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The relevance of land reform in post-liberalisation India

By D Bandyopadhyay

Land reform is a forgotton agenda in State policy today. But given the jobless growth of the Indian economy and the spurt in rural violence, with people protesting their lack of access to land, water and jungle, it is land that must provide livelihoods not only to labour already attached to agriculture and allied pursuits, but also to a segment of surplus urban unemployed returning to rural areas for shelter and livelihood. This can only be facilitated by a consistent land reform policy



There is a lot of literature on the present problems in agriculture, including several volumes of the Swaminathan Commission report. All of it deals with techno-economic factors such as the lack of public investment in the primary sector, unfavourable terms of trade for agriculture, chemical fertilisers, absence of institutional credit facilities, etc.

All of these factors are important. But there has never been any serious discussion on the mode and relations of production in agriculture. These techno-economic factors must be viewed in the context of agrarian relations. Unless agrarian relations are conducive, the availability of investment, credit etc will not by themselves solve the agrarian crisis.

West Bengal is now recognised as an agriculturally advanced state. But from 1891 to 1981, agricultural growth rates in Bengal varied between 0% and 1% per annum. The century-old stagnation came to an end in 1982-83 thanks to a conglomeration of a number of conducive forces in production relations. This point is often ignored by the agriculture pundits: land reforms in West Bengal played an important role.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography offers a vivid account of the participation of peasants and agricultural workers both in the civil disobedience movement of 1921 and the non-cooperation movement of 1931. Peasants took part in these movements in large numbers and suffered repression and police atrocities in the hope that political freedom would be accompanied by their emancipation from the oppression and bondage of the taluqdar and zamindar who were the ‘lords of the land’ and whom Nehru described as “the spoilt children of the British government”. Swami Sahajanand, the first president of the All-India Kisan Congress (then a front organisation for the Indian National Congress) asserted in 1936 that “no compromise was possible between the peasants and the landlords except dispossession of zamindars of their land” (Bandyopadhyay: Land Labour and Governance, World View, Kolkata, 2007, p 102). Radical land reform was accepted as a post-Independence programme of action by a large section of the Congress, particularly those who described themselves as the “Congress Socialists Group”.

Soon after Independence, the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) set up the Congress Agrarian Reform Committee, commonly known as the Kumarappa Committee. Among other measures, the committee proposed fairly radical ceilings on land. The First Five-Year Plan generally endorsed the recommendations of the Kumarappa Committee and left it to the states to implement the ceiling provisions depending on the realities of each state. Since then, land reform has been an item for action in all five-year plans. In the Seventh Five-Year Plan, there was a clear statement linking land reform with other major programmes in the plan. It stated clearly: “Land reforms have been recognised to constitute a vital element both in terms of the anti-poverty strategy and for modernisation and increased productivity in agriculture. Redistribution of land could provide a permanent asset base for a large number of rural landless poor for taking up land-based and other supplementary activities. Similarly, consolidation of holding, tenancy regulation and updating of land records would widen the access of small and marginal landholders to improved technology and inputs thereby directly leading to increase in agricultural production.” In short, this document, though late in the day, acknowledged the centrality of land reform in the whole process of rural development and poverty alleviation.

After this late recognition came the tsunami of liberalisation which drowned all issues of fairness and justice in the socio-economic field.

Enthusiasm for land reform abated in the early-’60s when India faced a major food crisis, particularly in the eastern region. Naturally, the focus shifted from land reform to enhancement of foodgrain production and productivity. Land reforms retreated from the foreground. But rural unrest in the late-’60s and early-’70s brought it into sharp focus again. In 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi convened a meeting of chief ministers to tackle the problem of rising rural unrest, commonly known as ‘Naxalism’. At that meeting, the then Home Minister Y B Chavan made his oft-quoted famous statement: “We will not allow the green revolution to turn into a red revolution.” At the meeting, a consensus was arrived at to reduce land ceiling and to introduce family-based ceiling on land, tenancy reform and other similar measures.

