February 3, 2022

here are 56 percent households in rural India which do not own any farmland. Pic by Manu Moudgil

The failed land reforms era has given way to market pressures that are making the poor poorer

LAND REFORMS, a ‘forgotten agenda’ of the 1960s, has resurfaced thanks to a few popular movements which mobilised people around the idea.

In 2012, thousands of Dalits and tribals took out Jan Satyagraha March under the banner of Ekta Parishad, a grassroots organisation, with a major demand of national-level land reforms law.

The then UPA government at the Centre signed a 10-point agreement. It formulated a draft National Land Reform Policy but could not pass the Bill. A “Homestead Bill” was also not introduced in the Parliament. Homestead is a small farm patch next to the house.

When the NDA took over, Ekta Parishad reminded Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the agenda but the government went the other way by attempting to weaken the land acquisition Act to benefit the corporate sector. While states have their own laws regarding land, most of those have loopholes and didn’t weaken the stranglehold of traditional landlords, thus defeating the idea of uniform development of the country.

Read more about Ekta Parishad's campaign

Why land reforms are required

At the time of independence, the agrarian structure of India was characterised by unequal distribution of land and exploitation of tenant farmers through high rents charged by middlemen like jagirdars and zamindars appointed by the British government to collect taxes. These middlemen  had no interest in farming and improvement of agricultural land.

Tenant farmers had no security of tenure and different land revenue and ownership systems prevailed in different regions of the country. In 1949, a committee headed by economist J C Kumarappa was formed to look into the issue and recommend agricultural and land reforms.

The committee suggested abolition of zamindari, provision of secure and profitable land rights, ceiling or limit on size of land holdings and redistribution of surplus land among landless farmers.

Abolition of zamindari, provision of secure and profitable land rights, ceiling on size of land holdings and redistribution of surplus land were first phase reforms

But long delay in implementing ceiling or limit on land holdings, which helped the landlords secure their property

The first phase of reforms were followed by measures such as expanding the area of cultivated land, and development programmes like soil and water conservation. But most of these plans, policies, and reforms had only partial success in achieving the idea of “land to the tiller.” 

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There are 56 percent households in rural India which do not own any farm land, said the Socio Economic and Caste Census. On the other hand, around 7.18 percent households own more than 46.71 percent of total agricultural land thus signifying that few people continue to hold on to large resources. Land reforms failed in their main task of empowering the poor by disempowering the rural elite.

Elite-sponsored Reforms

The first phase of land reforms in all states was mainly intended for abolition of middlemen, release of tenants from exploitation of landlords, fixing ceiling or limit on landholdings and consolidation of land. Though the law varied from state to state, one similarity was the long delay by almost all the states in enacting the provisions on ceiling or limit on land holdings, which helped the landlords secure their property either legally or illegally.

Women farmers of Maligaon in Odisha raising a farm on commons land which will be shared among the community. Pic by Basudev Mahapatra.

Ceiling laws give exemptions to certain categories of landowners like religious and charitable trust, educational institution or land held by central or state government. Many landlords transferred their surplus lands in name of such trusts or in the name of their servants who acted as proxies.

Old zamindars turned rich farmers on the top with large number of landless at bottom of the ownership structure

There are 56% households in rural India which do not own any farm land. On the other hand, around 7.18% households own more than 46.71% of total agricultural land 

“This failure of land reforms was mainly a consequence of the associated political process and the village-level politicisation of the issues” said R.S Deshpande, professor, Institute for Social and Economic change, in his paper Current Land Policy in India. “Most tenancy reform laws also contained provisions concerning the ability of tenants to surrender the land back to the landlord voluntarily. These provisions were used by landlords to weaken the impact of the laws. The strong relationship between landlords and revenue officials often allowed the landlords to skirt the law's intention”

The land reforms thus turned into what a 2016 report by non-profit ActionAid India from 11 states calls the ‘elite sponsored reforms’. Old zamindars turned rich farmers on the top with large number of landless at bottom of the ownership structure.

Many states have now abandoned the practice of maintaining updated databases on the number of tenants who were given ownership rights or about the rights protected and land given to them. Madhya Pradesh and Haryana claim that tenancy is not prevalent in their areas. Kerala stands out as leader in land reforms with benefits to 28.42 lakh farmers over 14.5 lakh acres, Maharashtra and Gujarat benefited 14.92 lakh and 12.97 lakh tenant farmers respectively, said the ActionAid report.

Redistribution of Surplus Land

The concept of land ceiling was based on the fact that a large section of society is land poor and could use it as a source of livelihood. Since every state made their own laws, the limitation on ceilings were different and high ceiling limits exempted a large number of landlords which made redistribution a failure in most of the states.

From 1972 to 2002, the average land area declared surplus or taken away from landlords was 1,50,000 acres per year, which declined to 4,000 acres per year between 2002 and 2015, said a reply to the RTI request filed with the Department of Land Resources. Ministry of Rural Development by India Spend. Acquisition of surplus land by the State was meager but the redistribution of surplus land was almost negligible.

