Haroon Reshi

Kashmir’s agricultural land is vanishing!

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Lack of economic promise; unplanned urbanization; non-cooperative banking system and laxity towards relevant laws are the reasons for conversion of farmlands to non-farming activities

While farmers all over the country are up against new farm bills, Kashmir is rapidly losing its agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes that too despite anti-conversion land laws being in place here. The situation in this regard can be gauged from an official assessment, which came to light in 2019, stating that the Valley did lose about twenty percent of its agricultural land in just four years – from 2015 to 2019. According to this official revelation, Kashmir had a total of 4, 67,700 hectares of agricultural land in 2015, which shrunk to 3, 89,000 hectares in 2019. A fresh agricultural census to assess the present scenario about the damage is underway these days and the results are expected to show a further decline of agricultural land due to the obvious reasons.

Ironically, all this devastation is happening even though the agriculture sector, which includes the cultivation of wheat, paddy maize, oilseeds, pulses, vegetables, fodder, saffron, etc., is considered the backbone of Kashmir’s economy. An assessment by the agriculture department suggests that Kashmir will face a food deficit of nearly 40 percent in 2020-21 due to exponential loss of agricultural land and this figure will increase gradually in the coming years.

Many experts told Kashmir Images that the unnatural process of conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes will not only have long-term economic implications but it will also cause an imbalance in our agricultural ecosystem, which will eventually trigger a disaster. They stress on strict implementation of relevant laws to safeguard the rest of the agricultural land across the Valley.

Here are the excerpts:

Professor Nisar Ali
Former Head, Department of Economics at Kashmir University Former Member, State (erstwhile) Finance Commission, J&K Government

In Jammu and Kashmir, the land was given free to the people in 1948-49 is part of land reforms. This initiative was aimed at radical empowerment of the poor masses. The average size of holding was 2.8 hectares in 1950-51. But according to the 2011 agricultural census, it has reduced to 0.5. The figures tell us the whole story. Presently, almost 90 percent of the land in the Valley has an average size of 2 to 3 kanals meaning most of our agricultural land is not economically viable anymore. That is why the landholders are selling it as it can neither generate revenue nor employment.

In fact, the overall land in Kashmir is very limited. We have to manage urbanization, industrialization, and agriculture with this limited land. The structural changes that have taken place during last seventy years have adversely affected the agricultural land by way of conversion and decline in the average size of holdings.

After the land reforms, people started converting their agricultural land to orchards. Even in recent years, 2 lac, 83 thousand hectares of land area have expanded under the horticulture. Urbanization, road network, and all other things have adversely affected the agricultural land so much that the average size of agricultural land in the valley has come down to the maximum reducible size.

We are already facing the negative effects of the loss of our agricultural land. Our food-grain production has drastically declined and imports of food-grains have increased alarmingly over the years. We used to import only 4.5 lac ton food-grains per year, but now we import 12 lac ton food-grains annually. This situation is affecting our entire economy. The money that is generated here goes out to places such as Punjab and Haryana. Our money is flowing to these states, growing their production and employment and reducing ours.

In the 1960s agriculture used to provide us employment to the extent of about 70 percent. Our primary income was from the agriculture and allied sectors. Our agriculture contributed to the State Domestic Product (SDP) up to 56 percent till the 1970s. However, now it is come down to 19 to 20 percent as our primary income now comes from the services.

If we continue to lose our agriculture, we will become totally dependent on other states. This is dangerous. In times of uncertainty, we could face a severe food-grains crisis. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the government and the people to preserve the rest of the agricultural land.

Prof. Mushtaq Ahmad
Vice-Chancellor, SKUAST-Kashmir

We have already limited land for agricultural purposes. Only seven percent of the total geographical area of Kashmir is under agricultural cultivation and we are losing it with each passing day to unplanned urbanization and commercialization.

We have some authentic figures, which suggest that Kashmir is losing its agricultural land rapidly. For example, we had 4.67 hectares of agricultural land in the year 2015, which shrunk to 3.89 hectares by 2019. This means that we have lost twenty percent of our agricultural land in just five years of time. These figures are alarming. If we continue to lose our land at this pace, we will be soon in a huge crisis. As a nation, we must think about this. We are supposed to safeguard our agricultural land to pass it on to our future generations. I think a comprehensive public awareness campaign should be launched to make people understand the gravity of this issue.

