June 26, 2016

Liberalisation of Land Leasing: What It Means for Odisha?

Santosh Das

THE Modi government’s NITI Aayog seeks the extension of liberalisation to the sector of land leasing. It has brought out a document, titled “Report of the Expert Committee on Land Leasing”, on March 31, 2016. A “Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act, 2016” is enclosed with this document for consideration by the state governments for initiation of legislation in their respective assemblies as it happens to be a subject under the state list of the Constitution. Within a month’s time of the publication of NITI Aayog document, the revenue department of the Odisha government asked the district collectors to hold consultation with 25 landowners and an equal number of sharecroppers in one-third tahasils of the state on a 16-point questionnaire for the proposed legislation. The question arises as to why only in one-third tahasils, instead of the entire state, such exercise was undertaken and on what basis the tahasildars of such tahasils did pick 25 landowners and 25 sharecroppers to collect their opinion? The Naveen Patnaik government has failed to give answer to such questions and is maintaining silence.


Legal Restrictions


As the law restricts share-cropping of general nature in Odisha, mostly it is conducted through informal arrangements. The law permits two categories of raiyats, disabled and privileged, to lease out their land for share-cropping. Privileged raiyat means temples, trusts and the institutions of religious and charitable nature. Disabled raiyats include widows, unmarried and separated women, minor, persons incapable of cultivating due to physical and mental disability, serving members of armed forces and raiyats whose land holding doesn’t exceed three standard acres. According to the 70th round of NSSO, only 16.61 per cent of land is leased out for share-cropping in Odisha. This is a gross under estimation of the reality. Due to fear among the landowners that formalisation of share-cropping would ultimately result in their losing the land, the raiyats of disabled category opt for informal arrangement. Hence, whatever share-cropping is recorded is of the privileged raiyats only. This phenomenon neither promotes the production nor improves the income of either landowners or sharecroppers. Under this pattern of agriculture, scant attention is paid for land development and capital investment remains at a very low level. Share-cropping is such an arrangement where the capital investment remains the responsibility of the sharecropper, only at some places 50 per cent expenditure on chemical fertiliser is shared by the landowner.



Deprivation & Distress


Institutional credit is denied to an informal sharecropper as he doesn’t possess any record of tenancy. While a farmer in Odisha gets crop loan at an interest rate of one per cent, a sharecropper borrows from the money lenders, micro finance institutions, village self-help groups and input traders at an interest rate of 36 to 60 per cent. If he takes advance from the paddy traders, the contract of forward-trading operates and the sharecropper sales the paddy after the harvest at Rs 500 to Rs 600 per quintal. Not only institutional credit, the sharecropper is denied subsidy on inputs and implements, he enjoys no access to the procurement centre, there by deprived of the minimum support price and denied crop insurance coverage and disaster relief when natural calamities damage the crop. As a result, his cost of production becomes higher. With higher cost of production and distress sale, the sharecropper enters into debt trap and that culminates in distress suicide. This distress turns a sharecropper into migrant labourer and with sharecroppers deserting villages, land remains uncultivated as landowners are not in a position to revive self-cultivation.


Protect the Sharecropper


Unless share-cropping is made profitable and sharecropper is protected, agriculture cannot be saved. For the protection of the sharecropper, share-cropping must be legalised. The law must promise the landowners who own land below the ceiling limit that their ownership won’t be affected. However, this legislation is not going to end informal share-cropping. The NITI Aayog document confirms that in spite of the enactment of law of such kind in Andhra Pradesh, 76 per cent sharecroppers remain outside the purview of registration. In this respect only West Bengal parades a success story because of two factors – (I) the Left Front government that legislated the law was firmly committed to implement it, (ii) there existed a strong peasant movement that worked at the grassroots level for implementation of the law. But this condition does not exist in Odisha. Hence, informal share-cropping in destined to continue for several years. The law, therefore, must take care of informal sharecroppers. Neither the NITI Aayog document nor the Odisha government’s questionnaire takes this aspect into count. They should be identified in palli sabhas and issued with identity cards. Using this card they can claim institutional credit, government subsidy on inputs and implements, coverage of crop insurance, disaster relief and access to procurement centres to avail minimum support price. Officials of all these concerns can settle the claim through a local enquiry, if its genuineness is established. Since agriculture happens to be in the concurrent list, both the central and the state governments should create a corpus fund to ensure the welfare of sharecroppers.



Legalisation of Land Leasing


The law must protect the ownership of landowners who own land below the ceiling limit and sharecroppers’ right to cultivation for a definite tenure, may be a minimum of three years. The next important aspect is the rent. That should be decided mutually considering the fertility of the land, irrigation facility, the nature of the crop and the rate of investment. The rent can either be fixed in cash or crop-sharing. The renewal of the lease should be permissible under law if both sides agree. The sharecropper should not use the land for any purpose other than cultivation. Mutual termination of the lease and signing of a new agreement after the death of either side by the successors should be there. While selling the land the sharecropper should enjoy the preferential choice and on his denial, it can be sold to any other person but the buyer’s possession shall wait till the harvest is over. In the Scheduled area, the existing law should prevail .The conversion of the category of the land should be made impermissible during the lease tenure. At the time of land acquisition, the sharecropper must enjoy the privilege of compensation and rehabilitation. The lease agreement should be signed in presence of a third party. It may be the representative of the tahasildar or the revenue inspector (RI) and the sarpanch. The dispute should also be settled in their presence.


Regulate Corporate Sharecroppers


So far we have seen poor sharecroppers. “According to the 59th round of NSSO, about 36 per cent of the tenant farmers are landless, while nearly 56 per cent of the tenant households are marginal landowners, having less than one hectare land’’. These sharecroppers primarily invest their labour. Nowadays, a new kind of sharecroppers is entering the market, who invests capital and makes farming totally mechanised. Their entry, on the one hand, poses threat to the livelihood of traditional labour-investing sharecroppers and the small and semi medium land owners on the other. Once the land is leased out to these corporate sharecroppers, the marginal, small and semi medium landowners would have no option but to continue the leasing. Their entry shall definitely lead to concentration of operational holding. In order to check it, the ceiling law should be extended to operational holdings and nobody should be leased in more land above the ceiling limit of 10 standard acres in Odisha. In the absence of such regulatory provision, the marginal, small and semi medium land owners are destined to suffer along with the landless agricultural families whose number is 68.45 lakhs in Odisha out of 96 lakh families of the state. They own 43.38 lakh hectares out of total 61.8 lakh hectares of agricultural land. If the law becomes blind to their interest in its bid for liberalisation of agricultural land leasing, lakhs of families shall lose their livelihood and turn migrant labourers. This will bring devastation in the life and living of the people.