Do Bigha Zameen: Dispossessing the Farmer

By: Himanshu
The marginal farmer is today pitted against the hegemony of the state and its collaborator—the private developer, even as the developing economy fails to provide alternative livelihoods to those in search of non-farm employment.

Do Bigha Zameen’ (1953) is a classic Bimal Roy film about the plight of Shambhu Mahato, a marginal farmer who owns two bighas (measurements vary from one region to another, ~1333 square meter in West Bengal, where the story unfolds) of land. Thakur Harnam Singh, to whom Shambhu is in debt for having borrowed a small amount several years ago, wants to sell his land for a modern mill to a city based businessman. Since Shambhu’s land lies between two huge patches belonging to Harnam Singh, the latter goes to court in a bid to wrest the land off Shambhu. The court rules against Shambhu and orders him to pay back the entire debt in three months to claim his land. Shambhu and his family struggle to earn the money in the city, but finally, Shambhu is unable to repay the debt and loses his land.

Even after six decades, the story is being re-played over and over again in real life with millions of small and marginal farmers struggling to save their land from ‘zamindars’ or land owners. The only difference is that the role of the land owner is being played by the mighty State. The instrument of debt has been replaced by the outdated land acquisition law which authorises the State to acquire any fertile land at any price desired. The small time city businessman is now replaced by giant real estate companies and corporate houses who are looking upto State to help them build manufacturing plants for cars, steel factories and real estate parks. Millions of Shambhu(s) struggle to save their land but eventually lose out in the name of development. In the last five years, the story has played out in various forms, be it Singur, Nandigram, Bhatta-Parsaul, Zaitapur, Srikakulam, Niyamgiri Hills or the forests of Bastar.


Development Vs Land

This is not a question about development and land. True, we need land for development. As long as farmers are compensated for their land, there is no reason for them to protest, especially since farming is hardly the most profitable or preferred profession. The reality is that for most farmers in rural India, land is not only an asset but also the most important source of livelihood and sometimes the only source of livelihood. Giving up land amounts to giving up a livelihood. This would not have been a problem, if they were able to utilise the compensation to adopt alternative sources of livelihood. However, for many farmers, there is very little choice beyond farming their land.

Part of the reason for this lies in India’s lopsided growth in the last two decades where the share of agriculture in the gross domestic product (GDP) has gone down considerably. But, even today, almost 50 per cent of the population continues to earn from agriculture (Santosh Mehrotra et al., 2014, ‘Explaining employment trends in the Indian Economy: 1993-94 to 2011-12’, Economic and Political Weekly, August 9, 2014). This has created the duality of a fast growing non-farm sector alongside a sluggish agricultural sector. With low skills and literacy, most farmers remain clueless as to what they can do with compensation received in lieu of their land. Consequently, the money is consumed, rather than serving as investment for future income.

The irony of the situation is that this characterisation of Indian poverty as being synonymous with landlessness is still relevant, notwithstanding the country clocking a more than 8 per cent growth rate over the last decade (Economic Survey, 2013, Ministry of Finance, Government of India). Most early literature on poverty had identified agricultural growth as the primary driver for poverty reduction. The fact that this has not happened is a reflection of the nature of agricultural growth, which has led to growing impoverishment of small and marginal farmers with rising inequality (T Sukhdeo and A Dubey 2012, ‘Has growth been socially inclusive during 1993-94-2009-10?’, Economic and Political Weekly, March 10, 2012).

A further cause of worry for policy makers is the relatively slow change in the structure of workforce. The shift of workforce from agricultural to non-agricultural sectors has particularly failed to keep pace with the shift in output structure. The slow pace of non-farm diversification and the slow pace of employment generation in the non-farm sector has been a sad feature of the rural economy.

Even though non-farm employment grew faster than agricultural employment, there has been no accompanying decline in the agricultural workforce. Thus, while the non-farm sector has managed to absorb a substantial part of the additional workforce in the rural economy, there has been no decline of workers in the agrarian economy. It is around 2004-05 that the trend has shown signs of being reversed, giving reason for optimism. The non-farm sector not only absorbed the new entrants to labour force, it was also accompanied by decline of workforce in the agricultural sector. The fact that non-farm employment creation has seen acceleration along with decline of workers in agriculture after 2004-05 has not only implications for workforce structure and the ability of the economy to accommodate workers moving out of agriculture, it also has implications on poverty and income distribution.