No doubt, everything is driven by the economy these days but we need to think about our future as well. Unfortunately, in the race of economy, agriculture cultivation does not compete. But we have to find solutions to the problems. We have to change our concepts and our lifestyles. European countries too did face the same situation and they adopted better options. For example, in Europe, residential colonies and industries are established only on barren land. They never use agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. In developing countries, people live in flats in the huge vertically erected multi-storied buildings. While as we have adopted a culture of building a multi-storied house on a few Kanals of land, just for a family of four or five people.  We have lost most of our land to this mindless housing culture.

To preserve the rest of our land, we need better planning and proper enforcement of laws. We must change our way of thinking and lifestyle to safeguard our land resources before it is too late.

Abdul Hameed Thakur
A farmer (North Kashmir)

I have been involved in agriculture, horticulture, and floriculture for the past four decades. I was bestowed with an award for my contribution in the agriculture sector by the government in 2013. I have also received numerous certificates from various relevant agencies and organizations confirming my contribution to the agriculture and allied sectors.

It pains me to see agricultural land being used for non-agricultural purposes across the Kashmir Valley. However, I do not blame landholders for this change because I know the sad state of our agricultural farming and other cultivation sectors. Farming is no longer economically viable n Kashmir. Those who are converting their farmland to other uses have real reasons to do so.

Farming does not fetch us sufficiently if we consider the investment and manual labor involved. Take an example: I started farming in the 1980s. At that time, the price of wheat was 800 to 1000 rupees per quintal and now, more than thirty years later, the same quantity of wheat fetches us a maximum of 1300 rupees. On the other hand, farming expenses have gone up, many times over the years. In the 80s, if we would till our fields with a tractor, it cost us Rs. 60 per hour. The cost of diesel then was Rs. 2 per liter. Now, it costs us Rs. 1800 for an hour-long as the price of diesel is now about Rs. 90 per liter. Agricultural marketing is also in a bad shape. Farmers depend on middlemen to sell their crops.

Secondly, with the advancement of agricultural technology, farming nowadays requires capital. When a farmer goes to a bank to apply for a loan, he is turned away or at least asked for guarantees by someone who in government service. However, the same bank provides unhindered capital for the construction of a shopping complex on the same field. Earlier, farmers did not pay attention to the alternatives, but now our new generation does not want to waste its time and energy for minimal earnings. They are well educated and they rightly want to have a reliable livelihood.

There are some other reasons for land conversion as well. There used to be a joint family culture, but now the same families have grown too large and have split into many. Some landowners have built houses for their extended families, on the farmland.

In order to protect the rest of the agricultural land in Kashmir, the government needs to come up with new policies and schemes that will benefit the farmers; otherwise, we will lose all the farmland in the coming years. Just implementing anti-conversion land laws is not enough. We must look at the situation from a farmer’s perspective.

Syed Altaf Andrabi
Former Director
Department of Agriculture, Kashmir

Mindless land conversion is occurring in Kashmir for a long time now and its ultimate repercussions are going to be catastrophic. We must stop the land conversion trend at any cost; otherwise, we will be short of land resources forever. We can safeguard our land resources now or never. We have already lost almost 30 thousand hectares of land over the years. Anti-conversion land laws need to be imposed and a heavy penalty should be imposed on those who violate these laws. Revenue officials need to be disempowered from the powers of declaring any piece of land as barren land. Because people leave their land without cultivation for two-three years and then get it declared as barren land through these revenue officials, paving the way for construction on the same land. This practice must be stopped.

People should also be restrained from converting agricultural land for horticultural cultivation. Paddy land can never be suitable for horticulture because it develops root rot in a decade and as a result the land losses the potential of both the agricultural and horticultural potential.

We call Kashmir Jannat-e-Benazir. But if we continue to be losing our agricultural land, the place will not remain Jannat-e-Benazir anymore. The mindless land conversion must be stopped. This must be the bottom line for us.

Prof. Raihana Habib Kanth
Chief Scientist Agronomy
SKUAST Kashmir

Farmers have converted a vast area of paddy land into orchards, to attain comparatively better economic benefits. While traveling by train, toward North or South Kashmir, one can see a large chunk of fields, which until a few years ago, were under agricultural cultivation have turned into apple orchards now.