However, things did not happen the way one would have expected. Reviewing the situation almost a decade later, the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980-85) observed: “If progress on land reforms has been less than satisfactory, it has not been due to a flaw in policy but to indifferent implementation. Often the necessary determination has been lacking to effectively undertake action, particularly in the matter of implementation of ceiling laws, consolidation of holdings and in not vigorously pursuing concealed tenancies and having them vested with tenancy/occupancy rights as enjoined under the law” (p 115).

When neo-liberal economic policies hit India with gale force in 1991, land reform went off the radar of the Indian polity; it became a forgotten agenda in State policy. Marketeers dominated all segments of governance and they found it repugnant to talk about land reform or even mention it in polite society in case investors and other big operators in the market were frightened away by any sign of government intervention in the land/lease market. They considered the existing land reform laws that were enacted on the basis of central guidelines in the early-’70s not just roadblocks but detrimental to the free play of capital in the land/lease market. In short, they wanted to do away with the peasantry and the peasant way of life. For many of them, land reform had become totally irrelevant, an undesirable anachronism in the heady days of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation.

This is one side of the story. On the other side, according to our present prime minister, ‘Naxalism’ poses the most serious threat to the internal security of the country. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ assessment, in 2006, was that 120-150 districts in 12 states were “Naxal-infested”. Obviously, normal writs of the State did not operate in these areas. Thus, a huge chunk of mainland India was being “governed” by extra-legal and, in some places, illegal authorities. The assessment also showed that militants, whoever they were, had established a rapport with the local population due to which they were able to move about freely evading and avoiding the pincers of the law-enforcing authorities. They were proving to the hilt Mao Tse-tung’s doctrine of ‘Fish in Water’, where the fish were the militants and the water the mass of disgruntled, disaffected peasantry and landless agricultural workers. If the disaffection of the latter could be substantially reduced, the water would evaporate and the militants disappear.

The present spurt in rural violence has once again highlighted the issue of poor people’s access to land, water and jungle. Will there be a knee-jerk response from the State in terms of temporary palliatives? Or will there be a consistent long-term policy framework for land reform in all its different facets? That is the issue that confronts the intelligentsia today.

The rural violence that we are currently witnessing in India is not an isolated and totally indigenous event. There aresimilar movements in several countries in Latin and Central America and in parts of South Africa, the Philippines and Indonesia. What we are seeing in these countries, in the form of violent land movements, is basically the ‘third wave’ of Left politics. As the agrarian crisis becomes more acute, there is a deepening of the political vacuum in the countryside. The traditional parties of the Left, which had a rather nebulous relationship with the dispossessed in the countryside, have by and large succumbed to the logic of capital, either to obtain power or to continue in power after obtaining it; they eschew Marxian Left policies although many still carry the name of Marx on their breastplates as a brandname. Some of these traditional Left parties openly and unashamedly promote neo-liberalism in its crude form, discarding even the figleaf of egalitarianism, not to mention socialism.

Third wave ‘virulent’ Left politics is the direct result of the traditional Left’s subservience to the needs of capital exhibited through its adherence to neo-liberal economic reform policies. So we have the violent Maoist movement in India, the Zapatistas in Mexico, PARC in Columbia, MST in Brazil, and the Hook in the Philippines.

The hopes our early planners had -- that with the country’s rapid industrialisation, surplus labour in agriculture would be drawn away and absorbed into the secondary and tertiary sectors -- were never realised. At the end of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, almost 60% of India’s labour force is still engaged in the primary sector, contributing around 21% to the country’s GDP. Industry employs 17% of the labour force, producing 27% of GDP. What is happening in India is not unique. China, which is today the third largest country in the world for manufactured commodities, still has 49% of its labour force engaged in agriculture, producing 15.2% of the country’s GDP; industry engagesonly 22% of the labour force, contributing 52.9% of GDP (figures quoted from ‘Pocket World in Figures 2007: A Concise Edition’, The Economist, p 60 and p 66). This shows that macro-economic growth in both these contexts has failed to create better prospects for the rural poor in allowing them to acquire productive assets, get gainful employment or significantly improve their income and quality of life.

