The cost of India’s urban land grab
If the Government of India is, during the finalisation of the Twelfth Plan (2012-17) direction for agriculture and food, deciding to favour production over rural livelihood needs, then it must recognise clearly the internal land grab that India’s farm households are experiencing. The protests in western Uttar Pradesh by farmers’ groups typify the scale of the diversion of farmland for real estate development or industrial use. In the last four years the Bahujan Samaj Party of Uttar Pradesh has approved a number of projects like the Yamuna Expressway which has been allotted to a private company, JP Infratech Ltd, which holds a contract that includes the right to construct apart from the right to collect tolls for 36 years.
Along this 165-km eight-lane “super highway” a “hi-tech city” has been planned. This will include industrial parks, residential colonies, shopping malls, professional colleges, schools, hospitals and urban services centres. Currently estimated as a Rs 9,500 crore project this “hi-tech” city will, when complete to plan, occupy 43,000 hectares of land that is currently under cultivation by the residents of 1,191 villages. This very large land grab alone will remove the potential to harvest about 100,000 tonnes of foodgrain a year — an amount that can fulfil the cereal needs of all of urban Haryana for five weeks.
There are 533 urban centres with populations of between 1 million and 50,000 — this is apart from the metropolises. The drive to encourage the faster urbanisation of these 533 towns and cities has already taken an unknown amount of farmland out of cultivation. There is an estimate that in the last decade — to a large degree a consequence of the relentless expansion of the National Capital Region — Uttar Pradesh has lost about 6 million hectares of farmland. The expansion of the NCR and its satellite developments is unparalleled in modern India, but it is the biggest example of the land grab that is taking place in all urban areas in India.
Estimates based on fieldwork and the use of longitudinal spatial mapping based on satellite imagery show that for every acre of cultivable land that is built upon or used for urban purposes, over five years an additional four cultivable acres turns fallow and is quickly converted to non-agricultural use. How much has India lost in 2010? How much has it lost from 2001 to 2010? There are no best guesses, no reliable estimates, there is not even experimental methodology to apply to the chief crop-growing regions and their expanding settlements. Yet the macroeconomic models being produced for the central government and planning agencies promise ever-increasing yields from a plateau of cultivated land area. One of them is wrong and the evidence on the ground — and from the protests by farmers of Bhatta Parsaul village in Greater Noida — points to the error being in the models.
Will these errors be corrected before March 2012, when the Eleventh Plan ends? Will the social costs of real food inflation be counted, and will actual retail food inflation in India’s tier two and tier three cities be recognised and its underlying causes made public? At this point, all the answers are likely to be negative. The Government of India, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Food Processing, the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (Department of Commerce), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and central and state planning agencies now speak the same language — the message is that most of the growth in agriculture in future will come not from foodgrains, but from sectors such as horticulture, dairying and fisheries, where the produce is perishable, and where even greater attention needs to be paid to the logistics of transporting produce from the farm to the consumer, with minimum spoilage. Urban and urbanising markets and the structural change in nutrition being demanded by a section of the country’s population form the focus.