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Mainstream, VOL L, No 28, June 30, 2012

The Good Earth

Protecting Farmland, Commons And Forests From Predatory Capitalism And Globalisation In India

Wednesday 4 July 2012, by Bharat Dogra

India has about 16 per cent of the world’s population and two per cent of the world’s land. The livelihoods of nearly two-thirds of India’s population are linked to farmlands, village com-mons and forests. Given the scarcity of land as well as the extent of livelihoods linked to it, it is of the greatest importance to plan land-use in such a way that the base of sustainable liveli-hoods is protected. The importance of this task has further increased immensely in recent times of escalating threat of climate change as sustain-able livelihoods based on greenery are much more beneficial for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to a situation where these livelihoods (and the base supporting them) are uprooted.

However, precisely at the time when the importance of protecting ‘green livelihoods’ and their base (particularly farmland and forests) is the greatest, most tragically the assault on agricultural land, commons and forests is also the greatest. As the path of capitalist develop-ment spawns increasing inequalities within the country, and also gets more forcefully linked to the forces of globalisation, the nature of such growth and linkages necessarily create condi-tions of a relentlessly growing assault on green, sustainable livelihoods and their base.
To make this clearer, we may classify the various factors due to which the base of sustain-able, land-based livelihoods (mainly agriculture, horticulture, animal husbandry etc. and mixed farming systems based on a combination of these) can be threatened.

1. Even in a reasonably balanced path of development, with the passage of time with a growing demand for industrial goods, sup-porting infra-structure and some urbanisation, there will be a pressure on some agricultural and forest land. However, this can be managed without very serious damage particularly when there is a well-thought-out policy for saving fertile farmland and natural forests, and when this policy is imple-mented in participation with the rural people.

2. The situation gets more difficult if the path involves extreme inequalities, as in this case there is excessive pressure on production of luxury goods, luxury housing, hotels, resorts etc.

3. If the development path gives less priority to farmers, shift the terms of trade against agriculture, and provides them little insur-ance in times of greater uncertainty, then it become easy for land speculators to uproot farmers.

4. If land speculators, mafias, dons are allowed to flourish and act in collusion with corrupt officials and politicians, then the prospects for excessive land grabbing in the guise of ‘development’ work increase greatly.

5. When the national economy is more and more deeply drawn into the web of globalisation, then the pressure to meet the demands of global elite greatly increases the pressure on sustainable livelihoods and their base. The global demands of minerals can be particularly huge, but there are also pressures for various industrial or other goods commanded by globalisation-based specialisation for various countries/regions. This often pushes more polluting, ‘dirty’, displacement-causing activities to poorer countries, bringing super profits to a few elites but misery to most people.

While any threats to sustainable livelihoods and their base arising from factor (1) can be managed within reasonable limits, factors (2) to (5) particularly when combined together can increase these threats manifold and these threats can even become limitless given the pull of the speculative forces and global demand. In such a situation any planning to protect the base of sustainable livelihoods becomes very difficult because firstly, the global pressures cannot be predicted and secondly, powerful interests of speculators and land-grabbers create serious problems for any such planning.

Therefore, any serious effort to challenge the threat to sustainable livelihoods based on farm-land, commons and forests should also resist factors (2) to (5) because if these forces are not weakened, then the assault on sustainable livelihoods and their base will continue to grow. However, the government policy at present is not based on any such wider commitment.

Within the framework of the democratic system in India, the government’s main concern is not to check the assault, or the extent of the assault, on farmland and forests but rather to manage and contain the distress and discontent this is likely to cause among farmers, pastorals, forest-produce gatherers and other sustainable livelihood occupations. In States like West Bengal governments have seen how volatile issues like land acquisition proved and led to serious setbacks and electoral defeat for well-entrenched ruling coalitions. Therefore, the entire effort is to think up a package of compensations and incentives which will satisfy the farmers who face the threat of land acquisition. Towards this end the State governments of Haryana, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh have come up with their own versions of ideal package and other States may soon follow. Now attention is more focussed on the national-level efforts to provide a ‘model’ law on land-acquisition as well as rehabilitation of displaced people. While various provisions of these laws are hotly debated, without challen-ging factors (2) to (5) mentioned above, the impact of any legislative measures on reducing the threat to sustainable livelihoods can only be limited.

Here it is important to bring out the basic difference between two kinds of objectives—

Objective (a): Somehow reducing the discon-tent and protests against land acquisition with-out necessarily reducing the extent of land acquisition.
Objective (b): Focusing on the need to reduce significantly the assault on farmland, commons and forests and the sustainable livelihoods based on these.
These are two very different objectives and should not be confused with each other. The government appears to be mainly concerned with the first objective, and many senior persons in the government may not even accept the second objective as desirable at all. In fact a very senior Minister said sometime back that the ideal development of the country he has in mind is for 85 per cent of the people to live in cities (compared to the 30 per cent urban population today).

However, for several social and environmental movements objective (b) is more important. Both from the point to view of protection of sustainable livelihoods and environment protec-tion (as well as overall welfare). Clearly objective (b) is more important and more basic.

• If fertile farmland, commons and forests are protected, then sustainable livelihoods for many, many generations will be assured.

• In a world where food security is increasingly threatened, this will contribute to adequate availability of food crops, milk and several kinds of nutritious food available in forests.

• At a time when bio-diversity is badly threat-ened, this will contribute to the protection of bio-diversity.

• This will contribute to the strengthening of rural communities which are threatened in many ways but make available a better, more sustainable pattern of life in many ways.

