Redefining a farmer

A farmer working at his field in Keesara village outskirts of Hyderabad on Decemebr 23, 2017.   | Photo Credit: G. Ramakrishna

The agriculture sector saw a slew of immediate and strategic stimuli under the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ programme after a nationwide lockdown was declared on March 25 this year. The post COVID-19 responses in the sector range from investments in agri-infrastructure, logistics and capacity building to governance and administrative reforms. The direct cash transfer scheme under PM-KISAN and the credit boost through PM Kisan Credit Cards have benefitted farmers both directly and indirectly.

Ownership of cultivable land as per land records is a mandatory criterion for being eligible under the PM-KISAN scheme, and an estimated 104.56 million farmers had benefitted from the plan as on August 23. However, there have been many debates about the definition of a ‘beneficiary’ under the plan. The ₹110 crore scam reported in the PM-KISAN scheme in Tamil Nadu recently is also a stark reminder of how even eligible beneficiaries can be cheated out of the scheme by colluding officials.

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Traditionally, land ownership is a mandatory criterion for availing benefits under various agricultural schemes in India. But is it an appropriate criterion for defining a ‘farmer’?

Laws governing land leasing operate at different levels across India. The Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act, 2016 was introduced to formalise land leasing based on the recommendation of an expert panel appointed by NITI Aayog. However, except a few States, a majority of State governments have not extended the scope of the Act to farmers.

According to the 2015-16 agricultural census, about 2.65 million operational holdings are either partially or wholly leased. The impact of agrarian distress is felt disproportionately by tenant farmers. The tenant farmer incurs the costs (including the rental payments) and faces the risks, while the owner receives the rent, subsidies and other support. The lessees do not benefit from loan waivers, moratorium and institutional credit, and are forced to be at the mercy of moneylenders. The distress is reflected in the fact that tenant farmers account for a majority of farmer suicides reported in the NCRB data.

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There are multiple definitions for a ‘farmer’ in official data published by the Government of India. The population census defines ‘cultivators’ as a person engaged in cultivation of land either ‘owned’ or held in kind or share. The 59th round of the Situation Assessment Survey (SAS) of farmers, conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), also stresses on ‘possession of land’ either owned or leased or otherwise possessed for defining ‘farmers’.

Delinking of land as the defining criterion for a ‘farmer’ was done in the 70th round of SAS carried out by the NSSO, wherein agricultural households were defined as those receiving some value of produce from agricultural activities during the previous 365 days. Further, a minimum cut off value of ₹3,000 for agricultural produce in the last 365 days was fixed as an additional requirement. This was done to exclude households with insignificant shares of income obtained from agriculture. Similarly, the National Policy for Farmers, 2007 adopts a broad-based definition independent of ‘land ownership’ as well as ‘value of produce’. This definition includes everyone engaged in agriculture and allied activities to eke out a livelihood, including persons engaged in shifting cultivation and collection of non-timber forest produce.

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The definition adopted in the 70th Round of NSSO seems to be appropriate. It can be further refined to define a farmer as one who earns a major part of the income from farming. The definition delinks agriculture production from land per se, and not just ownership. Access to land as a policy instrument in bringing about equitable growth of rural economies needs no further emphasis. However, until the time ‘land to the tiller’ remains just wishful thinking, adopting a broader definition of a ‘farmer’ is a short-term solution to ensure inclusive and sustainable growth.

Dr. M. Manjula is a faculty member at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bangalore. Dr. P. Indira Devi is a former professor of Agricultural Economics and Director of Research at the Kerala Agricultural University, India

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Printable version | Sep 21, 2021 8:07:19 PM |

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