Agricultural Land use Changes in India

By: Sucharita Sen
Agricultural land converted to non-agricultural uses is often understood as ‘development’. While high growth, rich states have managed to hold on, the low growth poorer states have lost significant amounts of land under plough causing distress to their agricultural communities.
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The relevance of land for agriculture can be understood thus; firstly, agriculture is a land intensive activity, which means that it requires more land compared to non-agricultural activities in relation to the respective output. Secondly, quality of land has a critical bearing on agricultural output per unit area, while it is of marginal consequence to the productivities of the non-agricultural activities. Thirdly, ownership of land in rural areas, particularly in the less developed part of the world, has a lot to do with the social standing and identity of an individual in the place s/he owns the land. Hence, it is imperative that the dynamics of agricultural land use change is understood in the larger economic and political context more so in India where the majority still depend on agriculture in spite of its reduced importance in the income of the country.

What are the sources from which land under non-agricultural use can expand? The possibilities are numerous. The one that should have little or no bearing on rural livelihoods is the land categorised as barren and uncultivable waste land (BUW). Such exchanges have been marked as priority 1. If the stock of agricultural land has to experience an outflow in favour of non-agricultural activities, priority should go to the under utilised or unutilised area that is not cultivated (priority 2). However, such land, though mostly privately owned, often serves as defactograsing land for the rural poor dependent on livestock. In the scheme of prioritisation, it is probably fair to give it precedence over area under plough (priority 3) on which the livelihoods of small and marginal farmers as well as the landless agricultural labourers hinge upon.

The outflows from common property resources like community forests and grazing lands are not desirable, given their importance in the lives of the landless and poor not only because they depend on these resources, but also because, in the absence of their access to private land, these are the only land resources over which they have legitimate legal and social rights. These resources have historically been known to promote collective action, which, at times enhances the political bargaining power of the poor in the rural society.

Fig. 1: A Framework for Understanding Agricultural Landuse from a Livelihood Perspective
Fig. 1: A Framework for Understanding Agricultural Landuse from a Livelihood Perspective
Fig. 2: Trends of Area under Non-Agricultural Land and Its Potential Feeder Categories (1961-62 to 2011-12)
Fig. 2: Trends of Area under Non-Agricultural Land and Its Potential Feeder Categories (1961-62 to 2011-12)
Fig. 3: Trends of Forest and Pastures/Grazing Land in India (1961-62 to 2011-12)
Fig. 3: Trends of Forest and Pastures/Grazing Land in India (1961-62 to 2011-12)

Trends in Macro Land Use Changes

Land use changes can be extremely varied and location specific. A common perception is that population increase and poverty are the prime drivers of land use changes, though scholarly work (Eric Lambin et al. 2001, ‘The causes of land use and land cover change: Moving beyond the myths’, Global environmental change; G K Chadha et al., 2004, ‘Land Resources-State of the Indian farmer: A millennium study’, Ministry of Agriculture) shows us that neither of these factors have been behind these changes in recent times. Rather, economic opportunities, mediated through institutional mechanisms, explain these changes. These are often rooted in the way the nation states respond to private investments, both domestic and foreign, in the recent years.

It may come as a surprise that the area under non-agricultural use (AUNAU) occupied less than 9 per cent of the reporting area of the country in 2011-12 whereas the secondary and tertiary sectors contributed more than 80 per cent to the national gross domestic product (GDP). While agriculture remains a land intensive activity, many non-primary activities require little or no land at all (a case in point is e-commerce, which happens mostly in the virtual domain). Secondly, what appears to be land under ‘agriculture’ actually supports a lot of non-agricultural activity, such as post-harvesting work (including trading) and several first-stage processing of agricultural commodities.

The important points to note about macro level land use changes are the following:

  • Though the post liberalisation phase has experienced a slower rate of increase in AUNAU compared to the initial decades after independence, for the first time the country has experienced a net outflow from stock of agricultural land in the post ‘90s phase (Table 1).
  • Though BUW have declined faster than AUNAU till the mid ’80s, the decline has subsequently tapered off, and is unable to compensate for the increase in AUNAU (Fig 2). Some initial fall in BUW has fed the increase in ‘designated’ forest area (Fig 3).
  • Since the ‘90s, there has been a net outflow from both the stock of agricultural land (SAL) and the area under plough (AUP) (Table 1). Given the large area under agriculture, a 0.07 per cent decline (the average rate of outflow) of the area under agriculture adds up to around 128400 hectares of land, while a net outflow of 0.035 per cent from the area under plough translates into 54040 hectares, which, given the average size of land holding in India, would displace around 47000 peasants, and impact a huge number of landless labourers dependent on this land for wage work.
  • The area under forest went up sharply in the’60s, and more slowly in subsequent decades (Fig 3). This was partly due to the ‘enclosure’ of ‘waste-lands’ along with existing forest land by reserving or protecting these resources. Termed ‘statisation’ of forest resources, this is often associated with the marginalisation of the poor, particularly tribals, dependent on forest and wasteland vegetative biomass. It is worth mentioning that all area classified as under forest as per land use statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture is not under actual tree cover. Remote sensing estimates by National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), for instance show actual land under forest cover to be 209,000 hectares less than land use estimates, in 2011-12

Land under pastures has been continuously on the decline since the ‘60s (Fig 2). This continuous outflow has a crucial bearing on the poor, both in terms of dependence on livestock and legal access to the commons.

