SRINAGAR – As farmers in the country protest against the three agricultural laws, which they think will affect their livelihoods, farmers in Kashmir too want the new laws repealed. In December, 25 miles northwest of Srinagar, Sopore fruit mandi – Asia’s second-largest wholesale fruit market – was closed in solidarity with the protesting farmers.
“We have serious reservations about the new laws,” said Fayaz Ahmad Malik, the Sopore Fruit Growers Association president. “They threaten to make the mandis redundant and hand the control of agriculture to big corporate houses. This would in no way help the farmers prosper.”
However, the farmers in Kashmir have stayed short of hitting the streets, unlike their counterparts in other states, especially those from north India’s Punjab and Haryana. They fear the retaliation from the government forces to their protest would not be as restrained as it is outside the Valley.
“Here, the forces resort to firing at the hint of a protest,” said a fruit grower, not wishing to identify himself. “But in New Delhi, they didn’t do so even when some farmers took over Red Fort.”
A few symbolic protests in Kashmir were held by Jammu and Kashmir Kisan Tehreek, affiliated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM).
The new contentious agriculture laws, which deregulate the selling and purchase of farm goods and aim to bring private investment in the troubled sector, are not the only worry for the region’s farmers. Over the years, the agricultural land in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has considerably shrunk due to its use for non-agriculture purposes. A large swathe of farmland has been converted into built up area, despite the government’s ban on constructing houses on agricultural land.
According to the government figures, the total area under paddy cultivation in Kashmir in 1981 was 166,000 hectares, which came down to 158000 hectares by 2012. The decrease in the agricultural land has been precipitous since 2012. Around 16650 hectares of land used for paddy cultivation turned into built up area or some other non-agriculture use by 2015, which is a loss of over 12 hectares of land a day and 5550 hectares a year. At this rate, there will be no land to grow crops by 2040.
According to Jammu and Kashmir Economic Survey report 2014-15, the estimated percentage contribution of agriculture and allied sector to the erstwhile state’s gross domestic product (GSDP) had gone down to 17.49 percent against the corresponding share of 28.06 percent in 2004-05 at constant prices. Food grain deficit, which in 1950-51 was 32 percent, shot up to 81.50 percent.
The economic survey report further revealed that the livelihood of nearly 70 percent of the population depended directly or indirectly on agriculture and allied sectors. But paradoxically, according to the 2011 census, the proportion of the labour force engaged in agriculture pursuits had gone down to 28 percent from 84.8 percent in 1961. The labour force so relieved from agriculture has yet to be gainfully employed in the absence of a viable industrial and service sector.
Although embroiled in hardships, the farmers in Kashmir, in some aspects, have been better off than those in some other parts of the country. There is not even a single instance of farmer suicide in Kashmir. The relative self-sufficiency of Kashmir farmers is the result of the land reforms enacted by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 1949-50.
The reforms known as the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950, was a radical land redistribution step, which abolished nine thousand feudal estates. The 4.5 lakh acres of land so expropriated from the large landowners were redistributed to tenants and landless. The land ceiling was fixed at 22.75 acres. A large number of poor villagers became landowners overnight. In one stroke, the erstwhile state’s entrenched feudal system was abolished, which turned around the countryside’s economic condition, with the hitherto tenants in a position to cultivate the land for themselves.
However, since then, the average land-holding size had declined from 1.7 hectares in 1949-50 to 0.5 hectares in 1997-98, said the 2014-15 economic survey report. Almost 90 percent of the arable land, according to the survey, constituted marginal and sub-marginal holdings, which reduced the agriculture productivity to a mere subsistence level – although sufficient enough to keep the rural poverty at bay.
The new land laws enacted last year have abolished the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act, 1950. They have also repealed or amended the other agriculture-related laws like the Jammu and Kashmir Land Grants Act (1960), the Jammu and Kashmir Alienation of Land Act (1995), the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Reforms Act (1976), the Jammu and Kashmir Land Revenue Act (1996) and the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act of 1970. These laws collectively protected the appropriation of agricultural land for either industrial purposes or selling it to outsiders.
The new amendments have made it easier to convert agricultural land for non-agriculture purposes. A district collector can approve agricultural land conversion into non-agricultural land, which can then be transferred to outsiders. According to official data, an estimated 78 thousand hectares of farmland in Kashmir have been converted to non-agricultural purposes from 2015 to 2019.
A new provision in the amended Development Act enables the establishment of an all-powerful Jammu and Kashmir Industrial Development Corporation, which will have powers to acquire any land, with legal cover against challenges, to help “the rapid and orderly establishment, and organisation of industries in industrial areas and industrial estates.”
“The new farm laws will make the situation in Kashmir even worse,” said veteran CPIM leader Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami. “These laws allow contract farming between big corporates and the farmers. By permitting both verbal and written contracts, the laws make the farmers vulnerable with no legal redress.”
Ghulam Nabi Malik, the leader of Jammu and Kashmir Kisan Tehreek, a farmers’ rights organisation, said the contract farming could make the farmers the wage labourers on their land. “With big corporates taking over large chunks of land and taking control of the agriculture, it will be like a return to the feudal system and in a much worse form,” he added.
Already, agricultural holdings in the union territory are smaller than the national average due to the region’s mountainous nature. Growing non-agriculture use of the farmland has further shrunk the arable land. Moreover, the corporatization of agriculture under the new farm laws could deprive the farmers of the remaining land, farmers fear.
“In the rest of the country, the farm laws are feared to affect agriculture-related earnings and livelihoods. But in Kashmir, it goes far beyond that,” said Naseer Ahmad, a columnist. “It has a political and existential dimension too. The farm laws are expected to reinforce the impact of new land laws that allow outsiders including corporates to purchase J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) land.”
(Featured Image By Vivek Singh)
Riyaz Wani is an independent journalist with StoriesAsia, a collective of freelance journalists in South and Southeast Asia.