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Counting the great Indian agricultural mosaic

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There is not a ‘bigha‘ of Bharat that has not been cultivated, used as orchard, or as pasture, or at one time or another over the centuries, times tumultuous or peaceable, belonged in part or wholly to a nearby ‘agrahara‘. The measurement of our land is a science that is as ancient as are the sciences of tending to and cultivating the land, and what today we reckon in hectares and acres (not ours these measures, but left behind and used through administrative inertia) were counted, re-counted, assessed and taxed as being a certain number of guntha, bigha, biswa, kanal, marla, sarsaai or shatak. In these wondrously named parcels of land – bunded and their perimeters shaded, so that the kisans of old could sit under a leafy canopy and enjoy a mid-day meal and a short snooze – grew our foodgrain.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

There are 138.35 million operational holdings in India. (Uttar Pradesh has 23.33 million, Bihar 16.19 million, Maharashtra 13.70 million, Andhra Pradesh 13.18 million.) The small and marginal holdings taken together (below 2 hectares) constitute 85.01% of all holdings. This treemap represents the number of holdings, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding area.

Whether Gupta or Vijaynagar, Hoysala or Kakatiya, Mughal or British colonial, these fields every so often received visitors, at times unwelcome but usually businesslike, for the Bharat of old and of medieval times alike was profoundly productive, and these officials had much ground to cover. In later eras they were known as tehsildar, naib tehsildar, kanungo and patwari and they prepared records such as the ‘shajra nasab‘ (always with the help of a typically tattered ‘jamabandi‘), followed by the ‘khatauni‘ – a laborious task that required the patwari to measure each ‘khasra‘ and appropriately mark it with pencil (a rough marking, to be inked only after final tallying) on the ‘mussavi‘. And to be administratively infallible, for land revenue and land settlement is the most serious of a government’s business, the kanungo re-measured the land and added his observation to the ‘mussavi‘.

And so it went, from one panchayat to the next, from one circle to another, from one tehsil (or mandal or taluka) to the next, passing under the tired eyes and across the cluttered desks of assistant settlement officer (where is the inspection diary, these officers would ask), then to the assistant collector (grades II and I) and then to the spacious chambers (supplied with punkahs and water coolers) of the district collector.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

The total cultivated area is 159.59 million hectares, the average size of an operational holding has declined to 1.15 hectare in 2010-11 as compared with 1.23 hectare in 2005-06. (Rajasthan has 21.14 million hectare, Maharashtra has 19.77 million, Uttar Pradesh 17.62 million, Madhya Pradesh 15.84 million.). This treemap represents the cultivated agricultural area, relative in size to each other, in each category of land holding.

It was so then, in the time of my grand-parents (two sets, at opposite ends of British India), and it was so in the time of their great grand-parents. During my lifetime it has come to be called – this detailed measuring of our land with a benign view to assessing fairly – the agricultural census, and it is the most recent one, 2010-11, which gives us many points to ponder, but is somewhat lacking when it comes to the labyrinthine histories of the administering of what for so many centuries has been measured and recorded.

Nonetheless the Agricultural Census of India 2010-11 serves us with a commentary that is contemporaneous and informative, for its primary fieldwork consisted of “retabulating the operational holding-wise information contained in the basic village records” which “would be done by the village accountant”, a gentleman (usually, for accounting has not experienced the gender equalising which panchayats have) known in different states by different names – he is the patwari but he is also the lekhapal, the talathi or the karnam. His work (always in progress, just as the seasons are) is supervised by the revenue inspectors.

These worthies (not as dour, I can assure you, as their title suggests, for they are just as often cultivators themselves, or veterinarians, and even ayurvedic practitioners) contribute to the most important part of our agricultural census, and that is the preparation of the list of operational holdings. It is a task far too wide and vast and complex for any revenue inspector, however dedicated and well disposed towards both the physical and mathematical aspects of it, for this officer must examine all the survey numbers in the basic village record, the ‘khasra register’ (or any other equivalent local record), classify the survey numbers held by operational land holders, often cross-reference this tentative list with other village records (like the ‘khatauni‘) which names the cultivators. Many consultations ensue, a few arguments, and a considerable amount of cross-confirmation in dusty stacks and mouldy cupboards.

