N.S. Venkataraman paints a worrying picture of flawed policies leading to food and economic insecurity in the long run. He cites the many instances all over India of farmlands being converted to build industrial, infrastructure and housing projects
There appears to be a mistaken view amongst policy planners at both the Central and state governments levels that ensuring the growth of industrial, infrastructure and housing sectors, even at the cost of diverting agricultural land for the purpose, is vital for the country’s economic progress. This view seems to be based on the assumption that India produces sufficient food grains for its requirements because the country exports rice, wheat, sugar and other agri-commodities, enjoying top position among the world’s rice exporters and standing second among sugar producers.
However, food security, in the context of ‘surplus’ food grain production, is a myth, since more than 20 per cent of people in India are estimated to be living below the poverty line and have very low ability to buy adequate food grain. For every Indian, including the 20 per cent BPL population, to have the three daily meals mandated for good health, the availability of food grain in India would be grossly inadequate. The fact is that India has “surplus” food grains to export because the purchasing capacity of a section of the population is low.
Similarly, India is said to be the largest producer of milk in the world, and that the country has surplus milk. But, the ground reality is that a large section of people in the lower income group cannot afford to buy milk. According to a UN report, India had 224.3 million undernourished people in 2019-2021.
Protests over farmland acquisition
Recently, there have been many instances all over India of farmlands being converted to build industrial, infrastructure and housing projects. There have been many protests, particularly by marginal farmers, against the acquisition of the farmlands which are their source of income. The average landholding of marginal farmers, who constitute around 65 per cent of total farmers in India, is less than one acre (0.4 hectares).
Huge protests are going on in Tamil Nadu against acquisition of around 5746.18 acres of land, including 3774.01 acres of wetland at Parandur near Chennai for the airport project. Other contentious projects are the setting up of an industrial estate by SIPCOT at Cheyyar and Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, for which vast tracts of farmland are to be acquired. Acquisition of farmland for satellite towns, Special Economic Zone, mining, oil exploration and petroleum projects all over the country are also being opposed.
Government has promised compensation to farmers in excess of the market price. To buy peace with the agitating farmers, other measures are also being announced, though many see them as ‘cosmetic’ and having no significance. The ground reality is that farmers have no skills in other areas and therefore resist government’s offer to rehabilitate them elsewhere, fearing that such a move would affect their social and economic security in the long run. The compensation amount given by the government would be a one-time payment and with the face value of the rupee constantly coming down due to inflation etc., it would not benefit them in the long run, and they would also lose out on the recurring income from their farmlands, they say.
Other options to consider
While industrial growth, infrastructure and housing projects are necessary, the question is whether farmland should be diverted for such projects, bringing down the area under farming, and consequently, reducing agricultural production. This begs the question whether government has explored alternative avenues for acquiring land for industrial and other projects.
There are many industrial units all over India, which have large tracts of surplus and unused land. Similarly, there are many educational institutions and universities which have much land which has remained unutilised for decades. Such land as well as acreage, buildings and other facilities belonging to thousands of industrial units of various sizes that fell sick and were closed, with little or no prospects of being reopened, can be used to set up industries, instead of taking over farmland. Central and state governments, as well as the Indian Railways own land, possibly running into several thousands of acres, which is not in use. Unfortunately, no organised study has been initiated by governments to assess the availability of such land and the feasibility of putting them to use.
A 2015-16 study estimated that India had around 55.76 million hectares of wasteland (16.96 per cent of the country’s total area), including dense scrub, waterlogged marshy land, sandy areas, degraded pastures / grazing land, alkaline and saline land, barren rocky areas etc. (Source: NRSC, ISRO, Dept. of Space & Dept of Land Resources, Ministry of rural Development). Such wasteland can be recovered and reclaimed and put to use for setting up industries, housing projects and infrastructure projects. Even the sea is being reclaimed to control flooding and make more space for agriculture and coastal industries.
In the case of farmland acquisition at Parandur for building a second airport, it has to be noted that in the Meenambakkam area, where the present airport is located, a new airport was built some years back, and an old one is not being used adequately. These facilities could be utilised instead of acquiring farmland for a fresh airport.
Uneconomical and irreversible
Policy framers seek to justify farmland acquisition for non-agricultural purposes saying it’s done only in some areas and in small measure, compared to the overall farmland area in the country. But repeated acquisition has significantly reduced total farmland, and it needs to be noted that converting agricultural land for industrial and other purposes is an irreversible process. Policy planners need to be aware that the overall economic and social benefits that agricultural growth provides could be higher than the overall benefits that industrial, infrastructure and housing projects do for the same level of investment.
Further, billions of people in India, including women, whose only skill is farming, depend on agriculture for survival. When farmlands are taken away, the consequent unemployment will become a big social and economic issue. Industrial projects cannot generate the type of employment opportunities that the agricultural sector can.
Need to boost agriculture
The policy planners should not lose sight of the fact that India’s strength is its agricultural economy and enormous traditional knowledge in the field. Also, the country’s population is increasing, and to meet the growing demands, there is pressing need for agricultural production to increase at least by 40 per vent. In this context, reducing the area under farming cannot be justified. In recent times, though considerable progress has been made in agricultural technology in India, there is a long way to go still.
For example, in the case of rice, per hectare production in India is 4.3 tonnes as against 6.5 tonnes in China In the case of maize / corn, per hectare yield in India is around 3.5 tonne. Productivity needs to be improved and optimised considerably. Cold chain infrastructure is also needed to remove supply bottlenecks and prevent harvest loss which is said to be around Rs 92,561 crore per annum.
Investment in agriculture technology is required so that farmers are equipped to meet climate change problems and other issues. The share of the corporate sector in total public and private investment in agriculture is just below 0.2 per cent, which has to be substantially increased. The focus should be on greater investment in the agriculture sector and not on taking away farmlands for non-agriculture purposes.
Two halves of a whole
The agricultural sector and industrial / infrastructure sector are complementary and one cannot survive at the cost of the other. In other words, augmenting infrastructure projects at the expense of agriculture is counter-productive, and can be likened to killing the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.
(The writer is managing trustee, Nandini Voice for the Deprived. He is a chemical engineer and lives in Chennai.)