However, they also raise questions on the ability of the economy to sustain these changes along with challenges of creating enough jobs for new entrants into the labour market and those moving out of agriculture. Preliminary evidence regarding non-farm jobs in the economy after 2004-05 points to the vulnerable nature of non-farm employment, most of which is casual employment in construction. On the other hand, the inability of manufacturing to generate enough jobs also raises a question mark on the sustainability of non-farm diversification.

These issues arise not only because of the pattern of non-farm employment in rural areas since 2004-05 which is generally casual, but the fact that poorer states with low agricultural productivity are now becoming the new drivers of non-farm employment diversification unlike in the previous two decades, when rich, industrialised states had played this role. While the impact of this on incomes and poverty is already visible with the period after 2004-05 having recorded the fastest decline in poverty, it has also challenged existing beliefs on the drivers of these changes. It suggests, for instance, that the limits to higher agricultural productivity leading to higher non-farm diversification may already have been reached, at least in some states. Besides, the fact that the manufacturing sector has not been able to generate rural employment also raises questions on the sustainability of the current trend in growth.

The trend emerging from secondary large scale data is hardly different from detailed micro studies based on village surveys. While village surveys acknowledge the growing importance of the non-farm sector in the last decade, the emerging regional picture highlights the heterogeneity of the process of non-farm diversification. Unlike the national surveys, village surveys in the poorer and agriculture dominated states do not suggest any significant rise in non-farm employment. However, most suggest an increase in the number of person-days generated by the non-farm sector. There is also some consensus regarding the impact of non-farm diversification in wages and incomes of labourers and its associated impact on poverty. While the degree of non-farm diversification may vary across states, the general consensus is that the quality of new non-farm jobs are low and casual in nature.

The fact that non-farm employment in rural areas has not turned out to be any better in terms of income and employment does raise questions on the process of non-farm diversification. While micro studies point to the tendency of rural youth to be less willing to work in agriculture, the absence of decent high paying jobs means that agriculture continues to be a last refuge for many. Nevertheless, with land productivity failing to keep pace with population growth, the productivity per worker in agriculture is less likely to provide sustenance to the large rural majority.

Given that growing urbanisation and diversification towards the non-farm sector would also imply demand for agricultural land, the ability of agriculture to sustain the population in rural areas is likely to be under strain. The demand for land from the growing urban corridors and manufacturing are sometimes critical investments related to the developmental needs of the country. But these developmental projects should also aspire to have the dispossessed population enjoy the benefits of development. More often than not, the developmental needs are far removed from the requirements and the supply of skills that the displaced population has. This distrust about the very nature of development is borne out of experience, particularly where land for roads and other critical infrastructure has actually been siphoned off to private builders.

The irony is that the development of new infrastructure and resultant added land value is far more beneficial to the private builder than the local community. Since such appreciation of land prices is never shared with the original owner, the farmer feels ultimately cheated whatever the compensation paid, in part because, the valuation of compensation is always done at the pre-developed stage. This creates distrust among the farming community about the very nature of development. The increase in inequality in the last two decades and the reaching of urban affluence to the boundaries of rural has only exacerbated these animosities.


Public-Private Partnership Model

Some of these tendencies were further boosted in the last two decades with states ever willing to play the role of middlemen acquiring land for private parties in the name of public good. The dwindling resources of state governments (Economic Survey, 2013, Ministry of Finance, Government of India) is partly behind such moves, and has seen many forced to use revenues from land to finance development. The private public partnership model has invariably leaned on concession to private parties in return for investments in infrastructure. Secondly, in the race for competitive bidding to attract investment to their respective states, state governments have used land as the easiest bait. The private sector has been only too happy to comply in this competitive game between states.

Unfortunately, the demand for protecting agricultural land is not likely to provide a long term solution to this problem. The excessive pressure on land as a natural resource and excessive tapping of groundwater has meant that environmental factors will limit agricultural productivity. The governments’ inability to protect the interests of small and marginal farmers has only added to the confusion. This is partly because governments have seen it as a problem of land valuation without caring to look into what defines the public good. Neither has anyone bothered to see it as a livelihood issue.



The solution lies in non-farm diversification, which is not only employment intensive but provides decent working conditions to first time workers moving out of agriculture. Such efforts require investment in skill building and generating employment opportunities that provide an exit route to farmers. Until that is done, the farmer will continue to fight for his ‘do bigha zameen’.

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