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Of Farmers’ Parliament and the Land they Till

BY HH Mohrmen

The last one week the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance (MDA) has done a commendable job and the government deserves a pat on the back on three counts. The first achievement of the government is the organising of the Farmers’ Parliament. The MDA also needs to be congratulated for the inauguration of the Orchidarium and orchid production unit by Institute of Bio-resource and Sustainable Development (IBSD). This Orchid based bio-entrepreneurship will go a long way in conservation of orchids endemic to the state as well as create commercial opportunities from it. Then there is of course the celebration of the World Soil Day.

Incidentally all the three occasions which happened last week have to do with the farming community which also gives us the impression that the Government is taking care of the farming community. The three events must therefore give the farmers in particular and the public in general some reason to cheer and hope for of the better days to come. As always, the week also has some share of good news and some bad news as it was reported that around 2.24 Mha of land is affected by soil acidity in Meghalaya. The acidity of soil coupled with increasing infertility of soil due to the overuse of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, is another cause of concern for the farmers in the state.

Although I was not privy to the proceedings of the Farmers’ Parliament, yet from the report in the press one can get some idea of at least the speeches made by the ministers and the bureaucrats at the inaugural function. Of the many speeches including the inaugural speech of the Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma, it was Mr KN Kumar’s speech that gave us some idea on the different categories of farmers that we have in the state. Kumar in his speech categorised the farmers in the state into three sections – small, marginal, semi medium depending on the approximate size of cultivatable land that they have in their procession.

 Kumar further stated that the 3 lakh farmers we have in the state depend on 15 percent of land only. The marginal farmers own less than 1 hectare of land while small farmers of land and semi medium farmers own less than 4 hectares of land. What Kumar did not say is that none of the farmers own more than 4 hectares of land. This of course is true in many cases but it can vary from one region of the state to the other depending on the kind of land holding system prevailing in the area.

Land holding system in Meghalaya varies from place to place or from one community to another. It is therefore wrong to assume that there is one universal land holding pattern for the entire state. Land ownership in the state cannot be painted with one brush and the ownership pattern is different and complex particularly in the two districts of Jaiñtia hills. In the two districts, it can be broadly said that major part of the land in the area is either owned by the community or the clan depending on the region.

In the War Jaiñtia area or the large part of the Amlarem sub division, land is owned by the different clans and again in the different villages, different clans own major parts of land in the respective villages. In fact the distribution of land in the area is based on the time that the clan arrived in the region. For example, the first settlers or rather clan or clans which came to settle in the area first distributed among themselves what was seemingly the best portion of land in the area and left the lower grade or un-cultivatable land for the migrants who come to settle in the village later. Clans who came to settle later were given non-arable lands and those who came after all the land was distributed, had to depend on the earlier settlers who in turn lease them land for their agricultural use.

 In the War Jaiñtia area, to this day, the clans which owned large tracts of land are still called Jamindar and they lease out land they cannot use, to farmers in their respective villages. So farmers who have no land have to take on lease land from the clan for use in farming or other purposes. The farmers then have to pay a yearly compensation to the land owner for the land they have taken on lease from them. This is the practice that is still prevalent in the War Jaiñtia area of the Amlarem Sub division. Now the question is whether the farmer owns the land in this case? Most of the farmers in this region are landless because the land that they use is taken on lease from the clan and this was apparent especially when farmers want to avail credit from the banks and they cannot mortgage the land because the ownership is still with the clan.

Of course the good thing about this tradition is that the clan which owns the land cannot just take it back at their whims and fancy, but the ownership of the land is with the clan. The ownership of land in the southern slope of the district is different from those in the highlands. In areas like those in eleka Jowai, Nartiang, Shangpung and etc, the major part of the land is owned by the communities but even where the land belongs to the communities the farmers’ right to the land is only as long as they use it. But even in the area where the community is holding a major portion of the land, some Kurt or clan in the community still own large tracts of land. Now to the question whether Khasi Pnar is an egalitarian society? The answer is that by tradition, gender inequality in the community is already apparent and some clans are bestowed with the right to own more land than the other.

The threat is the fact that as time passes community land is distributed for settlement and agricultural use and gradually public land is shrinking. Now many villages do not have common land anymore. Whatever land they have it would only be to provide plots for construction of houses for new families only. There is no more land to allot to farmers for farming purposes. The constraint on land is not only from the increase of population but the health of the soil is also having its toll on the farmers and their activities. Apart from the fact that around 2.24 M ha of land in Meghalaya is affected by soil acidity, it is also true that mining also had a drastic impact on the arable land in the mining areas and this is an open secret.

It should therefore be a matter of priority for the Agriculture Department of the state to take the health of soil and sustainable management of soil resources seriously. Because the pressure on land is from all direction, this is a critical issue and it should be a matter of grave concern for the government and the farmers of the state as such. Our efforts to promote agriculture will therefore be futile if these factors are neglected or not taken into consideration.

Farmers’ plight is more acute because of the issue of land but the fact that they have to depend on multiple livelihood activities to sustain their lives is another grave issue. In addition to the pressure on land which is already a scarce resource, farmers have to engage in multiple livelihood activities because of the unpredictability of the activity that they hold. Because the farmer cannot depend on one livelihood activity only, hence, their demand for land is twice or thrice as much. The reason is that apart from engaging in cultivation of various crops where the farmers totally depends on the vagaries of nature they also have to keep different livestock to ensure that they have a secure income.

The government therefore needs to do more to help the farming community in the state, but the acute shortage of land for cultivation and the health of the soil which has deteriorated day by day due to mining and other anthropogenic  activities is something that needs immediate and serious attention.

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