New Delhi: While so much is being talked about regarding commitment to reduce poverty, it is strange that the most important step which is needed for reducing poverty is being neglected and ignored like never before. If the most important factor in the context of poverty, hunger and the related discontent in India has to be identified in just one word, then this word undoubtedly will be ‘land’. It is injustices and distortions relating to land distribution which are the single most important cause of poverty, hunger and rural unrest not only in India but in many other countries as well.
The solution clearly is land reforms, which may be defined here as ensuring of proper land rights for all those working regularly on farmland so that their sustainable livelihood is well protected. This may involve redistribution of farmland, distribution of other cultivable land, getting rid of illegal occupations and encroachments by powerful persons and organisations so that more land is available for the poor, protection of existing land rights of peasants and other measures.
Land scarcity is acute in India. India has 2.4 per cent of the world’s geographical area and 16 per cent of the world’s population. It has 0.5 per cent of the world’s grazing area but has over 18 per cent of the world’s cattle population. India has over 18 million landless farm/rural labour households, a total landless population of over 100 million which has been increasing at a fast pace.
In these conditions providing at least some minimum secure land base to landless and near landless peasants is of the greatest significance to provide them food security and to reduce/remove their poverty.
Land reforms are an essential and extremely important component of any paradigm of development that sincerely wants to remove poverty and provide food security in the conditions prevailing in India. Hence the many-sided benefits and significance of land-reforms need to be re-emphasised.
Land reforms not only help to reduce poverty; in addition these are also helpful for protecting land fertility and sustainable use of land as hard working poor peasants (including first-generation farmers) are likely to work more sincerely for soil and water conservation and related works.
For somewhat similar reasons land reforms can also lead to a rise in farm productivity, that too on the farms of the poor. This view is supported by several international studies.
In a widely quoted publication titled ‘Agri-culture Towards 2000’ the FAO emphasised that more equal land distribution is likely to increase productivity of land, “It is important to stress here that yields per hectare are as high on small as on large farms or, under traditional agriculture, even higher. With a few notable exceptions, total output per hectare is higher on small farms, chiefly because their intensity of land use is higher.”
This view of the FAO is supported by a six-country study by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which estimated that “If land were equally distributed among all agricultural families (including the landless), and the new equal holdings achieved yields equal to present holdings of the same size and used a similar level of inputs, food output could potentially rise by anything from 10 per cent (Pakistan) and 28 per cent (Colombia and a rice-growing Malaysian region) to 80 per cent in northeastern Brazil. Such a radical redistribution is, of course, rarely attempted—but the figures indicate the theoretical potential.”
However, to ensure that the potential of higher productivity is realised, small farmers and particularly new land allottees should get the necessary help for irrigation, water and soil conservation, composting etc.
The landless people are the poorest people in India’s villages and if they get land to grow food then clearly this is the most important and durable contribution to reducing poverty and hunger. The fact that per acre productivity can be higher on small farms also increases the role of land reforms in reducing poverty and hunger and contributing to food security.
The report by the FAO referred to above said in the specific context of India, “Redistribution of only five per cent of farmland in India, coupled with improved access to water, could reduce rural poverty levels by 30 per cent under what they would be, so that in Indian conditions land and water reform would be a key approach.”
Land inequality, unjust deprivation and grabbing have been repeatedly found to be one of the biggest causes of distress and discontent in rural areas. This is the biggest factor behind the upsurge of violence in many areas. Well-enacted land reforms can contribute greatly to reducing this discontent and the violence arising from this discontent.
In the interests of peace and democracy it is of the greatest significance for the government to give adequate attention to land reforms. The government should respond adequately to just demands made by peaceful movements.
The author is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.