• This will help to reduce GHG emissions. The pattern of sustainable development based on green cover is always better than the pattern of mostly polluting industrial and infra-structure development which emerges after uprooting the green cover. This aspect is likely to become more and more important in times when climate change is becoming an increa-singly crucial issue, indeed a survival issue.

• If the assault on farmland is stopped, then the possibilities of land reforms or distribu-tion of farmland among the landless rural poor can also increase. There is wide agree-ment that for reducing rural poverty, land distribution among the poorest landless people can prove one of the most effective and stable means, while other options may offer only temporary relief.

• Also it should be emphasised that large-scale displacement from land is likely to lead to large-scale unemployment. Capital-intensive industrialisation can provide very limited employment to those uprooted from land. Unlike in the case of Europe’s much earlier industrialisation, the prospects of uprooted people being able to migrate to other countries or continents don’t exist now.

Hence what needs to be underlined is the great necessity of protecting sustainable livelihoods and its base—fertile farmland, commons and forests (and of course the water-sources which support this greenery). Short-term remedial measures or even appeasement of affected farmers by hiking cash compensation at selected places (or by other such means) is not the answer. The focus should be on challenging and checking the paradigm of development (or is it destruction?) based on a massive assault on the base of sustainable development.

How to achieve this in the face of the ganging-up of powerful interests to support this assault, and to try to justify this as an inevitable or essential part of ‘development’? The following are some suggestions for strengthening these struggles and the overall effort for checking the assault on farmland, commons and forests.

• Bring the various struggles to protect the ‘good earth’ closer to each other, with a special emphasis on various peaceful struggles, so that they can contribute to each other’s success.

• Mobilising pro-people professional expertise so that well-researched, comprehensive, cost-benefit studies for these various projects can be made which bring in adequately the as-pects of food security, sustainable livelihoods of rural communities, GHG emissions, bio-diversity etc.

• Setting up State-level and national platforms for these struggles to take up issues of common interests and to provide them support.

• Linking these national initiatives to inter-national organisations working on sustain-able development alternatives, promoting food security and checking climate change.

• There should be a well-organised campaign for alternative paradigms of development in which industrialisation doesn’t uproot farmers. Instead farmer households continue to retain small plots of cultivation land while some of their members also participate in non-displacing, non-polluting, labour-inten-sive small- and medium-sized industrial units with special emphasis on cottage-scale rural units.

If local to State to national to world-level linkages can be forged and if the perspectives of food security, poverty alleviation, environment protection, sustainable development and climate change can be combined in an effective way, then the prospects of checking the assault on poverty can improve significantly. This entire effort should of course include well-organised media campaigns, establishing regular dialogue with legislators and political parties, academics and opinion makers, as well as public interest litigations.

The Perspective of Land Reforms

IN this entire discussion the perspective of land reforms needs to be brought in. The government has repeatedly gone back on its promises of large-scale, significant redistribution of farmland among the poorest landless (or near landless) people of rural areas. However, at least some land was distributed and there was hope for more. But the massive assault on farmland and displacement of people, particularly farmers, has a very adverse impact on the possibilities of land reforms as well. When even land owning farmers are losing their land on a vast scale, who will care to give land to landless peasants?

When land is acquired for various projects, landless farm workers, tenants, sharecroppers, artisans etc. are often left in the lurch as they lose their livelihoods but don’t have any land ownership papers to claim compensation and other ‘benefits’. Although some efforts have been made to partly alleviate some of these problems, the fact remains that on the whole assaults on land, commons and forests also harm the poorest landless people in various ways while also reducing drastically the chances of any land distribution among them. Several landless or near landless farmers who got their land after years of hard efforts for land reforms and social justice also lose their fields in the various assaults on farmland. Many of them have worked very hard to reclaim the poor quality land distributed to them and make it fit for cultivation.

So the perspective of the landless and near landless people and of the continuous need for land reforms should be brought in adequately into this struggle against the assault on land and forests. And it is clear that from this perspective also the assault on farmland should be opposed and resisted.

Those movements, which have been strugg-ling only on behalf of the landless and the near landless, should now widen their horizons as with the assault on farmland many farmers also face the threat of becoming landless.

The Proposal for a Minimum Holding

IT is in this wider context that the proposal for a law ensuring minimum land holding for all long-term resident rural households acquires many-sided significance. Such a law could lay down, for instance, that all long-term residents of a village will have rights to homestead land and at least about an acre of cultivation land. However, the size of the land holding can differ in hill and plain areas, and in irrigated and desert areas.

Such a law would have been justified at any time on the basis of social justice, but its impor-tance has increased at a time of widespread assault on farmland as this can give some minimum security not only to landless people but also to others now threatened with landlessness. Even when such an assault cannot be stopped, this law can compel the authorities to ensure that at least some minimum land base of any family is not disturbed (or has to be provided at another nearby place).
The assurance of a minimum land base for all rural households will provide multiple benefits.

• This will help significantly in poverty alleviation and food security in the context of the poorest families and thereby help in achieving top priority national goals.

• This will help the poorest families to explore additional livelihood opportunities including food crop production, animal husbandry and cottage scale crafts.

• This will improve the health and hygiene of the poorest families as they have space for toilets, bathrooms and a separate place for dairy animals or other animals.

• This will strengthen rural communities as without a land-base the poorest families can be easily lost to the rural communities in these times of greater dependance on migrant labour.

• Several rural households have said that even a small plot of land gives them a certain social dignity.

Hence the proposal for a minimum land holding deserves immediate attention as a means of promoting food security, poverty alleviation, social security, health, hygiene and community ties.

[Note: This paper was written for the Ekta Parishad and is being published here with due acknowledgement.—B.D.]

The author in currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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