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Mainstream, VOL LX No 14, New Delhi, March 26, 2022

Integrating struggles of Farmers, Fishers and Forest Dwellers | Dipak Dholakia and Rajesh Ramakrishnan

Friday 25 March 2022


by Dipak Dholakia and Rajesh Ramakrishnan *

All well-meaning intellectuals and activists swear by the idea of ‘Community control over natural resources’ as a countervailing argument against ‘Corporate control over natural resources’ made possible after economic liberalisation in the early 1990s. There have been attempts to integrate and present Jal, Jangal and Zamin as natural resources but activists do not seem to have made much headway on the ground, and on the contrary, the government is easing the way for corporate control over natural resources.

Recently, the farmers’ agitation succeeded in compelling the government to withdraw three farm laws which were clearly in the interest of big companies that wanted to capture the food market of the country. It is pertinent to say that having withdrawn the laws, the government has not given away anything and now after the assembly elections there are chances that the government may soon return with a vengeance. In the changed circumstances, it may not be easy to mobilise farmers for a second time. If it were not enough, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha which led the agitation has split with some of its constituents joining electoral politics. It is very important to note that they miserably failed to win votes from the same farmers who gave them unstinted support just three months ago. The recent Samyukt Kisan Morcha meeting was taken over by these pro-election leaders who forced the SKM leaders out of the meeting hall. Samyukt Kisan Morcha needs to rethink its strategy.

In the same way, our forests are being handed over to big businesses for the mining of coal and other minerals. The environment impact assessment process has been buried for all practical purposes with the draft provision that a third person cannot report a violation by a company, which is allowed to use jungles for its profits. Meanwhile, about two million Adivasis are under constant fear of being displaced from jungles under the Supreme Court judgment which has been kept in abeyance for the time being. Rivers are being targeted for big hydroelectric projects and projects like Sagarmala threaten the coastal ecology and allow tourism and industry near the shores.

There is no doubt that Jal, Jangal and Zamin are well defined as components of nature, and that they need protection under the control of the communities. But, new kinds of problems are likely to emerge the moment communities begin to exercise control over these natural resources. What is a community? In the administrative parlance, it is the Gram Sabha that forms such a community with the Panchayat representatives and its officials, as its functional arm. However, such a Gram Sabha is the product of a caste-ridden society. Ultimately the so-called community control is likely to become a more powerful tool in the hands of higher castes. At the village level, the caste structure is so rigid that there is no redemption for Dalits and other subjugated groups.

This kind of ‘community’ is likely to be equally exploitative with its age-old notions of piety and hierarchy. We, therefore, need, first of all, to define the word ‘community’.

We also have to take into account that in the realm of policy and governance in India, agriculture, fisheries and forestry have become separate; there are separate ministries for agriculture and farmers’ welfare; fisheries, animal husbandry and dairying; and environment, forests and climate. In reality, however, there are several close linkages between agriculture, fisheries and forestry: All three are sources of food. All three sectors are dependent on the linkages between common-pool natural resources and private property resources. Some of the most degraded lands in India are the common pool resources, such as community pastures, community forests and so-called “wastelands”, which play a vital role in maintaining ecological balance while providing important resources that sustain rural livelihoods. Forests support agriculture and human well-being by stabilizing soils and climate, and by regulating water flows. A majority of the genetic resources for edible freshwater and seawater fish come from the wild. A vast majority of people survive on these resources and they are the human embodiment of Jal, Jangal and Zamin. The real operative meaning of a community that manages natural resources is as a conglomeration of farmers, fishers and forest dwellers. All social interpretations of a community have to be voluntarily relegated behind this operative meaning by members themselves, the community has to be self-defined as groups of people who are economically dependent on natural resources. The principle of community control over natural resources will work only if the stakeholder community backs it up. This does not mean that the social identities of the oppressed, like Dalit or Adivasi, have to be forcibly forgotten. But the current reality is captured by Samyukt Kisan Morcha leader and Bharatiya Kisan Union (Tikait) leader Yudhvir Singh’s comment on the recent election results, “It is a failure of democracy. We tried to consolidate all farmers on the basis of the problems they face as a community. Instead, they are voting for those who share their caste or religion. Farmers have failed to vote for their own welfare.” (No wilting heat of farmers’ rage, Priscilla Jebaraj, The Hindu, March 11, 2022)

Contribution to the Economy

The Economic Survey 2021-22 says, “The share of the sector in total GVA of the economy has a long-term trend of around 18 per cent. The share of the agriculture & allied sector in total GVA, however, improved to 20.2 per cent in the year 2020-21 and 18.8 per cent in 2021-22.” However, inequality pervades in the agriculture sector too. More and more people have parted with their pieces of land. The Survey shows that the share of the allied sector has been continuously rising in the agriculture GVA but it may not be a good sign for the simple reason that the dependence on wages and other activities has increased but the number of land-holding households with 0.002 to 2 ha has gone up by 6% - from 80% in 2002-03 to 86% in 2018-19. The number of small and marginal households with 2-10 ha was 9% in 2002-03 but more than one-third of them have slid into the lowest income slab. By the year 2018-19 even the number of big landholders has come down from 0.5% in 2002-03 to 0.1% in 2018-19 Not only that, more and more people have returned to farming in the aftermath of Covid 19. Obviously, they belong to the lowest category of landholders or are landless labourers. Yet agriculture suffers neglect and in fact, disdain.

