Forty five years ago, former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri rightly underscored the importance of agriculture and the contribution of farmers as an indispensable tool to usher India into the league of powerful countries by giving the famous call - ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’.
Immediately after Shastriji became the Prime Minister, the country faced a grave scarcity of food grains as well as a brutal attack by Pakistan. It was then Shastriji gave the memorable slogan to motivate the soldiers and at the same time cheer the farmers.
In the current scenario, it seems that this great call by Lal Bahadur Shastri seems to have become redundant. It is shameful that large areas of agricultural lands are being taken away from the farmers by the government, in the name of rural development and real estate construction under the nations Land Acquisition Act, 1894. The current land acquisition drama between the UP farmers and the Mayawati government is in bad taste. The 63rd Independence Day eve would be remembered not for independence celebrations, but for the blood bath of UP farmers due to police open fire. The entire incident was a shame for our nation, whose economy is based on its bounteous agricultural produce.
Land Acquisition Act, 1894
In the year 1894, the British government formulated this Act. According to this Act, the government could acquire any land from its owners by paying a sum of money for the purpose of constructing educational institutions or government related schemes, centres related to health, housing or slum clearance apart from rural development or real estate sites. After India achieved independence, the Indian government adopted this Act as a tool for land acquisitions.
But in 2010, this Act looks outdated and poor farmers are facing grave problems due to it. There have been a lot of instances where arable lands have been usurped from the cultivators at a very low price.
Amendments assured in Land acquisition bill
The Central Government has announced a bill to reform this draconian Act, as per media reports.
The Minister of State for Agriculture KV Thomas has announced that a group of ministers (GoM), headed by Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar, is looking into the Land Acquisition Law and making necessary amendments to it. He said “Government of India proposes to bring a comprehensive Land Acquisition Bill soon”.
The minister stated that the Centre has in the National Policy for Farmers, formulated in 2007, conceives that prime farmland must be conserved for agricultural purposes. He categorically said that only if any other wasteland is converted into arable land then only the state government can use agricultural lands for non-agricultural purposes.
Since the land is a state subject, the minister said, “We can only give guidelines and it is for the state governments to follow. Policy of the government is that, as far as possible, fertile land should be used for agriculture purpose only.”
The National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy 2007 also states that possible projects may be set up on wasteland, degraded or un-irrigated land.
Assuring a parliamentary delegation Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said, “The land acquisition bill would be tabled in the next session of Parliament”.
The Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, "We are considering bringing it (to Parliament) at the earliest... we have to ensure that interests of our farmers are not jeopardized. They play an important role in ensuring food security."
The wheels of change are set in motion, but till then the farmers will continue to bear the brunt of the Act.
Agony of the Uttar Pradesh farmers
The recent victims of the misuse of this Act have been the farmers of UP on the 165 km long Yamuna Expressway. Mayawati has taken away their agricultural lands at a much lower price for a township project by a leading real estate group. This has left the farmers greatly agitated and has induced them to take to the streets to vent their ire. They are demanding compensation at par with the farmers of Noida and Greater Noida.
With the political parties taking sides of the farmers, this agitation has rolled into a political drama. Almost all political parties have come forward in support of the farmers. For once the Congress and the BJP are on the same side criticizing Mayawati and her rough ways of treating the farmers. Even the Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi has taken the side of the farmers with the assurance that the changes in Land Acquisition Act would be made soon to help their cause.
The agitation turned violent at places like Aligarh and Agra, where protestors set fire to vehicles and vandalized property. This has also led to the death of two farmers at Aligarh. Rahul Gandhi hit hard at the Mayawati government for such an inhuman act and called it “unfair”. The farmers also voiced their protest by marching through Delhi, causing a huge traffic chaos in the capital.
But the pain of the farmers who have been robbed of their land doesn’t seem to go away anytime soon as the government is busy catering to the real estate companies.
Save India’s agricultural land
According to the Quality Council of India (QCI), an autonomous non-profit oraganisation set up by the Government of India and the three arms of Indian industry (FICCI, CII & ASSOCHAM), India’s arable land is as much as 1620388 sq kms. QCI believes that India has a huge potential in the agrarian sector and it can dominate the international market. But selling off rich agricultural land for the sake of urban development will only close the doors of opportunities.
It seems that the government is deliberately shutting its eyes on these opportunities. Otherwise how could it let wheat worth crores to simply rot? Recently in Punjab, according to a news agency, almost 17.8 million metric tons of wheat was left to rot in the open air. In India, where an estimated 210 million Indians go to sleep hungry each night, it could have filled empty stomachs instead of it just being wasted. On top of it, the rotten wheat will push the prices up by at least 78 percent.
The Supreme Court of India had to intervene and suggest to the government to give away these grains to the poor. But sadly the reply from the Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar was utterly irresponsible. He just said it wasn’t possible to give grain for free since the Government is already selling food grains at a subsidized rate to the poor.
Prices of all essential commodities are at an all-time high despite good agricultural produce. But as the arable land gets reduced, farmer would be forced to look for alternative sources of income and employment and thus cresting more pressure on prices.
It is high time that government takes stringent actions against those who are just filling their own pockets by oppressing the poor farmers of India. Government must reform its policies to safeguard the interest of the farmers, lest their problem percolates to the rest of the country in varied forms.