Read The Hindu Notes of 23rd February 2019 for UPSC Civil Service Examination, State Civil Service Examination and other competitive Examination

The Hindu Notes for 23rd February 2019
  • Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 23rd February 2019
  • Without land or recourse

    The Supreme Court order on the eviction of forest dwellers raises very disturbing questions

  • The order of the Supreme Court issued on February 13 with respect to the claims of forest-dwelling peoples in India — the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers — is a case of the Supreme Court speaking against itself. In effect, the court has ordered the eviction of lakhs of people whose claims as forest dwellers have been rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA. That this order negates the claims of citizens under special protection of the Constitution, viz. the Scheduled Tribes and other vulnerable communities already pushed by gross governmental neglect precariously to the edge, is another matter altogether. The question before us today centres on the responsibility of the Supreme Court in upholding constitutional claims and equal citizenship.
  • The background

  • The order in question was issued in the case of Wildlife First & Ors v. Ministry of Forest and Environment & Ors. The question before the court as stated in the order of 2016 when the matter was last heard related to “the constitutional validity of the [FRA] and also the questions pertaining to the preservation of forests in the context of the above-mentioned Act.” The details regarding claims made under the FRA that were placed before the court by the petitioner in 2016 showed that of the 44 lakh claims filed before appropriate authorities in the different States, 20.5 lakh claims (46.5%) were rejected. The order of 2016 went on to observe: “Obviously, a claim in the context of the above-mentioned Act is based on an assertion that a claimant has been in possession of a certain parcel of land located in the forest areas.” True. A claim is made either for individual or community rights by the people/communities covered by the FRA. This is a plain reading of the Act, which is unambiguous on this score.
  • From here, however, that order did a jurisprudential somersault to observe, “If the claim is found to be not tenable by the competent authority, the result would be that the claimant is not entitled for the grant of any Patta or any other right under the Act but such a claimant is also either required to be evicted from that parcel of land or some other action is to be taken in accordance with law” (emphasis added). This was the material part of the order. In other words, the claimant cannot contest the decision of the authority, said the court. With respect to action to be taken against those “unauthorisedly in possession of forest land”, the States were then asked by the Supreme Court to report on concrete measures taken to evict the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers from the forest. In the very next paragraph, which pertained to the State of Tamil Nadu, the order referred to action against those people whose claims had been rejected as “eviction of encroachers”.
  • What now?

  • In the present order of February 2019, the Supreme Court specifically directs governments in 21 States by name to carry out evictions of rejected claimants without further delay and report on or before July 12. There are several questions that must be foregrounded for immediate attention.
  • The most obvious one has to do with the meanings attached to the rejection of claims. According to the 2014 report of the High-Level Committee on Socio-Economic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities in India, constituted by the Government of India (Xaxa Committee), 60% of the forest area in the country is in tribal areas — protected by Article 19(5) and Schedules V and VI of the Constitution. With specific reference to claims under the FRA, reiterating the finding of several other studies that have documented the deep procedural flaws in processing claims, the Xaxa Committee observed that “claims are being rejected without assigning reasons, or based on wrong interpretation of the ‘OTFD’ definition and the ‘dependence’ clause, or simply for lack of evidence or ‘absence of GPS survey’ (lacunae which only require the claim to be referred back to the lower-level body), or because the land is wrongly considered as ‘not forest land’, or because only forest offence receipts are considered as adequate evidence. The rejections are not being communicated to the claimants, and their right to appeal is not being explained to them nor its exercise facilitated.” The mere rejection of claims by the state therefore does not add up to a finding of the crime of “encroachment” — the sheer volume of rejections should instead set alarm bells ringing in the court of procedural improprieties.
  • Interestingly, in this case it appears as if a private party — Wildlife First — is pitted against the state. A closer examination reveals that it is, in fact, Wildlife First and the state together which have joined forces against the most vulnerable communities in the country living in areas constitutionally protected from encroachment even by the state — can we forget the stellar Samata judgment of the Supreme Court in 1997?
  • Why must we worry about this order of the Supreme Court in 2019? As has been widely reported, the immediate result will be the forced eviction of over one million people belonging to the Scheduled Tribes and other forest communities. Importantly, the area marked for eviction falls under areas designated under Schedule V and Schedule VI of the Constitution — there is no reference to the implications for governance in the Scheduled Areas and whether the Supreme Court, in fact, has the authority to order evictions of Scheduled Tribes from Scheduled Areas. In a democratic country with citizens (not subjects) and a written Constitution which is affirmed by the people who are sovereign, how can we countenance the dismantling of an entire constitutional apparatus that prescribes the non-derogable boundaries to Adivasi homelands and institutional mechanisms that promote autonomy and restrain interference in self-governance?
  • Against the safeguards

