In the context of the Singur situation relating to land ownership, the view that in addition to accelerated agricultural progress there is a need to create greater avenues for employment in the industrial and services sectors gains support.
Mamata Banerjee has raised the important issue of land use and acquisition for a public, political, professional and media debate. With increasing population pressure on land, this issue deserves careful consideration and a rational discussion.
The Singur dilemma in a wider sense relates to both land use policy and norms of compensation for land acquired by government for non-farm purposes. Land conflicts are also spreading in other parts of the country, as for example where land is needed to establish Special Economic Zones (SEZ). The Maharashtra Government has wisely adopted the policy of holding a referendum to seek the views of farmers and others who will be dispossessed of their land to meet the needs of an SEZ. Proactive consultations will help avoid difficulties later. Water conflicts are also affecting important irrigation projects. Land conflicts are likely to do the same and may affect the balanced growth of the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy. How can we deal with this situation in a manner which leads to a win-win outcome for all the stakeholders?
The National Commission on Farmers (NCF), which I chaired during 2004-06, dealt with this question in detail and presented its recommendations in five reports submitted to the Union Ministry of Agriculture. Based on a draft provided by the NCF, the Union Minister of Agriculture and Food placed on the table of Parliament in November 2007 a National Policy for Farmers. This is the first time either in colonial or independent India that a National Policy has been announced for farmers and not just for farming. There are numerous national policies for agriculture, including the well-known Royal Commission on Agriculture Report prepared during the colonial period, but none so far for farmers.
The uniqueness of the National Policy of Farmers presented to the nation by the United Progressive Alliance Government is that it calls for a paradigm shift from a purely tonnage based approach to agricultural development to an approach that takes into account the socio-economic well-being of farm families. The policy said: “The aim of this Policy is to stimulate attitudes and actions which should result in assessing agricultural progress in terms of improvement in the income of farm families.” The policy calls for a major initiative to provide opportunities in an adequate measure for non-farm employment to rural families. The Policy Paper makes a commitment to launching a rural non-farm employment initiative jointly with all concerned agencies.
The Singur situation relating to land ownership underlines the urgency of approaching the problem of farming from two angles. First, the necessary public policy, technology, infrastructure and other support should be given to maximise the productivity and profitability of small and marginal farms. Secondly, steps should be taken to generate non-farm employment opportunities in the secondary and tertiary sectors through an integrated approach to agriculture, post-harvest technology and industry.
China started its agricultural reform in the late-1970s with such a two-track approach. Steps were taken to help farmers maximise the yield of major crops by providing irrigation and remunerative marketing opportunities. This is why the average yield of major crops such as rice, wheat, and so on in China is more than double that in India. At the same time, China launched a well-planned Township and Village Enterprise Movement (TVE) in the early 1980s to shift about 100 million peasants to the non-farm employment sector. In China, land is socially owned and therefore such readjustment of income-earning opportunities could be done more easily than is possible in India. The results of this human-centred approach to livelihood security are summarised in the book China’s Township and Village Enterprises, edited by He Kang, former Minister of Agriculture of China and a World Food Prize Laureate (Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 2006).
Addressing a meeting in June 1987, Deng Xiaoping said: “The greatest and most exceptional accomplishment in our rural reform has been the development of TVEs leading to the diversification of employment opportunities. The impact of TVEs has been dramatic and has helped China to provide income and work security for all in the rural areas.”
The benefits of TVEs have been several, including a transition from unskilled to skilled work. They have proved to be China’s Unique Road of Industrialisation which has generated enormous manufacturing capacity in villages. This is why China has been able to attract extensive outsourcing of manufactured goods. He Kang has cited many examples of transformation of the rural economy through such an integrated approach to agriculture and industry.
The impact of China’s twin strategy on livelihood security enhancement in the rural areas has been striking in terms of human development indicators. For example, child malnutrition in India was about 52 per cent in 1992-93. It is currently about 46 per cent according to the National Family Health Surveys. In contrast, malnutrition of children in China came down steeply to 7 per cent during the same period. It is clear that all-round human development takes place when income and work security are ensured. This is why the NCF recommended that the State and Central governments launch an integrated and dynamic non-farm employment initiative. The NCF also recommended that every State develop a land use plan earmarking land for different purposes such as agriculture, industry, communication, housing and other human needs. It recommended that where it becomes necessary to acquire farmland, the compensation given should be fair. For this purpose, the NCF recommended the review and amendment of the Land Acquisition Act.
Taking the example of Singur, the land acquired to impart an innovative and pro-low income orientation in the automobile industry is about 997 acres. This land belongs to about 13,000 farmers, of whom about 11,000 have received compensation. About 2,000 farmers altogether owning nearly 300 acres of land are yet to accept the compensation.
This situation exemplifies the position relating to the size of land holdings in our country. While a marginal farm is defined to be one that is a hectare in size, most of the Singur farmers obviously belong to the sub-marginal category. In such a situation the need for multiple sources of livelihood becomes exceedingly important. This is why the NCF suggested that agriculture and industry should prosper together and develop symbiotic linkages. Ultimately, about a third of India’s population may be able to have a reasonable income from land. The rest will have to be engaged in the industrial, manufacturing and services sectors. This is also the road to ensuring that every citizen has a reasonable quality of life.
I therefore support the view of the West Bengal Government that in addition to accelerated agricultural progress triggered by the land reform measures introduced by it, there is a need to create greater avenues for employment in the industrial and services sectors.
Russi Lala, in his book The Romance of Tata Steel (Penguin, 2007), described how the steel plant established by Jamsetji Tata over 100 years ago at Jamshedpur (the city was named after Jamsetji Tata much later) has transformed the entire economy and well being of the people of that area. Jamsetji Tata established an ethical ground rule for the House of Tatas by emphasising: “We must give back to society many times more than what we have got from them.” Till today the House of Tatas has followed this philosophy, so that wherever its industrial units function there is a marked improvement in all human development indicators.
Unfortunately, today land is being acquired by real estate developers at a very high cost for their own personal profit. In fact, many of the new entrants from India in the list of the world’s richest persons are from the real estate business. Countries where land and material resources are overvalued and the human resource is undervalued tend to remain poor, as is happening in India.
The Singur low-cost Nano car project is likely to confer multiple benefits to the community. The National Sample Survey Organisation has recorded that over 40 per cent of the farmers interviewed during a survey expressed their desire to opt out of agriculture, if there is another option open to them. In other words, the pressure of population on farmland is increasing and the younger generation is losing interest in agriculture. To retain the youth in farming, it has to become intellectually stimulating and economically rewarding. Greater management efficiency is a downstream benefit of the way modern industry is organised and managed. Singur has an opportunity to become not only the Jamshedpur of West Bengal, but the world capital for innovative, pro-low income automobile technology and advanced small-farm management methods.
In addition to the generous financial compensation provided by the State Government, an income security plan should be developed for the 11,000 farmers who have given land for the purpose of promoting the industrial renaissance of West Bengal. Children and the youth will suffer the most if avenues for rural industrialisation get clogged. At least in their interest, short-term gains should not come in the way of the long-term prospect of a healthy and productive life for all. The younger generation will not forgive us if we do not open for them new windows of opportunity for economic and intellectual fulfillment.
6 months ago