Table 1: Annual Rates of Growth* of Selected Land-use Categories
Table 1: Annual Rates of Growth* of Selected Land-use Categories
Table 2: Relationship between Per Capita NSDP and Share of Area Under Non-agricultural Use
Table 2: Relationship between Per Capita NSDP and Share of Area Under Non-agricultural Use
Table 3: Selected Categories of States as per Shifts of Agricultural and Non-Agricultural Land Between 1991 and 2011-12
Table 3: Selected Categories of States as per Shifts of Agricultural and Non-Agricultural Land Between 1991 and 2011-12

The State Stories

The macro scenario establishes that there was a substantial net outflow from both cultivable and uncultivable land. In states where such trends are observed, it can have critical implications for rural livelihoods.

On the face of it, it appears that the outflow from agricultural land can be explained by the increased pace of urban processes, and the transition of the economy from an agricultural to a non-agricultural one. A widely accepted perception is that, such a trend is not only inevitable, but desirable. The state level data on land use in different categories over time tells us, however, that there no correspondence between the share of AUNAU on one hand and share of non-agricultural GDP or levels of per-capita income on the other. In fact, there is little relationship between the two (Table 2). States like Gujarat and Maharashtra that have high per capita net state domestic product (PCNSDP) and high shares of secondary and tertiary sectors in the state domestic products (SDP) have shares of AUNAU far below the all India level. On the other hand, states like Bihar and Assam, with low levels of PCNSDP and relatively high shares of agriculture in SDP have AUNAU almost double the national average. This has an important bearing on the way we understand the land use shifts from agriculture to non-agricultural activities. Other than the detail that AUNAU also includes some land that does not directly have a bearing on production, like the area under rural and urban settlements (though the latter is expected to be high in states having high per capita income), this means that increase in a unit of land under non-agricultural use has no obvious bearing on a corresponding increase on the output from these sectors. If this is agreed upon, the rationale for acquiring land for non-agricultural purposes appears to be weaker than what is usually accepted.

We might still argue that though the levels of AUNAU may not be important for any conclusive understanding of the development status of a state, the rates of changes are important for such considerations.

But Table 3 refutes that too. Out of the states in Category 1, which have experienced increases in SAL or AUP, Gujarat, has had very high rates of SDP growth in the past two decades, and has a strong base in both the industrial and services sectors. Madhya Pradesh, which shares Gujarat’s status in terms of changes in agricultural land, has also experienced reasonable rates of growth in both the industrial and services sectors during the same period, though it is relatively less developed. The states in category 2 have experienced a decline in SAL but an increase in AUP, which means that some underutilised SAL (fallow other than current fallow and culturable wasteland) has gone into non-agricultural use and some into AUP. This indicates a more productive use of existing land resources, and may imply loss of de-factol and for ‘common use’ by the poor. Notably, though none of the states in category 2 are particularly developed, they have moved towards more efficient use of scarce land resources. The states in category 3, have not only experienced decline in both SAL and AUP, but the rate of decline for AUP is higher than the decline in SAL. This trend is antithetical to that observed for states in category 2 and indicates greater net out flows from productive agricultural land compared to unutilised or underutilised agricultural land. This category constitutes Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Maharashtra on one hand, and poorer states like Jharkhand, Bihar and Odisha on the other. Again, the rates of growth of non-agricultural SDP are varied for states in category 3.

 

Endnote

The contestations around land acquisitions and consequent dispossessions articulated through protests and movements across the country have been in the forefront more in the post 1991 period than ever before. The government data on land use change brought out by the Ministry of Agriculture makes it adequately clear why this has been the case. The post 1991 period has been characterised by a clear outflow of agricultural land. In many states, the high reduction in cultivated land is not associated with corresponding improvements in the non-agricultural sectors. On the other hand, there are states that have achieved high rates of growth in the non-agricultural sectors without reductions in agricultural land.

The change in the role of ‘nation state’ in the neo-liberal period has a lot to do with these pathways of ‘development’. The neo-liberal regime has been marked by, firstly, an immense increase in the flows of private capital from within and outside the country, and secondly, by changes in ownership rights of land resulting from the way capital attaches itself to land. (A Zoomers, 2010, ‘Globalisation and the foreignisation of space: Seven processes driving the current global land grab’, The Journal of Peasant Studies; Michael Levien, 2010, ‘The land question: Special economic zones and the political economy of dispossession in India’, Journal of Peasant Studies).

Land has changed hands from common to private ownership or from a relatively large number of private hands that are typically small economic units to a few larger players. Consequently, we cannot see obvious returns in many states that have lost agricultural land, since, often these states compete with other states to bring in private investment for ‘development’ but lacks the bargaining power or possibly even the political will to ensure a reasonable return for the land it hands over to private businesses. The logical extension of this observation is that a large part of the benefits from the land in one place flows out to places other than that of the land conversion.

 

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