The central government on Monday introduced an amended version of its controversial Land Bill in the Lok Sabha, amidst fierce protests by members of the opposition. Before voting on its induction, agitated members of the Congress, Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Left, staged a walk-out. Members of the ruling dispensation, led by Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu, continued their weak defence of the bill, calling it “pro-farmer”. With only a 15 percent share in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, the Indian agriculture sector employs 60 percent of its population. Arguing for the Centre’s Land Bill, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said that the government has to bring people out of agriculture and create jobs in the manufacturing sector.
This is probably the most succinct argument the Centre has presented for the bill. In order to achieve this transition to manufacturing, however, people from the rural agricultural sector need to acquire the requisite skills. If not, the only possible avenue for poor farm labourers is manual labour in the construction sector. With the Centre’s decision to establish skill development as the cornerstone of its socio-economic policy, the present bill may seem like a step in the right direction. The truth, though, is a lot bleaker.
Basic education and healthcare standards in the rural sector are at an all time low. Public healthcare expenditure only amounts to 1.19 percent of India’s Gross Domestic Product, when compared to China (3 percent) and Brazil (4.9 percent). It is well below the 5 percent figure recommended by the World Health Organization. Although the prime minister has inaugurated a host of insurance schemes for the rural poor, it cannot make up for the terrible lack of public health infrastructure that currently exists in India. There is no better form of insurance for the rural poor than a functioning public health care system. Education spending, meanwhile, has been lower than the world average. Only 3.3 percent of its GDP has been spent on education, compared to the global average of 4.9 percent.
The Centre, unfortunately, has not taken any productive steps in addressing the malaise. Instead in the last Budget, the Centre cut down education spending by 16 percent. Skill development for the average villager, therefore, seems like a fact for a rather distant future. In the meantime, however, there are two ways by which the government can mitigate farmer woes without stalling important manufacturing projects. First and foremost, there needs to be a nation-wide initiative to digitise and update all land records so that the farmer can receive adequate and timely compensation.
The second step, especially for those who choose to remain in the agriculture sector, is to allow farmers greater access to the market for its produce, instead of resorting to the way of minimum support prices (MSP), which does not take into account rising input prices. Fix the basic nuts and bolts and the Centre will not have to peddle half-baked ideas to push its land acquisition bill. Of course, such measures are easier said than done. Although once these systems are fixed, the common man will witness their long-term benefits. The Centre’s intentions, despite what opposition parties may suggest, are in the right place. However, the manner in which it has gone about it is all wrong.