Land Reforms usually refers to redistribution of Land from rich to poor. Land reforms include Regulation of Ownership, Operation, Leasing, sale and Inheritance of Land. Land reform is the major step of government to assist people living under adverse conditions. It is basically redistribution of land from those who have excess of land to those who do not possess with the objective of increasing the income and bargaining power of the rural poor. The purpose of land reform is to help weaker section of society and do justice in land distribution.
India inherited a semi-feudal agrarian structure with oppressive tenure arrangements over substantial areas at the time of independence. Two hundred years of colonialism had shattered the basis of traditional Indian subsistence agriculture without bringing in any substantial changes.
At the time of Indian independence, not only intermediaries like ‘Zamindars’ and ‘Talukdars’ dominated the agriculture in the country but there, also, existed several layers of absentee landlords. Land was mostly concentrated in a few hands. To put this in perspective, on the eve of independence, around 60 to 70 per cent of the total cultivable land was owned by landlords. According to a report, at independence, about 60 per cent of rural households were either landless or small and marginal landholders and together held just about 8 per cent of the total area of cultivation.
This uneven distribution of land was made worse by the unfair tenancy arrangements, begar (forced labour) and illegal exactions by landlords, and rack-renting of the peasants. The agricultural production suffered due to lack of investment in the land, which, in turn, was a result of the above mentioned factors. The agriculture sector had also been under severe pressure due to shifting of people to agriculture in the wake of decline of traditional handicrafts and artisanal industries during the British rule. For agriculture, being the primary sector of the Indian economy at the time of independence, a consensus seemed to have had emerged in a broad spectrum of political opinion, on the need to reform the existing agrarian structure in the country, to drive the economy on a high growth path.
The land reforms process in India after Independence can be categorised mainly in two phases.
A phase of institutional (or the first phase) reforms started immediately after the independence and continued roughly till early 1960s. The following were the main features during this period:
- Abolition of intermediaries—zamindars, jagirdars, etc.
- Tenancy reforms involving providing security of tenure to the tenants, decrease in rents and conferment of ownership rights to tenants.
- Ceilings on size of landholdings.
- Cooperativization and community development programmes.
This was gradually followed by a phase of technological reforms (or the second phase) around the mid or late 1960s and witnessed the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. The two phases cannot be divided into rigid watertight compartments. In fact, they were complementary to each other and there was a fair degree of overlap in the programmes followed during these phases.
Soon after independence, the Congress Agrarian Reforms Committee, also known as ‘Kumarappa Committee’ for the first time, made a detailed survey of the agrarian relations prevailing in the country and forwarded comprehensive recommendations covering all issues of land reforms.
The committee opined that all intermediaries between the state and the tiller should be eliminated and land must belong to the actual tillers of the soil, subletting of land should be prohibited except in case of widows, minors and other disabled persons, persons who put a minimum amount of physical labour and who participate in actual agricultural operations should be deemed to cultivate personally, etc.
The committee, also, felt that there should be a ceiling to the size of holdings which a farmer should own and cultivate. The committee considered collective farming for the development of reclaimed waste lands, on which landless labourers could be employed.
While the Constituent Assembly was in the process of framing India’s Constitution, a number of provinces such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Madras, Assam and Bombay introduced zamindari abolition bills or land tenure legislation, which provided for removal of intermediary levels or layers of various amorphous and parasitic groups (zamindars) on the land between the state and the actual cultivators.
The Constitutional provisions were framed to allow the state assemblies to pass the pending zamindari abolition bills on payment of compensation to the owners of the land. The first amendment in 1951 and the fourth Amendment in 1955, further strengthened the hands of the state legislatures for implementing zamindari abolition, making the question of violation of any fundamental right or insufficiency of compensation, not permissible in the courts of low.
However, the zamindars made numerous appeals to the High Courts and Supreme Court to delay
the acquisition of their estates. Another major hurdle in implementing the zamindari abolition legislation was the absence of adequate land records. Amidst all these developments, the land reform process in the country was completed by the end of 1950s.