  • At an even more fundamental level, we are speaking of special protections under the Constitution — even more today than ever before. The presence of Article 19(5) in the Fundamental Rights chapter of the Constitution, which specifically enjoins the state to make laws “for the protection of the interests of any Scheduled Tribe”, is vital. How has the Supreme Court ordered the eviction in complete disregard of this core and express fundamental right protection to Adivasis (as distinct from legal/statutory protection), which protects them from a range of state and non-state intrusions in Scheduled Areas as well as from the perennial threat of eviction from their homelands? Is it not the supreme obligation of the Supreme Court to protect the Scheduled Tribes and other vulnerable communities from the grave harms of violent dispossession?
  • Finally, in the recent judgments of the apex court on the right to privacy and Section 377, the court has sung paeans to autonomy, liberty, dignity, fraternity and constitutional morality — the pillars of transformative constitutionalism. It is the same court in the same era that has now ordered the dispossession of entire communities protected under the Constitution. We, as citizens, have every reason to worry.
  • How the U.S. aids Maduro

    It allows him to present himself as the last bulwark against a return to American corporate domination

  • On February 18, U.S. President Donald Trump amped up yet again the pressure on Venezuela’s recalcitrant military. If they do not defect to Juan Guaidó, Venezuela’s head of the national legislature who proclaimed himself the constitutional president in late January, Mr. Trump declares they will not benefit from amnesty. It is widely believed that many in the military fear sanctions for corruption, illicit narcotics trafficking and human rights abuses. Thus far, though, the U.S. has failed to recruit their Venezuelan equivalent of Chile’s Pinochet, the leader of the 1973 coup against the elected socialist, Salvador Allende. Nor has Mr. Guaidó succeeded as Nicaragua’s Violeta Chamorro did in 1990, to leverage devastating economic sanctions to win over large swaths of the population once sympathetic to Nicaragua’s Sandinista-led revolution against a U.S.-backed dictator.
  • Venezuelans’ dilemma

