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India – Land Wars 2.0

Resistance Gone are the days when villagers had little choice but to allow their lands to be taken over. Decades of anti-displacement struggles have changed that Photo: Vijay Pandey

In 2022, we will be celebrating 75 years of India’s Independence. In Indian culture, this is celebrated as Amrit Mahotsav. For us, every day and every step, every journey and every process will be dedicated to make Amritmay Bharat. And all this will be done by all of us, for all of us!” read the concluding part of the BJP’s 2014 Election Manifesto. The overwhelming majority of the Indians who reside in rural India and depend on agriculture and allied activities voted for the Modi juggernaut in the belief that the man of the 56-inch chest fame would lead a mission to revive the sagging fortunes of India’s villages. And why not? After all, the BJP had admitted in its manifesto that the rural areas had been witness to “prolonged neglect” and promised to unleash a “full-fledged programme for rural rejuvenation”.

Indeed, the BJP manifesto included several ‘radical’ promises vis-à-vis rural development and agriculture that farmers had been demanding for a long time. It appeared that the right-wing BJP had plagiarised the demands of the Left-leaning farmers’ organisations. For instance, it promised to “increase public investment in agriculture and rural development, take steps to enhance the profitability in agriculture by ensuring a minimum of 50 percent profits over the cost of the production, cheaper agricultural inputs and credit, introduce latest technologies for farming and high-yielding seeds and link  to agriculture, implement a farm insurance scheme to take care of crop loss due to unforeseen natural calamities, strengthen and expand rural credit facilities, institute a price stabilisation fund to protect farmers from volatile world market prices” and more.

The manifesto also took a clear position on land acquisition that Modi and his party now want to erase from public memory. It read, “Land acquisition is a contentious issue due to the opacity of the land acquisition process. The BJP will adopt a ‘National Land Use Policy’, which will look at the scientific acquisition of non-cultivable land and its development, protect the interest of farmers and keep in mind the food production goals and economic goals of the country (emphasis added).”

With theBJP riding to power on the crest of these promises, which brought the party a windfall of votes across many parts of rural India, it was no surprise that a large number of farmers, especially in the ‘green revolution’ belts of  and western Uttar Pradesh, joined the victory celebrations exactly a year ago. Already, many of those who owed allegiance to regional parties had shifted their loyalties to the saffron party. There were reports of farmers hoisting the saffron flag on their rooftops.

Ten months later, when Tehelka visited farmers in Bulandshahr district of western UP, the mood has seen a ‘radical’ shift. “We voted for ‘ Mukt Bharat’ because the party of the Nehru- Gandhis had neglected rural India,” said a farmer. “But the Modi regime has gone a step further. They are now keen to loot and kill us. That is why we want a ‘Modi Mukt Bharat’ now.”

This might have been an emotional outburst triggered by the land acquisition ordinance brought by the Modi regime, which did away with the requirement to seek the prior consent of farmers before their land could be acquired for certain categories of projects: Defence, rural infrastructure, affordable housing, industrial corridors and infrastructure projects under public-private partnerships. But the ground for this overflow of emotion had been laid over many years of being on the margins and aggravated by factors such as drastically reduced public investment and institutional credit, continuous rise in input costs, the broken promise regarding minimum support price (MSP) and the almost total absence of crop insurance schemes.

Similar tales are heard from the farming belts of rural , where a colleague of  in the rss was elected as the chief minister with a thumping majority. Union Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh told Parliament recently that no farmer has committed suicide in the north Indian state, subtly hinting that there is no rural distress. His counterpart in , Om Prakash Dhanker, went on to say that farmers who commit suicide are cowards and criminals.

“In our fact-finding visit to , we came across shocking details of rural distress that is leading to suicides. Had Modi been loyal to the promises in the BJP manifesto, most of these suicides could have been averted. Even those farmers who have unfurled BJP flags on their rooftops are now asking why they are treated like this,” says Vijoo Krishnan, national joint secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS).

Interestingly, when a farmer’s delegation met a prominent Union minister and reminded him about the BJP’s promises, the minister replied, “You should not confuse our election manifesto with actual . It’s not easy to implement our promises in rural development and agriculture.” A critical analysis of the ’s policies reveals that the government is keen to implement policies contrary to what was stated in the BJP manifesto.