Employment figures for the organised private and public sectors present a dismal picture. In 1991, total employment in this segment was 267.33 lakh. It went up to 282.85 lakh in 1997. Since then it had been continuously dropping. In 2004, the figure was 264.43 lakh, 3 lakh less than the figure for 1991 when liberalisation was initiated. We are therefore witnessing a gradual squeezing out of regular employment, increasing the pool of the urban unemployed. What is also happening is that regular jobs are being ‘casualised’ in the organised sector. Casual employment is also getting ‘feminised’, putting a greater burden on women to earn a livelihood and look after the household. The ILO describes this situation as the “feminisation of poverty”.

It is now evident that the UNDP’s prediction in the mid-’90s -- of ruthless, pitiless, uncaring ‘jobless growth’ -- is turning out to be true in the Indian context. As a result, a majority of the additional labour force in rural areas will necessarily have to be absorbed both in the farm and non-farm segments of the rural economy. We may also have to deal with the back-flow of urban labour of rural origin rendered unemployed through the process of jobless growth. Under the circumstances, land will have to provide some sort of livelihood not only to labour already attached to agriculture and allied pursuits, but also to a segment of surplus urban unemployed returning to rural areas for shelter and livelihood. Hence it is being increasingly recognised that without a significant policy shift towards comprehensive land reforms, including a programme for getting more land under ceiling laws for redistribution, security of tenure for tenants-at-will, access of the poor to common property resources (CPR), proper social and economic rehabilitation of displaced people from coercively acquired land, a further deterioration of the economic, social and political conditions of the rural poor can neither be arrested nor reversed.

The interaction between poverty, food security and resource rights is starting to bring about a refocusing of national and international agendas on the revival of agrarian reforms and resource tenure for agricultural communities as well as fisherfolk and coastal communities, forest-dwellers, pastoralists and other traditional resource users.

Agrarian reform is primarily about changing relationships. First, it aims to change access and tenure relationships. Second, it aims to change the current culture of exclusion so that the poor gain access to credit, technology, markets and other productive services. Third, it aims at making the poor active participants in the development of policies and programmes affecting them and their livelihoods.

While talking about redistributive land reforms, coercive evictions from land and livelihood because of compulsory acquisition of land for ‘development purposes’ are greatly aggravating poverty distress and landlessness of project-affected persons (PAP). A well-known scholar Dr Walter Fernandes estimated that between 1951 and 2005, roughly 55 million people were forcibly evicted from their land through land acquisition processes. This is a colossal figure; it is more than the population of the majority of member countries of the United Nations. Tribals constitute 40% of PAP;the absolute figure would be around 22 million out of a total tribal population of a little over 80 million. It appears that tribals who have the least sustaining power have borne the brunt of development. It is estimated that only 18-20% of displaced tribals have been properly resettled and rehabilitated. Thus a vast majority of displaced, homeless, landless and jobless tribals is moving about like flotsam and jetsam in the cruel development process. They are depressed and dejected, annoyed and angry.

The situation is worsened by the almost mindless ‘landgrabs’ in the name of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). This is nothing short of the rich man grabbing the poor man’s land for himself. It is difficult to come up with exact figures as they change every day, but this new landgrab has given rise to sharp popular resistance as witnessed in Nandigram in West Bengal and Jagatsinghpur in Orissa. Halfway across the world, in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico, indigenous people declared in 1980: “We demand absolute respect for our communitarian self-determination over our land, over our natural resources and over the forms of organisation that we wish to give ourselves. We are opposed to having our natural resources plundered in the name of a supposed national development.”

Our scheduled tribe (ST) leadership had been demanding almost the same thing. Partly in response to this, the central government enacted PESA in 1996 giving substantial power to the gram sabha and other tiers of the panchayat in the fifth scheduled areas. Unfortunately, state governments observe the law more in the breach than in adherence, fuelling tribal anger against the establishment.

