Bengaluru:Since 2000, Karnataka has put nearly 200,000 hectares of farmland to non-agricultural use, including for industrial, residential and infrastructure projects. Besides shrinking farmlands, the number of dependents on existing land holdings have also increased considering little employment opportunities elsewhere.

From 1.312 million hectares in 2000-01 (cumulative), the total land put to non-agricultural use has risen to 1.495 million hectares (cumulative) in 2016-17, according to state government data.

Land is often acquired for developmental projects across the country, but experts say the conversion of productive land parcels is a bigger cause for concern. Fallow land has increased from 1.775 million hectares in 2000-01 to 2.253 million hectares in 2016-17 in the state.

A significant amount of land is being lost due to increase in salinity and persistent drought, making it untenable for farmers to continue cultivating it, said Prakash Kammardi, a farm expert and chairman of the Karnataka Agriculture Price Commission. This forces farmers to sell the land to real estate developers, he added.

The state has had at least 14 drought years since 2000. In fact, at least 100 talukas were declared drought-affected in 2018 as well, due to poor spread of the southwest monsoon and almost 50% deficient rains during the northeast monsoon cycle.

Persistent droughts across the country have prompted several state governments to announce short-term measures such as farm loan waivers, which are aimed more at reaping rich political dividends than reviving the sagging agricultural economy.

The promise of a waiver contributed to the Congress winning elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. The party is now putting pressure on the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government at the centre to waive all farm loans across the country. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s statement that the party will continue to urge Modi to waive farm loans is apparently aimed at earning the backing of the farming community that is facing deepening agrarian distress, especially over minimum support prices (MSPs) for their produce.

Farm loan waivers also tend to favour large landlords as small and marginal farmers have limited access to institutional credit, forcing them to fall into the trap of high-interest-charging money lenders. Small and marginal farmers account for 76.44% of the holdings, but own just 40.05% of the total crop area in Karnataka, according to the 2010-11 census.

The National Financial Inclusion Survey 2016-17 conducted by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) shows that the average land holding in an agricultural household in Karnataka is 1.19 hectares, while the average size of each household consists of 4.5 people, emphasizing the growing pressure on rapidly shrinking land holdings. The younger generation are forced to continue in agriculture, directly or indirectly, as there is not enough employment outside to soak up additional labour, adding to the resentment of the community, experts say.

The Janata Dal (Secular) and Congress coalition in Karnataka have announced a 49,000 crore loan waiver—the second such waiver in as many years, but providing little direction for a sustainable solution to the over 40-million strong community in the state. Even selling to real estate developers may not be a high one-time income option for several farmers in the state because of fragmented holdings, Kammardi said, adding that the real estate mafia try to convert large tracts of fallow land for commercial use.

“If they (farmers) get a chance to sell their land at a very good price, they will take it," said Narendar Pani, political analyst and faculty at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. “The only option is to increase the yield in existing holdings to balance the loss of land to other purposes and remain food surplus."

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