Assessing Land Reforms in India

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At the eve of independence, the nation was into a state of deep crisis and so it’s people. Agriculture sector on which almost all the population was dependent for its livelihood was also severely distressed due to exploitative high levels of rent or revenue demand from the land( varying 50-85% of total produce!), multiple layers of intermediaries, rise of absentee landlord class and subinfeudation practices (i.e. delegation of revenue extraction rights to some intermediary at a fixed rent by the authorized landlord). Further, there was overcrowding in agriculture sector due to increasing population pressure and de-industrialization policies pursued by British rule. At the time of independence, about 60-70% of the total cultivable land was owned by landlords. Though the ownership rights were concentrated in few hands but the landlord class did not take any interest in the large-scale capitalist form of farming because of technological backwardness, capital inadequacy and no government support. So they leased it out to small farmers/tenants in fragments of land, Due to high fragmentation of land only traditional cultivating practices were viable. So neither the landholding class nor the British government tried to introduced innovative technologies, machinery or even fertilizers and pesticides to increase production as their interests were not tied to the productivity of the land. They were just used to bid their ownership rights to the highest bidder and extract that rent.

So land reforms became essential to be taken by the government after independence for redistribution of land in an equitable manner and to increase agricultural productivity. However, landholding class was all-powerful and had a political presence at that time. So to avoid the wrath of landholders and to not to get reform legislation stuck in courtrooms under the protection of fundamental rights(right to property), the government, rather than introducing the land reform legislation immediately after independence, acted in a calculated manner and introduced them later at appropriate times. In the first phase of land reforms, legislation was passed by parliament to target four key areas which were :

1. Abolition of intermediaries like Zamindars, Jagirdars etc.

2. Ceiling on the size of land holdings.

3. Tenancy reforms which included security of tenure to tenants, decrease in rents to a fair level and giving ownership rights of land to tenants.

4. Cooperative and Community Development Programs.

 Critical Observations :

  • Agriculture being a state subject, there was no uniformity of laws passed by the state government.

  • The nexus between landowners & revenue officials hindered efficient implementation of new land laws.

  • A major difficulty in implementing the Zamindari abolition acts, passed in most provinces by 1956, was the absence of adequate land records. As large percentage of tenancies were oral and informal and so could not reap the fruits of land legislation.

  • Tenancy reform laws led to the forced eviction of tenants so that nobody was there to claim tenancy rights. For example the planning commission panel on land reforms noted in 1956 that between 1948 and 1951, the number of protected tenants in the state of Bombay declined by more than 23%!

  • The upper limit of the land ceiling was high and varied from state to state. In some states, it was as high as 125 Acres! Further, there was enough time for large landholders to transfer their land in the name of their relatives and trusted one in order to enter the category of ‘small landholders’. So that they do not come under land reform laws.

  • A large number of exemptions to the ceiling act was permitted by most states following the second plan recommendations that certain categories of land like tea and coffee plantations, orchards, specialized farms, engaged in cattle breeding, dairying, wool raising etc.

  • Even after the laws were enacted, the landlords used the judicial system to stymie the acquisition of their estates by moving to the courts, raising issues like violation of their fundamental right to property and unjustness of the compensation.

Despite the presence of these anomalies in the land reform laws and its implementation, the whole effort received some success which can be summarized as follows:

  • A very perceptive observer of Indian land reforms, economist Daniel Thorner noted that despite all the evasions, leakages, loopholes, many millions of cultivators who had previously been weak tenants were empowered by these laws providing them ownership rights or security of tenure.

  • Abolition of Zamindari led to about 20 million tenants becoming landowners and another 20 million enjoying the benefits of reduction of rents to a fair and sustainable level.

  • There were wide regional variations in the implementation of ceiling laws with the states with greater political mobilization in favour of land reforms or states with stronger political will achieving a much higher level of success. For example, West Bengal which had only 3% of the national cultivated area contributed about 25% of total land declared as surplus(ready for redistribution) under the ceiling laws all over India.

  • By March 1985, 7.2 million acres were declared surplus out of which 4.2 million was distributed to about 3 million beneficiaries out of which around 50% of were members of Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes communities.’

Though the successes achieved are impressive and significant in the process of redistribution of resources(land and land income), the numbers could have been staggeringly higher, had the state governments shown a  stronger stance in formulation and implementation of land reform laws.

Interestingly, land reform remains a critical issue even in the modern era but with different approach and expectations. Even today agriculture consumes 60% of the land areas but contributes only 17% of GDP. So the current issue lies in improving agricultural productivity rather than the area under the agriculture. There is an urgent need to bring in National Land Use Policy to promote efficiency in land use, a liberal and rational land acquisition process and digitization of land records. Any effort made in these areas by central and state governments would be termed as modern era land reforms.

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