Land — the forgotten issue in farmers’ unrest

Shreya Deb | Updated on: Dec 06, 2021

For boosting farmers’ income, there is an urgent need to improve the system of land administration in the country

On March 12, over 30,000 farmers marched nearly 200 km to Mumbai to share their grievances with the Maharashtra government. Only weeks ago, thousands of more farmers led a comparable demonstration in Shimla. While loan waivers and better MSP (Minimum Support Price) were part of these agendas, few political observers expected that the common demand among them would be land.

This is because the agricultural sector dialogue focuses on supply chain efficiency or improving the quality of inputs like seeds and fertilisers. Land is one key issue that often falls through the cracks of these conversations. While land is an input that cannot be created, its value can be destroyed through poor policy.

That’s where the government has faltered over the last 70 years, and in two specific areas.

The first is the land market in India, which inhibits agricultural productivity. According to the 2010-11 Report on Agriculture Census, 85 per cent of India’s total operational land holdings are less than 2 hectares in area. The yield from such small plots is barely enough to feed the farmer’s family, leaving very little produce to sell in the market. Consolidation of land holdings can drive higher efficiency and yields, but this requires a land market that allows people to buy or lease land.

However, high costs and complexity in registering sale transactions — as well as the absence of accurate titles and maps — raise questions around ownership and other use rights, thus creating friction in the transaction process. Moreover, existing laws constrain formal land leasing. A 2013 NSSO report estimates 13 per cent of household lease land, but other reports by NGOs suggest this could well be 50 per cent due to informal tenancy arrangements.

Another foundational challenge is that without accurate land records, it’s difficult for farmers to access critical welfare schemes. The government spends close to one per cent of GDP on fertiliser subsidies every year, while other huge subsidies exist for seeds, pesticides, crop insurance, and farm loans. But, if underlying land records don’t reflect the true names of owners, lessors, and cultivators or the correct size of the plots, the benefits won’t reach the targeted beneficiaries. We’re seeing this happening in Himachal Pradesh, where NCAER found that 34 per cent of sampled records in Shimla had inaccurate ownership information, and 78 per cent had inaccurate area information. The reasons are varied, ranging from unregistered sale, inheritance, and tenancy, to decades-old official maps no longer reflecting ground reality. A tribal farmer waiting for his title under the Forest Rights Act, or a widow trying to update her name in the records to replace her deceased husband, will invariably lose out on all the benefits and sell the produce at the local market for lower prices.

We need to elevate the importance of efficient government systems for land administration to the forefront of the agriculture sector conversation; however, it’s a complex subject. Its systemic issues cannot be fixed with public policy alone, and will require new thinking and collaboration among multiple stakeholders, including governments, philanthropic institutions, entrepreneurs, and civil society. How do we get there?

Multidisciplinary approach

Improved land administration requires an understanding of social, political, legal, and economic issues. There is a dire need to build such capacity in India. The establishment of the Center for Land Governance within the Indian Institute for Human Settlements is an important step to nurturing talent within the public and private space and driving policy research, but we need more such pioneering institutions.

Integrating land records

Philanthropic institutions and state governments spend millions of dollars on agriculture programmes across India, but they should go further to take a holistic view of the role of land and land records. These large-scale programmes need to allocate part of the resources to help their target farmer population obtain accurate land records.

Role of tech

The availability of geospatial and mobile technology is revolutionising the way we update land records, offering new and cheap ways to capture household and plot level information. Odisha is already setting the example as the first State to use drones to capture information on about thousands of slum households to provide title documents.

Entrepreneurial solutions

Given the scale of the problem, there is a huge opportunity for millions of innovators and entrepreneurs to step in and solve it.

These are just four thrust areas that create a more dynamic, proactive approach to land administration. As a problem vocalised by farmers from Maharashtra to Himachal Pradesh, solutions will need to be an effort of many moving forward. The stakes are too high for not only the 260 million farmers demanding changes, but also for the Indian economy that they support.

The writer is Principal, Investments, at Omidyar Network. Views are personal

Published on May 07, 2018
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