It is the same story of a farmer and his land. The government acquired green fields at Greater Noida, in the suburbs of Delhi, for “public purpose” to develop the Yamuna Expressway for allotment to the highest bidder in the private sector. The payment was nowhere near the market price. In fact, it was one fourth of what the farmers got—Rs 800 per square metre against Rs 3,200. Developers are selling it at Rs 11,000 an acre.

The agitated farmers “detained” two officers to put pressure. This led to a clash between farmers and the police. Four people died, two from each side. UP Chief Minister Mayawati aggravated the situation by letting loose the police and driving out villagers from their homes.

The tragedy raises familiar policy question: how far the development can go to devour the fields which grow food grains and that too on a pittance of compensation? I thought that the government had changed its policy to allow a farmer to retain his land if he did not want to part with it. Apparently, this has not happened. Either the Centre or the states have their own agenda which supersedes the assurances.

New Delhi seems to have woken up finally. Rural Development Minister Vilasrao Deshmuk has said that the 1894 Acquisition Act is being amended. I must say it’s pretty soon. The public purpose will be redefined and the market price assured. While redrafting the bill, the government should also be providing allotting shares to the land owners in some sort of partnership in the industrial unit for which the land is acquired.

The Greater Noida matter should not, however, end with an inquiry into the killings. The malady is deeper, relating not only to the acquisition of land but to the depletion of income of farmers. Indeed, the performance in the agrarian sector is woeful. In other words, 70 per cent of India’s population living in the countryside is in miserable condition. New Delhi’s statements on rural development are many but the scene has changed very little. Even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s promise in last October to amend the act would not have moved further if the farmers had not taken to agitation.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, as many as 17,368 farmers killed themselves in 2009. This is an increase of 1,172 over the 2008 count. Further divided, it comes to roughly 50 people per day. I do not have to remind that the farmers were in the forefront of freedom movement. Today they commit suicide while toiling for their meager livelihood. They sacrificed their hearth and home to oust the British so that the free India would attend to their plight. New Delhi should realise that the countryside is simmering with agitation and he lava beneath can erupt at any time.

Poignant is the comment of a farmer who committed suicide. On March 24, 2008, Shrikant Kalam, a 50-year-old farmer possessing five acres of land in Akola, Maharashtra, hanged himself to death leaving the following poem:

My life is different/
My life will be like untimely rain/
The cotton in black soil is like a poem to me/
Its roots are sweet as sugarcane…

A study on the agrarian crisis, conducted by the Joshi-Adhikari Institute of Social Studies at New Delhi, says that farm income, even if the earnings from the livestock were added, is “insufficient to meet cultivation cost and consumption needs.” What they add from their labour in market is too small because of exploitation. I recall talking once to Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, a landlord. He said that you can hold a survey in the country and you will find every farmer being under debt.

As against an average seven per cent growth of India’s economy in the last decade agriculture registered only 1.6 per cent. In fact, the agriculture growth in the country has now stagnated for more than 15 years. In the 80s, it was 3.3 per cent, in the 90s it came down to two per cent and now it has slipped down further to 0.4 per cent. The steering committee on agriculture for the formulation of 11th Five Years Plan has admitted that after independence such a drop in the agriculture output has been “witnessed for the first time.” Spurts of growth in the production of food grain should not delude either the Planning Commission or the government.

The result of decline is that per capita availability of food grains in 2011 is to the level attained in the 50s. Calories intake has gone down from 2153 (1993-94) to 2047 (2004-05) in rural India and from 2071 (1993-94) to 2026 (2004-05) in Urban India. The threatening magnitude of food insecurity manifests itself in starvation deaths, stunting and wasting of our population.

The Indian economy is engulfed in a deep and intractable crisis. The government’s response to the situation has been to introduce populist measures like debt waivers, the proposed food security bill etc., and continue with the neo-liberal thrust of opening up our agriculture to world market forces and to the corporate sector. This has exacerbated the crisis and created an impression that the agrarian crisis is the result of the policies of globalization, and a reversal of these policies will correct the situation.

Of course, it is necessary to resist the neo-liberal policy frame and also to reverse it. However, the crisis has a much longer history. Its root is deep. Just reversing the policies of the past two decades cannot redress the injustice meted out to the majority of the agricultural population over the centuries. The roots of agrarian crisis have to be traced in the distorted capitalist development trajectory that we inherited from our colonial past. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a socialist by conviction, could have done something since he ruled the country for 17 years. But he got enamoured by industrialization.

I concede that the industry is necessary to lessen dependence on agriculture because of vagaries of weather. But there has to be a balance. Nehru realised this but late. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the top economist, has not even now. One can see the consequences within the seven years of his rule. That farmers are committing suicide because they earn far less than they borrow should make every Indian to hang his head in shame. Land reforms may be a revolutionary step for the type of economy Manmohan Singh is imposing on the country. But he can at least do something to overcome the stagnation in agrarian growth.