After the abolition of zamindari system, around 20 million tenants became landowners. It was believed that tenancy declined swiftly from 42 percent in 1950-51 to between 20 and 25 percent by the early 1960s. Land reforms helped tenants in many ways; it not only made them landowners but many of them were also evicted from the shackles of existing land owners.
Although the process of abolition of zamindaris was completed, it suffered from a number of limitations.
Reluctance of zamindars
- After the law was passed, the zamindars went to High courts and Supreme Court to stay the implementation of the law. Such litigations greatly reduced the effectiveness of these legislations.
- Even after the law was finally implemented, the zamindars refused to cooperate with the revenue authorities.
- The petty revenue officials at billage and tehsil level actively sided with zamindars for bribes. Thus, many years passed by, before the intention of zamindari abolition became a reality
Loopholes in laws
Most state laws permitted zamindars to keep part of land for personal cultivation. But the definition was vague. Zamindars misused this loophole to evict tenant farmers and keep most of the land with themselves. Zamindars started capitalistic farming in the area to increase productivity.
- Main beneficiaries of zamindari abolition were the superior tenants. While earlier, they had direct leases from the zamindar, then they became virtual landowners.
- These new landowners leased the same land to inferior tenants/sharecroppers, based on oral and unrecorded agreements.
- These inferior tenants/sharecroppers could be evicted as per the whims and fancies of the new landowners. Thus, even after the abolition of ‘Zamindari’, the system of ‘intermediaries’ and exploitation continued.
Despite the initial success of the zamindari abolition, laws failed to eliminate intermediaries from the agrarian arrangements in the country. It even created a new intermediary. Many economists do not attach much significance to zamindari abolition, as according to them, it merely changed the hierarchy of land revenue administration and did not bring any change in the method of farming nor in the nature of agricultural units.
After passing the Zamindari Abolition Acts, the next major problem was of tenancy regulation. Tenancy reforms aimed to regulate rents, provide security of tenure and confer ownership rights to tenants. The tenancy reforms laws provided the provisions for registration of tenants, or giving ownership rights to the former tenants to bring them directly under the state.
The political and economic conditions in different parts of India, however, were so varied that the nature of tenancy legislations passed by different states and the manner of their implementation, also, varied a great deal.
Security of tenure
Providing security of tenure was an important reform brought about during the first three five-year plans, via tenancy acts. Legislations for security of tenure had three essential elements:
- Ejection could not take place except in accordance with the provisions of the law;
- Land could be resumed by an owner, but only for personal cultivation;
- In the event of resumption, the tenant was assured of a prescribed minimum area.
Several states enacted legislations conferring security of tenure on tenants. But they were not uniform. Except for U.P. and Delhi, in no other state, tenants have been provided complete security. In some states, there was no provision for minimum land to be left for the tenants, in case of resumption of land for self-cultivation. In fact, the legislations even laid down the conditions under which the tenants were liable to ejection, on the grounds of nonpayment of rent, sub-letting the land and using the land for non agricultural purposes.
Regulation of rents
Before the enactment of laws regulating rents, tenants paid exorbitant rents ranging from 50 to even 80 per cent of the produce to the landlords. Legislations were passed to regulate the rents. Now, the maximum rates of rent were fixed at levels not exceeding 1/4 of the gross produce, in all states except in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab.
Rights of ownership
Several states passed necessary legislations to enhance the tenants ownership rights. In some states, the governments took over the land from the owners after paying compensation to them and then transferred the same to the tenants-cultivators in lieu of its price to state, in instalments. In others, the tenants were asked to pay a fixed compensation directly to the owners in instalments. The available data reveals that ownership rights were conferred on 7.2 million tenants on 5.9 million hectares of land. Laws imposing ceiling on agricultural holdings began to be implemented during the Third Plan.
