Self goal: Modi's claims about farm laws for small farmers refute themselves

Earlier this week, PM confirmed that 'the number of marginal farmers in India with small landholdings had increased from 51 percent in 1971 to 68 percent’.

Credit : The Logical Indian

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi confirmed that 'the number of marginal farmers in India with small landholdings had increased from 51 percent in 1971 to 68 percent’. "Today, 86 percent of the farmers who have less than two hectares of land. That’s 12 crore farmers. Doesn't the country have any responsibility towards these farmers?" Modi said while speaking in parliament.

The statement is mostly welcomed, as any incumbent PM had never accepted the severe inequality of private ownership since independence. However, his attempt to draw conclusions in support of farm laws are inadequate. Interestingly, instead of supporting his claim, his statements are stating a contradictory story which refutes his strategy to portray the government as saviour of small-scale farmers.

Other than his commentary and remarks about many things, the statistics that he presented in the speech about the unequal distribution of land raises many questions about and against his government. Prima facie, his critic seems to be made against the neo-liberal policies that have been implemented in India by all previous governments. Since 1971, the foreign influence in the Indian rural economy has influenced the growth of large farm holdings.


Have government acts been adequate in curbing landholding inequality?

Though it varies from state to state, the ceiling act of the Central Government puts an upper cap limit on individual landholding for farmers. The Maharashtra state's land ceiling act has been widely criticised by many farmers’ movements, and repealing the same is one of the top demands of farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra, such as the Kisan Putra Andolan led by activist Amar Habib. Despite this act, the land distribution in the state has inherited inequality. Around 35 percent of the rural labourers owned marginal land and the remaining labourers are landless. The average landholding in Maharashtra is 1.35 hectares, more than the country's average of 1.08 hectares of land. (Krishnaji, N. 2018. “Dynamics of Land Inequality: Polarization or Pauperization?.” Indian Journal of Human Development) Thus the government laws like the ceiling act have not served the intended purpose, and have not been able to curb the land ownership of rich farmers in different states.


Incomplete land reforms in India

The Indian government itself has already categorised the farmers according to their land ownership. The farmers who own land less than 1 hectare are considered as marginal whereas those with landholdings of 1.00-2.00 hectare are called small farmers. Semi-Medium farmers are categorised as owners of 2.00-4.00 hectare land.  The most rightful and appropriate land reforms took place only in states like Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala where the local leadership was enthusiastic to curb the rising influence of Zamindari against Raiyyatwari.

For his aggressive stand against the large scale landowners of Kashmir, the first prime minister of J&K Sheikh Abdullah was praised once by the Kashmiris as 'Sher-e-Kashmir' after his bold attempts at land reforms. Starting from 1949, as the prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Abdullah was the earliest leader to implement the land reforms and incorporate the ceiling act of Kashmir where the Abolition of Large Holdings Act of 1950 was set at 22 ¾ acres (according to Kashmiri units it ranges to 186 canals). His policies of 'Naya Kashmir' changed the demography of rural Kashmir where the average landholding is limited to 0.60 acres, much below than the national average. Such reforms were not part of the priorities of other state governments despite the 'Land Distribution' being enlisted in 'State List' which meant that the regional governments were given the authority of distribution of the land.


Source: Agriculture Census of 2015-16


Can the change in land ownership change the picture?

Though the number of farmers that are protesting against the farm laws is huge, there are also a considerable number of farmers who have large farm holdings. The fact is not hidden from anyone that the Aadatis are the flag bearers of the movement, leaders of the protests. Even, for instance, if the new farm laws are able to support the trickle-down of the land ownership (without asking how it would be done), would it be able to deal with the large problem of the Indian agrarian crisis as the PM promises? 

National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), being a trustworthy organisation due to its engagement in the rural economy and widespread operations in rural India, has shown the amount of inequality in the landholdings and reliance of such lumpen population on daily wages instead of the income through agricultural goods. NABARD Financial Inclusion Survey (NAFIS) of 2016-17 found that the average monthly earning of an agricultural household in India was merely Rs 8,931. Just around 35 percent of this, which comes to Rs 3,125.85, came from the crop yields. The remaining was from other sources, where wage labour was contributing Rs 1,974.04 in the same. It shows that the tremendous amount of wage labour engaged in agricultural activities influences the income despite the land ownership. This again falsifies the claim made by PM Modi that land ownership will change the present scenario.

The problems of Indian agriculture are majorly the problems faced by the wage labourers and marginal landowners who are working in the fields of big landlords. The semi-medium and medium farmers, that are identified as the biggest supporters of the movement, also happen to be part-time wage labourers in their own farms. Thus, to tackle the agrarian crisis through policies, the administration has to consider the bigger picture of the contradictory interests of farmers. The general and OBC categorised castes in India own 79.33 percent of the land, opposite to the 8.65 percent of land ownership shared by Scheduled Tribes, according to the census in 2015-16. Hence, the problems of land distributions are not merely statistical as PM Modi wants to portray. They have qualitative differences other than mere ownership statistics.

The inequality in the landholding is one of the reasons for the agitation against the new farm laws. The landless farmers and the marginal farmers are part of the movement. Their numbers are the most significant and influential in the farmers’ movement. Though the demands of such farmers are contradictory, they have gathered under a common banner with different demands. The states of Punjab in India and Pakistan are the peculiar examples where the land distribution and reforms were not aggressively implemented, thus contributing to the inequality in ownership. But despite the fact, the marginal farmers are the backbone of the movement. They are not supportive of any schemes by the Central Government and the most critical of the new farm laws. The concurrent schemes of welfare by PM Modi and previous governments have not been very useful to them. The landholdings are lowering for the marginal farmers since independence and the inequality is widening, and the years of BJP government are no exception for the same.

The celebrated Kisan Credit Card (KCC) scheme that was supposed to help marginal farmers present a very contradictory picture of the same. Only 10.5 percent of agricultural households were found to have a valid KCC at the time of the NABARD Financial Inclusion Survey. The schemes of the Central Government and states for farmers welfare are not reaching to the lower strata of the rural wage workers and marginal farmers.

Thus, they are not in favour of the three farm laws. Hitting the landlords and large farm owners is what PM Modi and even the small-scale farmers and their organisations as Ugraha desires, but proposing the farm laws as their solution is nothing but irony and self-goal by PM Modi.