Till 2015, 6.7 million acres and was declared ceiling surplus land out of which government took over 6.1 million acres, rest either went into litigation or was declared unfit for cultivation. Out of this 6.1 million acres, 5.1 million acres was given to 5.78 million people. Even that small share of distribution was achieved because of a largest contribution (20 percent) from West Bengal which distributed 1.05 million acres of land. The state also accounts for more than half of India’s land reform beneficiaries.

After failure of surplus land distribution, state governments attempted to contain demand for land by distributing government land or wasteland, which is of no use in agriculture. Even then only 148.55 lakh acres of government land was distributed, which is just 3.8 percent of the total cultivated area, the ActionAid report said.

Caste and Gender Over Land

In India, land is associated with social status and ownership is mostly dominated by upper castes. Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes have been traditionally deprived of land rights. Scheduled castes cultivate only 9 percent area even though their population share in rural areas is 18.5 percent, said the Agricultural census 2015-16. Also, 61 percent of the land holding sizes cultivated by Dalits are less than 2 hectares.  Their landholdings are declining despite Section 42 of the SC/ST Act which makes land transfers from scheduled castes and tribes to non-Dalits difficult.

“Although land reforms became a prominent post-Independence policy initiative, the land-associated caste groups wielded significant political power. So, the very interests of those responsible for lawmaking were tied with the implementation of the law,” wrote Deshpande. “Naturally, as a result the land reform laws were either not thoroughly implemented or were manipulated with the help of administering institutions.”

Scheduled castes cultivate only 9% area even though their population share in rural areas is 18.5%

Average availability of common land, which is best bet for landless for fodder or farming, has been declining

Village commons or community property resources is an integral part of the social and economic life of the village poor because every member of the village is allowed its access and use. However, common or shamlat land, which constituted 15 percent of the total geographical area in the country saw decline of 1.9 percent during between 1993 and 1998, said the NSSO 54th round data. Average availability of common land per house declined to 0.31 hectare thus impacting livelihood of poor landless who either use it for fodder or farming on lease.

In Punjab, upper castes dominate the farming landscape where 32 percent of Dalit population have just 3.5 percent of farm land, the lowest shareholding in proportion to population in India.

“In villages, upper castes enjoy rights over large piece of land and don’t want any Dalits to even cultivate the common agricultural land. So many cases have been registered against us for questioning this practice,” said Gurmukh Singh, district secretary of Zameen Prapti Sangarsh Samiti (ZPSC, or land rights struggle committee), an informal organisation which mobilises Dalits for their land rights. The campaign has been able to bring a positive change in around 70 villages of south Punjab.

Women have also been traditionally deprived of land ownership. Females own only 13.96 per cent of the total operational farm holdings in India covering just 11.72  per cent of the total area, according to the Agricultural Census 2015-16. The average size of female holding was 0.93 hectare as compared to 1.17 hectare for male holdings, the ActionAid report said.

Amendments to the Hindu Succession Act (1956) were intended to address these inequalities. The Act provides rights to the daughters, widow or mother of a dying property owner. Improper implementation and fate of women who remain outside this law, however, make it less impactful.

“Participation of women in rural farming is almost 70 percent but land is not in their names because ownership is always controlled by men. Among certain tribals, however, there is a practice of dividing the land equally among men and women” said Abhishek Joshi, a policy analyst working for rural commons.

Liberalisation and Land Reforms 

New market-led land reforms are different from redistributive reforms and are further impacting the landless and enriching the already rich.

Many neoliberal scientists, agriculture experts and international financial organisations feel that land use and access should be free from any restrictions.

Ceiling provisions on agricultural landholdings have been relaxed for corporate agencies over the years and there is an aggressive official advocacy in works for liberalising tenancy. “Post 1991 era of liberalisation and industrialisation turned land into an asset which had to be monetised. Government handed over forest and tribal land as well to industries and mining sectors,” said Abhishek Joshi. “The result of all this was that marginalised became more marginalised and displacement increased.”

Ceiling provisions on agricultural landholdings have been relaxed for corporate agencies and there is an aggressive official advocacy in works for liberalising tenancy

In India, central government controls major minerals like iron ore, bauxite and state government controls all minor minerals of state. By the end of 2009, 4.9 lakh hectares of land was given out in mining leases in 23 States and 95 per cent of these leases, comprising 70 per cent of the land, were given to private companies. In 2011, government came with the Mining and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill, which aims to further deregularise and liberalise the mining sector and encouraging privatisation.

“If the government acquires forest areas without deploying the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, where will the people go? Far from giving land in lieu of land, they were not even resettled,” said Joshi, "Though state goverments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh took some initiatives regarding homesteads but the situation will not change unless we have a central law. Land reforms is a multi dimensional framework.”

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