This duplicity is probably leaving the ruling party leaders with little choice but to be insensitive towards rural issues, even to the extent of branding suicide victims as cowards and criminals.

The agrarian crisis in  has led to several cases of young and healthy farmers committing suicide or dying of heart attack after their crop failed. Take Rivada village of Gohana tehsil in , for instance. Known as a village where almost every family has a member in the armed forces, it is now witness to suicides by close relatives of serving and retired soldiers. Yudhvir, a farmer who committed suicide recently because of indebtedness, had been taking care of the family of his brother Jagvir, who had lost his legs while in the army. There are several such cases of “cowardly and criminal” suicides in households with a long tradition of military service.

Even many of the “natural deaths” attributed to heart attack are actually in vicduced by the agrarian crisis, which leads to massive indebtedness among farmers. Rising input costs and no guarantee on the MSP has forced farmers to borrow huge sums from moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates ranging from 24 percent to a shocking 120 percent in districts such as Bhiwani, claims the fact-finding report of the AIKS. Yet, public sector banks are averse to giving agricultural loans, driving the farmers deeper into the clutches of rapacious moneylenders.

The unfinished and now aborted agenda of land reforms has made landless and marginal farmers lease land from absentee landowners. In irrigated areas, the annual land rent per acre is 46,000. Almost all the farmers who committed suicide in  in recent months had leased in land. Given the exorbitant rise in production costs, Modi’s much hyped — “the highest ever” — compensation of 11,800 per acre for crops lost to natural calamities is little more than a cruel joke. The AIKS report also includes testimonies from farmers who were given compensation of 5, 63 and 200 per acre in several parts of the state.

The story of agrarian distress in the northern parts of India is echoed in all other states facing intense agrarian crisis, including , Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Gujarat. Governments in all these states are also keen to downplay the distress.

One of the first proactive steps taken by the Modi regime was to dilute the rural employment guarantee Act introduced by the . Modi called the   a “living monument” to the bad  under  regimes since Independence. Several studies have shown how the Act played a major role in arresting rural poverty and distress migration despite delays in payment of wages and a large number of beneficiaries having to make do with much less than the promised 100 days of employment. But, instead of trying to plug the loopholes in the implementation of the Act, the  did quite the contrary by cutting the allocation for the programme in the interim Budget presented in 2014. As a result, during 2014-15, 70 percent of the wages were not disbursed in time and only 3 percent of the households got 100 days of employment.

The Modi regime’s apathy towards farmers and agricultural workers was also reflected in a drastic reduction in the fund allocation for the rural development ministry in ’s “first full Budget” presented in February. The ministry was given approximately Rs 10,000 crore less than the allocation in the previous Budget.

Modi also broke his promise to fix the MSP  at 50 percent or more above the cost of production. The Centre told the Supreme Court on 20 February that it is not feasible. The government has also decided to gradually dismantle the State-run Food Corporation of India, which procures food grain from farmers, and dilute the National Food Security Act 2013.

The unkindest cut, however, was the attempt by Modi and Jaitley to sell the land acquisition Bill as a step towards “pro-farmer” reforms. The prime minister has put his weight behind the Bill and is most likely to make sure that it is passed. Getting it accepted by the rural poor won’t be easy, though. Gone are the days when villagers — especially Adivasis and Dalits — had little choice but to quietly allow their land to be taken over. The past couple of decades have seen a massive growth in movements against development- induced displacement, which has historically affected Adivasis and Dalits more than any other section of . As per Planning Commission estimates, 40 percent of the people displaced between 1947 and 2004 were Adivasis and 20 percent were Dalits, whereas they comprise 8 percent and 16 percent of the Indian population, respectively.

As subsistence for the rural poor becomes increasingly precarious, not many are willing to give up the security provided by control over agricultural land and access to forests. That is why whenever the government tries to push through a development project, it meets stiff resistance from the locals. So, while Modi’s model of development depends largely on successful land acquisition for corporates, the biggest challenge to it is coming from the poorest citizens of rural India.

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