Farmers’ Commission: A critical gap filled – I

By K.N. Kumar

The gap between the government and her people is perhaps at the root of most distress and misery, especially so in the rural areas. Democratic governments are founded on the belief that their representative character will ensure that the people’s grievances are somehow listened to and understood; and thereafter, addressed.  That may be good in theory, but in practice, the status varies state to state and country to country. Kerala tops the list as the best governed state in 2018 and Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland share the joint honour of being the worst governed among the smaller states (Public Affairs Centre’s report of 2018). According to the BBC’s analysis of the best governed countries in 2018, Denmark is number one in the list while the USA, so called leader of the free world, is not even in the top six. How strictly a state adheres to the rule of law; how much trust its government inspires in its citizens; and how much social progress is in evidence, are some of the measures based on which the above assessment was done. And, of course, you will not ask me where we are, as a country, in this list!

Without intending to minimize the influence of the other reasons, I will hold that a good number of our institutions meant to deliver services to the people have become dysfunctional or non-functional over time, because they are manned either by indifferent or incompetent people. That some of them are also unabashedly corrupt adds up to the story line.  It is clear to me that it is not so much about the design of these institutions as the men who man them. It would be imprudent to single out any one institution, because the corrosion is too widespread and commonplace for one to bother listing them. An answer as to how we can halt this regress lies possibly in the quick development of social capital in the society. A society with higher social capital is better governed, because of the continuous pressure exerted on the non-performing institutions by the citizens. Kerala performs well because Keralites ask questions and an average citizen of Kerala feels sufficiently empowered because he knows how and who to ask questions.  Rural areas across the country suffer even more than the urban areas because both – the people’s ability to question, and their access to the governing institutions are relatively muted. The limited point is – the further you are from your people, the worse you are, as a government!

So, how do we reach out to the large numbers of vulnerable rural farmers who are suffering from decades of indifference despite their contributions to the economy and food security being so high? How do we bridge the gap between the farmers and the government so the farm policy priorities are accurately understood?  Can we erect an open and a de-bureaucratised body that organically connects the farmers with their elected government?

I think the Meghalaya Farmer Empowerment Commission could well be such a body, if it works with the above objective of reaching out to the farmers, codifies their concerns and accurately projects their issues to the policy makers and the implementing agencies. Farmers being the most vulnerable of all the economically active sections, it is not just prudent to have a body like this, it is urgent. Meghalaya is the only state in the country to establish a Statutory Standing Commission for the Farmers – notified in May this year as the Meghalaya Farmers’ (Empowerment) Commission, 2019 (MFEC). Haryana’s ‘Kisan Aayog’ set up about six years ago is not a statutory body.  As the MFEC is preparing itself to catalyse the progress and welfare of the large farming population of Meghalaya, a discussion on the rationale behind the creation of the MFEC, the magnitude of the task ahead of it;  and the agenda it has to set for itself is perhaps, timely.  This set of two articles is therefore, an effort to seek views, suggestions and comments from the enlightened citizens and farmer interest groups, so that a sensible action plan can be taken up by the Commission.

I start with a working premise that in our state, there are at least three lakh households that depend upon agriculture and allied sectors.  Included in this number are the land owners, the landless cultivators, fish farmers, dairy and piggery farmers, backyard poultry and other bird rearers, mushroom growers, Rubber, Mulberry, Eri and Muga plantation farmers, and petty vendors who sell the agricultural commodities, etc.

The Meghalaya Agriculture Census, 2011 makes a distinction between ‘ownership holdings’ and ‘operational holdings’. The operational holdings are agnostic to the title, legal form, size or location while the ownership holdings have a defined owner with a legal title who may (or not) cultivate the land himself. The Agriculture Census reveals that the total number of land Holdings in our state is 2.09 lakh with a cultivated area of 2.87 lakh hectares. 96.67% of all these holdings are wholly owned; leaving a small number of partly owned and partly leased-in holdings (2.22%). If we assume that each of these land holders has a family and taking the average family size at five, prima facie more than a million people appear to be critically dependent upon agriculture, ie., on whatever happens in their respective fields during and after a cropping season.

