Haiti, Yemen, Uganda, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Congo, Ghana, Botswana, Vanuatu, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka. What's common among these countries, besides the fact that we average-educated, urban, condescending Indians see them as homes to millions of unfortunate poor who surely deserve better? The damaging answer is: in various global indices that attempt to quantify the all-round well-being of people, India is either clubbed with them or we rank several notches below most of them. The UNDP's Human Development Report, the Global Hunger Index and the Global Food Security Index are damning testaments to the state of the people in India. Food and nutrition security is poor, hunger alarmingly high, over-all human development missing.
What is to be done? Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a majority of Indians believed, has the answer. Sadly, the first noises emanating out of the Modi cabinet indicate that thinking out of the box isn't his strong point.
The Modi government's rush to dilute the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR), 2013, indicates that he is unwilling, or perhaps unable, to frame India's development debate beyond the obvious: on the one hand is what the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has termed as 'potentially devastating' 'industrial modes of agricultural production', aka the Green Revolution, and on the other, overdrive for big industries. In this choice between the devil and the deep sea, Modi prefers to be perceived as "pro industry". Hence, the dangerous tinkering with the LARR. The one Act that India's political class, from the mainstream Left to the centrist Congress to the right-of-centre BJP, was forced to redraft in the recent past by active, and often violent, mass movements was the Land Acquisition Act. Weakening it will plunge India into violent social tensions, driving investments away. Modi can either learn from West Bengal's recent eco-political history or, even better, have a heart-to-heart talk with the agitating farmers of the 22 villages within his own pet Dholera Special Investment Region in Gujarat.
But how about shunning both: the high fertilizer, high tech, high irrigation, high pesticide Green Revolution as well as the zeal to steam-roll everything for big industry? Instead, how about investing more money and brains to support 'family and small-scale farming', the rib-cage of Indian agriculture? Experts across the globe now believe that this mode of farming can offer the world food and nutrition security, safeguard agro-biodiversity and boost local economies. The data are stunning: 98 per cent of all farms are family farms, accounting for 56 per cent of the total agricultural production and 70 per cent of the world's food. In Asia, small farmers constitute 90 per cent of the agricultural labour, producing 80 per cent of the regional food. This is why the UN has declared 2014 to be the Year of Family Farming. In India out of around 129.222 million farm holdings, 121.751 millions are owned by family farmers, with farms of less than one to four hectares, accounting for 95 per cent of India's operational holdings. It is, therefore, easy to imagine that a vast number of Indians might directly benefit from a proper policy support to small scale family farming, not to mention its multiplier effect on the rural society. There are huge challenges, however. To script this success story, the government must ensure for the marginal and small farmers access to and control of land, water and other natural resources, to nearby markets, credit, investment and agricultural extension. But the biggest challenge is that of political will, because vested economic interests are at play: interests that are rejoicing at the possibility of diluting the LARR, ensuring the devastation of India's traditional small family farms. Who will take them on?
The author is South Asia Representative, Civil Society Mechanism, Committee on Food Security, UN-FAO