In yet another demonstration of commitment to its inclusive agriculture growth agenda, the Government of Odisha has announced the BALARAM Yojana to provide crop loans worth more than Rs 1,000 crore to the landless sharecroppers through joint liability groups (JLGs) in the next two years.
Lauded as one of the most inclusive income support/cash transfer schemes in the country, KALIA was announced in 2019 to help the small and marginal farmers, including landless sharecroppers. As a Covid-19 Kharif package, the State Government vide a Cooperation Department circular in April 2020, extended short term credits to tenants on oral leases, by asking PACS to reserve 10 per cent of their credit for JLGs. Following the NABARD guidelines, the State had earlier developed an operational guideline for JLG loan linkage in May 2018.
The State Agricultural policy, SAMRUDHI resolved this year, reflects Odisha’s inclusive intent upfront. It talks about making the growth process inclusive of small and marginal as well as landless farmers. Odisha is a State with high tenancy prevalence. The NSSO (2012-13) reported 36 per cent tenancy in coastal Odisha and sharecropping as dominant tenancy system (56 per cent). Odisha treats sharecropping as the synonym for tenancy.
In 2015, the State had tried to help sharecroppers with crop-compensation during cyclone Phailin relief and also input subsidy over crop loss during the drought. Odisha is in the forefront to help sharecroppers access also the benefit of minimum support price (MSP).
Since 2013, the State has provisioned Farmer Identity Card (FIC) for sharecroppers with the consent of the land owners to enable them to sell paddy at the MSP.
There are fairly robust statistics around number of farmers, small and marginal farmers and landless with periodic data from Census and Agriculture Census of India. However, figures around sharecroppers remain indirect in absence of any authoritative statistics, largely due to the concealed tenancy in the State and underreporting from the tenants/farmers in surveys like NSSO.
Tenants’ (sharecroppers) tenurial rights are not recognized as leasing in all forms is banned as per Orissa Land Reform Act, 1960. There is also no formal procedure to identify and record the lists of tenants in any revenue law of the State.
Agriculture Census, 2015-16 enumerates 48.6 lakh farmers in the State. Number of cultivators, who are usually taken as proxy for landowners, were 41 lakhs, as per the Census 2011.Number of agriculture labourers, considered as landless, were 67 lakhs. Taking Socio-Economic Caste Census into account, the rural landless households who were derived of major part of their income from manual casual labour were 34.9 lakh, while rural household owning no land was 47.1 lakh in 2011. Assuming that, the rural landless households were engaged in farming, through sharecropping, there number in 2011, would range from12.2 lakh (taking SECC only) to 32 lakh (taking Census and SECC). Assuming the same growth rate, there would 16.4 to 43 lakh landless sharecroppers and 50.3 lakh farmers in 2020-21.
Agriculture Census, 2015-16 figures for total tenants, assuming all as sharecroppers comes to 9 lakhs, when partly owned, partly leased-in and partly otherwise operated holdings taken together. India Human Development Survey, 2004-05 estimated 27 per cent of farmers to be leasing land in Odisha. At these rates of Agriculture Census and IHDS, there would be 9.3 lakh to 13.6 lakh total sharecroppers in 2020-21. However, this could be under-estimates, due to obvious under-reporting because of the concealed tenancy. As per NSSO, 2012-13, 29.7 per cent of all tenants in the State were landless tenants and 22.9 per cent of farmers were tenants. Based on this ratio, in 2020-21, Odisha should have 11.6 lakh tenants and 3.4 lakh landless tenants, assuming total 50.3 lakhs farmers.
In contrast to this, the Agriculture Survey of Odisha in 2010-11, put just 2.19 lakh as number of pure sharecroppers and 3.29 lakh semi-sharecroppers, with a 25 per cent reduction in total sharecropper numbers in comparison to this survey, a decade back.
An extrapolation of this leads to a figure of only 1.64 lakh of landless sharecroppers in 2020-21. Balaram Yojana aims to cover 7 lakh landless sharecroppers, though the basis of this number is not clear. To be successful and inclusive, a robust database, developed through a transparent and participatory system of identification of landless sharecroppers with peer validation will be critical.
Odisha continues to ban tenancy and there is no substantive/statutory legislation around recognition of long-term, unchallenged possession. Haunting memories of old tenancy laws and experience of land reform implementation, make most landlords continue to resist any documentation. Inclusive and transparent identification of landless sharecroppers is incumbent upon addressing these legal legacies through formalising or legalising agricultural land leasing.
How secure is JLG for sharecroppers?
Balaram Yojana, apparently drawing from similar collective farming experiences on leased land in States like Kerala, aims to support credit linkage to 140,000 Joint Liability Groups, each with about five landless farmers, by connecting them to about 7, 000 banking institutions in rural Odisha including RRBs and PACS. It was advised that the registration of share-croppers through a system of Joint Liability Groups should be assisted by banks under agricultural loans without insisting on consent letters from the landlords.
The JLG intervention was pioneered and draws from experience of Kudumbashree in Kerala. Similar initiatives around collectivizing women through SHG to lease in private and Government land has also been tried in other States. These initiatives increased access to farmlands, improved productivity and crop diversification. However, the women groups also faced difficulty in accessing productive land for multiple seasons due to unwillingness of landlords apprehending legal backlash. Lack of formal leases also increased the risks viz. rent increases or non-renewal of leases. It increased bad debt with comparatively poor production from less-productive land, made available. While, formal credit was made available to JLG, informal lease prevented access to farm sector entitlements, including input subsidies and individual farm loans in absence of documentary evidence of tenants as farmers.
These learnings indicate the continued exclusion, insecurity, comparative disadvantage and harassment that sharecroppers may face as they farm, even when Balaram extends JLG access to loan.
Hard learning from these experiences underline the need of fast-tracking enactment of land leasing by the State. Critical buy-in from the sharecroppers and the landlords must be ensured by removing the existing legal provisions around tenancy protection. Till then, JLGs under Balaram, must be supported with interim tenancy documentation with involvement of Panchayats, by suitable Government orders.
Involvement of Panchayats have worked well in AP and Kerala around identification of fallow land for tenancy, facilitation of lease-negotiation and improving security of lease through Panchayat endorsement, followed by land development through MGNREGS.
With lakhs of landless migrant labourers and past and potential sharecroppers now converged in rural Odisha with Covid 19 mass-migrations, timely Government instructions can improve JLG’s access over farmland, while Balaram extends the credit.
(Choudhury is founder and coordinator, NRMC-Centre for Land Governance and Padhee is country director- India of ICRISAT. Views are authors' own)