  • Why wouldn’t Venezuelans flock to Mr. Guaidó? Why would anyone support Mr. Nicolás Maduro? After all, his claim to the presidency is based on elections last year widely deemed fraudulent with the lowest turnout in Venezuela’s long democratic history. His regime has clamped down on freedom of the press, jailed dissenters and stands accused of numerous human rights violations. His military is blocking humanitarian aid.
  • Ironically, the answer points back to the U.S. I don’t mean that the U.S. and its oil companies support Mr. Maduro. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although, of course, we should not forget that the U.S. oil industry has remained one of Venezuela’s biggest clients since 1998 when Hugo Chávez won in a landslide. I mean we cannot understand the contours of politics today without an appreciation for how U.S. oil companies “developed” Venezuela.
  • Venezuela is not just any oil-producing society. It is the U.S.’s oil society. It was the cash cow for the largest of Rockefeller’s duelling sister companies after the company’s court mandated break-up in 1911: Standard Oil of New Jersey. We know this company today as ExxonMobil. Jersey took a significant interest in Venezuela in 1928, shortly after the first major gusher in 1922. It quickly towered over Venezuela’s oil industry. By 1941, it controlled 65% of its reserves. By 1945, it produced more oil than all other oil companies in Venezuela. Venezuela made Jersey rich. By the mid-1940s, it generated more than half of Jersey’s total revenue. Venezuela’s oil, indeed, facilitated the U.S.’s rise to world hegemony, an ascent rooted in shifting the world to rely on the primary energy source it controlled: oil.
  • Moreover, as historian Miguel Tinker Salas reveals, Jersey did more than just suck oil out of the ground. It sought to re-make Venezuelan social and political life in its own image. It proclaimed that what was best for the oil companies was best for Venezuela. It did so, even as it crushed employee dissidents and effectively turned labour unions into company spies. This was oil’s “enduring legacy,” a lore which Chávez burst. Even after they nationalised oil in 1976, the industry remained in the hands of professionals seasoned by the company’s long-standing commitment to maximise profit. Venezuela’s establishment parties struggled to deliver credibly on the promise to “sow the oil”: to use the oil revenue to grow Venezuela’s domestic industry.
  • The U.S. companies, in fact, sowed a very different kind of seed: a deep distrust of U.S. oil companies and Venezuela’s political establishment which collaborated with them for decades. This is the distrust which anchored support for Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution for a 21st century socialism; a distrust only intensified by their 1990 efforts to re-privatise elements of the oil industry. Seen from this vantage point, even Mr. Maduro’s blatant vote-for-food campaigning may appear as a means of delivering, literally, Venezuela’s oil-based revenue to the people. This history also likely complicates Mr. Guaidó’s prospects of unifying Venezuelans against Mr. Maduro. Plenty of Chavistas oppose Mr. Maduro’s corruption and repressive turn, even as they still believe in Chávez’s initial goals to take back national control over oil. Mr. Guaidó is a hard sell for this loyal opposition among Chavistas. His unwillingness to denounce the U.S.’s thinly veiled attempt to force regime change likely deepens such misgivings.
  • The U.S.’s current hard-driving strategy may actually backfire. It validates Mr. Maduro’s appeal to stick with him as the last bulwark against a return to U.S. corporate, not to mention military, domination. The appointment of Elliott Abrams, as Special Representative for Venezuela, plays right into such an appeal. After all, he notoriously defended El Salvador’s brutal military offensive against that country’s national liberation movement, denying its role in one of that country’s bloodiest massacres. He was deeply implicated in the U.S.’s covert efforts to fund the Contras against Nicaragua’s democratically elected socialist government. In naming Abrams, Mr. Trump signalled that the U.S. believes that Venezuela could go the way of Nicaragua in 1990: erode sympathy for the regime by combining crippling economic sanctions with the threat, if not the actual use, of lethal force.
  • The EU initiative

  • Not surprisingly, the best chance for a peaceful transition comes not from the U.S. The European Union announced the formation of an “international contact group” in January 2019 to address the Venezuelan crisis. The group includes nations that have already recognised Mr. Guaidó (France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, The Netherlands, the U.K. and Costa Rica) as well as those with more ambiguous positions (Italy, Ecuador, Uruguay and Bolivia). When the group met for the first time early in February, they committed themselves to establish the “necessary guarantees for a credible electoral process” and to “enable… delivery of assistance.” Cornered, Mr. Maduro and Mr. Guaidó have yet to agree to talk. Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans starve and flee.
  • Mixed optics

    The Saudi Crown Prince’s visit highlighted the complexities in bilateral ties

  • As a standalone visit, the day-long trip of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (MBS) to New Delhi will be regarded as a diplomatic success, given the numerous outcomes. After talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the two sides announced measures to upgrade the defence partnership, create a “Strategic Partnership Council” to coordinate on security issues, and institute regular talks between the two national security advisers to discuss counter-terrorism, intelligence-sharing and maritime security. Saudi Arabia has also expressed its interest in investing in infrastructure projects worth about $26 billion. This is beyond its already committed investments in India of $44 billion for the existing joint venture with the public sector oil undertakings and public fund investments of $10 billion. The language on terrorism in the joint statement was something of a dampener for those who would have hoped there would be stronger condemnation of the terror attack in Pulwama. But it was significant that the Saudi government agreed to insert an extra clause calling on states to renounce the “use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy”. It also acknowledged that disputes between India and Pakistan must be resolved bilaterally. At the leadership level, Mr. Modi extended more than a personal touch to the visit by going to the airport and embracing the Crown Prince on landing. The prince repaid the compliment, agreeing to increase Haj quotas and release 850 Indians from Saudi jails after a plea from Mr. Modi.
  • These announcements and gestures would have been far more significant had it not been for the fact that MBS’s trip came on the heels of his visit to Pakistan just after the Pulwama attack. As a result, his India visit is being measured against the statements made during his Pakistan visit, where he praised Islamabad for its fight against terrorism. He also announced $20 billion worth of investments, in addition to previously announced aid of $6 billion in cash and reserves. While such comparisons may be unwarranted, the visit to Delhi would have benefited in terms of optics if it hadn’t been preceded so closely by the one to Islamabad. The Modi government also overplayed its expectations from the visit by billing it as part of a diplomatic offensive aimed at ‘isolating’ Pakistan in order to hold it to account for Pulwama. India and Saudi Arabia have steadily built bilateral relations and taken great care over the past two decades to ‘de-hyphenate’ them from ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. India-Saudi Arabia ties were strengthened into a strategic partnership announced in 2010 in the Riyadh Declaration when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paid a visit, and were bolstered by King Salman’s visit in February 2014 and Mr. Modi’s 2016 trip to Saudi Arabia. Point-scoring with Pakistan, or attempting to compare the outcomes of the two visits, now only undermines the carefully built compact between New Delhi and Riyadh.
  • Missed target