No doubt horticulture production fetches better than the paddy crops, these days, but a haphazard conversion of the land is not advisable. Many farmers change the nature of cultivation just because of the alluring subsidies by the government. However, the blind conversion is not always fruitful. In case, the soil type does not support the apple plantation, a conversion could prove unfruitful for the farmers.

Secondly, the blind conversion of agricultural land into horticulture has some serious implications on the surroundings, as well. Horticulture requires constant chemical use for a better harvest and to prevent fruits from diseases. However, paddy fields do not need chemical substances. Toxic fertilizers and pesticides sprayed in orchards not only threaten our ecology but also impact human health. Therefore, we cannot afford to change the nature of cultivation everywhere. Converting paddy land for non-agricultural purposes will also impact food security in the future and the unplanned and horizontal expansion of the orchards will result in a health hazard.

Farmers must understand that they cannot get rid of the problems by just converting the cultivation nature of the land. The horticulture sector too has its own set of problems. We observe that every year fruit growers face different kinds of problems. Sometimes they are battling with the scab and sometimes they suffer because of the hail or untimely snowfall. They are facing marketing problems as well. So the conversion is not the solution to all the problems.

I think the government also needs to take initiative so that agricultural farming can be made more beneficial. The blind conversion should not be allowed. Particularly, the Abi-Awal (irrigated land) should never be allowed to convert into an orchard because such land has the potential for a better paddy harvest. At many places, farmers can be advised to cultivate Mushk Budij, Kashmir’s traditional rice varieties. This variety of rice is highly remunerative. Farmers need to be guided for using high yielding variety seeds for large production of crops. We have several seed varieties for different kinds of soils —water locked fields, high-altitude places, low lying, and high ending, etc.— and different ecosystems, available. With little effort and scientific know-how, farmers can make their harvest more profitable.

Syed Riyaz Khawar
Senior Advocate of J&K High Court and human rights activist

While talking about the issue of agricultural land in Kashmir, one must keep in mind the fact that the common people did not own any land in Kashmir during the Dogra rule. Maharaja Ranjit Singh had bought the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir and therefore all the land belonged to him. However, the Maharaja had conferred large chunks of land to the Jagirdars (feudal lords) who gave it to the local farmers to cultivate against a small return. These tillers had to deliver the entire crop to these jagirdars after harvest.

The situation changed with the historic Big Landed Estates Abolition Act of 1950, which transferred the land to actual tillers. Under this Act, a landlord could retain only 182 kanals of land and the rest of their land was redistributed among the poor tillers. Then, the J&K Agrarian Reform Act of 1976 provided for the transfer of land in ownership rights to tillers.

However, both the Acts prohibited landowners from converting the land for non-agricultural purposes. The main purpose of these legislations was to make the state self-sufficient in food grains, mustard seeds, shali, wheat, pulses, and vegetables, etc.

We have several laws prohibiting the conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural purposes. For example, Section 133A of the Jammu and Kashmir Land Revenue Act states that no agricultural land shall be used for non-agricultural purposes, whether for constructing a residential house, a commercial building, or an orchard. We also have the J&K Prohibition on Conversion of Land and Alienation of Orchards Act, 2010 and the J&K Prohibition on Conversion of Agricultural Land for Non-Agricultural Purposes Act, 2010.

Under these laws, an executive magistrate can initiate action against someone caught converting agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. A magistrate can order to dismantle the building erected on agricultural land and punish the violator concerned. Even the government buildings constructed on agricultural land can be demolished under the existing laws. However, there are some exceptions as well. Suppose a section has been carved out of the Revenue Act under which the authorities can grant permission to convert a piece of agricultural land if it becomes barren land over the time. However, those are rare exceptions.

All these laws protecting our agricultural land exist here with all of their vigor, even after the implementation of the J&K Reorganization Act 2019, under which as many as 157 J&K laws have been repealed so far and 110 new central laws have been made applicable.

However, the reality is that anti-conversion land laws have never really been implemented here. Our farmlands have turned into concrete jungles over the years due to greed and avarice. Corruption is one of the main reasons for this disaster. Our politicians, bureaucrats, and land mafia have played a major role in the transformation of our farmlands.

There are still chances to save the rest of our land if the laws are used. Even large portions of the land can be freed from the illegal occupants. The high court, on a pending PIL, has already given directions to the authorities to recover the Kahcharai and the agrarian land from the land-grabbers.

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