In Land We Trust
What is the value of land? If you asked me this question a year ago when I was living in New York City I would have asked for the dimensions and location of the land, then I would have considered market conditions and provided an estimate. Living in rural India provides me an entirely different perspective. Not one based on monetary value, but rather on the importance of land as a livelihood source for so many.
Let us consider the situation in the village of Ganeshwadi where I am currently residing. The village is one hundred percent adivasi and it is an entirely agrarian economy with the primary sources of income coming from the sale of cotton and farm labor earnings. While the villagers are farmers by profession, the majority of them are considered landless as they do not own the land on which they are cultivating. The land belongs to a private trust that was formed over sixty years ago, and the villagers pay a small fee to cultivate on this land each year. The most distressing part of this scenario is that the original owners of this land are the indigenous tribal populations who are now paying to cultivate on it. They have been living on and using this land for generations before others came along and claimed it.
What are the problems associated with this setup? First, because these farmers do not legally own the land on which they are cultivating, it is exceedingly difficult to get loans from banks. Many are forced to use moneylenders and pay flat biannual or annual interest rates of 50 percent i.e. on a crop loan of 15,000 rupees they will have to pay back 22,500 rupees—an interest rate that is unimaginable to most of us.
Second, government schemes that are meant to benefit vulnerable farmers are lost on this subsection of the agricultural community. Many of the schemes necessitate land ownership as a prerequisite to availing government benefits. This represents a major gap in the government’s approach to addressing agrarian distress.
Let us use MREGS/NREGA as an example. If one examines the farms in Ganeshwadi it is apparent that the quality of the land is poor—dry, unirrigated, and full of rocks—resulting in low yields. Cotton is the main crop of production and so in the cotton-growing off months of January through April work is scarce and income is limited. Many individuals migrate in search of work during this time. This represents an ideal situation for the use of MREGS to provide work within the walls of the village.
The beauty of MREGS is that farmers can do work on their own farms and receive a salary for completing that work. For example, the addition of irrigation elements on individual farms whether through farm ponds, farm bunding, etc. would be beneficial in terms of improving the land of individual farmers and providing paid work during the farming off season. Unfortunately, these benefits do not extend to those that depend on farming for their livelihood, but do not own their land.
Now, the rules of these government schemes are not without reason. How can the government offer resources for development work to a farmer for land that the said farmer does not own? In the end, how can the government guarantee that the benefit would actually be reaching the farmer, rather than the landowner. There is no assurance that after the development work is complete the landowner, in this case the trust, will not sell the newly-developed land at a premium.
However, if the government is serious about addressing the growing problem of agrarian distress in this country it needs to recognize the problems faced by those individuals that are landless but cultivating, and factor the concerns of these individuals into their planning. This is no small problem and farmers that fall under this category are more vulnerable than those that own their land. In the Taluka that I am based in, which is in the Yavatmal district—the district infamous for having the highest rate of farmer suicides in the country—preliminary data collection shows that roughly two-thirds of the individuals are classified as landless of which over 40 percent are cultivating on land they do not own (whether private trust land, leased land, or forest land.)
How do we address the problems faced by these individuals? This is a complicated issue with no easy answers. Sadly, when this has been raised with government officials responses have ranged from “don’t complicate things, just focus on people that already own their land” to “you should pick different villages to work in where this is not an issue; there is not much we can do here.” So tell me, in an area where decreasing farmer suicides are a priority, how legitimate are agricultural development projects that ignore the most vulnerable group and how sincere are the efforts of officials that simply close their eyes to this multifaceted challenge?