This is the historical milieu to which our agricultural census belongs. We should savour it, for it is a unique undertaking, just as much as each of our thousands of varieties of rice (‘dhanyam‘ it was in the time of the ‘agraharas‘ and it is so today too) – the careful and ritual counting of the great Indian agricultural mosaic.

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Why did food need cities at all?

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Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

Cities may grow a few of their vegetables, but from where else can the cereal staples come if not the rural fields? Photo: Rahul Goswami, 2015

The industrialisation of the transfer of food produce from a food producing region to a net food consuming one is in my view the cause for what we have grown used to calling the rural-urban divide or difference. It is artificial and unfortunately this artifice is the basis for a number of untruths – such as ‘cities are the engines of growth / innovation / education’ and so on (arguments that have been spread vigorously by the globalisers, such as the World Economic Forum, most central banks, the commodity markets, and the international trading system).

From accounts about what we today call south and south-east Asia, the difference between a crop-producing region (managed by a group of villages) and a net food-consuming centre lay mainly in what that centre did for the villages. Markets for the sale and exchange of produce and livestock usually led to one village (with more political power than others) hosting the market, the associated food trading infrastructure, the finance needs (simple as they were, such as credit and insurance for the next season), the transport. These became the first urban centres – but it is important to recall that they existed as adjuncts to crop-growing regions, even when host to the apparatus of ruling regimes and (just as often) faith-based and spiritual enclaves.

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

In the Western Ghats, a termite mound next to a shrine is also venerated. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

There are examples that show how the balance of power was maintained – and corrected when necessary – between such centres on the one hand, and the needs of crop-growing communities supported by temple domains, on the other. Studies of the Hoysala period of southern India (1000-1350 CE) have explained how the ‘agraharas‘ – temple complexes to which belong villages and agricultural lands – were centres of crop collection, redistribution, storage and trade. Were these ‘agraharas‘ ‘urban’ in the sense we use the term today? To some extent, insofar as the priestly class and administrators did not actively cultivate crop staples. But there is another group which did not – the soldiery, and a standing army not only did not lend its labour for use in the fields, it also demanded a large amount of food. And so we have in our annals accounts of how the ‘agraharas‘ of southern India on occasion refused to continue feeding an enlarged standing army at the cost of what we today call the food security of the peasants. Naturally, the ruler had to comply.

I think this illustrates the ties between the cultivators of food staples and the consumers of produce. The trouble is that if in Hoysala times the adjustment was made by an ‘agrahara‘ (which embodied the religious aspect, devotional food, equitable distribution, and so on) in today’s scenario there is no such studied altruism. The market thinks short-term, uses financialisation as a means to yoke people to consumerism and has in many countries exploited the historical connection between food producer and consumer to boost, through the application of technology and the artifice of ‘retail’, GDP.

Written by makanaka

February 15, 2015 at 20:14

A new agenda for India’s agriculture

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Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Home, cattle, farming household and essential biomass in a hill village, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Three weeks before the presenting of annual budget 2015-16 to the country (that is, us Bharatvaasis) and to the Parliament, the NDA-BJP government needs very much to recognise and respond sensibly to several truths. These are: that most Indian households and families are rural and agricultural, that the macro-economic fashion that has been followed since around 1990 elevates a uni-dimensional idea of economic ‘growth’ above all other considerations, and that several important factors both external and internal have rendered this idea of ‘growth’ obsolete.

Concerning the interaction of the three points – there are 90.2 million farming households households in Bharat – the analyst and commentator Devinder Sharma has reminded Arun Jaitley, Jayant Sinha, Rajiv Mehrishi, Arvind Subramanian, Ila Patnaik, H A C Prasad and other senior officials of the Finance Ministry that there is a continuing crisis which needs specific attention.

Sharma has outlined eleven points for the Ministry of Finance to take note of in its preparations for annual budget 2015-16 and I have summarised these points hereunder, and added four adjunct points to elaborate his very thoughtful advice.

