For two decades, Chinthanna Linganna, 55, has cultivated agricultural land leased from others in Talamadugu village in Telangana’s Adilabad district. He currently rents 20 acres of land to grow cotton. Since May, the people who own this land have received cheques of up to Rs 1.6 lakh from the state government as agricultural investment support. Linganna received no such assistance even though he invests around Rs 40,000 per acre in this land, which includes the cost of leasing it.

As Linganna does not own any land in his name, he is not eligible to be a beneficiary under Rythu Bandhu, Telangana’s ambitious farm investment support scheme that gives agricultural landholders Rs 4,000 per acre at the start of every farming season (increased to Rs 5,000 for the 2019 kharif season) to help them buy farm inputs without taking loans.

Many attributed the return of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi to power for a second term in December to the Rythu Bandhu scheme.

This perception possibly prompted the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre to launch a similar scheme called Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Scheme, or PM-Kisan, which provides annual support of Rs 6,000 to farmers in three instalments. The Congress too has promised an income support scheme, but has not made it clear who will be its beneficiaries.

The replication of Telangana’s scheme at the national level has pitfalls. The state’s approach to identifying beneficiaries masks a basic problem: those who till the land often do not own it, and they are the ones most frequently excluded from institutional support such as bank loans and government subsidies. These tenant farmers are also most vulnerable to debt traps and suicide.

This is a problem that Odisha claims to have fixed. Launching a similar scheme called the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation, or Kalia, in December, the ruling Biju Janata Dal claimed it will benefit more than just landed farmers. However, on the ground, the evidence is mixed.

With the idea of income support schemes gaining ground, travelled to both states to see whether the people who need financial assistance the most are actually benefitting from the schemes.

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Chinthanna Linganna, a landless farmer from Talamadugu village in Telangana's Adilabad district. (Photo credit: Mridula Chari).

Who are tenant farmers?

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao has said several times on the floor of the Assembly and at public rallies that the Rythu Bandhu scheme will only cover landholding farmers.

“The government has no record of tenant farmers and no landowner ever recognised the tenant farmer formally,” The Hindu reported him as saying at a review meeting of the scheme in June. “In such a scenario, how can the government extend financial assistance to people who have no right on the land? This will give rise to irrational demands from random groups of people in future.”

Rao has also called for landholders who are “economically self-sufficient” to either return the money given to them under the scheme to a state-run federation of farmers or to pass on the benefits to tenant farmers. Both suggestions have received lukewarm responses from large landholders.

“If you give Rythu Bandhu to tenants, there can be a lot of fraud because you will never be able to confirm how much land the person has taken on lease,” said Bendur Krishna, a farmer with 15 acres of land from Adilabad district. “It is better that they are left out.”

Others disagree. “The government has taken an irrational stand on this,” said Kirankumar Vissa, convenor of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a farmer welfare group. “The purpose of the scheme is to reduce dependence on moneylenders at the start of the agricultural season so it should go to people who are actually doing the cultivation.”

Telangana claims it has no official data on the number of tenant farmers in the state. Rythu Swarajya Vedika says this is not entirely true. The Telangana Social Development Report of 2017, a survey from the Council for Social Development to help the state make evidence-based policy, cites data from the Agricultural Census and the National Sample Survey Organisation to track changes in tenancy over time. The report found a jump in tenancy across caste groups from 4.7% of total operational holdings in 2002-’03 to 20.1% in 2012-’13.

Vissa estimates that it has increased even more since then. The majority of landholders belong to forward caste groups or other backward classes, while the majority of tenants are from Scheduled Tribes or forward castes, the Social Development Report says.

Rythu Swarajya Vedika conducted its own survey in 2018 of 692 farmers who died of suicide, and found that 75% of those farmers were tenants.

Rao has raised the fear of the Andhra Pradesh (Telangana Area) Tenancy & Agricultural Lands Act, 1956, in his statements against including tenant farmers under the scheme. This Act allowed the state to transfer ownership of land away from landlords to registered tenant farmers if the tenants had been cultivating land for a certain period. Rao said that allowing tenant farmers to access the benefits of Rythu Bandhu will be the first step towards landowners losing their land rights once again.

But there is another legal way to identify tenant farmers without disturbing existing land equations: the Land Licensed Cultivators Act of 2011, implemented in 2013, which recognises cultivators but does not take away the owners’ rights over their land.

This Act grants tenant farmers Loan Eligibility Cards, which certify the extent of land they are cultivating in a given season, Vissa said. This in turn allows them to access agricultural loans from banks. However, this Act has not taken off.

Limited opposition from tenant farmers

In June, tenant farmers staged protests in six districts of Telangana, asking to be included in Rythu Bandhu. However, the protests have not been sustained and strong enough, for two reasons.

One, tenant farmers are reluctant to access the benefits of Rythu Bandhu or Loan Eligibility Cards because of the fear of landlords.

