Nepali Times Asian Paints
Rice basket to basketcase?


Many farmers in the tarai left their fields fallow last year because agriculture had stopped being cost-effective. Fertiliser was expensive, irrigation pumps were uneconomical, the minimum wage for farmhands added considerably to costs. Then cheap rice in India depressed paddy prices on our side of the border to all-time lows. Now, uncertainty over land reforms and increasing pressure from opposition parties on land ceilings has sapped whatever morale remained among tarai farmers.

The tarai has traditionally been Nepal's breadbasket. And people in the plains are dependent on agriculture for everything-not just food. They sell produce for cash needed to meet the costs of education, medical care, weddings and other social obligations. When the harvest is not enough, they mortgage land and borrow the cash they need. Because this is all the asset they have, any profits are ploughed back into the land.

All that has changed in one fell swoop with the prime minister's announcement of land ceilings. "Unlike people in other professions, farmers don't have many options and tend to reinvest in lands. Now they are unsure if they can keep land, and so will not even do that which may reflect in next year's productivity," says Rameshwor Rauniyar, chairman of Pokharia village council in Parsa district.
The land reform also threatens the tarai's delicate social chord. People all over the tarai are flocking to the courts to file false litigation against their parents and husbands, only to make sure that they get their share of parental property held in the name of the head of household

"The government is trying to take away the land we have managed to put together by saving our earnings," says Lalbabu Yadav, whose family has about 24 bighas of land. "Now, why should anyone try to work hard to increase their assets?" Like so many others, Yadav has been running around from room to room at the Parsa district court to file a case in the hope the court will order that he and his brother's divide the property equally and the property remains within the clan.

Families with children abroad have even begun looking for ways to transfer assets to ""trustworthy" relatives, in order to prevent having to hand over land to the government. Others are preparing backdated contracts to show that ownership has changed and only the legal paperwork remains to be done. "Usually most farmers with up to four or five bighas have mortgaged their lands as collateral and are not actually rich in real terms," says Ram Krishna, a lawyer from Kalayia. "They've never been able to get good returns from agriculture or change their vocation." He adds: "Now people are building up forests of legal paperwork, in fear of what could happen next. I just cannot say where all this will end."

Investment in land has always been considered the safest way to put away your wealth, and in the tarai, that was where Nepalis working in India usually invested. The land reform plan has offset that relationship. Politician Dwarika Prasad Kurmi told us: "Earlier people with relations in India took their earnings there, then they began to invest in land." Immediately after the Deuba announcement in parliament on 16 August, there was panic, a run on the banks along the border towns.

The new landed classes who invested in land from the spoils of politics or through smuggling will also be affected. For instance, these are some of the larger landholders in the Simara area. They've not only "legalised" their wealth by investing in land, but have also been able to access bank loans through property collateral. This class will fight tooth and nail to make sure ceilings are not drastically lowered: including consistently putting forward the argument that fragmentation will further reduce farm productivity.

Perhaps the most compelling reason against land ceiling is that of implementation. Underprivileged groups like the Tharus, landless Dalit families have never managed to figure on land distribution rolls before. They are unlikely to benefit this time either. Complicating their claim to government dole is the fact that most of them don't have citizenship certificates. "For how long do we have to work other people's lands?" asks Bhikhar Sahani, an agricultural labourer from Balara, Sarlahi district. "We've been promised land many times."

But as word spreads, many desperately poor families and the landless, say they hope it will be different this time. And the Maoists are always on the wings to take advantage of the chaos and push for land-grabbing that has happened elsewhere. This uncertainty will remain until a bill is actually approved by parliament.

What the government decision has already done is sow the seeds of distrust between those with land and those without. The landless think it is because the landed have land they don't and landholders think the poor are out to snatch their lifelong savings. "People will prefer to keep lands fallow rather than sharecrop, since tenant farmers will be more demanding now," says an agricultural labourer at Simara. "I don't know how I will feed my family until I get whatever land the government may give."

While tensions between the rich and poor is not new, what is most worrying is the false hope the government decision has created among the poor because it is likely to be dashed one more time. Mallu Mahato is from Bariyapur in Bara district and pulls a rickshaw in Birgunj. He wipes the sweat from his brow with his shawl and says: "Soon I will also work on my own field. We'll see how the government will not give us land."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)