The other day I was in a board meeting of a reputed educational institution which is doing well and has expansion plans in mind. The plans were presented for new buildings and then the time frame. When some members questioned the lengthy time frame, the explanation provided was that that the land being purchased was agricultural land and that there were several procedural formalities involved in converting agricultural land into no agricultural use.

Agriculture has come into the news in several ways and for several reasons in the last months – be it in the context of the agitation at Singur or Nandigram or Amitabh Bacchan posing as a farmer , first in U.P and then in Maharashtra or in the manner in which agricultural land is routinely acquired in the name of infrastructure projects. Typically agitations have been launched when this has happened but this has largely focused on the perceived injustice to the farmers in terms of the compensation paid for the land or the rehabilitation package promised to the displaced farmers but not delivered. Medha Patkar has been among the people who have agitated along these lines.

While the manner in which farmers are treated when land is acquired is certainly an issue, there is also a need to examine the whole matter of acquiring agricultural land in other contexts. The farm sector sustains nearly two-thirds of the country’s billion-plus people – but millions of rural households are in distress due to declining agricultural productivity and low wages. Indian agriculture has been in steady decline after an era of high productivity in the 1970s. There are no more areas to be brought under cultivation, so the limitation of land is there. But the basic thing is that productivity is not increasing, while the population is increasing, and that is what is creating an imbalance between availability and demand

For the last couple of years now, India has been importing food, a phenomena that had disappeared with M.S.Swaminathan’s Green Revolution. The 60s when India was dependant on food imports and the consumer on serpentine ration cards seems a long away but it may not be long before those days are back. While improving infrastructure – roads, highways and expressways etc are important and they would require acquiring land , there needs to be a re look at how agricultural yield can be increased and land under cultivation can be increased. Typically fallow land needs to be revisited to see if they can be reclaimed for agriculture. 417. While probably nothing can be done to increase the size of land holdings since the notion of population control is all but forgotten, increasing mechanization, investment in irrigation infrastructure a policy regulating cash crops that are often grown for short term profits at the cost of long term food security needs to be regulated.

The emergence of private buyers of food grains as against the erstwhile monopoly of the Food Corporation of India Mandis has been heralded as an unmitigated boom. But while these private wholesalers score in terms of service and often offer better prices, they are leading to a phenomenon where farmers by compromising house hold food security are selling off their entire harvest because of the attractive prices offered. But these retailers will offer these food grains for sale in attractive retail malls in the cities leading to a migration of food grains from the villages where they were grown to the mega cities where they would be consumed.

As we continue to be bedazzled by the spectacular economic growth of the past years, let us also recognize that over the years , the fuel the needs of the industrial economy, agricultural land has been diverted for other requirements related to establishment of industries, need of educational institutions and other myriad needs. But some where, we need to stop in our tracks and ask – by neglecting the reforms in the agricultural sector and focusing only on industrial reforms, are we bringing back the specter of famine and food shortages, which are not too distant a memory?

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