The growing unrest in Kashmir Valley against the National Food Security Act shows how the depleting agriculture land in the state and our growing dependence on food imports is going to affect our lives in future. This can be resolved by stopping the conversion of agriculture land for non-agriculture purposes.
By Ahmad Riyaz
Over the past two weeks, Kashmir has been witnessing protests over the implementation of the National Food Security Act (NFSA). People have taken to streets in all parts of the Valley. Protests swept through Baramulla, Tanghdar, downtown Srinagar areas of Bohri Kadal, Khanyar, Nowpora, Barbar Shah, Khawaja Bazar and adjacent localities. Aggrieved people hit the streets, shouted slogans against the act and blocked the traffic.
This massive outpouring of anger has taken everybody by surprise. Though Valley is a frequent witness to anti-India and pro-Azadi demonstrations, there are fewer protests against the administrative lapses or the unpopular government decision. But the reaction to NFSA has been disproportionate, a development that has directed the attention of people towards the causes underlying the unrest.
Kashmir is one of the fewer places in India which has resisted the implementation of NFSA. As per the act, each person of a family with a ration card is entitled to 5 kg subsidized rice against the earlier 35 kgs per family. This has made people apprehensive that the act will substantially reduce their monthly food entitlement from the Public Distribution System; some even threatening to cross the Line of Control to procure rice if NFSA was not revoked.
Why is it so? The reason is far deeper than the spontaneous nature of the protests would make us believe. It reveals the appalling state of our agriculture, more so the gradual shrinking of the land under paddy cultivation. According to an estimate, the paddy land since 1972 has shrunk by 20 lakh kanals. This has increased our dependence on the food imports. And if the cultivable land keeps depleting at this rate, we will soon be dependent on the food imports for the 80 percent of our food requirement.
One major cause of this depletion of agriculture land is the rapid urbanisation which has led to a horizontal expansion of the capital Srinagar and the major and small towns. The villages have also expanded and in the process gobbled up the adjacent agriculture land. The urban population which in 2001 was 24.81 percent shot up to 27.37 percent in 2011. First, it was Srinagar and its ever expanding geographical limits. Then the towns and their outskirts followed by the rural scape where too selling and constructing on the land is seen more profitable than growing crops.
The problems for Kashmir agriculture are manifold: rural to urban migration, consequent rising land rates, lesser yield per hectare and the overall limited and shrinking size of the rice paddies.
Contributing to this unhelpful scenario is that the average size of land-holdings has declined from 1.7 hectares in 1949-50 to around 0.5 hectares. Almost 90 percent of arable land, according to a survey, constitutes marginal and sub-marginal holdings. This has reduced the productivity from agriculture to a mere subsistence level, thus making it economically unviable for the farmers to pursue the activity.
The history of the division and the sub-division of the Valley’s agricultural land-holdings goes back to the enactment of Big Landed Estates Act 1949-50, a radical land redistribution measure which abolished as many as nine thousand Jagirs and Muafis. The 4.5 lakh acres of land so expropriated was redistributed to tenants and landless. Land ceiling was fixed at 22.75 acres. This was nothing short of a revolutionary disruption of a repressive feudal order. And significantly enough, it was preceded or followed by little or negligible social disturbance. This despite the fact that no compensation was paid to the landlords.
But while redistribution of the land demolished an entrenched feudal structure and empowered the tenants, the holdings have progressively become tiny and woefully inefficient.
This is for no reason that the paddy contribution to the state gross domestic product has come down from 1.59 percent in 2004-05 to 1.14 percent in 2009-10. The state now imports 50 percent of its requirement for rice, a staple food of Valley.
Kashmir agriculture is thus haplessly placed. The situation now is such that even as J&K’s food-grain production is reported at 4.53 lakh metric tonnes, the state imports about 40 percent of food grains and 20 percent of vegetables to meet its requirements.
Last year, according to a detailed state government report submitted to the federal government, there has been a monthly shortfall of 10817 MT in food grains, comprising rice, wheat and sugar, coming under the Public Distribution System in Kashmir valley. The report warned that the gap between demand and supply in Jammu and Kashmir is increasing at a faster rate than the increase in the production level.
In fact, revealing the grim state of affairs, the former minister for Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution, Choudhary Zulfikar Ali, said in an interview that Kashmir gets supply of ration under Public Distribution System for only around 20 lakh families while as per 2011 census total families are more than 24 lakhs. There is a huge deficiency of food in the state as a result, hence the protests.
Judiciary has been concerned about the vanishing farmland due to its use for non-agricultural purposes. In 2012, the J&K High Court passed directions against the misuse of agricultural land following a Public Interest Litigation by a non-government organization. The court directed all deputy commissioners to ensure the Jammu and Kashmir Agrarian Act and the Jammu and Kashmir Land Revenue Act are enforced to stop the conversion of agricultural land. But the law has continued to be violated, with government itself one of the culprits.
The solution is for the government to act and stop further conversion of agriculture land into non-agriculture purposes. And also take steps to boost agriculture. Until that happens, Kashmir’s growing dependence on food imports and PDS will only further grow. Result: the acts like NFSA will trigger a widespread social ferment.