During the process of the framing of the Constitution as well as after it came into force, the property provisions turned out to be the most controversial. Court cases challenging the agrarian reforms began to proliferate, and the 1st amendment to the Constitution became necessary. Introduced in 1951 in the provisional parliament, this amendment inserted new Articles 31A and 31B and the Ninth Schedule; thus, securing the Constitutional validity of zamindari abolition laws by, among other things, specifying that they could not be challenged on the grounds that they violated the Fundamental Rights.
Land ceiling means fixing maximum size of landholding that an individual/family can own. The objective of land ceiling was to make distribution of land more equitable. Land owned above the ceiling limit, was called surplus land. If an individual or a family owned more land than the ceiling limit, the surplus land was to be taken away with or without paying compensation to original owner and then this surplus land was to be distributed among small farmers, landless labourers, or to be even handed over to village panchayats or given to cooperative farming societies. Thus, ceiling on land holdings was an important step toward achieving growth with social justice Laws imposing ceiling on agricultural holdings began to be implemented during the Third Plan
The long delay, as well as the nature of the legislations, ensured that the ceilings would have a very muted impact, releasing little surplus land for redistribution. By and large, the ceiling laws in most states had certain major shortcomings such as:
- Firstly, in a situation where more than 70 per cent of landholdings in India were under 5 acres, the ceiling fixed on existing holdings by the states was very high. Moreover, in most states, initially, the ceilings were imposed on individuals and not family holdings, enabling landowners to divide up their holdings ‘notionally ’ in the names of relatives, merely to avoid the ceiling. Only in some states, where very few holdings exceeded the ceiling limits, such as in Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab , no allowance was made for the size of the family.
- Secondly, a large number of exemptions to the ceiling limits were permitted by most states following the Second Plan recommendations that certain categories of land could be exempted from ceilings. These were tea, coffee and rubber plantations, orchards, specialized farms engaged in cattle breeding, dairying, wool raising, etc. However, the exemptions were often carried to absurd limits with Tamil Nadu reportedly permitting twenty -six kinds of exemptions.
- Finally, the long delay in bringing in ceiling legislations to a large extent defeated its purpose. The large landowners had enough time to either sell their excess lands, or make mala fide transfers in the names of relatives and even make benami transfers. Further, the landowners also resorted to mass eviction of tenants, resuming their lands at least up to the ceiling limits, and claiming, often falsely, to have shifted to progressive farming under their direct supervision. Thus, by the time the ceiling legislations were in place, there were barely any holdings left above the ceiling and, consequently, little surplus land became available for redistribution. This was recognized by Congress leadership and the Third Plan also admitted it.
Bhoodan was an attempt at land reforms, at bringing about institutional changes in agriculture, like land redistribution through a movement and not simply through government legislations. Eminent Gandhian Acharya Vinoba Bhave drew upon Gandhian techniques and ideas such as constructive work and trusteeship to launch this movement in the early 1950s. Unfortunately, its revolutionary potential has generally been missed.
He and his followers set on a ‘padayatra’ (walk on foot from village to village) to persuade the larger landowners to donate at least one-sixth of their lands as bhoodan or ‘land-gift’ for distribution amongst the landless and the land poor. The target was to get 50 million acres as donation, which was one-sixth of the 300 million acres of cultivable land in India.
The movement, though independent of the government, had the support of Congress, with the All India Congress Committee (AICC) urging Congressmen to participate in it actively. Eminent former Congressman and a prominent leader of the Praja Socialist Party, Jayaprakash Narayan withdrew from active politics to join the Bhoodan movement in 1953.
Meanwhile, towards the end of 1955, the movement took a new form, that of gramdan or ‘donation of village’. Again taking off from the Gandhian notion that all land belonged to ‘Gopal’ or God, in Gramdan villages the movement declared that all land was owned collectively or equally, as it did not belong to any one individual. The movement started in Odisha and was most successful there.
