Oct 10, 2016

All for a Piece of Land

R Jayaraman

When the world began, all that was known in terms of organised activity was agriculture. This was mainly because many people took it up as a way of life. The hunter got tired of nomadic life, the cave dweller started looking for a sunnier clime, the tribal got bored of climbing trees and picking the fruits for his daily food, and the potter went to pot after several rounds and yearned to switch to a more meaningful way of life. So many turned to agriculture. What is different?

Owning land, for one. Since times immemorial, owning land has been an obsession. I have seen many people who ask if you stay in a rented house or own it? The moment you let out the secret that you are only a poor lessee, the person soon finds other friends, cutting short the conversation. Such is the weight attached to a piece of land. No wonder Leo Tolstoy wrote about the 6 by 6 by 6 land which is the only thing that man needs after he is gone, but when he is still alive he needs 10 or 100 times that.

You have arrived when you own land. Ask any farmer from UP, Bihar, Punjab, Haryana and other states. The story is the same. ‘Do Bigha Jameen’, wrote Munshi Premchand. But, over time, in some countries at least, due to heavy population, the per capita population on a unit piece of land zoomed. More hands wanted to share lesser and lesser acres of land, and tilling became unfulfilling due to the small dimension of the land left over after the sharing ceremony got over.

But the industrial revolution, kicked off by James Watt, brought in a new dimension to using land for purposes other than agriculture. Over the next two hundred years, beginning about 1780, the industrial usage of land zipped and agriculture usage dipped. In some countries, like the USA and many parts of Europe, where land is surplus, farmers faced no problems. As long as they confined themselves to the land allotted by the government and did what was good for the economy, they could till their lands and fill their banks.

Due to major advancements in automation and machinery, the life of a farmer changed from that of a worker to an owner, ordering and using a multitude of equipment like the harvester, the tractor, the crop cutter and the like. All that he needed to do was to engage some hands to look after his cattle; the fields would be looked after by his machines. He would be looked after by the TV, the refrigerator, the automobile and the ubiquitous pick-up trucks.

Meanwhile, in countries like India where land was not in such generous supply, pressure on land came from two directions. The increasing family size demanded break-up of the land to be farmed out to more sons, and, two, industries started demanding their pound at the till. Thus land got squeezed between these two covetous owners and, as a result, suffered fractures, fissures, cuts and all other maladies that afflict shortage economies. Prices rocketed and availability became an issue. Finders, keepers. But for politicians, others find land which they can then keep.

In such a milieu, politicians, finance ministers, banks all found an outlet for their skills in devising various methods by which a “suited, booted leader” can tread with caution, but move forward. So now we have a land regime where the farmer appears to be at peace with what he has, mainly because the MNREGA and other such largesse can reach him through bank accounts created through the AADHAR route (long live Nandan Nilekani!) while industries are able to get land through the mega cities routes, which are springing up, before we can finish saying Jai Hind.

The pressure on land will continue to fester in India for some more time till someone realises that all resources are finite – land, coal, iron ore, drinking water and the like. So, unless we want to go the way of the dinosaurs before us, we must find sustainability, renewability and reversibility. These three terms must now become the new Triple Bottom Line, and economics should take a back seat for some time. If not, in our attempts to keep the economy going by increasing our standards of living, we should descend into an abyss created by those very economic pursuits.

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