“If we apply for benefits under Rythu Bandhu, we will not get land the next year,” explained Linganna who is currently renting 20 acres of land from one of two brothers who have 40 acres each. Landlords were reluctant to formalise tenants through official paperwork not just because they were afraid of losing their land, but also because they frequently accessed cheap agricultural loans and received crop insurance and compensation using their land titles, he said.

“Only once has a pattadhar [landlord] given me the compensation he received for crop damage,” Linganna said. “He gave it to us saying it was not his money to keep. But when we ask others for similar compensation, they tell us, ‘Why, do you share your profits when you get them?’ But any profit we make already goes to them in the land lease.”

In Telangana, farmers pay landlords a fixed amount to rent the land each year, unlike in Odisha, where landlords receive a share of the produce.

Another reason the opposition from tenant farmers has been muted is because most of them own small parcels of land, which qualifies them for Rythu Bandhu benefits.

According to K Karunakar Reddy, a farmer activist and newly elected sarpanch of Talamadugu village, around 10% of the tenant farmers in his village have absolutely no land of their own, like Linganna. The rest have anything from half an acre to around two acres.

“Since most tenant farmers have received some money from Rythu Bandhu, they don’t usually ask for more,” Reddy said. “Those without any land of their own lose out because of this.”

Odisha’s landless

Where Telangana has been reluctant to acknowledge tenant farmers in any way, Odisha has nominally embraced them. In promotions for the Kalia scheme, the state government proclaims that it benefits more than just landed farmers –sharecroppers benefit too.

The first component of the scheme provides Rs 25,000 to small and marginal farmers as investment support over five seasons, or Rs 5,000 per season.

Sharecroppers, however, constitute only 57,000 of the total 40 lakh farmers identified as beneficiaries for the first component of the scheme.

This is because many sharecroppers are already small and marginal farmers, said Saurabh Garg, principal secretary for agriculture. “They might have one acre of their own and take five acres on lease,” he said.

The more pressing reason is that Odisha has drawn its initial data for sharecroppers from its paddy procurement database. Sharecroppers who want to register in this system have to get consent forms from the landholders, certification from a sarpanch or be verified by a district agricultural officer. These three options are as difficult to access in Odisha as in Telangana.

Jhononi Thela, a resident of Jharjhari, a small Adivasi hamlet with only rain-fed land in Odisha’s Sambalpur district, has not managed to register in this system.

Like Linganna, Thela too does not own land, but cultivates one acre as a sharecropper. He has not applied even for the livelihoods component of the Kalia scheme, believing that it is not applicable to him.

Unlike the first component of the scheme, where the state released a first list of beneficiaries based on its existing databases and then filtered for exclusions, people have to apply on their own for the second component.

“Why should I not get Kalia when I am cultivating the land?” Thela asked. “The landowner took all the compensation when there was a drought. He will take this benefit too.”

Santipani Darwa, another farmer in the village who has no land, added: “We do all the farm work, we take all the risk, but we get no benefits.”

Where Kalia differs is in its second component, where landless people in rural areas get training and financial support of Rs 12,500 for adopting seven different livelihoods: fisheries, eggs and the rearing of goats, ducks and poultry under the Veterinary and Animal Husbandry Department, and beekeeping and mushroom farms under the Horticulture Department.

Under this component, which has only just begun to be rolled out, beneficiaries will first attend trainings at their gram panchayat, where government officials will show them presentations of what the seven livelihoods entail. At this point, they will have to indicate their preferred livelihoods and will get the first instalment of Rs 5,000.

This will be followed by block-level training, where they will be put in touch with local traders whom they can sell their produce to and will receive the second instalment of Rs 3,000. After they set up their new livelihood and submit a photo to the district administration, they will receive the third instalment of Rs 4,500.

For Rupvati Pude, a resident of Talab village in Sambalpur district, this scheme will be a useful addition to her family income. Pude works informally at the village school and is the only person in her family to have been selected for the scheme.

“For those staying at home, it will be good to get some outside support,” said Pude, who has opted to keep broiler chickens and plans to buy the equipment and livestock for this after the second meeting, whenever it is scheduled.

But even this meagre beginning has riled landholding farmers. According to Saroj Mohanty, a farmer leader in Sambalpur district, landholding farmers have begun to disparagingly call the scheme “Halia”, a reference to people who plough land. This seems to be a popular sentiment.

For now, with state Assembly elections happening at the same time as the Lok Sabha polls, most see Kalia as an election ploy and do not trust that it will last beyond a few months.

“Rather than bringing in new schemes like this, the government should at least implement existing ones,” said Kalavati Bhoi, a resident of Jharjhari village. “If they could give us housing, work, access to water, it would be much more useful.”

This is the second part of a three-part series.

Part I: Income transfers are hottest trend in agricultural policy. But how do states identify beneficiaries?

Part III: Can Telangana and Odisha afford the money they want to give their farmers?