The PH factor: Why should farmers, even those in Punjab and Haryana, not have the choice?

The 2015-16 Agriculture Census tells us that most operational holdings are in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, in that order.The 2015-16 Agriculture Census tells us that most operational holdings are in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, in that order.

A lot has been written on farmers. How many farmers are there in India? Almost 111 million are registered for the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM Kisan). This is based on self-declaration, with penalties for false declaration. Registration requires the family to hold cultivable land, duly registered. If a family member is relatively privileged (MP/MLA/pension exceeding Rs 10,000, income-tax payer, professional), one can’t opt for PM Kisan benefits. Therefore, 111 million is a lower bound. Other than some categories being barred from PM Kisan benefits, not every eligible farmer has necessarily registered for PM Kisan.

Every five years, we have the Agriculture Census. The last one was in 2015-16. That gave us 146 million holdings, an increase from 138 million in 2010-11, a result of further fragmentation. If agricultural landholding is conditional on being a farmer, apart from a possible further increase since 2015-16, 146 million is possibly an upper bound.

Every definition of farmer is not contingent on ownership of land. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act of 2001 is an example, where status as farmer depends on cultivating land (or supervising cultivation), not owning it. That issue was also flagged by the National Commission on Farmers, such as in the Draft National Policy for Farmers (2006) where ‘farmers’ included agricultural labourers, sharecroppers, tenants, and so on. When talking and generalising about farmers, it is necessary to specify which set one has in mind. For instance, a hike in agricultural wages is good for agricultural labour. But it squeezes a landholder.

If land is a prerequisite for defining a farmer, surely one should ask questions about the quality of land records in various states. The Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms (2009) was devastating in its critique. “The Committee also takes a note of the fact that the Survey and Settlement Operations in the Permanently Settled Areas have not been taken up and where they have been taken up, for instance in Bihar, they tend to never conclude … The last extensive survey and settlement in India was conducted two to three decades prior to Independence. Post-Independence, some states have not undertaken revisional survey and settlement so far.”

Two or three decades prior to the Independence means 1920s, for some states. Of course, there have been improvements since 2009 and the Department of Land Resources has the Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme (DILRMP), and the dashboard shows what various states have accomplished under the DILRMP. Using various indicators obtained through the DILRMP, the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) publishes the Land Records and Services Index (LRSI). In the 2020 rankings, the top three states are Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Maharashtra. Punjab and Haryana, the backbone of India’s Green Revolution and the vanguard of India’s farmer interests, rank 16th and 18th, respectively. The DILRMP is often about digitising/modernising existing land records. But, as that 2009 report mentioned, we need surveys/resurveys. The dashboard tells us these have been completed in only 11.5% of villages. Gujarat, West Bengal and Tripura score high on this (in excess of 90%); Punjab’s track record is 0%.

With agriculture in the State List, should everything be left to the states? If land records are in this state, some farmers will conceivably be excluded from the farmer definition, because land records have not been updated. We may have ‘one country one tax’, but rules on who can buy agricultural land vary across states. Therefore, in urban suburbia, there are farmers who have bought agricultural land and live in farmhouses. Until that land is converted to non-agricultural use, they, too, will be farmers. Should their voices also influence policy decisions? However, such numbers are insignificant. In deciding whom to hear, there must be some sense of which farmers are more important. With diverse and heterogeneous agriculture, all farmers will not have identical views.

The 2015-16 Agriculture Census tells us that most operational holdings are in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, in that order. The highest operated areas are in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, UP and MP, in that order. Also, 86.1% of holdings are small and marginal (less than 2 hectares) and only 0.6% are large (more than 10 hectares). There is increasing FCI procurement of rice from Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha, and of wheat from MP, UP and Rajasthan. E-Nam (National Agricultural Market) has more coverage from MP, UP, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat than from Punjab or Haryana. There is a chamber of commerce and industry known as PHD, active primarily in North India. (As a disclosure, I worked there for a while.) When initially established, the acronym PHD stood for Punjab-Haryana-Delhi. As it diversified, it shed that antecedent and became progress, harmony and development, but many people still think of it as Punjab-Haryana-Delhi. I think this is a good metaphor for the way we look at Indian agriculture.

The face of Indian agriculture has changed and is no longer what it was in the Green Revolution days, centred on Punjab, Haryana and western UP. With realistic input costs, that form of agriculture is no longer viable in those Green Revolution tracts. Farmers, and governments, in Bihar and Kerala don’t want the APMC, nor do UP, MP, Gujarat and Karnataka. There is no evidence that this has made those farmers worse-off. I knew the late Sharad Anantrao Joshi well and he used to say it is a myth that India has liberalised since 1991. Reforms are about choice, competition and efficiency, and those haven’t touched agriculture. Why should farmers, even those in PH, not have the choice?

The author is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM. Views are personal

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