Legislating conversion

After years of crying hoarse over the arbitrary conversion of land use, the government finally came out with a bill but the lawmaker’s burnt holes in it forcing the coalition to refer it to house committee. R S Gull reports.

Envisaging constitution of State Land Use Board for taking stock of current land use across J&K and laying down broad guidelines for optimum utilization of land, the Jammu and Kashmir Prohibition on Conversion of Agricultural Land for non-Agricultural Purposes, 2011 bill wants the Board formulate policies and lay down broad guidelines to protect good agricultural lands against degradation on account of soil erosion, water logging, loss of fertility and industrialization. The Board will identify the problems and bottlenecks in bringing cultivable waste lands, fallow lands under crop production and lay down broad guidelines for optimum utilization of land reclaimed through implementation of flood protection schemes.

The bill is aimed at stemming the massive land conversion taking place across the state. Apart from massive urbanization around towns and cities, there are pressures of development and industrialization.

Various provisions in the existing laws prevent arbitrary conversion of land. Section 133-A of J&K Land Revenue Act, for instance, provides for seeking permission of revenue minister for change of land use from agriculture to residential. But all conversions do not violate the existing laws. Section 13 (a) of J&K Agrarian Reforms Act 1976 permits conversions of land use up to 2 kanals for residential use without any permission.

In first such effort, in 2006, a house committee advised against permitting setting up of brick kilns in agricultural land. Given the massive construction activity and demand for bricks everywhere, farmers have been leasing out their agriculture land for setting up brick kilns. The decision, apparently, seems not to have been implemented. Right now, there are 664 brick kilns – 375 in Kashmir and 289 in Jammu.

Off late, the real estate prices have skyrocketed with a surge in demand for plots. Even part of the Saffron fields in Pampore was converted into housing colonies. In March 2006, the state legislature passed a bill to protect the land under Saffron crop into housing colonies and also to regulate its quality. This had become inevitable in the wake of a steep fall in area under saffron cultivation and its production over the years. The land under Saffron cultivation had reduced from over 5000 hectares to 3800 hectares. Besides reducing the yield, it impacted the rest of land by increasing biotic interventions.

Officials in the agriculture ministry said conversion of land use by the people has been a crucial problem but it is being dictated by the market. “We all know that parts of south and north Kashmir, farmers have already converted vast paddy fields into the apple orchards because the apples pay more than rice. How can we force a peasant from making efforts to make better earnings from the fields he owns?” says a middle rung agriculture officer. With 1418000 individuals holding a total of 941770 hectors of land, the average land holding in J&K is 0.66 hectares – the lowest in India.

Unlike the countryside where orchards are eating into agricultural fields, it is the construction activity that is devouring the urban greenery. Cities and towns are expanding rapidly squeezing green fields. Says one senior policy maker: “Housing is a major problem. We were thinking of introducing flat system but the October (2005) earthquake has shattered this plan because we fall in the seismic zone-V and people dislike living in flats.”

It was in this backdrop that the government brought in the bill. But members from different parties found a number of faults in the bill that suggested it was not drafted properly. National Conference’s Mir Saifullah wondered why a farmer should approach Deputy Commissioner if he wants to construction a house on the land he owns. He says, at least two sections of the bill need to be “dropped without any discussion”. On the same grounds, Panthers Party’s Harsh Dev Singh termed the bill “an unconstitutional piece of legislation”.

PDP’s Abdul Rehman Veeri said if horticulture is the allied sector of the agriculture how can the farmers be prevented from converted the irrigated land into orchards. By all accounts, it is the horticulture that is the main driving force of the rural economy. “It is the right of farmer to choose his land for agriculture or horticulture purpose and government should not interfere in it,” Veeri asserted, adding, “This will become another source of corruption.”
The bill may need a lot of debating at the commoners’ level. Even industry and trade has serious problems with the proposed legislation. Land is the ultimate resource and legislating on this issue would require a lot of debate.

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