    In sending a strong message to Pakistan, India should not shoot itself in the foot

  • The decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to revoke Tokyo 2020 Olympics qualification status for the men’s 25-metre rapid fire pistol event from the New Delhi shooting World Cup is a controversy Indian sport could have done without. This has come after India refused visas to two Pakistani competitors, in the backdrop of heightened bilateral tensions after the terror attack in Pulwama. The IOC has declared that this is against the Olympic Charter’s principles, of which non-discrimination, equal treatment of all athletes and sporting delegations and political non-interference are supreme. It is clear that in the clamour to send Pakistan what it perceives to be the right message, India has shot itself in the foot. In the short term, the scrapping of two out of 16 quota places will deny three Indian shooters, including 16-year-old Anish Bhanwala who won the gold in the event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, an opportunity to make the Olympic grade at home. While the National Rifle Association of India has thanked the IOC for sparing the 14 other places by restricting the withdrawal of recognition to just one event, three Indian shooters, for no fault of theirs, have ended up as collateral damage.
  • The long-term consequences, however, could be more severe. The IOC, in a strongly worded statement, said that it has decided to “suspend all discussions with the Indian National Olympic Committees and government regarding the potential applications for hosting future sports and Olympic-related events until clear written guarantees are obtained…to ensure the entry of all participants.” This means negotiations regarding India’s potential bids for the 2026 Youth Olympics, 2030 Asian Games and 2032 Olympics are set to go into cold storage. While it is true that the IOC’s record in dealing with the overlapping worlds of geopolitics and sports is uneven, there have been precedents of strong action in similar cases. Ahead of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Asian Shooting Championship in Kuwait had its qualification status removed after an Israeli delegate wasn’t granted a visa. Less than a month ago, Malaysia was stripped of the World Para Swimming Championship for turning down visa requests from Israeli participants. The entire episode has also played out at a time when sections of the BCCI, egged on by a few yesteryear greats, seemingly mulled over the option of calling for a complete ban on Pakistan from the upcoming ICC World Cup in England. Going by experience, beyond feeding into a certain kind of atmospherics, such bans on sportspersons and interactions in international sports events will have no meaningful effect.
  • A drop in an ocean of debt

    The first transfer of money under the PM-KISAN scheme is scheduled for Sunday. Priscilla Jebaraj reports from villages in Warangal, Telangana on how farmers have benefited from Rythu Bandhu, the income support scheme seen as the inspiration behind PM-KISAN

