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This land is your land/ This land is my land/ This land was made for you and me.

—Woodie Guthrie

During a recent trip to Dholavira in Kutch, where archaeological remains of an ancient Harappan settlement dating back to 1900 BCE are located, a tourist guide had a tragic personal story to relate. During the early 1990s, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), a government-owned establishment under the ministry of culture, acquired land from over 10 agricultural families around the excavation site to expand its discovery coverage. On the surface, that seemed routine. Except, none of the families accepted the compensation because they felt it was too paltry. They wanted either jobs or equivalent parcels of land anywhere else. The ASI couldn’t comply, forcing land-owners to seek legal redressal; the case has been dragging for more than 25 years, with villagers forced to travel 250km every time a new date is announced by lower courts. In the meantime, the guide, lacking formal higher education but perhaps the village’s most knowledgeable person about the settlement and its history, has become a security guard to put food on the family table.

This sad account illustrates, apart from the usual story of official apathy, the significance of land. Under the original transaction, land-owners did not contest the ASI’s acquisition, but only asked for either state employment or compensatory land elsewhere. The reason is simple. Economics 101 lists two primary factors of production: capital and labour. Land is capital, and when coupled with labour, it yields a regular income. The Dholavira land-owners wanted land—any land—to keep their income streams uninterrupted.

At another level, beyond this economic and transactional relationship, land is invested with multiple layers of significance. For many agricultural families, despite their marginal holdings, land serves as the basis for social, cultural, linguistic and filial ties. Land was also the primal motive for early humankind’s migratory impulses, braving the elements and travelling across continents without modern navigational aids to settle in other places. Lust for land also impels humans to invade other territories, even if that means war and bloodshed.

This centrality of land to people’s lives is key to understanding the reasons behind the year-long, dogged opposition to the three farm laws that Prime Minister Narendra Modi said will be repealed. Multiple interpretations of their impact were put forth by those both for and against them, but none of the versions was able to allay the widespread apprehensions that this legislative exercise evoked.

One of the proximate reasons was the manner in which the three laws—The Farmers Produce and Trade Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, and, The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020—were pushed through Parliament. Legislative equity requires due process, and that includes reaching out to key stakeholders or even accepting opposition disapproval and making changes. The farm laws were first introduced as ordinances, which were then replaced by bills during Parliament’s 2020 monsoon session in the midst of a raging pandemic and eventually rammed through by a voice vote, disregarding all opposition demands for a debate. The government did not even subject the trio of bills to scrutiny from a Parliamentary panel, as per the usual practice. Legitimate questions can be raised over why farmers should be bothered about a shortened Parliamentary process if the laws were designed for their benefit.

The triple enactment, ostensibly designed and sold as farmer-friendly, had three legs. One, it allowed farmers freedom to sell their produce anywhere and to anybody without being legally bound to state-mandated market places. Two, it let farmers strike contracts with buyers even before sowing, under which a farmer could sell his produce to the buyer at a predetermined price. Third, the Centre was keen to free a number of crops—pulses, oilseeds, onions and potatoes, among others—from rules that either regulated or prohibited their production, supply, distribution and trade.

The government’s browbeating of the legislative process possibly got to farmers, who feared that these laws were designed for the benefit of large conglomerates that could use their clout to control farmers and the farm trade. Right or wrong, the government’s haste in enacting them did not help alleviate these apprehensions. Given how marginal farmers lack agency, or the wherewithal to seek legal recourse, especially against powerful corporations which have a record of suborning legal processes, such anxieties should have been anticipated.

Land is the final missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle. India’s average operational agricultural land-holding has been in decline. As per the last agri-census, held in 2015-16, the average land-holding was 1.08 hectares. The National Statistical Office’s 2019 survey on farm incomes, released this September, showed that farmers with less than 2 acres of land (90% of all farmers) had suffered poor income growth from cultivation over the past decade, lower than even the rate of inflation. The farm laws gave rise to fears that even this income would be further compressed under corporate pressure, forcing many farmers to eventually lose their capital. Without land, it could have meant losing their identity as farmers, and that wasn’t acceptable.

Rajrishi Singhal is a policy consultant, journalist and author. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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