While Delhi is primarily dependent on neighbouring states to meet its demand for food, there is about 10% of its demand that is being met by local produce from urban and peri-urban agricultural activities. These urban farmers, however, remain inconspicuous in the face of rapid urbanisation, land conflict and the absence of policy support.

Ram Chandra, a farmer in Chilla Khadar, said, “We do not exist here, as per the official document. I learned about this during the monsoon when our farm flooded due to heavy rain. We went to meet the sub-divisional magistrate of East Delhi. There we got to know that there is no official record of us living or farming here since 2018.”

Almost every farmer in Chilla Khadar, situated on the Yamuna floodplains, has the same story to narrate. The farmers say they are victims of the continuous rift between the Delhi Development Authority and the farmers claiming ownership of land. The land conflict has also caused occasional displacement of farmers. Frequent episodes of demolitions and evictions from the area has led to exclusion of many farmers from official records.

The conflict over land ownership on the Yamuna floodplains arises from the fact that on the one hand, the Delhi Development Authority has claims over the same land and has proposed a Yamuna Riverfront Development Project; on the other, some farmers also claim ownership of the same land.

A farmer in Chilla Khadar, where multiple demolitions have taken place before, the last one being two years ago, told Mongabay-India that “the Delhi Development Authority officials were recently seen marking land again, drawing and redrawing boundaries. The officials informed farmers that Delhi Development Authority is drawing new land boundaries, and if one’s land comes inside the marked territory, he will be evicted. Everyone is living in uncertainty here”. They keep wondering, “Whose crop will be destroyed, and who will be evicted next?”

Tenant farmers washing their produce in Chilla khadar area of Delhi. Credit: Aakiz Farooq

Amid the disputes over ownership, it is the tenant farmers who have been at the receiving end. Nane, a farmer in Madanpur Khadar situated on the Yamuna floodplains, mentioned, “We have to pay annual rent to the landowner. The rent increases every year. Otherwise, the landowner will not let us farm here. Still, the Delhi Development Authority officials come occasionally and destroy our crops. They try to evict us from here.”

Urban farming in Delhi has been a source of income for many migrant families who have come to the capital for a better livelihood. Most farmers, like Nane, who farm on the Yamuna floodplains, have migrated from different Indian states and usually have some previous experience in farming.

“We came to Delhi from Budaun, a village in Uttar Pradesh, looking for a better livelihood, as we could not earn much from farming back home. Here we found farming very suitable for us, and many farmers from Budaun are involved in agricultural activities here,” said Bhole, a tenant farmer who has been farming in Chilla Khadar since 2013. He further added that they live in jhuggis, temporary shelters on farms, without any electricity connections.

No policy support

Most of the agricultural activity in Delhi occurs in ‘urban villages’ in the northwest, southwest, and northern parts of Delhi. A considerable percentage of farming takes place in areas along the Yamuna floodplains such as Chilla Khadar, Madanpur Khadar, Jagatpur, Palla etc.

Though the Draft Delhi Master Plan 2041, which appeared in the public domain in June 2021, mentions urban farming, it does not recognise agricultural activities happening at many places in the Yamuna floodplains. As per the plan, there will be a ‘Green Belt’ where agriculture and other activities like forestation will be permitted. But it excludes several sites along the Yamuna floodplains where farming is currently happening.

A land-use map in the Master Plan 2041 designates the Yamuna floodplain as Zone O, subdividing it into Zone O-I and O-II. Most of the current areas where farming is ongoing fall in a zone where agricultural activities will not be permitted. The farmers here, hence live in uncertainty as they could be evicted anytime.

Nishant, an independent researcher who studied urban farming in Delhi, said that farmers cultivating along the Yamuna river need to be recognised and not threatened with evictions and demolitions by government bodies. The government should try to resolve land disputes considering the interests of farmers and landowners as equal stakeholders. If farming is given priority in Delhi, it can ensure food security, he added.

Bhole, a tenant farmer in Chilla khadar in Delhi. He lives in a temporary shelter on farms without any electricity connection. Credit: Aakiz Farooq

Talking about the migrant farmers, Nishant mentioned that most of these farmers have been living and practising agriculture along the Yamuna floodplains since they migrated from their native places and found farming to be not only a decent livelihood option, but also a way that allowed them to maintain the existing knowledge they had about farming.

A borewell in agriculture fields in Madanpur Khadar, Delhi. Farmers in Delhi use these borewells to pump groundwater for irrigating their fields. Credit: Aakiz Farooq

Farming on margins

The pressure of urbanisation in Delhi is visible on agriculture. The net area sown is coming down, confirms the Economic Survey of Delhi (2021-22). The total operated area in Delhi decreased 2.2% in Agriculture Census 2015-’16 compared to Agriculture Census 2010-’11.

“The agricultural activity is continuously declining in Delhi to rapid urbanisation and growth in other economic activities of trade and industry. The number of rural villages is also reducing, and the number came down from 214 in 1981 to 112 in the 2011 Census,” the Economic Survey states.

Paras Tyagi, associated with the Centre for Youth Culture, Law and Environment, a non-profit based in Delhi, echoes the same. “Farmers in Delhi villages have been exploited, and land ownership has decreased over the years,” said Tyagi adding that more than 97% of farmers own less than 0.5 hectares of land. There are no financial incentives or subsidy support provided to farmers in Delhi, the kind of which you see in Punjab, Haryana etc. The leader of the opposition in the Delhi Assembly, Ramvir Singh Bidhuri has made a similar claim recently.

Amit Yadav, a farmer in Jhiljhuli village in Delhi, also mentioned that there are no agricultural subsidies like subsidies on agriculture machinery, compensation for crop damage etc., provided by the government. “We cannot even buy tractors for farming here in Delhi as they are taxed as commercial use vehicles. So, we usually purchase tractors from neighbouring states of Haryana or Uttar Pradesh,” he added.

Paras Tyagi further claimed that schemes on crop insurance, irrigation, dairy farming, horticulture, and other agriculture-related activities are unavailable to Delhi farmers.

Agriculture fields on Yamuna floodplains. The draft Delhi Master Plan ignores many areas where farming is still happening. Credit: Aakiz Farooq

The farmers in Delhi’s urban villages have also complained about the quality of water used for irrigation, the lack of drainage facilities and the frequent flooding of farms during the monsoon season. Ritesh Rana, a farmer in Bakhtawarpur in the northern part of Delhi, told Mongabay-India, how during the monsoon season, the farms get flooded due to the lack of any drainage system.

When asked about the possible policy intervention to boost farming in Delhi, Anita Pinheiro who teaches urban agriculture in Ambedkar University, said, “We need to encourage small pilot projects in Delhi to learn more about the requirements of urban agriculture and the system that will work.” Pinheiro, whose PhD thesis focusses on technology and policy landscape for urban agriculture in Kerala, added, “We can take lessons from the urban agriculture policy structure in Kerala where the government provided subsidies and created institutional support for promoting urban home gardening until 2021-’22. However, they discontinued it from this year onwards.”

The Delhi government, in March 2022, announced the launch of a campaign to promote urban farming and encourage people to grow vegetables and fruits in their houses. Whether this campaign will benefit the urban farmers who are facing the threat of eviction, is yet to be seen.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.