The National Commission on Farmers says, “The importance of agriculture in the socio-economic fabric of India can be realised from the fact that the livelihood of majority of the country’s population depends on agriculture. The agriculture sector contributes only about 18 per cent of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with more than 60% population dependence, resulting in low per capita income in the farm sector. Consequently, there is a large disparity between the per capita income in the farm sector and the non-farm sector. Therefore, it is essential to deal with those issues which impact the income levels of farmers. The income levels are determined by the overall production, supported by reasonable levels of yield and prices realised by the farmers.”

As of 2019, India was the seventh-largest country in the world with a total forest cover to the tune of 71.22 million hectares, a whopping 21.67 per cent of the total geographical area of the country. It must be noted though that this figure of forest cover includes all plantations and does not mean natural forests alone. Nevertheless, forestry is second only to agriculture as far as land-use is concerned. Roughly, 275 million rural people in India including about 100 million Adivasis, or 27 per cent of the total population lives in forests. They are the biggest ‘minority’ if we stop attaching the ‘religious’ prefix to any minority group. They depend, at least, for a part of their subsistence and livelihoods, on fuel-wood, fodder, bamboo, and a range of non-timber forest products. Seventy per cent of India’s rural population depends on fuel-wood to meet its domestic energy needs.

Immediately after the capture of Bengal, the East India Company systematically targeted forests for commercial purposes. Very large numbers of tribals and other forest dwellers were evicted or compelled to work on rail and road construction projects for their survival. They were treated as sub-human classes. Ironically, independent India followed the colonial Indian Forest Act, 1927 which only saw forests as a source of revenue from timber plantations, forests as a source of land to be grabbed and distributed, and people living in forests as a nuisance. A change in attitude was evident only in 1980 when the Forest Conservation Act was enacted, followed by the National Forest Policy in 1988 which changed the objective of forest management to conservation with the participation of forest-dwellers. The big breakthrough was the Forest Rights Act in 2006 that explicitly recognised the rights of forest-dwellers not only to forest land and produce, but even to management of community forest resources, and laid down procedures to recognise these rights legally. However, the forces who intend to accumulate wealth in fewer and fewer hands have always been active and they are doing everything to take away whatever would empower tribals and other forest dwellers and assure them a reasonably decent life. India is not alone in its complete disregard for these segments of its population. Worldwide, an estimated 1.6 billion people, or 25% of the global population, rely on forests for their subsistence needs, livelihoods, employment, and income. Of the extreme poor in rural areas, 40% live in forest and savannah areas, and approximately 20% of the global population - especially women, children, landless farmers, and other vulnerable segments of society - look to forests to meet their food and income needs. For centuries, forests have provided socio-economic safety nets for people and communities in times of crisis.

Likewise, in the fisheries sector, there are about 6 million fish workers in India in the inland and marine sectors combined. They are fishers, fish farmers, fish vendors, fish sorters and driers as well as ancillary workers like net and boat makers. As such the fisheries sector sustains about 3 crore people. Indiscriminate damming of rivers, change in land use and removal of green cover in catchment areas and pollution are killing our rivers and other water bodies and their fish resources.

Higher productivity is the mantra of capitalism and the Blue Revolution promoted by the Government of India aims to encourage this very process. Heavy investment in farming and forest produce and fisheries aimed at maximisation of profit is detrimental to the environmental or ecological balance; it also edges out small farmers, traditional small-scale fishers and forest dwellers, and their place is taken over by outsiders who have no stakes in any of the three sectors, except to make quick money.

Livelihoods based on natural resources should take cognizance of the integrated character of resources. Only then can the livelihoods be sustainable. Intensive production practices in any of these areas are inherently unsustainable. These issues of sustainability have to be explicitly brought into focus in the policy. But what is seen are contradictory provisions between laws, between law and policy, and between policy and practice. For example, laws like the Forest Rights Act with its broad definition of ‘forest’ and provision for communities’ rights to manage their forest resources, and PESA with its provisions for local governance over local natural resources remain unimplemented. At the same time, proposed amendments to the Forest Conservation Act and the Biodiversity Act, proposed amendments to EIA rules, and the new Indian Marine Fisheries Act, all in the name of `ease of doing business’ prepare the ground for corporate entities to take over natural resources, exploit them unsustainably, thereby depriving communities of their livelihood sources and destroying the resource base itself.

An emerging common threat to all the natural resources and people dependent on them for livelihoods is climate change. The impact of climate change shows both the integrated nature of natural resources and the ill-effects of intensive capitalist production on them. The mitigation of climate change impacts will only be possible if the drive for economic growth at any cost is re-considered, and decentralised, community-based production and governance is adopted as a model with the objective of meeting local consumption needs sustainably.