By the 1960s, the Bhoodan/Gramdan movement had lost its elan , despite its considerable initial promise. Its creative potential essentially remained unutilized. Yet, the movement made a significant contribution by creating a moral ambience, an atmosphere, which, while putting pressure on the landlords, created conditions favourable to the landless
Cooperatives and Community Development Program
A wide spectrum of the national movement’s leaders including MahatmaGandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, the socialists and communists were in consensus that cooperativization would lead to major improvement in Indian agriculture and would particularly benefit the poor. Thus, cooperativization was seen as an important element in the agenda for institutional changes sought to be achieved through land reforms.
However, as in the case of the land ceiling issue, there was no general consensus, particularly amongst the peasantry, on the question of cooperatives. Correctly reflecting this situation, the Congress at independence made tentative proposals—like the state making efforts to organize ‘pilot schemes for experimenting with cooperative farming among small holders on government unoccupied but cultivable lands’.
In July 1949, even the Kumarappa Committee, recommended that the state should be empowered to enforce the application of varying degrees of cooperativization for different types of farming. The First Plan approached the issue more judiciously and recommended that small and medium farms, in particular, should be encouraged and assisted to group themselves into farming societies.
The early planners hoped that the village panchayat activated by motivated party workers and aided by the trained workers of the newly launched Community Development Programme (in October 1952) would not only help implement rural development projects but would help bring about critical institutional changes in Indian agriculture, for example, by assisting in the implementation of land reforms, by organizing voluntary labour for community work and by setting up of cooperatives. The Second Plan declared that “the main task during the Second Five Year Plan is to take such essential steps as will provide sound foundations for the development of cooperative farming so that over a period of ten years or so a substantial proportion of agricultural lands are cultivated on cooperative lines”.
The Third Plan, in sharp contrast to the Second plan, reflected the mellowed position regarding cooperativization and took a very pragmatic and cautious approach. As regards cooperative farming, it accepted a modest target of setting up ten pilot projects per district. At the same time, it put in the caveat that “cooperative farming has to grow out of the success of the general agricultural effort through the community development movement, the progress of cooperation in credit, marketing, distribution and processing, the growth of rural industry, and the fulfillment of the objectives of land reform”. This sounded like a wishful platitude, not a plan of action.
Types of Cooperatives
As for joint farming, two types of cooperatives were observed:
- First were the ones that were formed essentially to evade land reforms and access incentives offered by the state. Typically, these cooperatives were formed by well-to-do and influential families who took on a number of agricultural labourers or ex-tenants as bogus members.
- Second were the state-sponsored cooperative farms in the form of pilot projects and were previously uncultivated lands made available to the landless, harijans, displaced persons and such underprivileged groups.
Limitations of Cooperativization
Typically, the leadership of a cooperative, that is, its president, secretary and treasurer, consisted of the
leading family or families of the village which not only owned a great deal of land but also controlled trade and money lending. In fact, quite often, low interest agricultural credit made available through cooperative rural banks was used by such families for non-agricultural businesses, consumption and even money lending. Forming a cooperative helped evade the ceiling laws or tenancy laws. The influential members got the lands tilled by the bogus members who were essentially engaged as wage labourers or tenants.
Moreover, forming these bogus cooperatives enabled the influential families to take advantage of the substantial financial assistance offered by the state in the form of subsidy, as well as get priority for acquiring scarce agricultural inputs like fertilizers, improved seeds and even tractors, etc. The poor quality of land, lack of proper irrigation facilities, etc., in the government run cooperatives and the fact that these farms were run like government-sponsored projects rather than genuine, motivated, joint efforts of the cultivators led them to be generally expensive unsuccessful experiments. The expected rise in productivity and benefits of scale, which is a major ‘raison d’etre 1 of cooperative farming, was not in evident in these farms.
A common shortcoming of the cooperative movement was that instead of promoting people’s participation it soon became like a huge overstaffed government department with officials, clerks, inspectors, and the like, replicated at the block, district, division and state levels. A large bureaucracy , generally not in sympathy with the principles of the cooperative movement and quite given to being influenced by local vested interests, instead of becoming the instrument for promoting cooperatives, typically, became a hindrance.
