Government’s contention that “FDI in Retail Trade” is the most pressing reform needed by the country is a laughable proposition. It shows how the political executive is far removed from the ground reality of the country
While the “coalition dharma” forced the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to go along with the perpetuators of 2G spectrum scam, the same coalition dharma was found to be far too much of a hurdle in the way of UPA rushing into opening the flood gates to foreigners to enter retail trade in the country. Such is the distortion of the priorities set by a government which seemed to be in total disconnect with the ground realities of the country. Could not UPA think of any other reform that has more far reaching implications for the majority of the people?
To tell the country that foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail trade alone is going to improve the lot of the farmers is patently laughable, in the absence of any attempt on the part of the government to understand the agrarian situation in the country and address the basic problems that constrain any fundamental change for the better in the lives of the farmers and a quantum jump in agricultural production. This is explained below.
According to the Census of 2011, 69% of India’s population lives in rural areas. Their main occupation is agriculture. Around 347 million acres of land is under agriculture. Anyone with a genuine sense of concern for India’s economic development should focus attention on the security of ownership of the farmers, the choices available to them to develop their own capabilities and involving them centrally in the decision making processes of the government.
The land records systems in the states are in a virtual mess. As a result, the small landholders and the tenants are often bypassed when the government ostensibly compensated the displaced farmers in forcible land acquisition. It is the absentee landlords or fraudsters who received the payments.
Ironically, this is the sector that continues to get battered with every ‘reform’ initiative of the government. Since Independence, as a result of ‘development’, more than 65 million people have been displaced from the rural areas and deprived of their agriculture-based occupations. Unfortunately, the rate of displacement has been on the increase.
Out of the 157 million acres of government land (including the ceiling surplus land taken over), only 20 million acres alone have been assigned to the landless farmers, often those already in occupation, and many more millions of such landless families, though they are cultivators of the government lands, have no secure ownership rights. Many land assignees have already lost their lands to the richer, more influential absentee landlords, despite the stringent deterrent laws in existence. In one state, a chief minister himself was found to be in illegal occupation of hundreds of acres of land given earlier to the poor!
Millions of acres of Bhoodan lands meant to be given to the landless are in the hands of the rich and mighty.
There are 12.4 million tenants without firm ownership rights, cultivating 15.6 million acres of land. The successive governments who are in the stranglehold of absentee landlords of an anachronistic feudal agrarian system have no time or inclination to address reforms needed in this vital sector that touches the majority of the country's population.
To think that a foreign multi-national company (MNC) will come with a magic wand to correct the situation betrays the ignorance of the leaders we have and the disconnect they enjoy with the masses. In an electoral system that is driven by money, muscle power and mafias, they are confident that they can come back to power anytime!
On the tribal front, despite the constitutional safeguards in force, millions of tribals have lost their lands to non-tribals and companies trying to illegally plunder the country’s limited but precious mineral resources. The mineral scams that have surfaced of late are enough evidence of this.
• Should not the government first consider a comprehensive land reform programme that revamps and digitises the land records on a war footing, confers ownership rights on the tenants and the landless cultivators and enables them to come on the mainstream of the credit giving agencies? Even the newly introduced law on land acquisition and rehabilitation, thoroughly diluted by the vested interests, will prove counter-productive if these reforms are not grounded well before it is enacted.
• Should not the government have announced a scheme to restore the lands to the tribals so that they may regain their confidence in the law of the land?
• Instead of foisting industrial corridors that displace people and make no sense in the rural areas, should not the government consider more benign schemes that facilitate the setting up of ventures in which the farmers, the fisherfolk, the milk producers and others become partners in setting up modern agro-processing activity and air-conditioned retail outlets to sell their perishable ware in a way that enhances their dignity and self respect? They do not need Walmarts and Carrefours which benefit the politicians and the civil servants more than the common people.
Read the previous articles in the "Raise Your Voice" series here:
(Dr EAS Sarma, IAS, is a post-graduate in Nuclear Physics (Andhra University) and in Public Administration (Harvard University) and a PhD from IIT, Delhi. As a Union Secretary he has held the portfolios of power, economic affairs and expenditure. He quit the government in 2000 over differences regarding policy issues with the National Democratic Alliance government. He is the convener of Forum for Better Visakha (FBV), a civil society group set up in 2004. Dr Sarma was also a member of Godbole Committee appointed by the then Maharashtra government.)