The story however, is incomplete because it is not just about the operational land holders engaged in agriculture – we need also to take into account the numbers of people who are engaged in animal husbandry, fishery, sericulture and weaving, and small vending activities (with or without any land ownership). In fact, the tendency to pick animal husbandry or petty trading as livelihood activities is far more pronounced when people do not hold any land. The classification therefore, gets a bit blurred here because a large percentage of the operational land holders are also engaged in animal husbandry and such other activities. A small land holder cannot make ends meet only with agriculture, the average land holding size of Meghalaya being just about 1.34 hectares. He will need to pursue multiple livelihood options, if he were to lead to an optimal life. We do not have any accurate numbers of the land-less people who are exclusively dependent upon animal husbandry activities in our state, so one has to estimate by extrapolating the national data. The livestock sector currently employs about 8% of India’s workforce. Keeping Meghalaya’s labour-force participation rate (44.11) in mind and subjecting it to the proportion of the rural marginal workers at 22%, we may derive an approximate figure of about 2.5 lakh people engaging themselves in Animal husbandry sector alone. To this figure (subject to further scrutiny) we may now add up another 22,000 fish pond owners who have been supported by the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission.  Add to this the number of people engaged in non-edible fibre crops like Jute, Cotton and Ramie and the plantation workers engaged in rubber, the three types of silk worm rearers, Mulberry, Eri and Muga, the numbers of weavers who depend upon the silk so produced, the number of petty vendors who sell vegetables and fruits, etc. All inclusive, one can safely deduce that people directly or indirectly dependent upon agriculture and allied activities in our state number at least 15 lakhs.  That is half of Meghalaya’s population – and the zone of work, for the Commission!

I will need to put a rider to the above numbers at this stage.  The Agricultural Census 2010 was not done on a 100% saturation basis.  It was a census of just about 20% of the villages. It may therefore, at the best be indicative, may have been dated, and certainly not the truth. To test the accuracy, I did a dip-stick survey at Laitdiengsai village a few days ago. Of the 160 households, only seven households owned land and each one of them had hundreds of acres among themselves while the remaining farmers from 153 households were all landless and therefore, are the lessees of these seven families. None from the seven families cultivates the land, all that they do is to collect the lease rents on the basis of ‘farm-beds’, of the size of about 10 feet length and two feet width @ Rs.20 per bed for two seasons.  If this ratio holds good at least for the East Khasi Hills district, then the landlessness in the Khasi Hills region is far more acute than what the Agricultural Census suggests. I am not aware of the situation in Jaintia Hills and Garo Hills, but I don’t think it would be grossly different from the Khasi Hills region. This skew in the land ownership may well be at the root of the agrarian distress of the state, and therefore, should be opened for a deep public debate. How can the farm sector improve when a large number of people dependent upon it, do not have the security of land ownership?

Be that as it may, a priori, distress is inevitable if close to half or more population of the state depends upon a decelerating sector year after year. The sector’s growth rate of 2.69% in the state GSDP (2016-17) is a discouraging figure, even by national standards (India’s growth rate in agriculture and allied sectors was 4.9 per cent in 2016-17).  Consistently low public investment in agriculture leads to limited capital formation, difficult terrain and costly labour make agriculture unviable, unregulated presence of middlemen and vendors slices off the crop and cash surpluses of the producers, a lethargic, patronizing and at times rent-seeking delivery system de-motivates the farmers, and the largely reticent and the semi-literate farming population has a very low sense of self-esteem, so they do not powerfully articulate their concerns.  “Why don’t your departmental officers treat us with respect?”  a farmer asked me, during the Farmers’ Parliament. “Is it because, we are not suited and booted?”

(The writer is Chairperson, Meghalaya Farmers’ Commission)

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