Maa, mati, manush: Sounds nice but not for son who won't farm

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  • Published 11.05.09

Calcutta, May 11: Maa, mati, manush-er lorai (The battle for land, which people treat as their mother).

If it were merely a slogan Mamata Banerjee had grabbed to massage the Bengali mind that moistens at the mention of Mother and Mother Earth, it would be quite harmless. But in the backdrop of Nandigram and Singur, it is threatening to acquire a legitimacy enabling its supporters to assume the moral high ground in this election and beyond.

The argument is that farmland cannot be taken to build factories — a point Mamata keeps hammering in rally after rally to huge applause, though her ostensible opposition is to acquisition by force.

“What will the farmer do if land is forcibly taken away?” she asks, playing on emotions.

The jump from emotion to economics is but a baby step in politics: that the fertile land of Bengal enables farmers to grow three to four crops a year and takes care of their livelihood.

If it were so, why would 45.5 per cent of Bengal farmers dislike what they do against around 40 per cent nationally (Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector, prepared by the Arjun Sengupta committee)?

Why would a farmer’s son then not want to be a farmer? Mukul Molla’s family owns over 35 bighas in Shalpukur gram panchayat of South 24-Parganas. “I don’t want to soil my hands in the fields. I have a small medicine store and I want to make it bigger,” says the youth. “Most of my friends also don’t want to be farmers.”

The report says that the rising cost of cultivation, low prices for farm produce, high risk of frequent crop failure, declining agricultural growth and mounting debts have plunged the farmer into a state of distress.

Economists say the crisis is deeper in Bengal because over 65 per cent of its cultivators are small and marginal farmers who have less than two hectares. “Marginal and small farmers cannot make their ventures viable,” says S.D. Tendulkar, the chairman of the Prime Minister’s economic advisory council.

In other words, the absence of an alternative to agriculture keeps farmers in perpetual poverty. Seen from this point of view, the cry of battle for land could sound like a fight to keep things as they are.

A sharp rise in the number of people leaving agriculture in search of other vocations bears proof of the lack of profitability of farming. Between the 1991 and the 2001 censuses, the share of cultivators and agricultural labourers among main workers (who have work more than 183 days a year) fell by up to 10 per cent .

Although green rice fields may inspire Mamata to take up the paintbrush, they hardly symbolise the well-being of rural Bengal. Nominal per capita consumption expenditure, a measure of purchasing power, in rural Bengal is among the lowest in the country .

“If the rest of the economy is growing at 7 to 8 per cent whereas agricultural growth can at best be 4 per cent, this is bound to happen. Unless the proportion of people dependent on agriculture goes down, the situation will get even worse,” says Planning Commission member Abhijit Sen.

Ratan Khasnabis of the department of management in Calcutta University says foodgrain production growth dropped from 6.9 per cent in the eighties to 2.4 per cent in the nineties in Bengal.

The result is the high incidence of rural poverty with around 27 per cent of the people living below the poverty line, which can be countered through productivity increase, diversification of agriculture and creation of jobs outside farms.

“But if all field-based development projects are made into a law-and-order issue, we can’t go anywhere,” says a professor of economics at the Indian Statistical Institute.

He speaks of the need to expand the Calcutta-Siliguri road, which can spur the rural economy along the route. “Land has to be acquired for this purpose but given the situation in Bengal, that is a tricky issue,” he adds.

In the face of threats of unrest, the government has slammed the brakes on the proposed 84km Barasat-Raichak road, running through North and South 24-Parganas. Better infrastructure usually acts as a growth stimulant, giving farmers access to markets, among other things.

Mamata claims she is not against industrialisation and development. Her suggestion to use non-agricultural land in districts like Bankura and Purulia and unlock the real estate lying unused in closed industrial units sounds sensible but is hard to implement.

Freeing the land of closed factories is a lengthy process, not under the control of the state government. Shifting all industries to Bankura and Purulia has the potential to kick up a fresh round of problems.

“You need proper roads to shift all proposed industrial ventures to Bankura and Purulia. To lay roads leading to the two districts land needs to be acquired and that will again be a problem. Then, there will be a problem with the tribal population there, who will have to be displaced,” explains Sen.

Latest estimates suggest less than 2 per cent land in Bengal is non-cultivable, which makes decisions on locating new industrial units a difficult task.

“There may be problems but the government has to discuss these issues with us. But the problem with the government is they don’t consult us,” says Trinamul’s Partha Chatterjee, who is optimistic that maa-mati-manush will fetch the party more MPs.

His charge that the government doesn’t talk with the Opposition is not always true. In Katwa, where the state — and not any private entrepreneur — wants to build a power plant, all parties were called for talks but Trinamul didn’t turn up.

Making Purulia and Bankura the sole destination for industries is also laden with the danger of uneven development.

Some of these problems could have been bypassed had the government created a land bank or tried to find an answer to the trap of small landholdings and low productivity, ironically a result of its much-acclaimed land reforms.

Land reform was almost the first thing the Left did after assuming power in 1977. The bankruptcy of ideas became evident following that. So far, there is nothing to suggest Mamata has any policy measures lined up beyond maa-mati-manush. Given the lack of ideas, it may be a blessing for her that she doesn’t risk being foisted on the seat of power at least until 2011.

Agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan says the only solution is a proper land-use policy. “Non-farm income has to be increased for better livelihood of the people. A proper land-use policy is the most prudent way to meet that objective.”

It is possible to have all the policies in the world — and all very proper — and still not get anywhere until you find a policy against sheer cussedness.