    A drop in an Ocean - the Farmer
  • Early one morning in the second week of February this year, A. Kumaraswamy, 30, set out from his home in Devanoor village in Telangana’s Warangal district and walked towards his cotton field. He was staring at a third straight year of crop failure due to rainfall shortages, but he still took out his plastic canister of expensive pesticide — he uses at least ₹2,000 worth of the chemicals each week — and began spraying. Once done, he took a costly drink.
  • Two weeks later, Kumaraswamy sits slumped on the steps of his unplastered brick home, his fingers shaky, his eyes averted. “I was in the fields, feeling quite depressed. So I decided to drink the rest of the pesticide I had used for that morning’s spraying.” Seeing him fall down, a farmer in the neighbouring field had run across, thrown him on the back of his motorcycle and rushed him to the government hospital in Warangal town 35 km away. It’s now a week since he was discharged, and he has spent his first day in the fields again. “I still feel dizzy,” he says.
  • Five days before Kumaraswamy’s suicide attempt, the Union Interim Budget had announced the launch of a new scheme meant to provide income support for small farmers like him: the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, or PM-KISAN scheme. It promises ₹6,000 per year to all families who own less than two hectares — that is, five acres — of farmland. The first instalment of ₹2,000 is to be paid by this March, before the Lok Sabha polls.
  • In many ways, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre is following in the footsteps of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government in this State. Last May, just four months before dissolving the State Assembly and calling for fresh polls, the Telangana government launched the Rythu Bandhu or farmers’ investment support scheme, offering farmers ₹8,000 per acre in a bid to “enhance agricultural productivity and… break the vicious cycle of rural indebtedness”. Only land-owning farmers are eligible beneficiaries and there is no cap on the number of acres owned. The scheme has a budget of ₹12,000 crore for 2018-19 for a total of 57 lakh targeted beneficiaries, although farmers groups say that at least nine lakh beneficiaries are yet to receive any money.
  • When Assembly elections were held in December, after the first instalment of Rythu Bandhu had been paid, the TRS swept the polls, winning 88 out of 119 seats, including the entire Warangal area. Rythu Bandhu was seen as one of the major reasons for the victory.
  • ‘It solves no problems’

  • Kumaraswamy had been a beneficiary of the Rythu Bandhu scheme, receiving ₹8,000 for the one acre he owns. However, he received no benefit for the five acres he leased.
  • He had started leasing land six years ago, lured by the solid profits then enjoyed by cotton farmers. He hoped that a higher investment would rake in higher returns, help him pay off some pending loans, and finance his children’s education. It paid off for a couple of years, before three consecutive years of drought and poor rainfall threw him into a nightmare of higher investment, higher losses, and higher debt. He says: “I need to pay for labour, tractor rental, 10 bags of fertilizer per acre, plus lease of ₹10,000 per acre per year. Every week, I spend ₹2,000-₹3,000 on pesticides because every week there is a new pest, even though Bt cotton was supposed to cut down on pesticides. I have no money to dig borewells.” He used the money from Rythu Bandhu to buy fertilizer, but it was merely a drop in an ocean of bills. He now has pending loans of more than ₹6 lakh, mostly taken from family and friends at an interest rate of 2% per month.
  • Indebtedness is a taboo topic in this area; farmers are unwilling to talk about the quantum of their unpaid debts in front of their neighbours, though it is almost certain the neighbour is also in debt. A survey in 2016-17 by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) showed that 79% of agricultural households in Telangana are in debt, the highest rate in the country. The national rate of indebted farming households is 52.5%.
  • Warangal in particular has become known for farmer suicides linked to unpaid debt. There have been 15 cases in Devanoor itself, including one last December. Following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and the creation of Telangana State in 2014, the district was split into five new districts, in 2016. Warangal (Urban), where Devanoor is located, has less than 15% of its cultivable area covered by irrigation. Nearly 92% of its farmers fall into the ‘marginal’ or ‘small’ categories, cultivating less than one or two hectares of land, respectively. There is no official data on tenancy, but local farmers’ groups estimate that 40% of farmers in the area are tenants, paying a yearly rental to cultivate lands that belong to others. Often, they also own a small amount of land themselves.
  • This rabi, or winter season, Kumaraswamy has leased out one acre with a borewell on it. He is planting tobacco under contract to a local company which has sold him the seed and will procure his crop. He hopes this guaranteed earning, along with work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) will tide him over. However, next season, he intends to go back to cotton.
  • Says P. Srinivas, a former ward member who now leads a village farmers’ committee: “What other option does he have? There is no irrigation. If there are wells, we can opt for paddy or maize. When we were young, they planted jowar and dal on these lands. But the rains are less now, groundwater is low, the soil is no longer fertile, and monkeys and wild boar come and eat any food crops as they are not able to get enough food in the forests anymore... Rythu Bandhu helps a little, but it does not solve any of these problems.”
  • Under the tamarind tree

