Reform land ceiling laws
Through a fourth Ordinance, India can set a precedent in the world where nature and the agrarian economy grow together. — Indra Shekhar Singh
India has taken a small step for farmers but a big leap for free market through the three farm laws. Wooing the US “agri-dollar”, we have liberalised by opening the farm-gate for business, yet shackled farmers and their families under archaic land ceiling laws. Can an agrarian free market be pillared on limited land, plagued by soil degradation and shrinking water resources?
In a socialist mood, India implemented land ceiling laws to deracinate the zamindars and the landed elite. An entire class of people was destroyed overnight and from its ashes grew a new rural elite. As land ceiling laws differed from State to State, we saw a diversity of combinations and also unique systems of parity between irrigated multiple crop land owners versus grove land or un-irrigated land owners. For example, land holdings in Barmer, Rajasthan and Patna are very different in size. Policy-makers relied on production-based value to set these ceiling limits. For most States, the ceiling ratio of dry land to irrigated land is 3:1. Apart from the individual limits, there are family ceiling limits to curtail land ownership collectively. In 2020, we still follow the same system.
Of course, there have been minor tweaks in each State, but overall these laws hamper the growth of agriculture in rural India and confine farm families in a negative ownership trap. As with each generation, the average land holding of individuals reduces. Adding to their woes, the farm incomes have dropped significantly, too, due to higher inputs costs and low sale price, making agriculture less viable each year. The only alternative left for a progressive farmer is either to get out of farming or wait for the next generation, as contract farming has not been successful for most of his kind.
The result is that the Indian farm size is very small (86 per cent own under two hectares), and is decreasing further as the average size of operational holding has declined to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16 as compared to 1.15 hectares in 2010-11 as per the Agricultural Census 2015-16. The Economic Survey of India understood this problem and twice recommended the Government to increase land ceiling limits. But little has happened. Recently, the Karnataka Government tried to increase the land ceiling limits but amid protests rescinded this step.
Nevertheless, even if the land ceiling stays, can there be a consensus between States and farmers for the benefit of the latter, soil and water conservation and the free market? India is already producing enough grains, vegetables and so on but losing more critical resources — water and top soil.
Due to the push for industrialising agriculture, from Punjab to Tamil Nadu, we have witnessed soil degradation leading to desertification, salination and top soil erosion. With 30 per cent of India’s land degraded, the Narendra Modi Government stressed on soil health cards. The deleterious effects paddy has had on water is alarming. Noam Chomsky recently predicted that India and Pakistan may be on the brink of war over water resources. We are already witnessing water wars in southern States and the “Laturisation” (Latur in Maharashtra was the epicentre of a water crisis caused by bad agricultural practices) will only increase unless we stop exploitative practices. Soon, our eco-system and free market will collapse. So, States must study the soil conservation programme of the US, which was implemented to reverse soil degradation in the mid-west or the Dust Bowl. The Government paid farmers subsidies for soil conservation or allowing the land to be fallow.
Under extreme fiscal pressure, one doesn’t expect the Modi Government to give more subsidies but to declare soil degradation and water depletion as the nation’s top nemesis. But the question is how can the Government implement a soil conservation programme and also keep farmers happy?
The answer: Incentivise farmers for agro-ecological plantations and agro-forestry by relaxing land ceiling limits for them. Most of the State Acts already have a separate provision for grove land or orchards. By adding a sub-clause, Governments can ensure that plantations increase rapidly, without the use of chemicals and fertilisers. Each State can choose native varieties and non-water-guzzling trees for plantation or agro-forestry.
This policy change will have many benefits. Both soil and water will be conserved and farmers’ incomes will be boosted while adding new products for the free market. The return of organic matter and biodiversity will guarantee farmland productivity for the future too. Organic fruits get the top dollar. The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) predicts that by 2030, India will be exporting $50 billion worth of organic produce, but the cherry would be additional carbon credits that farmers can earn. If 10 per cent of arable land converts to organic grove land or mixed orchards, we will meet our climate targets sooner and also improve the air and water of our villages and cities. Each hectare of organic land can store 80,000 litres of water. We need a Central policy to bolster this drive.
By making an exception for the agro-ecological plantations, legislators can boost the organic market and also help heal the soil. Additionally, farmers may take over wasteland or degraded lands, beyond the ceiling limits, and restore them into orchards or groves. These zones or farms will be carbon sinks and produce more nutrition per acre, and as the farmers will care for these lands, the Government’s financial burden to restore wastelands will also lessen.
As per the policy in the US, bigger farms are better for business. Farmers of Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, all thought they could resist, but have failed. The fallout of the World Trade Organisation and the recent farm-gate liberalisation will be “bigger farms and lesser farmers” in India, too. But we, as a nation, still have a choice to steer the bigger farms towards agro-ecology or allow industrial farms to take over rural India. If we swerve towards healing the Earth, India may set a precedent in the world where nature and the agrarian economy grow together. The Modi Government needs to bring out a fourth Ordinance to free the land for healing the Earth.
(The writer is Director for policy and outreach, National Seed Association of India)