More than half of rural households in India are landless, or almost so. This deprives them of the most obvious asset needed for sustainable livelihoods and food security in villages–farmland.
After agriculture the next most important source of rural livelihood in India is dairy farming but here too the household with farmland has free access to crop residues which is increasingly not available to landless households who have to incur extra costs and hence lose the competitive edge as well.
A big question of our times is—can the rural landless households also hope to become small farmers by getting at least some farmland of their own, maybe only a small patch of farmland, maybe just do bigha zamin, but farmland of their own?
Post-independence India believed so, and land for the landless was mentioned as one of the important planks of the land reform effort as envisaged in the government and planning commission documents of those days. Even if the commitment was more on paper than in practice it was there.
Then for a time during the days of Mrs. Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister this commitment appeared to increase for a short time at least, and was revived occasionally by some Chief Ministers, for example Ms. Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, or in somewhat more sustained ways in left-ruled a states like Kerala and W.Bengal.
However steadily in recent years this overall limited commitment also went into a further sharp decline and we haven’t heard much of this since then, except for a few months when a big foot-march on this and related issues was organized by the Ekta Parishad and associated organizations and some follow-up action was initiated by the government.
Despite this neglect experience has shown that even small plots of secure farmland supported by water conservation and some irrigation can be a good support for food security and a more secure place of dignity in village. Households who get a chance to have their own farmland generally are willing to work very hard to get good yields, and with some exposure to training for avoiding external inputs which are costly in economic and ecological terms , these farmers can be very successful in this, as they are willing to put in the extra work needed for this.
If improving food security, reducing poverty and hunger, improving yields in sustainable ways are our objectives, then a program of farmland for the landless can play a very important role in this.
But some people say that land is just not available for them. This is not really correct. Land for corporate interests is being found all the time, with the government officials playing a loyal role. Rich city people are all the time buying land in rural areas and establishing their grand farm-houses. It is only for the original landless people of a village, who and whose ancestors have served the village in many ways. , that it is stated that land is not available .
So we must take forward the program of land for the landless but we should take it forward in ways that e do not create any serious conflicts and violence in villages. We should create broad agreement in significant sections of rural households regarding accepting such a program. For this we need to ensure small and medium farmers that their land will not be taken or touched for implementing this program. A limit can be mentioned. It can be 10 or 15 acres , or even a higher limit depending on the quality of land and region. It can be higher for dry land and higher still for desert areas, but lower for hilly areas.
Once the small and medium farmers know that their land will not be touched for this program, they have no rational ground for opposing this ( other than narrow caste-based or other irrational factors) and farmer organizations should openly declare their support for such a program.
This will create conducive conditions for implementing a program of farmland for the landless. From where to find the land for them?
There are several possibilities. One is the land of really big landlords beyond the stipulated limit as it is well-known that a lot of such land exists although the ownership may be disguised in several ways. The land held by corporate interests is another source. The land held by some institutions such as religious ones can yet be another source . Even surplus government land not needed by it can be a source.
Beyond this there is the possibility of the government developing existing wasteland with the help of the landless on the basis of the providing the land to them for sustainable livelihoods . Not all of this land may be suitable for farming, and so in some places the option should be for a mixed system of several indigenous species of trees, as would exist in a natural local grove or forest, combined with grasslands, some animal husbandry and farming. Here on condition of maintaining the green cover, a number of households have ownership of land with income coming from a mix of minor produce of trees (such as fodder , fruit, etc.) combined with some animal husbandry and farming. Ponds and wells can be created on this land using various government schemes which also provide wages.
A related scheme can be of regenerating degraded forests. This is likely to involve fencing and some planting of mixed local species of trees, some water conservation and creating ponds etc. and then giving the landless households this land on ownership basis, on condition of maintaining green cover, with income from minor forest produce plus a little farming and animal husbandry , to the extent this can co-exist with regeneration of forest. In the initial stage funds available for forestry or other government schemes can be used to have a wage component also for such schemes.
Hence there are several creative possibilities for taking forward the program of land for the landless. Even if much land is not available at some places, a creative program of kitchen gardens can still be pursued to provide at least some security of food and nutrition.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth For Children and Man Over Machine.