Positives of the Cooperatives
It is evident that service cooperatives had started to play a very important role in rural India. Their role in making available a much increased amount of cheap credit to a wider section of the peasantry was critical. They not only helped in bringing improved seeds, modern implements, cheap fertilizers, etc ., to the peasants, but they also provided them with the wherewithal to access them. And, in many areas, they also helped market their produce. In fact, in many ways, they provided a necessary condition for the success of the Green Revolution strategy launched in the late 1960s, which was based on intensive use of modern inputs in agriculture.
During the decade of 1967-77, West Bengal witnessed increasing violence and chaos, a crisis of governance and splits in Congress, which ruled the state directly or through President’s Rule from 1969 to 1977. Unprecedented levels of state suppression were especially directed against the Naxalites and the movements of the rural poor. In the end, the CPI(M)’s popularity, combined with the mass reaction against the Emergency gave them victory in 1977, and the CPI(M), was able to form the government. Since then, the CPI(M) further consolidated its power and entrenched itself, especially amongst the peasantry . It succeeded in maintaining the left coalition as well as control of the government during the next thirty years, and through seven assembly elections.
After coming to power, the CPI(M) launched the programme called ‘Operation Barga’ which reformed the tenancy system in the interests of the bargadars (sharecroppers), who constituted nearly 25 per cent of the rural households. For decades, sharecroppers had suffered from the two ills of:
- Insecurity of tenure, for their tenancy was not registered, though law provided for permanency of tenure.
- high and illegal levels of the share of the crops they had to give to jotedars as rent. Jotedars will wealthy peasants of Bangal.
Through Operation Barga, which included politicization and mobilization of sharecroppers, by the party and peasant organizations, the government secured legal registration of sharecroppers; thus, giving them permanent lease of the land they cultivated and security of tenure, and enforced laws regarding the share of the produce they could retain while improving their income.
The reform of the jotedari system provided the incentive to all concerned, to increase production. It became a contributory factor in the ushering in of the Green Revolution and multicropping, leading to increase in income of both sharecroppers and jotedars. It also enabled those jotedars, who were cultivators to concentrate on increasing production. The government supplemented tenancy and land reform measures with program for providing cheap credit to sharecroppers and small peasants, saving them in the bargain from the clutches of moneylenders.
The years since independence have seen agrarian struggles of enormous variety, ranging from the legendary Telangana peasant movement and the PEPSU tenants’ movement, which continued from the pre-independence years, to the Naxalite or Maoist movements in the late 1960s and the ‘new’ farmers’ movements of the 1980s. Interspersed in between are many lesser-known struggles, such as the Kharwar tribals’ movement in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar in 1957-58, the Bhils’ movement in Dhulia in Maharashtra from 1967-75, or the Warlis’ struggle led by the Kashtakari Sanghatna headed by the Marxist Jesuit Pradeep Prabhu since 1978.
In Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, peasants protested against betterment levies imposed for covering costs of irrigation schemes, for better prices for crops, and other similar issues. The CPI set up the first nationwide agricultural labour organization, Bharatiya Khet Mazdoor Union, in Moga, in 1968.
In Tanjore and Kerala, movements of agricultural labour and tenants took place, as did numerous others all over the country. The trajectory of these movements in many ways maps the process of agrarian and social change since independence. Constraints of space do not permit an exhaustive account of these struggles; the choice has inevitably fallen on the more dramatic ones, while many quieter stories must await their turn.
