In December last year, several legislators and Ministers of Karnataka had difficulty attending the Assembly session organised at the special Legislative Assembly venue in Belgaum in the northern region. Sugarcane farmers, led by organisations such as the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, blocked the Bangalore-Pune highway protesting against the dismal minimum support price (MSP) being offered to them. They demanded Rs.2,500 for a tonne of sugarcane for 2013-14 and MSP for other crops grown in the State.
Sugarcane is one of the important cash crops grown in Karnataka. The State produces approximately three crore tonnes of sugarcane every year. There are around 60 sugar factories, most of them situated in the northern districts of Belgaum, Bagalkot, Bijapur and Bidar. Mandya and Mysore in the south are the other important sugarcane-growing districts. With 123 of the 220 taluks facing drought conditions the past three years, the agitating farmers demanded that crop loans be waived.
The crisis faced by sugarcane farmers is a pointer to the agricultural situation in Karnataka. Insufficient supply of water and the fluctuating demand for sugarcane affect the production of the crop, giving rise to the demand for a stable MSP. Government support is forthcoming at times but influential sugar factories do not honour the MSP fixed by the government under the provisions of the Karnataka Sugarcane (Purchase and Supply Control) Act, 2013. The South Indian Sugar Mills Association (SISMA) filed a writ petition challenging the Act, which empowers the government to fix the price of sugarcane, but the Karnataka High Court struck down the petition. Several sugar factories in Karnataka are owned by politicians belonging to the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Farmers have demanded an increase in the MSP of tur dal (pigeon pea) and jowar, both important crops in the State, stating that the current prices of Rs.5,000 and Rs.1,800 a quintal respectively was inadequate in view of the increasing cost of cultivation and transportation.
Another major problem facing agriculturists in Karnataka relates to non-regularisation of bagair hukum lands, tiny pieces of land that small farmers who do not own them have been tilling for generations. Land reforms across the country aimed at efficient redistribution of land with the intention of giving land to the tiller. However, the implementation of certain provisions of the Karnataka Land Revenue Act has led to the eviction of small and marginal farmers who cultivated bagair hukum revenue lands as the Act mandates certain fallow land to be reserved for grazing.
The Karnataka Pranta Raitha Sangha (KPRS), a Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led farmers organisation, has urged the State government to grant ownership rights of bagair hukum land to farmers who cultivate by them.
Estimates provided by the KPRS show that there are more than 12 lakh bagair hukum cultivators in the State. In October last year, the CPI(M) organised a massive rally of bagair hukum farmers in Bangalore. Revenue Minister Srinivasa Prasada assured the agitating farmers that their demands would be addressed through an amendment to the Karnataka Land Revenue Act. However, bagair hukum cultivators continue to face the threat of eviction by revenue and forest officials.
Vijoo Krishnan, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, stated in a recent issue of People’s Democracy : “There are more than 16 lakh such cultivators in the State who have applied for getting the rights over their land. The government, however, summarily rejected 12 lakh applications, and also the future of the rest is hanging in doubt. These cultivators have been termed as ‘encroachers’, equated with land grabbers, and the government has filed an affidavit to that effect in the High Court. The same government, however, has a number of high-profile land grabbers with strong links with the land mafia in the Cabinet deciding on the lives of lakhs of poor people who are dependent on their small landholding for their livelihood. The peasant movement in the State has been forthright in saying that the bagair hukum cultivators cannot be equated with the land grabbers and has been seeking that their rights over the land be recognised. Consistent organised struggles have also been launched across the State.” It remains to be seen whether these small farmers will get the right to cultivate the small plots of land (less than 10 acres) that they have been tilling.
Other problems facing the sector in Karnataka include the decrease in availability of labour, with increasing migration of farmworkers to Bangalore and to neighbouring States in search of work as unskilled labour. While the ageing farming population is resistant to change and reluctant to incorporate newer trends in agricultural practices, inadequate government support is making younger farmers leave their traditional occupation.
Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed