Growing digitisation coupled with a visibly substantial shift from agriculture to allied activities and other sectors of the economy has led to a significant fall in the agriculturally-employed workforce in India. From providing employment to more than 60% of the Indian population, agriculture now renders only 43% of the said population employed. For some, who were earlier employed in agricultural labour and have now subsequently migrated to the developed urban centres- the switch is economically as well as socially favourable but, for the ones who are still engaged in the labour force; the work has become much more arduous. The situation is extraordinarily jeopardising and alarming for the marginalised farmers. The land leasing issue in India is an old one and demands urgent up-gradation both in terms of legal reforms and economic upliftment. Smart agriculture and digitally operationalised farming activities are undeniably, the way forward.
India is primarily an agriculture-based economy. In layman’s terms, land leasing can be defined as- “A commercial agreement in which the user or lessee acquires the right to use the land in lieu of certain amount payment.” Since time immemorial, Indians have practiced this land based activity and earned revenue. Whereas during the ancient and medieval times, the condition of the farmers working on the agricultural land was quite stable; the coming of the British Raj was surely a death knell for the prosperous agriculturists. The exploitative policies with a tripartite categorisation of –Zamindari, Mahalwari and Ryotwari systems, led Indian agriculture to the sure path of destruction. With the failure of the first two policies-which included intermediaries in order to pay the land revenue to the British nabobs- the third policy was introduced with the sharecroppers directly paying to the English Statesmen. However, the aforementioned ‘policy reforms’ were reforms just for the invaders and undeniably a tool of oppression and slavery for the innocent Indian farmers.
Nevertheless, this discriminatory practice was noticed and discarded as inhumane by the post-independence elected government. But even before that, the British realised their particular mistake of giving a free will to the unruly Zamindars. This fallacy was to become a mammoth headache in the times to come. However, subsequently the First, Second, Third and Fourth Five-Year Plans focussed on abolishing the prejudicial British land leasing system. With the introduction of the Zamindari Abolition Act, 1950, the road for a national tenancy policy was clear. However, it was fraught with untimely and irrational challenges in the High Courts of different States. Understandably, the farmer- welfare policy was a deathbed for the oppressive Zamindars, whose only motive was shoddy profit making.
Land Leasing- The Need for Reforms:
The Sixth Five-Year Plan was a ray of light amidst the dark abyss of lawlessness and abject suppression of the tenants. The National Commission of Agriculture (NAC) reiterated the rights of the tenants and laid down the provisions for recognition of sharecroppers as tenants, along with the mandate of granting them all the quintessential rights. Presently, land leasing in India can be compartmentalised into the following categories:
Complete Ban over Leasing- Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir
Land leasing allowed in Specific Cases- Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh et al allow land leasing for widows, children and defence staff.
Land Purchase- Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, Assam and Punjab. Land purchase is allowed only after a specific time period.
Liberalised Land Leasing- West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan.
A recent Report highlighted that 86.2% of the farmers in India are categorised as small and marginal farmers, shockingly owning less than 47.3% of the crop area. This shows the dire state of agricultural economy in India, and the primal reason for such indigence and farmer distress is archaic tenancy laws with an opaque focus on marginalised sharecroppers. Uttar Pradesh was probably the first State to pass Zamindari abolition laws in India with land leasing allowed only in the above mentioned specific case scenarios. However, in absence of legal regulation on formal land leasing and the egotistical Zamindari motives, informal land leasing system is highly prominent in Uttar Pradesh. Positively enough, in January 2020, Uttarakhand became the first State to implement agricultural land leasing policy. It has notably removed the hardships of land leasing for a myriad of spheres such as horticulture, agriculture, farming, etc.The effect of the policy is yet to be seen but, surely enough regularising a particular area of conflict will induce less friction between the conflicting parties and stimulate periodic revenue for the State government as well. It is also poised to bring the farmer subjugation rates to a much lower levels.
The PM-KISAN (Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Scheme) announced by the Central government is the largest income support schemes for the small and marginal farmers of our country, but it fails to cover the landless agricultural labourers or tenants within its ambit. This is due to the reason that the official record for these sharecroppers is not available with any department of the government. The predominance of landless labourers and small marginal farmers in the agricultural landscape of our nation, the annual addition of 1.5 to 2 million such farmers in the said quota, the exclusion of such deprived farmers and fishermen from the policy making scenario (PM-KISAN being an example), rising inflation and the lurking threat of a pandemic death-all juxtaposed with- fractured and disintegrated landholdings, lowered investment scenario in the field of agriculture as compared to other sectors and the complications of 2013 land acquisition law; demand for but, a holistic approach to marginalisation of the poor farmers.
Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act, 2016:
Regularisation of land leasing is the key to all these problems. The various advantages of the reform mechanism will not only enhance investments in the sector but will also prevent large scale migration from rural to urban centres. This will invariably reduce the excessive burden on the already loaded city land. The present reverse migration of the migrants from urban to rural dwellings must be tapped as an opportunity for increasing skilled development in those underdeveloped areas. Through this miniscule policy initiative, small farmer groupings with greater social mobility can earn higher incomes and support each other, further forming a baseline for stable Self Help Groups and realising the objective of Article 19(1) (c) and Article 43-B. This turn will initiate a professional revolution in the agricultural market.
The Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act (2016) defines lease as “a contract between the land owner and the cultivator, where the cultivator uses the land of the land owner for a specified period of time for agriculture or allied activities.” According to the land-lease agreement between the cultivator and the land owner, the price to be paid must be mutually decided or agreed upon by both the parties, instead of imposing fixed revenue. However, a major glitch in the aforementioned provision is that lease agreement can or cannot be registered or entered into the record of rights. Sans an agreement, how the official data of small and marginal farmers is supposed to be collected by the government? Without entry into the record of rights, the rights of the marginalised tenants stand nowhere and bring them back to the point from where they hopefully started. The other provisions of the Act with respect to the adjudication of disputes by a Special Land Tribunal must be effectively implemented for a better dispute resolution in land-related cases.
With major technological advancements in our society, agriculture can’t stand apart for a long time. Like the Green Revolution bought transformation in agriculture in the 20th century, Digital Revolution must be a changing face of agriculture in the 21st century. Efficient micro-irrigation methods and better incentivisation to the farmers for installing digitally powered equipments is the way forward. Land leasing agreements alone won’t solve the innumerable problems of our ailing agricultural economy. Regulations coupled with scientific reforms and large-scale awareness programmes need to be implemented by the concerned government. It will not only become a face for the governance principles that India so dearly holds, but will also provide farmers a dignified life within the ambit of Article 21. Precision Agriculture, autonomous swarms and data mining are just some of the ways for making the agricultural market at par with the international standards and requirements. This will not help India in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals but, will also provide an impetus to the long forgotten principle of equity. Conclusively, it must be borne in mind that development always takes a Bottom-up Approach. It is only socio-economic divide and de-growth that takes a reverse path.
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Student at University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University Chandigarh.