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Hunger For More or More For Hunger?

By Devinder Sharma

15 May, 2011

Incessant grabbing of productive farmland for more industry is a recipe for disaster

Rural India is on the boil. What we have seen in Greater Noida, Aligarh, Agra, Allahabad and Mathura in UP or Mansa in Punjab or Jaitapur in Maharashtra or Mangalore in Karnataka are mere representations of what’s happening far away from the glare of the national media. Pitched battles are being fought across the country by the poor who fear further marginalisation when their land is grabbed by the government on behalf of the industry. Even a state like Madhya Pradesh, which otherwise seems relatively calm and untouched by the turmoil, has seen violent protests against forcible takeover of land. In five years, the clashes have multiplied from 67 in 2005 to 252 in 2009.

The builder-industrialist-politician nexus, often held responsible for landrelated agitations, finds a new player now. Ever since economists began telling us that land is an economic asset, which unfortunately, is in the hands of the inefficient, there has been a scramble by industry, driven by real estate, to procure as much as possible. Surprisingly, it is the World Bank that is backing this strategy. The World Development Report 2008 calls for land rentals and setting up training centres to train displaced farmers in industrial work.

State governments are facilitating the process of takeover. Whether it is for Special Economic Zones (SEZ) or IT parks or nuclear reactors or airports or even for bio-fuel plantations, the battle for land has become fierce. So powerful are these economic interests that many chief ministers have also been found suspect. Thanks to economists, the argument that industry is important for economic growth is coming in handy to usurp land, water and other natural resources.

Over the years, agriculture has been deliberately turned into a losing proposition. As a result, farmers in most places are keen to move out, provided they get a better price for their land. This is a global phenomenon. It is primarily for this reason that even in a highly subsidised Europe, where farmers receive direct income support, one farmer every minute is forced to quit farming. Agriculture is increasingly coming under big agribusinesses. The same trend is being adopted in India, which alone has one-fourth of the world’s farmers.

While good productive farmland is being diverted for non-agricultural purposes, there is no mention of the resulting disaster awaiting the nation as far as food security is concerned. As per rough estimates, 6.6 million hectares would be taken out of farming in UP, which would mean a production loss of 14 million tonnes of foodgrains. In other words, UP will be faced with a terrible food crisis in the years to come, the seeds for which are being sown now. The question no one is asking is who will feed UP?

What is not being realised is that crisis in that state alone will make all estimates of the proposed National Food Security Act go topsy-turvy. An economic superpower cannot be built on hungry stomachs. The need, therefore, is to immediately ban the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This has to be followed with a comprehensive development planning Act that is people-friendly and replaces the draconian Land Acquisition Act, 1894.

Devinder Sharma is food policy analyst.


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