A Million Mutinies
People and land in India are under siege. Pandit ji investigates the complex issue of landuse and land ownership in what is still agricultural India
Iintroduced them to you in the last issue of Gobar Times. The key characters in the play Find the winner — Jotdar Bheem, the landowner. Bargadar Gopal, who worked for 20 years on Bheem's land for a share of the crops produced, but now owns a plot himself.
Barendra babu, the government officer. And Mr. Supariwala, the big industrialist. They were squabbling over a piece of farmland, in Bangur, West Bengal, remember? Here is what they were saying:
Barendra: Gopal, why are you making such a fuss? Bheem sold a portion of his land to the government, too. Now look at his spanking new bike! He is a winner….
Bheem: I made little out of my 20 bighas, thanks to these bargadars. They became too big for their boots after the government launched Operation Barga (a land reform programme) in 1978, giving those small farmers right to till my land, to share the crops!
Gopal (sobbing): Operation Barga helped me save, and I bought six bighas with my sweat. Why does the government want to buy it now?
Mr Supariwala: The government has sold your land to me. I will build a factory here and give you a job. You will be a winner too..
Gopal (still sobbing): But I lost my land…
I had left Gopal crying inconsolably over his piece of land, refusing to be called a 'winner', spurning the lure of a bike or even a job in Mr. Supariwala's factory! I was confused. Is Gopal stubborn or just a fool? Is he an exception, or are there some more like him? So I went travelling across India. And I found many, many Gopals — different names, different places, different conditions — but each one of them was unmistakably a Gopal. I found out more. That many of them are no longer sobbing in despair. They are threatening to take up arms to protect their right over their land, to fight it out with whoever tries to grab it — a government officer like Barendra Babu, or a money and muscle flexing business baron like Mr. Supariwala.
The 72-year old Janardan Mhatre, for instance, guards his three-acre land in the coastal village of Pen in Raigarh district of Maharashtra the same way as he would guard his granddaughter. Mhatre, who received a state government notice with 2,090 fellow villagers to sell their land to make way for Reliance Industries' Mahamumbai Special Economic Zone (SEZ), is ready to die defending it. Then there is Chaudhry Hariprakash in Jhajjar, Haryana; Haradhan Parida in Jagatsinghpur, Orissa; Ayappan in Hossur, Karnataka. The list goes on and on and on….
Social scientists say that India, during the past two decades, has witnessed at least 'a million mutinies'. In every region and state, small and large people's movements have erupted to fight land grabbing — by the government or by large national and international corporations. Why are the Indian people ready to lay down their lives for their land?
The answer is simple enough. For more than 60 per cent of the Indian population land is livelihood, security and, therefore, survival.
Price of a piece of 'life'
But wait… didn't Barendra Babu and Mr. Supariwala tell Gopal how generously he would be compensated if he agrees to sell his land? Mhatre, too, has received an offer from Reliance.
Lakhs of rupees for his farmland plus a monthly payment of Rs 5,000 and a job for one person in his family in the project that will be set up there. So what's this fuss all about? Now, the answer for this question is not as simple as the previous one. First, who is to determine whether the price offered is a fair one or not?
In other words, who coordinates these land deals? In 1935, land was made a 'state subject' by the Government of India. As a result, under the Indian Constitution, all land-related transactions are the responsibilities of individual states.
So in the current scenario, in most states, the state governments 'acquire' the land from the farmers, and then hand it over to the developers. So, they play the role of land grabbers in their respective states. This land acquisition process has emerged as one of the major hurdles now. Because farmers like Mhatre just do not trust the government as a negotiator on their behalf, and feel that the compensation given to them and the promises of rehabilitation are "all bogus". Says an angry Mhatre, "They will make our children to work as security guards!"
This debate over 'what is the right price of land, and should the farmers be allowed to directly bargain with the buyers, that is the industry', is now dominating front pages of newspapers and prime time in television channels. While the experts battle it out with each other, in search of a solution, let me put before you another question that kept cropping up in my mind as I travelled from one village to the other last month, in search of my Gopals. Is selling off his land, even at the fairest of prices, going to ensure a secure future for Gopal?
You see, owning a piece of land is of fundamental importance in rural India. Of course, Gopal lives off what he produces on the land. But, it has an even deeper impact on his everyday life. He can take credit, in case of emergencies, by offering his land as a guarantee; it will be his security blanket in the event of natural hazards; and it provides him immense social status in the village he lives in. By selling it off for a bike, a sum of money, and may be a job in a factory for which he has never been trained may not be the best bargain he can strike.
There is more. I found out that the future of many, many more of the village folks are linked to Gopal's land — even though they don't own it. There is Hari, who along with his five sons and wife, works as a daily wage labour for Gopal; then there is Ponchoo who is a sharecropper, and grows paddy in a portion of Gopal's land, and gives him a share of his produce in return. So, if Gopal decides to sell off his land the livelihoods of each of these villagers will be threatened.
