proportion of Indian farmers believe that a lack of land rights tops the list.

From 1757 to 1947, the British exploited India’s natural and human resources and drained its economy. When it finally gained independence in 1947, 70% of the country was living in abject poverty with a 12% literacy rate and a life expectancy of 29. Its new political class tried to break the hegemony of upper-caste landowners by enacting laws that would benefit its poorer citizens. The Land Ceiling Acts were enacted to stop farmers from accumulating excessive amounts of land and to allow for its equitable redistribution. Under the law in Maharashtra, for instance, individual farmers can own a 54-acre non-irrigated plot, but if they have an assured water supply and are capable of growing more than two crops a year, they are only permitted to hold 18 acres each.

Today, these laws, “act as a barrier to the growth of farmers’ income,” writes Ila Patnaik, the former principal economic adviser to the Congress government. “Successful farmers who own land as per the ceiling limits
are unable to buy more land and increase their income.”

India’s contentious land acquisition laws are also prohibitive, allowing governments to prioritise corporate interests over farmers’ needs. In many states, farmers can only buy and sell land among themselves. Of course these rules don’t apply to governments who have historically acquired land
for industries without providing just compensation or following due process. If the original intention of these laws was to prioritise the needs of farmers, they have failed.

“From 1757 to 1947, the British exploited India’s natural and human resources and drained its economy. When it finally gained independence in 1947, 70% of the country was living in abject poverty.”

Nevertheless, Namita Wahi, the lead author of the report analysing land acquisition cases in the supreme court of India, believes, “it’s important to understand the context in which they were written. We needed to rehabilitate refugees and conducted land reforms to support the country’s growing population, to produce enough food, prevent famines and improve subsistence.” This is no longer the case.

India is now the world’s seventh largest economy by GDP and has lifted 271 million people out of poverty in the past 10 years, but the country still needs large-scale industrial and infrastructural growth. This has led to a swathe of conflicts between farmers and industry. Land Conflict Watch, an initiative that maps battles for land around India, shows that the country is brimming with conflicts between sectors where farmer groups of up to 10,000 people are contesting projects worth up to Rs 100,000 crores (roughly $121bn)
to corporations. Currently, those closest to the land are toiling away under
the sweltering sun while politicians and corporations reap the benefits.

Since land reform broke up big farms after independence, the landholdings of large farmers have been in steady decline, with more small and marginal farmers coming into the fold. From 2,766 large holdings (of more than 5ha) in 1970–71, large farms have reduced to 831 in 2015–16. The landholding of small and marginal farmers has tripled. India now has some of the world’s smallest farms with an average landholding of 1.1 acres. To put this into perspective, the average farm size in the UK is 197 acres.

Larger farm holdings are more productive and therefore more profitable. Research by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) establishes that the world’s poorest are concentrated on small farms and need to be equipped with ways to expand landholdings. Most developing countries face this challenge, but India’s situation is particularly miserable. Here, the poorest of the poor are surviving by farming on a patch too small to produce a surplus to sell in order to liberate them from poverty.

India’s large and medium-scale farmers — who make up 13.2% of all the nation’s farmers — own 43.6% of the country’s crop area. Kauthakar is a large-scale farmer, benefiting from his higher caste and the resulting upward mobility. He might be the joint owner of a large plot of ancestral land, but he believes that the situation is bleak for all farmers. “There is no farmer in Maharashtra who is not repressed by loans at least ten times his income,” he says.

Kauthakar’s own loans were taken out to invest in a variety of new farming methods, but he continues to be in debt. “When I started to question why farmers are so poor, I realised that it was a lack of land rights, market access, and extensive government regulation. These problems affect all kinds of farmers.” As a result, he joined Swabhimanu Shetkari Sanghatana (SSS), a farmer organisation mostly active in Maharashtra that demands liberalisation of land policies and market access for farmers.

In a crisp white shirt and blue trousers, Lalit Bahale, a farmer and senior member of the (SSS), is addressing a group of 40 to 50 cotton farmers in the Maharashtran village of Akoli Jahagir. They’ve gathered to discuss the hot topic of genetically modified seeds, but the conversation spirals into the other causes of their precarious economic condition. Bahale is describing the hunched back and wrinkled, sunburnt skin of daily wage labourers and farmers. “Fried like potato fritters by the scorching sun,” he says, and the farmers laugh ironically at their own misery. Later, he takes aim at the Land Ceiling Act. “Has anyone stopped the rich in cities from owning more than one apartment?” he asks. The land acquisition laws, which anger many, are in his crosshairs next.

Successive governments have acquired land from multiple farmers in the nearby villages of Akoli Jahagir, Adgaon Khurd and Panaj for a dam that currently runs dry. While some were poorly compensated under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, others got a better rate when the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) was passed in 2013. But despite the LARR supposedly offering four times the market value to farmers, many believe that they didn’t get fair rates.

“India is now the world’s seventh largest economy and has lifted 271 million people out of poverty in the past 10 years, but the country still needs large-scale industrial and infrastructural growth.”

Farmer Srikant Deshmukh is one of them. “I am now fighting a court battle for better compensation but I recognise that most farmers lack the resources to do it,” he says.

A report by the Centre for Policy Research finds that land acquisition cases are inevitably prone to litigation for better compensation. The study has reviewed the land acquisition cases that reached the supreme court of India from 1950 to 2016 and earmarked a range of concerns. The need for administrative and bureaucratic reforms is one of them. Bureaucrats in charge of deciding on compensation, the report finds, violate court orders for paying market rates and instead pay minimum rates called circle rates. As a result, 67.3% of challenges in the court for fair compensation are on market value.

And even after the passing of a law that the report’s authors think is “a step in the right direction”, many Indian states have diluted it to easily acquire land for corporates. They’ve passed ordinances and got rid of some important provisions like consent of the residents, social impact assessments and cost-benefit analyses of the projects requiring acquisition.

But SSS’s argument against this is more fundamental: Should the government be acquiring land for industries in the first place? “Why can’t the transaction be like any other transaction in the market: between the buyer and the seller? And how can fair market prices be decided when the true value of land is minimised by these laws and regulations?” Bahale asks.

A little before evening falls in Akot, groups of young boys can be seen ambling around the town. Most of them are glued to their smartphones. “They don’t want to work on farms like their parents and grandparents. They see no future there,” Lakshmikant Kauthakar concludes. “There’s only one overarching desire: to find a job in the city, like my friend did.”

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