Agricultural land in possession of each farmer is shrinking as it is passed on from one generation to the other. And, as it gets smaller, its returns shrink too and its likelihood of being put to non-agricultural use increases.
The communist countries resolved this problem by taking back all the agricultural land from farmers and making them eligible to a share in returns. They do not get the land back. They were eligible only for the price of the land. So, the agricultural land remained intact to ensure the food security of the country. Israel resolved its problem of small size by having farmers pool their land together and share the returns.
In India, some states had experimented with putting land in hands of self-help groups, like Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, where a law itself has been passed to enable this.
NGOs like Pradan have been working on a model of producer companies where goods are aggregated to enable market access and better returns.
A working group of the Planning Commission, set up for the Twelfth Five-Year Plan focusing on disadvantaged farmers including women, has now suggested many options for pooling land to make agriculture sustainable and to protect it from becoming extinct.
The working group led by Bina Agarwal has recommended that the government assess all land available with it and distribute it to disadvantaged groups and register them in the group’s name or give on a long-term lease agreement. Another option it says would be to give 10 cents of land in a woman’s name to all rural families without homesteads.
It says that the government could also come out with a loan-cum-grant scheme to help groups purchase land collectively. This should be registered in the group’s name . The other option it says could be setting up of a public land bank (PLB) at the panchayat level where owners can deposit their uncultivated land and get an incentive payment. It would be like a savings account with similar benefits in cash. They should be free to withdraw the land later after giving due notice.
In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, in some districts 78 per cent land is with people who don’t cultivate it and have given it on lease. So, such land can go into PLB.
The PLB could then, says the committee, lease out the land to farmers but not to industry, or large farmers.
It also suggests that in the Land Acquisition Bill, which talks of compensation only in cash, there should be strict provision for giving land for land.
Such efforts would stem from a system that is concerned about keeping agriculture alive. Hence, farm activists like G V Ramanjaneyalu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Hyderabad fear the land aggregation efforts could easily slip into transfer of land for non-agricutlrual purposes and to large corporate farming.
He also disagrees that small size of land makes farming unviable. He cites the fact that 62 per cent of land holdings are less than a hectare and the returns are most from these. Land of absentee farmers should go into such pools and should be restricted to agriculture by small farmers, he says. He also warns against converting farming rights of farmers into shares. Where would those farmers go if they don’t cultivate? Money cannot substitute the right to work on their own land, he says.
While Bina Agarwal Committee takes into account these concerns, another committee of the Planning Commission has proposed creation of a land bank which has sent alarm bells ringing in the farmers community.
Unless the state is determined to safeguard its agricultural land and its food security, every effort could be twisted to serve non-farming interests. That is what farmers fear, and quite justifiably so.