And they will not even be offered a compensation for this loss, because they don't own the land anyway… The government always promises “humane” displacement followed by relief and rehabilitation. However, historical records do not offer much hope on this front: an estimated 40 million people (of whom nearly 40 per cent are adivasis and 25 per cent Dalits) have lost heir land since 1950 on account of displacement due to large development projects. At least 75 per cent of them still await rehabilitation.
Now, I began to understand how rural and local economies will go awry, if all the Gopals across India decide to accept the offers made to them by the Barendra Babus and the Mr. Supariwalas…
What about the ‘commons’ then?
This is a question that is being raised by economists and scientists in various parts of India.
Where are the commons?
In a village, the land is broadly divided under three categories depending on the way it is used — agricultural fields; forests; and the wastelands or the commons, that is, the uncultivated areas that separate the farmlands from the forests. By right these belong to the rulers of the land, the monarch in the days of yore, and now to the state government.
In India, the commons include village pastures and grazing grounds, degraded forests and woodlots, and common threshing grounds. As we have seen in the case of Gopal, taking over or 'acquiring' farmlands owned by individual farmers is never an easy job. It whips up huge political, social, and economic costs.
An easier option for the government has always been to offer the commons or the wastelands to the 'developers'. After all, they do not belong to a private owner, and are not being used for growing crops.
In Kerala and Karnataka thousands of hectares of land have been leased out to paper and pulp industries like Hindustan Newsprints Limited and Mysore Paper Mills to set up captive plantation of their raw materials. And now, the government may seriously consider taking the heat of setting up Special Economic Zones away from the agricultural fields, and offer the industrialists the wastelands instead.
Of uncommon value
A pretty logical solution, did you say? But, there is a very basic problem here. The use of the word 'wastelands' by the government may conjure up an image of huge expanses lying totally unused and barren. On the contrary, all wastelands have intense users. Almost every acre of these so-called 'wastelands' is in fact the only means of livelihood for the rural poor — the landless farmers, the pastoralists, and the nomads.
The livestock thrives on wastelands. The sheep, buffaloes, goats forage on the shrubs and bushes, and convert it into milk, manure, and energy. Besides this, the fuelwood and shrubs available in the commons are used as fuel for cooking and heating. Bamboo, small timber and palm leaves for housing and a variety of fruits, vegetables and fish, for sustenance, particularly during the lean seasons.
In other words, as long as there are poor people in India who live off the land, the commons would provide them with the last sources of survival. And given India's growing population and the fact that the numbers of poor are definite to swell, it would be criminal to privatise the commons that will make them off limits to this vast majority.
Almost every acre of these so called 'wastelands' is in fact the only means of livelihood for the rural poor — the landless farmers, the pastoralists, and the nomads.
As I got to know the Gopals of India better, my dreams of the ideal future for my country began to change. Oh, I still nurture the dreams of SEZs, foreign investments, and big money. But, I have also begun to worry about the future of the 58 per cent of India's population that is still directly dependent on agriculture for livelihood; and another overwhelming number — the grazers, the fisherfolk, the nomads — who are linked to the land for survival!
Now let’s keep the private farmlands belonging to an individual farmer aside for a while. Like I told you, the debate is still on whether they should be allowed to take independent decisions on who he wants to sell his land to and for how much.
Let’s concentrate on the wastelands or the commons instead. Because they are obviously still the lifeline of millions in India. They have to be retained as 'commons', and they have to be regenerated to ensure a secure future for the people who live around these lands and off them.
Most of these tracts have turned barren through the years because they have been overused or misused by the villagers themselves. Why? Mainly because no one is responsible for their management and maintenance. Before the advent of the modern state, grazing lands, forests, and water bodies were mostly common property and village communities played an important role in their use and management.
The British were the first to bring them under the control of government bureaucracies. In other words, they initiated the policy of turning common property into government property. Unfortunately, this system continues till today. Result? The villagers stopped taking care of the commons. In fact, they even sometimes willfully misused them. For instance, some tribal groups have no qualms about felling a tree in a forest because they feel if they do not take it first, the timber merchants would take it anyway. And in this way, the wasteland tracts truly turned barren.
Can we reverse this process? Of course we can. Because the villagers do not need to be told about the importance of the commons. They know it well and would be willing to manage them, only if they are first assured that the benefits will go to them and not to the government or to a contractor, or to an industrialists. That they, too, will receive a fair share.
Back to Community Raj
Now how can this be achieved? By allowing the village communities to regain control over their commons, of course. A law can be enacted that can transfer this right from the government departments to the communities, even if they are not given legal ownership over these lands.
This will motivate them to protect, nurture and manage the commons wisely — and hence, increase the productivity of their grazing lands, their degraded forests, and their water bodies. And create a system of self reliance rather than dependence. So that every villager — landed or landless — can eke out a living in the village itself. No one is forced to move to the already overcrowded, pressurised cities in search of jobs that they have no skills for.