Natural assets are the cheapest sources of profit maximisation; they are available for free and, in abundance. And, nature is indivisible with all its manifestations being essentially the same. With the state acting on behalf of corporate and business interests, there are also conflicts over natural resources between communities - for example between villages over forests, between settled agriculturists and nomadic pastoralists, between fishers owning mechanised boats and those who survive on simple boats and simple tools. There is a conflict between farmers and mine workers. The roots of such conflicts can be traced to laws, policies and implementation that are in consonance with the demands of big business but their impact is borne by communities.

It is important to mention here that these three sectors have a large number of women engaged in production, processing and marketing. Therefore, a gendered view of integrated natural resources management by communities is needed as perspectives of men and women towards it differ. Such a gendered view is based on the historical and social construction of gender relations in a community. It recognises that what is seen as women’s work, both with natural resources and care-work at home, are socially and not biologically determined, and, therefore, are a combination of patriarchal oppression by both local community traditions and `national’ Brahminical traditions. In the realm of action, such a gendered view will recognise distinct women’s rights over natural resources that empower women without being premised on the sexual division of labour within the home and in the community.

These three nature-based communities should join hands and oppose land concentration and mechanisation of agriculture, use of chemicals and fertilizers, big fishing vessels and land-use change in forests for infrastructure, mining and industry. That the three groups make one community is established by the National Commission on Farmers. For example, while defining a farmer, in effect, it defines all nature-based vocations. The committee says: For the purpose of this Policy, the term “farmers” will refer to both men and women, and include landless agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, tenants, small, marginal and sub-marginal cultivators, farmers with larger holdings, fishers, livestock and poultry rearers, pastoralists, small plantation farmers, as well as rural and tribal families engaged in a wide variety of farming related occupations such as apiculture, sericulture and vermiculture. The term will include tribal families sometimes engaged in shifting cultivation and in the collection and use of non-timber forest products. Farm and Home Science Graduates earning their livelihoods from crop and animal husbandry, fisheries and agro-forestry will have their rightful place in the world of farmers and farming.”

The definition speaks about farmers, not in an ordinary sense of the word but covers the entire gamut of nature-based activities. Despite this, the stress on the inner unity of all those engaged in nature-based communities is missing in the report which is being debated only from an agriculture angle. The National Commission on Farmers could have revolutionised our approach towards nature and nature-based activities, but it was a touch-and-go for it. We need a scientific and economic analysis of agriculture-related jobs listed in the definition. We need to recognise them as full-fledged economic activities in view of the market price of honey, silk or any of the products. These jobs are presumed to be performed by farmers as an additional source of income but when these enter the market they become ‘commodities’, the price of which is determined by the businessmen. We must protect these as independent activities on a par with agriculture and fishing as part of the definition of farmers.

The lack of a broader vision of nature has infected the activities of all activist organisations who also divide ‘farmers’ in various segments and serve only one of the segments of communities. We should admit that it is not only the capitalist class but those opposed to it also follow the same divisive definition.

Carbon Trade

 This is a new way Capitalism has found to ‘control’ its carbon emission. The provisions allow a polluter company to emit carbon in its own premises, yet use its money to purchase carbon credit as compensation. A carbon credit is created by reducing carbon emissions in some other area where carbon is normally emitted, or by sequestering carbon in biomass or soil. Using this method they have devised a way to enter the nature-based sectors like agriculture, fisheries and forests that are also carbon emitters albeit their emissions may be much lower. This is a big global game being played ostensibly to fight global warming, but in the garb of emission control, they will enter farmlands, fishing areas and forests to influence the decision-making process at the individual and government levels. This is also one of the most important reasons for farmers, fishers and forest dwellers to unite and resist the takeover by big business. Now big polluting companies entering agriculture, fisheries and forests will try to control production there. 

Food Security

FAO in its document ‘FAO and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals’ says: “The battle to end poverty must be fought also in rural areas, where people depend directly or indirectly on farming, fisheries or forestry for incomes as well as food. (emphasis added). Hunger is no longer an issue of insufficient global supplies, but mainly of lack of access to the means to produce or purchase food. Investing in rural development, establishing social protection systems, building rural-urban linkages and focusing on boosting the incomes of the critical agents of change — small-holder family farmers, foresters, fisher folk, rural women and youth — is key to achieving inclusive and equitable growth while tackling the root causes of poverty and hunger. Improving rural livelihoods will also curb rural-urban migration and increased urban poverty.”
The world is already thinking in terms of an integrated approach to agriculture, fisheries and forests but it has not become a people’s political demand in India. SDGs can attract NGOs to launch their projects but essentially food and livelihood security is a political agenda. It can be achieved only by united efforts of farmers, fishers and forest-dwellers.

(Authors: Dipak Dholakia is a social activist and presently the convener of the Indian Community Activists Network (ICAN); Rajesh Ramakrishnan is a development professional who has been working on natural resources management, rural livelihoods and governance for the last 30 years. He is the convener of the forestry group of the Indian Community Activists Network (ICAN) )

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