Do Bigha Zameen, 2011

John Stuart Mill wrote 160 years ago that “land differs from other elements of production, labour and capital in not being susceptible to infinite increase. Its extent is limited and the extent of the more productive kinds of it more limited still. It is also evident that the quantity of produce capable of being raised on any given piece of land is not indefinite. These limited quantities of land, and limited productiveness of it, are the real limits to the increase of production”. This is true for India today.

Due to increasing demands for land from the non-agriculture sector and rapid urbanisation, large chunks of prime agriculture land are being diverted for non-agricultural purposes. Over the years, agricultural production has declined and the food crisis has been on the rise. Due to a decrease in agricultural production in India, import of food materials has shot up, causing a trade imbalance. State governments, without prudent thought on agricultural production, are handing over fertile land to real estate developers, industrialists etc. In Kashmir, for example, it is estimated that at least 10,000 hectares (2 lakh kanals) of agricultural land have been converted to or used for non-agricultural purposes in the past two decades. In Bihar, the Bihar Agricultural Land Conversion for Non-agricultural Use Rules, 2010, was implemented by the state government last year. According to the new rules, agricultural land can now be bought and put to industrial use through a conversion fee that will earn extra revenues for the government. In a state with a thick concentration of rural population, where land for non-agricultural purposes is not easy to find, the new rule may provide much-awaited relief to industrialists and investors planning to enter Bihar because farmlands would be easily available to them, and that too with the consent of the state government. In Uttar Pradesh, approximately 31.4 per cent of fertile land has been diverted to non-agricultural uses when approximately 30 per cent of the state’s income comes from agriculture. The state of Maharashtra has lost more than 10 lakh acres out of its 44 lakh acres of fertile land under agricultural use to non-agricultural use in the last decade. Fertile agriculture land has been converted into real estate developments, and more and more farmers are shifting to other vocations that offer them regular and better remuneration. Take the case of Chhattisgarh where 80 per cent of the population depends on agriculture. The state government’s Vision 2010 document, which borrowed heavily from earlier advice from PricewaterhouseCoopers, states: “The existing rules prevent the diversion of agricultural land for industrial use. The state would simplify the procedures of diverting land from agricultural to industrial use”. To achieve this, the state proposes that agriculture should be left to 30 per cent of farmers who at present control 70 per cent of agriculture land. Not just industrialisation, agriculture land is also being gobbled up in the name of infrastructure development at an unprecedented rate, as in the case of the World Bank-funded Allahabad bypass project which led to acquisition of 781 hectares of prime crop land.
Similarly, the Orissa government acquired more than 5,100 hectares of land in Kalinganagar between 1990 and 1996 to set up an industrial complex. It is possible that acquiring or buying more agricultural land than what is required is to fuel real estate speculation. The real estate sector is flourishing at a rate of 35 to 38 per cent annually.
The National Commission on Farmers, under the chairmanship of Dr M.S. Swaminathan, in its final report in October 2006, “Serving Farmers and Saving Farming”, has observed that “prime farmland must be conserved for agriculture and should not be diverted for non-agricultural purposes and for programmes like special economic zones”.
Conversion of agricultural land for industrial and business purposes is a serious threat to the livelihood of the majority of the Indian population. More than 60 per cent of the country’s population depends on agriculture even though the share of agriculture in GDP has sharply declined. Due to the decrease in agricultural production, prices of food materials have been shooting up daily. People living below the poverty line are finding it difficult to survive. Half of the world’s hungry live in India. To produce additional food grain to feed this population will require an additional 170 lakh hectares. Besides, malnourishment prevails among 45 per cent of India’s children. Pulses and fats can help overcome this hidden hunger — but, to achieve self-sufficiency in pulses and edible oils, an additional 200 lakh hectares is required. Where will this land come from? Forget agricultural land, there isn’t enough cultivable wasteland available to meet this requirement.
In rural India, conversion of agricultural land for the construction of hotels, shopping malls etc is on the rise. If such conversion of fertile land continues, there will be a considerable decline in agriculture production, causing an imbalance in the economy. As arable land gets reduced, more and more farmer will be forced to look for alternative sources of income and employment, thus casting more pressure on prices.
According to the Quality Council of India (QCI), an autonomous non-profit oraganisation set up by the Government of India and the three arms of Indian industry (Ficci, CII and Assocham), India’s arable land totals to 1,620,388 sq. km. The QCI believes that India has huge potential in the agrarian sector and can dominate the international market. But selling off rich agricultural land for the sake of urban development will only close the doors of opportunity.
India has a total land area of 2,973,200 sq km, of which around 27 per cent is barren land. It is unfortunate that despite over 177 lakh hectares of barren land lying unused, a scarce resource like rich agriculture land is being poached upon to promote industrialisation. Instead of self-reliance, the focus has now irreversibly shifted to importing food to feed the burgeoning population.
I am not against development but am concerned about the wastage of fertile lands in the name of development. The ongoing trend is that 200 or 500 acres of land is allotted even though the requirement is only 100 acres. As per government data, cultivable land has marginally decreased from 182.74 million hectares in 2005-06 to 182.38 million hectares in 2008-09 across the country, which means around 36 lakh hectares of land has been converted for non-agricultural purposes. Also, the Central government has stated that as per the Constitution of India, land falls under the purview of state governments and so it is for the state government to bring in suitable policy/legislation to check the use of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. But the Central government can also bring in a federal law that would restrict the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.
India desperately needs an Agriculture Land Conservation Act to protect its farmers and farmland. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had formed a department exclusively for waste land development. The need for such an initiative has arisen again. In my view, non-agricultural activities should be strictly restricted to barren lands and agricultural land should be protected at any cost.

Rajeev Shukla, a member of Parliament, is vice-president of the BCCI

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