Debating India

Do Bigha Zameen

Friday 20 October 2006, by DEBROY*Bibek

Is there a shortage of land in India and are the next disputes going to be over water and land? And what can be done to tackle the “agricultural crisis”? The prime minister’s call for improving farmers’ real income and the Planning Commission’s Draft Approach Paper to the 11th Plan provide yet another context to look at these questions. There are, as happens in debates like these, quite a few misconceptions.

First, there’s no land shortage. India’s land area is 3.28 million sq km, the population is 1.08 billion and the population density is 328.59 people per sq km. Several countries have higher population densities and the list includes Singapore, Bangladesh, South Korea, Lebanon, Belgium and Japan. Although land use is a function of the level of development, per se, there is no shortage of land in India. Yes, China has three times India’s land area. However, only 13 per cent of China’s land is arable, the figure is 54 per cent for India. But 60 per cent of India’s land is not irrigated and is rain-fed. If we can irrigate more land and improve productivity, to even the levels of other developing countries, we shouldn’t have any problems feeding even double the present population.

Population projections for 2020 vary between 1.315 billion and 1.421 billion, with 1.315 billion probably closer to the mark. National food security doesn’t mean we have to produce everything we consume - that is, as long as we can pay for what we import (like pulses). The simple point is that there is no macro land issue in being unable to feed a population of even 1.5 billion.

Second, what do we mean when we say farm incomes have to improve? Fifty seven per cent of the population describes itself as earning a living primarily from agriculture and that means crop output - typically, foodgrain output. India’s failure is that this figure hasn’t declined. Instead of ensuring that people stay in agriculture, we need to ensure people get out of agriculture, in the sense of crop output. Commercialisation and diversification, away from crop output, and employment creation through off-farm activities will ensure that agriculture grows by 4 per cent, the target set by the Draft Approach Paper to the 11th Plan. It is important to note that when the Approach Paper says that agriculture must grow by 4 per cent, what it really means is that agriculture and allied activities must grow by 4 per cent - agriculture proper can’t conceivably grow by 4 per cent. This is known and people often argue that jobs must be created in rural industries, a la China, given that India has witnessed a failed industrial revolution. However, what is often not stated is that in Great Britain, the industrial revolution was preceded by an enclosure movement that led to privatisation of land and the opening up of land markets. This took various forms and it is impossible to generalise about a process that varied regionally and spanned a range of centuries from the 12th to the 19th. But as a general proposition, it created land markets and allowed agricultural land to be used for non-agricultural purposes.

As our current debate illustrates, every such attempt leads to rising blood pressure. But there is nothing new under the sun. Read Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), where he attributed an increasing propensity to theft to diversification into sheep-farming. “But I do not think that this necessity of stealing arises only from hence; there is another cause of it, more peculiar to England. ?What is that?’ said the Cardinal: ?The increase of pasture,’ said I, ?by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.’” Or for that matter, read Volume 1 of Marx’s Capital: “The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a ?free’ and outlawed proletariat.”

Is it better to earn a living as “proletariat” or is it better to starve as a sub-optimal land-holder? What is sub-optimal is of course a function of the kind of land and the use it is being put to. Having said that, 69.38 per cent of our land-holdings are marginal (less than 1 ha) and another 21.75 per cent are small (between 1 and 2 ha). Yes, there is uncultivated land, but the prospects of bringing more land under cultivation aren’t too bright, except in Rajasthan, Bihar, Gujarat and TN. Yes, land degradation can be reversed. Yes, surplus land can be redistributed better. But having done all that, we must recognise that people need to get out of farming unviable land-holdings, and that agricultural land will be put to non- agricultural use. In states like Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, faster growth and urbanisation has led to tensions. But that reflects our obsession with land as a factor of production, to the exclusion of the other three - labour, capital and entrepreneurship. If poor people can exploit these other three better, land will become less of an obsession. And we will then accept that land markets need to be opened up and there is a long reform agenda there, too.

The writer is secretary-general, PHDCCI

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