While Odisha’s continuing lacklustre performance in agriculture has been due to many reasons, growing disinclination of a large number of landowners to cultivate their own lands is a major contributing factor. In some cases, the holding is too big for the owner to take care, in many cases, the owner is away from the land with another vocation on hand. These landholders have two choices - keep the land fallow or let the needy step in on a mutually acceptable arrangement. With limited job opportunities in Odisha, the number of agriculture labourers is growing exponentially and is around 67 lakhs as against 47 lakh owner-farmers. The situation is poised against the weaker partner; these persons who till others’ lands with the consent of the owners settle for terms that are even inadequate for subsistence. The prevailing law is against such arrangement but deviation is rampant.
These sharecroppers — Bhagachashis — operate under heavy odds and are unable to take a long-term view about farming in the land they till. They have no access to institutional credit, both short and long-term, to meet the needs of farming. They are bereft of security of the land they till; they cannot even participate in the MSP operation and get support price for their produce. The landowners are reluctant to be magnanimous and don’t disclose lease arrangement to concerned authorities. Consequently, the number of sharecroppers in government surveys doesn’t capture the real situation and Odisha’s ubiquitous Bhagachashi appears as a dwindling species. In fact, an official report points out that the number of sharecroppers has come down from 7.85 lakhs in 200-01 to only 5.48 lakh in 2010-11. By and large, the landless labourers and marginal farmers have accepted the sharecropping arrangement in large number and their number could be at least three times the number shown in official records. Since these close to two million sharecroppers of the state are unable to induct capital to farming, the yield remains low. Today Odisha’s Bhagachashi, officially believed to be a dwindling tribe, is in the midst of existential dread and suffers a crisis of identity.
There is no level playing field for the sharecroppers so far as a marketing opportunity is concerned. MSP operation for paddy provides good insurance against distress sale; but since the sharecropper won’t be able to provide necessary documents to prove that he grew the paddy legitimately, his produce won’t qualify for sale under MSP. Of course, the position is improving slowly and some sharecroppers are able to procure desired documents and offering their paddy at support price. Their number, however, remains modest while the vast majority of Bhagachashis sell the produce at the dictates of wily merchants.
Institutional finance has been eluding the Bhagachashis primarily because they lack worthwhile assets. The state government launched a well-drafted Bhoomihina (landless) Agriculturist Loan and Resources Augmentation Model called BALARAM Yojana. Officials outlined Government’s plan to extend crop loan to 7 lakh landless sharecroppers through around 1.40 lakh Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) in two years. Since there are about 7000 Bank retail outlets in the state including Primary Credit Cooperative Societies, Bureaucrats hoped each outlet could finance 10 farm loans and meet the target. The report of the State Level Bankers Committee however indicated that out of the total target of formation of 65000 JLGs, only 8,650 JLGs had been formed, 3517 applications forwarded to Banks for sanction and only 249 cases have been sanctioned as on 09.02.2021. It is clear that so far, the government have not been able to address this vital issue of availability of credit to the sharecroppers. They continue to be at the mercy of moneylenders.
Since sharecroppers have been rendering a socially useful service they deserve security of status, satisfactory access to adequate credit; they deserve protection against natural calamity, they need an enforceable agreement with the owner of the land and should also have the right to first refusal in case the owner wants to sell the land. There have been reports of the government mulling a legislation on sharecroppers. The ideal legislation would be one that ensures mutual trust between the sharecropper and the landlord and enables the sharecropper to be a meaningful partner in ensuring higher production and productivity. A tenuous bond between the two through a legislation would only lead to an exploitative atmosphere.
Both Sharecroppers as well as the Landholders are at present at the crossroads. If Odisha opts for status quo, little improvement to the living and working conditions of about two million sharecroppers would accrue and the present low productivity syndrome would only continue. On the other hand, a healthy partnership arrangement through a progressive and comprehensive legislation would lead to a win-win situation and even engender entrepreneurial drive on partnership mode among the landholders.
Odisha’s Bhagachashis have been children of a lesser God. They are in waiting mode for long. Society owes them a better tomorrow. Economy too stands to gain through higher production and increased productivity through a handholding arrangement between the Landholder and the Sharecropper. A new legal arrangement is the need of the hour. That will ensure meaningful Land Reforms in Odisha.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. The author can be reached at email@example.com)
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