  • Three kilometres from Devanoor is the Dharmasagar reservoir, which was originally meant for irrigation when it was constructed 30 years ago. But today it’s used mostly for the drinking water needs of Warangal town.
  • Sripathipally, a village of about 500 households, lies in neighbouring Jangaon, another new district carved out of the erstwhile ‘undivided’ Warangal district. This village is lucky to have borewells and open wells watering some of its fields, making for a stark divide. On the outskirts of Sripathipally, the dirt road winds past the last few houses and peters out at a clearing shaded by a spreading tamarind tree. On one side of this clearing are lush paddy fields, the rabi crop flooded after transplantation; on the other, a few white fluffs dot the bleak landscape of dried out cotton fields.
  • Under the tamarind tree, a discussion among the farmers about the benefits of Rythu Bandhu is fast turning into an argument.
  • Aakoju Lakshmi, 62, is a landowner, widowed since December 2018. She leases out her plot of two acres and 12 ‘guntas’ (a local land measure, with 40 guntas making up one acre) to a cotton farmer. But due to crop failures over the last three seasons, her tenant has not paid his lease amount. “Without the Rythu Bandhu money of ₹9,200 per season, I wouldn’t have been able to pay for the food or medical expenses for my husband before he died,” she says. Now deprived of her husband’s minimal earnings and pension, she is even more dependent on the government’s modest bounty.
  • On the other side of the owner-tenant divide, Mudika Kumar, 28, is resentful that the scheme does not consider the woes of tenant farmers. He owns one acre, but leases four more, of which three acres have been planted with cotton. Drought dried his open well and the crop failed, leaving him with a minimal harvest of just seven quintals. Along with the lease amount, his total investment into the crop last season had been ₹70,000. His returns were just ₹40,000, leaving him with a financial loss of ₹30,000, apart from the months of wasted, back-breaking labour.
  • “I’ve worked hard in all my fields, but I got Rythu Bandhu only for the one acre I own. Instead, the owner gets the money, even though he made no investment, he put in no work, he took no risk. He won’t even reduce the lease rate,” he says, watching his herd of 50 goats nibble on the dry cotton stalks in his fields. The government subsidy which let him buy the herd has been more helpful than Rythu Bandhu, he adds. Like most farmers in the village, he considers PM-KISAN to be of minimal benefit in comparison to Rythu Bandhu. He says, “It is also meant only for landowners, not tenants, though it will at least exclude the large landowners.”
  • K. Rajitha, 35, is also a tenant farmer and owns one acre and leases six, but thanks to borewells, has managed to plant them all with paddy. For a three-acre field, she pays a lease of ₹30,000 per year. Having spent about ₹50,000 on input costs, she sold her crop for a return of ₹1 lakh. She is content with the profit of ₹20,000 on this field, and is only concerned about the future of the field’s borewell.
  • She says, “See, this rice was planted two months ago, but it’s not growing properly because the water level in the field is not enough.” She is worried that the borewell which waters the field is drying up this season.
  • Rajitha’s grandparents were assigned one acre of land 40 years ago during a government redistribution drive for landless workers. Says Rajitha, who is already a grandmother herself, “The Rythu Bandhu scheme is for landowners, so I don’t want to ask for any benefits for my leased land, but I will fight for my rights for the one acre of land that I do own. I have the passbook, but have not got any money.” She wants the money to help pay off a loan taken to buy buffaloes. She adds, “The VRO [Village Revenue Officer] keeps my issue pending, and he is a government employee. How can I fight him?” Several farmers in the village claim that their VROs are demanding bribes to correct their pattas and passbooks or to include them in the list of beneficiaries. They plan to form a delegation and appeal to the Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO).
  • No time to update records

