PROTECTING THE TENANT FARMER
A fact finding report on farm suicides in Telangana in 2015 by Rythu Swarajya Vedika showed that nearly 65% of 142 farm suicides investigated by the outfit were of tenant farmers/sharecroppers. Another report just this week of 40 cases of farm suicides found that in 22 cases, the victims had leased in land. Admittedly, this may not be the situation in all states of India. However, in a country reeling under agrarian distress, it is hardly surprising that the worst affected farmers would be those who are never considered or classified as ‘farmers’ by the agriculture establishment given their invisibility of existence as far as official records are concerned. If you are not on the records, then you are unlikely to get any share in the meagre support that is meant for farmers, whether it is agriculture credit or insurance or disaster relief or marketing support. In fact, you are not considered a farmer even after committing suicide, if you are landless and are a tenant/sharecropper.
The NSSO 70th Round survey on Land and Livestock Holdings in India counted that 10.10% of land in India is leased in at the all-India level (amounting to 99 – 107 lakh hectares of land), with the state level figures ranging from 1.08% in Nagaland to 33.75% in Andhra Pradesh. Most reports related to extent of tenancy/sharecropping are to be seen as under-reporting of the phenomenon and even these point to the substantial numbers of families involved in this kind of farming. Admittedly, the situation varies quite substantially across different states of India.
Last year, NITI Aayog mooted initial proposals around legalizing agricultural land leasing in India – given that this news came right on the heels of the government having to backtrack on Land Acquisition Ordinances, it was viewed with skepticism as a way devised to get around the opposition to land acquisition ordinance/amendments. The NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson’s blog piece on his website was a give-away in that respect. The tension between approaching this as liberalizing land lease Vs. legalizing land lease was apparent even then.
In September 2015, NITI Aayog set up an Expert Committee headed by Dr Tajamul Haque to examine the existing tenancy laws and to suggest appropriate amendments to meet the felt need around legalising land leasing. The underlying assumption was that legalizing land leasing would increase agricultural efficiency, occupational diversification, rapid rural transformation and would address equity issues. The Expert Committee was also asked to create a Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act, for the benefit of state governments.
On April 11th, the Expert Committee presented its report to NITI Aayog, including a Model Land Leasing Act. The Model Act limits itself to land leasing in the context of agriculture and allied activities as well as only for farmers and farmers’ collectives. This allays the initial fears around legalizing land leasing being seen as a way of bypassing land acquisition laws. The report makes a case for why legalizing of land leasing is necessary both from the tenant’s point of view and the landowner’s. Efficiency and productivity arguments are extended to justify the need to formalize land lease agreements, whereas they are unrecorded and invisible at this point of time, making the tenants extremely vulnerable in a risky profession. The example of collective land leasing by women’s groups in Kudumbashree in Kerala is given as an illustration for increasing efficiency and viability in farming when land leasing is legalized.
However, it is seen that the Model Land Leasing Act has not addressed various concerns that persist. For instance, concentration of operational holdings in a few hands is a possibility, and therefore, the Equity rationale for legalizing being given the short shrift. The report in fact seeks to make a case for existing (big?) land-owners leasing in lands of smallholders freeing them up for wage work and self-employment of any other kind. However, we do know that opportunities for the landed for such self-employment of the non-agricultural kind are more, given their existing socio-economic advantages, and not the other way around. Therefore, to build in ceilings into the Model Act would be important and it is hoped that state governments which seek to adopt this Model Act would put in clauses that prevent inequitable concentration of land.
The Model Act also did not build in clauses that would have protected the interests of tenants – for instance, while the report talks about facilitating all tenants to access insurance and bank credit that too against pledging of expected output, the Act leaves it to the tenants own efforts to access these support systems. Many farm movements have been asking for more express guidelines from the RBI to bankers with regard to greater support to tenant farmers and for the government to set up a credit guarantee fund to give more confidence to bankers. Further, the Bhoomiheen Kisan Credit can be scaled up to cover tenant farmers in a JLG approach but with more investments built into building up the Joint Liability Groups of such tenant farmers into workable institutions.
The biggest lacuna in the Model Act can be said to be the lack of onus put on state departments to protect the interests of tenant farmers in any way. It is assumed that adverse land possession clauses in tenancy laws being addressed through a new law would address the many vulnerabilities of tenant farmers. In the end, the Model Act limited itself to being a legal contract between a lessor and lessee completely on their mutually agreed terms and conditions.
This may not resolve the many problems being faced by tenant farmers today. Other than giving the confidence to land owners to get into legal contracts with tenants without the fear of losing the land, or being criminalized in some way, the Model Act should have mandated the agriculture and revenue departments of state governments to proactively record and register all lease agreements and share the database on a seasonal or yearly basis with bankers for credit, run special camps to enroll them for crop insurance, ensure that at the time of disaster relief payments, such data is accessed by the competent authorities preparing the cheques etc. To that extent, the Licensed Cultivators’ Act of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana has mechanisms worth emulating elsewhere. It is hoped that state governments will indeed legalise land lease keeping the best interests of tenant farmers in mind while devising their statutes.
- Kavitha Kuruganti is one of the Convenors of ASHA – Kisan Swaraj Alliance (Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture)