Thursday, 5 July, 2007

Displacing farmers: India Will Have 400 million Agricultural Refugees

It was on the cards. With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announcing theformation of a new rehabilitation policy for farmers displaced from land acquisitions, it is now official -- farmers have to quitagriculture.Ever since the Congress-led UPA Coalition assumed power after an angryrural protest vote threw out the erstwhile BJP-led NDA combination in May 2004, the Prime Minister had initiated a plethora of new policiesfor the spread of industrialization. After having laid the policyframework that allows private control over community resources - water,biodiversity, forests, seeds, agriculture markets, and mineralresources -- the UPA government finally looked at the possibility ofdivesting the poor people of their only economic security - a meagrepiece of land holding. "Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is an idea whose time has come," the PrimeMinister had said at an award ceremony in Mumbai sometimes back.Supported by all political parties, including the Left Front, he hasactually officiated a nationwide campaign to displace farmers. Almost500 special economic zones are being carved out (see The New Maharajasof India). What is however less known is that successive government'sare actually following a policy prescription that had been laid out by the World Bank as early as in 1995.A former vice-president of the World Bank and a former chairman ofConsultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), abody that governs the 16 international agricultural research centers, Dr Ismail Serageldin, had forewarned a number of years ago. At aconference organised by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation inChennai a few years back, he quoted the World Bank to say that thenumber of people estimated to migrate from rural to urban India by the year 2015 is expected to be equal to twice the combined population ofUK, France and Germany.The combined population of UK, France and Germany is 200 million. TheWorld Bank had therefore estimated that some 400 million people would be willingly or unwillingly moving from the rural to urban centres by2015. Subsequent studies have shown that massive distress migrationwill result in the years to come. For instance, 70 per cent of TamilNadu, 65 per cent of Punjab, and nearly 55 per cent of Uttar Pradesh is expected to migrate to urban centres by the year 2020.These 400 million displaced will constitute the new class of migrants -agricultural refugees.Acerbating the crisis are the policy initiatives that promotes privatization of natural resources, take over of farm land, integratingIndian agriculture with the global economy, and moving farmers out ofagriculture - in essence the hallmark of the neo-liberal economicgrowth model.Agricultural reforms that are being introduced in the name ofincreasing food production and minimising the price risks that thefarmers continue to be faced with, are actually aimed at destroying the production capacity of the farm lands and would lead to furthermarginalisation of the farming communities. Encouraging contractfarming, future trading in agriculture commodities, land leasing,forming land-sharing companies, direct procurement of farm commodities by amending the APMC Act will only drive out a majority of farmers outof subsistence agriculture.Although the land holding size is diminishing, the answer does not liein allowing the private companies to replace farmers. Somehow the entire effort of the policy makers is to establish that Indianagriculture has become a burden on the nation and the sooner thecountry offloads the farming class the better it will be for economicgrowth.Contract farming therefore has become the new agricultural mantra. Notrealising that private companies enter agriculture with the specificobjective of garnering more profits from the same piece of land. Thesecompanies, if the global experience is any indication, bank upon stillmore intensive farming practices, drain the soil of nutrients and suckground water in a couple of years, and render the fertile lands almostbarren after four to five years. It has been estimated that the cropsthat are contracted by the private companies require on an average 20times more chemical inputs and water than the staple foods.Sugarcane farmers, for instance, who follow a system of cane bonding with the mills, actually were drawing 240 cm of water every year, whichis three times more than what wheat and rice requires on an average.Rose cultivation, introduced a few years back, requires 212 inches ofgroundwater consumption in every acre. Contract farming will thereforefurther exploit whatever remains of the ground water resources. Thesecompanies would then hand over the barren and unproductive land to thefarmers who leased them, and would move to another fertile piece ofland. This has been the global experience so far.Allowing direct procurement of farm commodities, setting up specialmarkets for the private companies to mop up the produce, and to set up land share companies, are all directed at the uncontrolled entry of themultinational corporations in the farm sector. Coupled with theintroduction of the genetically modified crops, and the unlimitedcredit support for the agribusiness companies, the focus is to strengthen the ability of the companies to take over the food chain.I have always warned that agribusiness companies in reality hatefarmers. Nowhere in the world have they worked in tandem with farmers.Even in North America and Europe, agribusiness companies have pushedfarmers out of agriculture. As a result, only 7,00,000 farming familiesare left on the farm in the United States. Despite massive subsidies inEuropean Union, one farmer quits agriculture every minute. Knowing wellthat the markets will displace farmers, the same agricultureprescription is being applied in India.A Planning Commission study has shown that 73 per cent of the cultivable land in the country is owned by 23.6 per cent of thepopulation. With more and more farmers being displaced through landacquisitions, either for SEZ or for food processing and technologyparks or for real estate purposes, land is further getting accumulated in the hands of the elite and resourceful. With chief ministers actingas property dealers, farmers are being lured to divest control overcultivable land. Food security and food self-sufficiency is no longerthe country's political priority.The government has very conveniently taken refuge behind an NSSO studythat says some 40 per cent of the farmers have expressed the desire toquit farming. After all, what the government is facilitating is to make it easier for the farmers to abandon their land. It believes that arehabilitation policy for the farmers therefore is the need of thehour. What is however not being seen through is that an agrarianeconomy like India cannot afford large-scale displacement of farmers. It will lead to social unrest the kind of which has not been witnessed.What India needs desperately is a policy paradigm that restores pridein agriculture, stops take-over of agricultural lands, and ensuressustainable livelihoods for 600 million farmers.

By Devinder Sharma
(Devinder Sharma is a food and agriculture policy analyst. He can becontacted at

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