New Farmers’ Movement
The farmers’ movements burst onto the national political stage in 1980 with the road and ‘rail roko’ agitation in Nasik in Maharashtra, led by the Shetkari Sangathana of Sharad Joshi. Nearly 200,000 farmers blockaded road and rail traffic on the Bombay -Calcutta and Bombay -Delhi route on November 10, 1980 demanding higher prices for onions and sugarcane. Led by the Vivasayigal Sangam in Tamil Nadu, the Rajya Ryothu Sangha in Karnataka, Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, Khedut Samaj and Kisan Sangh in Gujarat and the Shetkari Sangathana in Maharashtra, farmers in thousands and lakhs, at different times for different demands, stopped traffic on highways and train routes, withheld supplies from cities, sat on indefinite dharnas at government offices in local and regional centres, gheraoed officials, prevented political leaders and officials from entering villages, especially at election time, till they agreed to support their demands, etc.
The basic understanding on which these movements rested is that the government maintains agricultural prices at an artificially low level in order to provide cheap food and raw materials to urban areas, and the consequent disparity in prices, results in farmers paying high prices for industrial goods needed as inputs into agriculture and receiving lower returns for their produce.
These ‘new ’ farmers’ movements that attracted much media and political attention, especially in the 1980s, focussed mainly on demanding remunerative prices for agricultural produce, and lowering or elimination of government dues such as canal water charges, electricity charges, interest rates and principal of loans, etc. This has brought on them the charge that they are mainly vehicles for demands of rich or well-to-do agriculturists most of whom are beneficiaries of post-independence agrarian development, including the Green Revolution, and have little or no room for the concerns of the rural poor.
This is denied by the leaders and ideologues of the movements, who point to the diverse social base of the movement amongst medium and small peasants, as well as some other features such as inclusion of demands for higher minimum wages for agricultural labour and the insertion of women’s and dalits’ issues. These organizations have, however, shown scant concern for the landless rural poor or rural women. It is, however, true that they are broad based amongst the peasantry and not confined to the upper sections, as alleged by some critics, for smallerholding peasants are as much interested in higher prices and lower rates of government dues, since they, too, produce for the market and pay government dues.
While there is often justice in the demands for higher prices and better facilities, the basic rural versus urban or Bharat vs India ideology is essentially flawed, and can only lead the farmers into a blind alley of mindless resistances and state repression of which, inevitably, the smaller peasants are likely to be the chief victims. In fact, this is what happened in Tamil Nadu in 1981, where a very strong movement was killed by state repression brought on by refusal to repay loans and consequent forcible confiscation by government. Leading movements is as much about knowing when and where to stop as it is about knowing when and how to begin, as Gandhiji knew so well.
These movements are often referred to as ‘new’, the suggestion being that they are part of the worldwide trend of ‘new’ non-class or superclass social movements whic have emerged outside the formal political party structures, examples being the women’s and environmental movements.
The ‘new’ farmers’ movements are not all that new as similar demands were made by peasant organizations earlier as well, but without the regressive rural versus urban ideology. In Punjab, for example, a big movement was launched by the Kisan Sabha under the CPI’s direction against the imposition of a betterment levy or irrigation tax in 1958.
The other ground on which ‘newness’ is asserted is that these movements are not linked to political parties, whereas earlier organizations were wings of parties. This is only partially correct. While it is true that none of the organizations were started by political parties, it is also true that over time they have inexorably got linked to politics.
Tamil Nadu organization was the first to openly become a party and this led to the disarray in the All-India BKU which Naidu, the Tamil Nadu leader, had helped found, as distance from political parties had been enunciated as a basic principle of the organization. Karnataka Ryothu Sangha (KRS) contests in elections. Punjab BKU has retained the character of a farmers’ lobby more than any other, but did link up with Akalis when it suited them. Ideologically as well, the movement is deeply divided.
Sharad Joshi now favours liberalization, with the farmer being linked to the world market. Organizational and ideological unity have thus eluded the movement. Also, there has been a distinct loss of momentum in the 1990s and, by the index of longevity, the movements may be ranked quite low. The movements, no doubt, touched a vital chord amongst the peasants by drawing attention to the neglect and backwardness of rural areas; its problem remained that instead of focusing on redressal, it began to pit peasants and villagers against town dwellers in a fratricidal struggle, which is unnecessary.