  • VROs are the lowest link in the chain of officials who were engaged in the State government’s massive drive to update land records a year before the Rythu Bandhu scheme was launched. Further up the chain is District Collector Prashant J. Patil, who sits in a sprawling 133-year old bungalow which originally housed the prime minister of a province under the Nizam of Hyderabad.
  • He says, “The first land survey in this area was done in 1935 in the Nizam’s time. A few minor additional surveys were done in the 1940s and the 1960s to cover areas that were left out of the Nizam’s survey, but that was it. Now 80 years have passed, and at least four generations have come and gone. Industrialisation and urbanisation have created a lot of land use changes. Many people still have handwritten pattas in their ancestors’ names. So it was important to overhaul the entire land records. No other State government has done such a comprehensive pan-state survey since Independence.”
  • In the wake of Rythu Bandhu, several other States, including Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand, have announced similar schemes, and of course, there is the Centre’s PM-KISAN scheme. Patil, however, warns that without a similar exercise to update land records, such schemes will fail.
  • He says, “PM-KISAN may have good intentions, but it will be lost in translation without accurate land records. It is even more complicated because they want to give out money per family, not per acre. How will you identify the total land-holding of a family? Land records are held by an individual.”
  • He is appalled that the Centre gave the States just a few weeks to update their databases before starting money transfers under PM-KISAN. The scheme was announced in the Budget on February 1, will make the first transfers on February 24, and has a March 31 deadline to complete disbursal of the first instalment.
  • He says, “It will be impossible for the States to clean up their records in that period of time. Many farmers will lose out.” He adds that several States have approached Telangana to learn from their experience. A few weeks ago, he briefed a Jharkhand delegation that wanted to replicate the State’s efforts.
  • Handing out the Rythu Bandhu cheques was “only the tip of the iceberg”, explains Patil. The bigger process was the Land Records Updation Programme which preceded it. Launched on September 15, 2017, it was initially planned as a 100-day “purification” exercise, but increasing hurdles dragged it out to almost one year.
  • Teams led by local officials spent a week or more in each village. He says, “This was meant to be a survey out in the field, not an exercise conducted sitting in the office. Before the exercise, the records were maybe 40% complete. Even now, I would say only about 80% of the records in my district have been cleaned up. In some areas, it will be even lower.”
  • Apart from cases which are being disputed in court, major snags include the “sada bainama” records, or white paper transactions certified by the elders of a village which have no actual legal sanctity, and “assigned lands” which were allotted to the poor, landless, Dalits and Adivasis without actual ownership papers. The government has agreed to a one-time regularisation of such lands for small and marginal farmers, but the process is slow and still incomplete.
  • Land not meant for paddy

  • Back in Devanoor village, Banda Kumar, a grizzled 60-year-old, holds out a torn and yellowed paper, now carefully laminated. It has a one-rupee stamp from the Nizam’s era. In handwritten Urdu, it states that his grandfather was assigned one acre of land. This plot was inherited by Kumar’s brother, who then sold it to Kumar in 1996, recording it as a sada bainama transaction on another hand-written document, this time in Telugu. He says, “The government says their records don’t include my land even when I show them my documents. But I am making losses cultivating cotton on this land that their records do not show. Why should I be denied Rythu Bandhu benefits?”
  • Srinivas, the leader of the farmers’ committee, says that out of approximately 700 small farming households in Devanoor, only half have received Rythu Bandhu benefits in the first year. Out of the total 2,000 acres of cultivable land in the village, about 800 acres are redistributed forest land, allocated to small farmers during the Naxalite movement, and many of them are yet to receive new passbooks. State-wide grassroots activists estimate that about 30% of eligible farmers did not receive Rythu Bandhu benefits in the rabi season.
  • The PM-KISAN is expected to face further hurdles, even in a State that has updated its records. Says Ch. Kavitha, who was elected Devanuru village sarpanch a month ago, “There is only a small list approved for PM-KISAN in our village so far. The revenue officer says that other names may be included later, but they are in a hurry to give out the money now, so only a few verified names will benefit.” Like many farmers across the district, the group of village leaders gathered in her courtyard don’t think the PM-KISAN will have much of an impact on the Lok Sabha polls or reap votes for the BJP in the way Rythu Bandhu is reported to have benefited the TRS.
  • Says ward member G. Kavitha, “Voting is more complex than that, it’s not only on the basis of such schemes. If you give us water, we don’t need your Rythu Bandhu. We don’t need your PM-KISAN. We will grow a profitable crop on our own, and give you back your money.”
  • Groundwater, however, is a fast-disappearing resource. Its rate of disappearance is hastened by free 24-hour electricity supply to farmers, which powers more than 22 lakh pump sets and borewells across the State. Public investment is also flowing into reservoirs and massive irrigation projects, but some experts are pushing for a more holistic policy approach.