Called ‘An 11-point agenda for resurrecting Indian agriculture and restoring the pride in farming’, Sharma has said: “Indian agriculture is faced with a terrible agrarian crisis. It is a crisis primarily of sustainability and economic viability. The severity of the crisis can be gauged from the spate of farm suicides. In the past 17 years, close to 3 lakh farmers reeling under mounting debt have preferred to commit suicide. Another 42% want to quit agriculture if given a choice. The spate of farmer suicide and the willingness of farmers to quit agriculture is a stark reminder of the grim crisis.”

Item 1. Providing a guaranteed assured monthly income to farmers. “Set up a National Farmers Income Commission which should compute the monthly income of a farm family depending upon his production and the geographical location of the farm.”

Item 2. No more Minimum Support Price (MSP) policy. This has historically been used to ask about its impact on food inflation. “Move from price policy to income policy. The income that a farmer earn should be de-linked from the price that his crops fetch in the market.”

Item 2.5. About 44% of agricultural households hold MGNREGA job cards. Among agricultural households, depending on the size of land held, non-farm income is significant. The need is to strengthen rural employment sources and income reliability as a major plank of local food security.

Item 3. Strengthen immediately the network of mandis (market yards) in all states and districts which provide farmers with a platform to sell their produce. “Leaving it to markets will result in distress sale.”

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Fruit and vegetables being sorted in a village collection centre, Himachal Pradesh. Photo: Rahul Goswami 2014

Item 4. Provide a viable marketing network for fruits and vegetables (horticultural produce). “I see no reason why India cannot carve out a marketing chain (like the milk cooperatives) for fruits, vegetables and other farm commodities.”

Item 4.5. ‘Market’ does not mean ‘mandi’. The thrust of the ‘reform’ demanded in the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Acts is to “remove deterrent provisions” and “dismantle barriers to agriculture trade”. This effort will ruin smallholder farmers and must be halted.

Item 5. Cooperative farming must be encouraged including with legal support to make cooperatives more independent and effective. “Small cooperatives of organic farmers have done wonders” which be replicated for the rest of the crops.

Item 6. Villages must become self-reliant in agriculture and food security. “Shift the focus to local production, local procurement and local distribution” throughout the country for which the National Food Security Act needs amendment.

Item 7. Green Revolution areas are facing a crisis in sustainability. “With soil fertility devastated, water table plummeting and environment contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertiliser, the resulting impact on the entire food chain and human health is being increasingly felt.” We need a country-wide campaign to shift farming to non-pesticides management techniques.

Item 7.5. The agro-ecological approach to cultivation under decentralised planning (panchayat cluster) must be promoted. This has long been identified as the primary rural guide: “In the Indian development strategy, self-reliance has been conceptualised … in terms of building up domestic capabilities and reducing import dependence in strategic commodities” (from the Seventh Five Year Plan, 1985-90).

Item 8. Agriculture, dairy and forestry should be integrated. “Agricultural growth should not only be measured in terms of increase in foodgrain production but should be seen in the context of the village eco-system as a whole.”

Item 9. The government must not yield to pressure exerted via free trade agreements signed and stop food imports. “Importing food is importing unemployment.” The government must “not accept the European Union’s demand for opening up for dairy products and fruits/vegetables by reducing the import duties.”

Item 10. Climate change is affecting agriculture. Don’t look “at strategies only aimed at lessening the impact on agriculture and making farmers cope with the changing weather patterns, the focus should also be to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture.” Reduce chemical fertiliser/pesticides in farming.

Item 10.5. The area-production-yield metric for agriculture is as outdated as ‘GDP growth’ is to describe a country. By adopting the principles of responsible and ecologically sound self-reliance, the whole system demands of agriculture need to be assessed with district planning being incentivised towards organic cultivation (expressly banning GM/GE).

Item 11. Localise the storage for foodgrains. In 1979 under the ‘Save Food Campaign’ grain silos were to be set up in 50 places. Localised and locally-managed foodgrain storage must be at the top of the agenda.

This is an agriculture and food agenda for the NDA-BJP government, to guide the strategies and approaches so that India does not compromise its food self-sufficiency, self-reliance (swadeshi) and return our farming households to dignity and self-respect.