By Prabhudatta Mishra
Over 14 crore households who cultivate on land owned by others under a formal lease agreement or even under a temporary arrangement overseen by the gram panchayats or other official functionaries may soon start getting assorted sops doled out to “farmers” by the government just as their land-owing counterparts do. According to official sources, the definition of farmer will be changed via a gazzette notification to include cultivators who don’t own the farm land being used by them, on the lines of the recommendations made by the Ashok Dalwai Committee recently. The panel had, in a report submitted to the government last year, recommended doubling of farmers’ income by 2022, a “one-India farm market” and greater participation of the private sector in agri-marketing and logistics, among others. In the latest volume of its report given to the agriculture ministry, the panel said without the proposed definitional change that would make landless farmers eligible for benefits, “the objectives of the government intervention, which are all meant to improve the status of agriculture in the country may not be equitable and inclusive”. Various benefits being offered to farmers include subsidised agriculture credit, seed kits, fertilisers, pesticides, farm machinery, micro-irrigation, land development support, etc. All these are, however, available to farmers who can prove land ownership. As a consequence, the actual cultivator like the lessee, share cropper, tenant, etc, are in effect excluded from the system of these benefits and entitlements.
Currently, only 12 crore farmer households have land, out of 26 crore engaged in agriculture, according to the 2011 census. As many as 22.5% of the farmers live below official poverty line. The number of landless agricultural labour has increased more than five times from 2.7 crore in 1951. The latest move by the government, officials said, would be complemented by the Centre nudging the states to make laws that explicitly legalise the leasing of farm land. The T Haque committee set up by the NITI Aayog had pitched for “legalisation and liberalisation of land leasing” with a view to promoting agricultural efficiency, equity, occupational diversification and rapid rural transformation. Currently, leasing of land for agriculture purpose is prohibited by some states while many others impose restrictions on such leasing. The Aayog has prepared a Model Act for states to follow on this, and so far, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh have acted on it.
Dalwai, who is also CEO of National Rainfed Area Authority, told FE: “For this (inclusion of those who cultivated on leased-in land under the definition of “farmer”) to happen, they merely need to show some document that they are farming a certain land not owned by them. We have suggested that both the tenant and land owner can get the gram panchayat to vet the document.” The biggest benefit for the tenant farmers due to the proposed change will be to secure agricultural credit at subsidised interest rates from institutional sources such as banks and cooperatives so that they come out of the fold of money lenders, Dalwai said. If agriculture has to develop, there must be investment and that can come through enhanced credit flows to the sector, he said. However, even after the Centre changes the definition, states have to recognise it as agriculture is a state subject. States may not object to the proposal since tenancy farmers will also be able to sell their rice and wheat to the government under the official procurement programme, Dalwai said.
The average monthly income of an agricultural household during 2012-13 (July-June) was as low as Rs 6,426, against the average consumption expenditure of `6,223. The Dalwai report says: “More than 65% of the landholdings are less than one hectare in size. Most people in India still perceive land as a valuable asset and the owners may not be willing to give up ownership and tend to cling to it. Probably, a sense of security and emotional attachment blend together, to enhance the land-centric sentiment among most Indians. It may only be much later in the future, when those whose principal source of income is not from farms and are earning enough from their salaries or business, that they may want to dispose off their small pieces of land, helping land consolidation as a sequel.” So, the committee has suggested that the list of farmers can be dynamic, which means that there can be both entry and exit options, based on the actual status of ownership and/or cultivation.