Common property resources (CPR), where every member of the community has easy access and usage facilities, used to be an integral part of the social and economic life of the village poor, particularly landless and land-poor households. Among the landless, a vast majority belonged to dalitgroups which had to depend heavily on CPR for their survival. A study in seven states in semi-arid areas indicated that CPR accounted for 9-26% of the household income of landless and marginal farmers, 91-100% for their fuelwood requirements and 69-89% for their grazing needs (Jodha, 1986, Reclaiming Land).

The expropriation of CPR in order to hand land over to the corporate sector for agribusiness and industry has caused ‘de-peasantisation’ among farming communities and accentuated the misery of already poor landless and marginal farmers, most of whom are dalits. Depeasantisation directly increases landlessness and acute poverty, coupled with assetlessness and debt bondage.

The last five decades of ceiling law application in the country have resulted in the vesting of 7.43 million acres of land, of which 5.70 million acres were taken over and 4.34 million acres distributed among roughly 5 million beneficiaries. The total area vested is less than 1% of the total area of 812.63 million acres in the country; barely over 2% of arable land area.

The National Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO’s) survey of land ownership patterns in 2003 also shows extremely skewed landholding patterns. At the all-India level, marginal and small owners constituted 90.40% of the total number of owners. But they owned only 43.43% of land, whereas medium and large farmers who constituted only 9.60% of landowners owned as much as 56.21% of land. Therefore the argument that there will be no land available for a third wave of acquisition of ceiling-surplus land is incorrect.

The achievements so far have hardly been worth writing home about. There is enough evidence the world over to show that self-cultivation on small farms yields significantly higher levels of productivity than large farms cultivated by tenants or hired labour. Therefore, equity and efficiency demand that the ceiling limit be drastically reduced to the level of 5 to 10 acres per family. Since the various classifications of land provide ample opportunity to landowners to evade ceiling, the law must come up with a simple definition of land as given in the standard English dictionary. If this is done, a number of escape routes will be blocked in one stroke. Moreover, the law must provide for the cancellation of all benami and farzi documents retrospectively, as these are proven methods of evasion.

On the tenancy front too the picture is not very bright. The National Sample Survey (NSS) figure of 6-7% is generally admitted to be an underestimation. Tenancy being illegal in many states, respondents often do not disclose the truth. Several micro-studies indicate that the incidence of tenancy varies between 15-35%. These are all concealed tenancies run under extremely exploitative terms, under oral contracts. The emergenceof the phenomenon of reverse tenancy is also cause for serious concern. Hence,while discouraging the earlier system of rent-seeking sub-infeudation, leasing-in and leasing-out of land for cultivation should be permitted within a ceiling limit. All non-owner crop-sharing tillers of land should be recorded, prescribing fair sharing of crop @ 75% (for the tiller) and 25% (for the owner), and they should have heritable rights of cultivation without title to the land. The moment recorded sharecroppers get a certificate of sharecropping they will become bankable. This will infuse institutional credit to augment both production and productivity.

Other points to be considered could be:

  • A massive operation should be undertaken to restore alienated tribal lands to their rightful tribal owners.
  • Appropriate amendments of the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition Development) Act of 1957 in tune with PESA.
  • Issue of ‘user pattas’in the names of women and men for use of CPR including tree pattasfor forest-dwellers and water pattasfor fisherfolk over inland or coastal CPR waterbodies.
  • Setting up of a dispute settlement mechanism at the gram panchayatlevel with gram panchayatmembers and representatives of beneficiary groups, with a representative of the bureaucracy as a member-convenor, to keep records and explain the legal position.

All these points have to be thrashed out through intense public debate.

In real terms, land reform must entail the disempowerment of a small empowered caucus of people and the empowerment of many powerless people by the transfer of land resources from the former to the latter, through State intervention. In a democratic society, this can be carried out without bloodshed. But there will inevitably be some tears. Therewill be strong resistance from vested interests, particularly among the landowning classes. The key to success will be strong organisations of prospective beneficiaries vociferously demanding change in their favour, backed by equally forceful political will on the part of the State intervening on behalf of the rural poor and dispossessed. The birth of a better social order cannot be without its birth pangs.

(D Bandyopadhyay is an authority on land reforms in India. He is executive chairperson and honorary director of the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008