18 Apr 2020 20:29 IST

Integrated land acquisition is key to a pandemic-resilient economy

Destructive land use can increase our vulnerability to disease outbreaks

Several links have been established in tracing the origin of the ongoing corona virus pandemic. While most are secondary, the Achilles heel is an unsuspecting villain – the rapid and global land use changes. “With growing human populations increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitats, with unprecedented changes in land use, …., new disease outbreaks of pandemic scale are a near mathematical certainty.” (Scientific American, March 11, 2020). The same article goes on to say, citing a study by Allen et al. (2017) published in Nature analysing all recent pandemics, that “emergence of new pathogens tended to happen in places where a dense population had been changing the landscape — by building roads and mines, cutting down forests and intensifying agriculture.” Moreover, these global hotspots include not only China, but also countries like India, Brazil and Nigeria.

How does this impact India’s development decisions? On the one hand, we may need a more aggressive tilt towards economic growth, as many, including top economic advisors to investment banks, already see the early corona virus outbreak in China not only as a good opportunity for India to expand trade and export, but also to position itself as a competitive destination for multinational companies (MNCs) and global value chains.

MNCs long settled in China may be looking to diversify their manufacturing base as part of their China’s de-risk plans. Land, along with availability of a young labour force, might lend India the competitive edge. While India has already improved in terms of ease of doing businesses environment, faster land reforms as a core strategic decision may help cover ground very quickly. On the other hand, if this brings about destructive land use changes then we are increasing our vulnerability towards pandemics.

Integrated approach is a must

Solving this dilemma requires an integrated and systemic approach. To begin with, land acquisition decisions, must cause least harm to wildlife habitats and associated biodiversity. Moving forward, environmental impact assessments, therefore, must also add epidemiological assessments. Traditional ecological knowledge systems and customary forest tenure regimes of tribal communities that have ensured harmonious coexistence must now be integrated in the land acquisition process. In essence, the existing land acquisition frameworks need to include a risk factor for diseases related to land use change.

In the post-pandemic rehabilitation phase, India Inc. must also factor in the economic and social cost of the land conflicts that it has been already struggling to deal with. Delay in land acquisitions (₹1 trillion) has been one of the major reasons behind stalling of investments, reaching an all-time high of ₹13 trillion in June 2019 (CMIE).

An empathy-based execution of RFCTLARR, 2013 (The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act) through multi-stakeholder platforms and participation of local community institutions is critical for a post-pandemic economic revival that is also sustainable. India’s own responsible and inclusive business frameworks like 2018 NGRBC (National Guidelines on Responsible Business Conduct) and more recent Draft NAP on Business and Human Rights, provide ample intent and guidance. The vital measures around non-negotiable free and prior informed consent, fair compensation, just resettlement and rehabilitation and local livelihoods concerns must now be addressed as per these guidelines.

Reverse migration and farm labour

A fallout of this crisis is that India has witnessed mass migration recently in response to the state’s necessity to lockdown all non-essential production activities. Labour in India’s informal sector is largely drawn from rural migration. Tracking the same households between 2004–05 and 2011–12, an empirical analysis based on the India Human Development Survey 2011, highlighted several socio-economic factors associated with the migration decision including the availability of information and community networks in source and destination areas. In the post pandemic situation, these triggers may favour a reverse shift, as it is likely that many of those who have undergone this trauma may want to consider staying back and find employment in the rural sectors.

Rural India, and more so the farm sector, therefore, must be enabled to absorb such additional labour more productively. Though India’s is agriculture dominated by small farms, their operational efficiency is well documented. What is holding it back are tenancy reforms that help a greater formal engagement with land owners and actual farmers. Lack of formal tenancy leads to insecure property rights, and disenfranchisement of tenant farmers from state entitlements, and dampens incentives for technology adoption and investments.

That rural India values agriculture on rented land can be seen from the fact that it has been constantly on the rise over the past few decades. About 21 million households in the country cultivated about 10 to 11 million hectares of land on informal lease basis as per the 70th Round of NSSO. About 90 per cent of these are small and marginal farmers renting less than one hectare of land. A FAO study in 2016 has shown that land distributive reforms in East Asia led to improvement in agricultural productivity and enhanced farmer’s incomes. If we are successful in land tenure reforms, most of the additional labour as part of reverse migration can be productively engaged in small farming.

Land leasing reforms

Realising tenancy as a contemporary farming reality and economic necessity, NITI Aayog came up with the Model Agricultural Land Leasing Act in 2016, which encourages states to legalise land tenancy, benefiting both, tenants and landlords. Ensuring rehabilitation and productive engagement of these willing reverse migrants in farming is incumbent upon States acting on land leasing reforms as land is a State subject. With some States already leading these reforms, others can leverage to kick-start and expedite post-pandemic leasing reforms. Legal reform supported by documentation of leasing, will also expand the safety net of PM Kisan and other such Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) schemes along with enhanced access to minimum support prices, helping revive the rural economy.

Another important aspect is that a substantial percentage of this migrant labour force is coming from tribal and forest dwelling communities. Some sources suggest that about 3.5 million tribal people have entered the informal labour market during 2001-11. The Forest Rights Act, 2005, aimed at undoing this historical injustice, can help recognise the individual and community forest rights of about 150 million tribal population living in over 40 million hectares of forest land.

The implementation of FRA has however been patchy, except for some states. In the post-pandemic world, states lagging behind, can proactively, expedite implementation of FRA, learning from good implementing States, and extend tribal farmers opportunities to better use their labour for their local livelihoods.There is sufficient evidence to show that recognition of forest rights has led to increased forest cover and biodiversity, often improving wildlife habitats.

The ongoing novel coronavirus crisis has deepened our understanding of how land use changes are central to not only maintaining a global ecological balance, but also the global health balance. Integrating natural habitat conservation in land use change frameworks and accelerating land reforms are, thus, vital to a new world where pandemic-resilience will be key to sustained and safe economic growth.

(Pranab R Choudhury is with the NRMC Centre for Land Governance and Ranjan K Ghosh is with IIM Ahmedabad)