Crisis in the making

Implications of land diversion

Pitched battles are being fought across the country by poor farmers, who fear further marginalisation when their land is literally grabbed by the government and the industry. From Mangalore in Karnataka to Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, from Singur in West Bengal to Mansa in Punjab, the rural countryside is literally on a boil. Large chunks of prime agricultural land are being diverted for non-agricultural purposes.

While the continuing struggle against land acquisition for instance by farmers in Aligarh, which took a violent turn, and became a political ploy is being projected as a battle by farmers for big money, the reality is that a majority of the farmers do not want to dispense with their ancestral land. They are being forced to do so. This has serious implications for food security.

Let us take the case of UP. It is the most populous state in the country, and is also the biggest producer of foodgrains. Western parts of UP, comprising the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains, have been considered part of the green revolution belt. According to the 2008 Statistical Abstracts of Uttar Pradesh, in addition to 41 million tonnes of foodgrains, the state produces 130 million tonnes of sugarcane and 10.5 million tonnes of potato.

UP produces more foodgrains than Punjab but because of its huge population, it is hardly left with any surplus. What is however satisfying is that UP has all these years been at least feeding its own population.

This is expected to change. And that is what I am worried about. The proposed eight expressways and the townships planned along the route, along with land being gobbled by other industrial, real estate and investment projects are likely to eat away more than 23,000 villages, one fourth of the total number of villages. Former agriculture minister Ajit Singh has in a statement said that one-third of total cultivable land of UP will be eventually acquired. The state government neither denies nor confirms this, but acknowledges that land diversion is ‘large.’

This means that out of the total area of 19.8 million hectares under foodgrain crops in UP, one-third or roughly 6.6 million hectares will be shifted from agriculture to non-agriculture activity. Much of the fertile and productive lands of UP will therefore disappear, to be replaced by concrete jungles. In addition to wheat and rice, sugarcane and potato would be the other two major crops whose production will be negatively impacted.

UP to starve

As per rough estimates, 6.6 million hectares that would be taken out of farming 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. Add to this the anticipated shortfall in potato and sugarcane production, since the area under these two crops will also go down drastically, the road ahead for UP is not only dark but laced with social unrest.

Already a part of the BIMARU states, UP will surely see surge in hunger, malnutrition and under-nourishment. I shudder to imagine the socio-economic and political fallout of the misadventure that the government is attempting with such a massive land takeover. If the state governments can provide an incentive of Rs 20,000 per acre to those farmers whose lands are being taken away, I fail to understand why the same incentive cannot be provided to every farm family to protect agricultural land?

What is not being realised is that UP alone will send all the estimates of the proposed National Food Security Act go topsy-turvy. At present, as per the buffer norms, the government keeps around 20 to 24 million tonnes as buffer stocks for distribution across the country through the Public Distribution System (PDS). In the last few years however the average foodgrain stocks with the government have been in the range of 45 to 50 million tonnes.

Even with such huge grain reserves, food and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar has expressed his inability to provide 35 kg of grain per month to every eligible family. Imagine, what will happen when UP alone will put an additional demand of 14 million tonnes. Who will then feed UP?

The bigger question is where will the addition quantity of food come from? Already, Punjab and Haryana, comprising the food bowl, are on fast track mode to acquire farm lands. Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab are building up ‘land banks’ for the industry.

Gone are the days when a worried Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, while addressing the nation on Aug 15, 1955, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in New Delhi said: “It is very humiliating for any country to import food. So everything else can wait, but not agriculture.” That was in 1955. Fifty-five years later, in 2010, UPA-II thinks that food security needs of the nation can be addressed by importing food. There can be nothing more dangerous than this flawed approach. Is India slipping back into the days of ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence?

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