Miles to go

By Sandip Das
Published: Friday 30 November 2007

Miles to go

A little over a year before the Janadesh march, a working group appointed by the Planning Commission had termed land reforms in India a "forgotten agenda". It minced no words in explaining why. "Policy makers are finding existing land reforms enacted on the basis of central guidelines of early seventies not only unwanted roadblocks but also obnoxious to the free play of capital in the land market," said the working group on land relations set up for the 11th Five Year Plan in its report in July 2006.

A legal framework was needed for settling all disputes regarding land ownership, said the group. More importantly, it suggested stopping indiscriminate, large-scale, environmentally damaging and socially harmful transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural use. But no one was listening. Not until 25,000 landless people marched to Delhi.

From the abolition of zamindari and distribution of land to the landless to the bhoodan (gift of land) movement, episodic attempts at reform have been stymied by the dominant classes in rural society since independence.

Surplus land distribution
Prior to independence, a large part of agricultural land was held by intermediaries under the zamindari and other tenurial systems; tenant farmers who tilled the land had to pay high rents. Issues relating to land and land tenures are state subjects, with the central government playing an advisory role. By 1961-62, all states had passed laws enforcing ceilings on land but the pattern of ceilings varied across states. The central Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling on Land) Act, 1971, tried to bring about uniformity by capping the ceiling for a family of five at 11.3 hectares (ha) of wetland and 21.9 ha of non-irrigated land. The land possessed by a family above these limits was called 'surplus'.

Since 1972, state governments have taken possession of more than 2.4 million ha of the 2.9 million ha declared surplus. Of this, nearly 2 million ha has been distributed to about 5.4 million farmers belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backwards Castes, according to the Ministry of Rural Development. West Bengal leads the pack with 412,800 ha redistributed, followed by Andhra Pradesh (234,700 ha) and Rajasthan (186,160). The remaining 323,750 ha is involved in litigation. Governments have also distributed about 6 million ha of wasteland and 600,000 ha of the 800,000 ha acquired during the bhoodan movement.

The figures look impressive, but only on the paper. On the ground, until September 2006, the ownership rights over 1.9 million ha of the 8.66 million ha distributed land (surplus, waste and bhoodan ) were yet to be conferred on tenants. And not all who got ownership rights are allowed to take possession; they are silenced by force. Besides, a large number of benami and clandestine transactions have resulted in illegal possession of a significant amount of land above ceiling, says the Planning Commission report. Often the transferred land is of poor quality.

A key component of the reforms policy has been the consolidation of fragmented agricultural landholding. Till date 70.38 million ha have been consolidated, according to the rural development ministry. But over the years other than Uttar Pradesh, all states have run out of steam.

Alienation of tribal land
Another important, and contentious, issue is stopping the transfer of land from the tribal people to non-tribals and the restoration of alienated tribal land. Until September 2006, 454,000 cases of tribal land alienation, involving over 1 million ha, have been registered. Of these 203,000 cases relating to a total 227,029 ha, have been disposed in favour of the tribal people.

Paradoxically, landholdings of the tribal people--there are 62 million of them--have decreased over the years. An expert group on 'Prevention of Alienation of Tribal Land and its Restoration' constituted by the Ministry of Rural Development, noted in April 2006 that the per capita availability of land for the tribal people has declined due to demographic pressure and, to a great extent, because of land alienation, despite constitutional and legal safeguards. Also, the majority of the landholdings of the tribal people are characterised by low productivity.

A large amount of land over which members of the Scheduled Tribes have had ownership rights or customary rights for centuries has neither been surveyed nor settled with clear proprietary titles, stated the report. Given this track record, it is not surprising that after over half a century, land reforms are still an unfinished agenda.

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