The inconclusive definition of ‘farmer’

Last Updated 06 January 2021, 17:16 IST

Land reforms have been the silver lining for landless farmers after independence. With the abolition of zamindari system and similar other feudal entities that prevented any form of land tenure security to tillers, states wanted to usher in a new era of parity where access to land will be the basic norm.

Legislations across the length and breadth of the country on de-ownership of land were inserted into the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to protect from any form of judicial review, particularly when right to property was still regarded as a fundamental right, until being abolished with the Kesavananda Bharati case in 1973. Ninth Schedule was immune from a constitutional test to delegitimise a law and was a safe resort for states to expand the list of entries to continue with development and acquisition of land for public infrastructure.

Out of the 284 entries mentioned, excluding 30 laws, the rest deal with land reforms. This allowed an exponential rise in farmland ownership, moving from paid and other forms of labour in private farms to owning and cultivating on one’s own field. Naturally, this fillip marginally reduced the stark inequality between the landed class and the landless that was exacerbated by caste deprivation.

With land becoming democratised, the rise in farmers saw a new focus on the agrarian side. This policy was extended in 1967 by a Central government resolution to retired defence personnel who would be allotted vacant, surplus and uncultivated land by the state government. Green revolution followed with export quality rice and wheat becoming the face of farmers’ livelihood. Dams were built. Rivers rejuvenation and channelling were now picking up pace. Irrigation led to enhanced production of rabi and kharif crops and India was looking at a brighter side of moving away from the darker days of the Bengal famine. As production increased, farmers began to sell their produce in the mandis or what is otherwise known as Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee that is under state control, except for Kerala and Bihar.

This interface between the state and the farmer prevented wholesale, retail and food processing companies buying directly from the producer. The government procured these essential grains and vegetables to feed the hungry through ration cards in fair price shops. The public distribution system led to the emergence of Food Corporation of India and the classification of below poverty line families.

As vagaries of climate haunted farmers, the government assured the agrarian communities of a Minimum Support Price to compensate for the volatility in the market. In many states, the government has not honoured to buy certain crops like jowar, ragi, tur and paddy at MSP prices due to low demand in the market.

Land reforms

However, given the caste realities, in spite of these laudable land reforms and the resultant redistribution from the haves to the have-nots, majority of the farmers continue to own small tracts of land, often under five acres as against historically rich farmers. While agriculture income is exempted from income tax and electricity is subsidised, poor farmers are forced to take loans from local moneylenders at high rates of interest. The result of non-payment ranges from suicide to bonded labour in various forms.

As agriculture is a state subject and land ceiling laws are different in each state, Chief Ministers have full control to decide the appropriate benefits to be received by farmers and peasants. However, these pro-farmer policy benefits should be extended to include agricultural workers, cultivators, women farmers, emerging farmers, indigenous people, unrecognised occupiers and Dalits who have no control over the ownership of land.

The National Policy of Farmers approved by the Centre in 2007 defines ‘farmer’ as a person actively engaged in the economic and/or livelihood activity of growing crops and producing other primary agricultural commodities and will include all agricultural operational holders, cultivators, agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, tenants, poultry and livestock rearers, fishers, beekeepers, gardeners, pastoralists, non-corporate planters and planting labourers, as well as persons engaged in various farming related occupations such as sericulture, vermiculture and agro-forestry. The term also includes tribal families/persons engaged in shifting cultivation and in the collection, use and sale of minor and non-timber forest produce.

Not surprisingly, this definition is not accepted by the government in full. With privatisation making inroads into the food supply chain, the competitive advantage of a small scale farmer is diminishing rapidly. The marginalisation of all landless farmers without this definition makes due process of law become ambiguous and arbitrary.

Representation of all classes is not just a hallmark of democracy but is fundamental to the interpretation and application of right to equality under Article 14. If Central schemes do not take all persons who are engaged in various forms of farming into consideration, the laws, however progressive, will inhibit 26 crore agricultural workers who are deprived of agricultural credit, crop insurance and loan waivers or for that matter compensation in case of crop failure.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, St Joseph’s College of Law, Bengaluru)

(Published 06 January 2021, 17:03 IST)

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