Essay on Land Reforms In India: An Unfinished Agenda

An agrarian country like India where more than 50 per cent population is dependent on agriculture as means of employment and sustenance, ‘Land’ plays a very important role. Land reform usually refers to equitable distribution of land between all the strata of society. Before independence our agrarian society was governed by semi-feudal principles. This society was broadly divided into four classes, the cultivating holders, the intermediaries cum cultivating holders, tenants-at-will and agricultural labourers. The agricultural labourers were the unemployed, underemployed and seasonally employed class of the agrarian society. Other classes constituted small and large land owners. This feudal structure of society led to the backwardness of society and sheer poverty among the rural masses, as land is the major source of wealth and social hierarchy.

In the pre-independence era three types of land revenue system existed in India, namely, ‘Ryotwari, Zamindari and Mahalwari. The Ryotwari system started in Madras in 1772. Under this system, the government had set responsibility of paying land revenue to the cultivator. In this system no middleman existed.

On the other hand, Zamindari system which started in 1793 under Lord Cornwallis, was the most draconian one. It went on to create intermediaries between state and the cultivator. Started in West Bengal and later on adopted in other states, the system remained till our independence. Landlords owned the land and rented them out to cultivators. However, the landlords never cultivated the land themselves but only collected revenue from the cultivators. The Company fixed the revenue rate very high which the zamindars extracted from the poor cultivators. Ultimately the farmers suffered greatly. The revenue was fixed regardless of the harvest. It made rent collection as a perennial problem.

Similarly, the third system was Mahalwari system. ‘Mahals’ signified villages. This system mostly was in practice in Western Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab etc. Here, the whole of village or mahal was responsible for payment of land revenue to the state. Therefore, the ownership of land was under a village body. The system was started by Lord William Bentick.

After Independence in order to get rid of the above rigidities, a committee was set-up under the Chairmanship of JC Kumarappa called as Agrarian Reforms Committee. It submitted its report in 1949 and became the main plank of land reform in our country. The committee suggested, abolition of intermediaries; fixing land holding ceilings; redistribution of surplus land among the marginalised. However, the time lag between passing the law and its implementation allowed for finding loopholes in the legislation. Intermediaries continued to exist even after abolition of Zamindari as they made legal or illegal transfers of land in the name of their relatives without actually being the cultivator of the land. Agrarian reform also suggested for tenancy reforms. It prohibited against any system of cultivation by tenants.

The Planning Commission of India sums up the objectives of the land reform in two comprehensive steps. First, to remove the impediments which hinders the agricultural production. Second, to eliminate all elements of exploitation and social injustice within the agrarian system. It will provide security to the cultivator and assure equality of status and opportunity to all the sections of the rural population. The Constitution makers also understood the importance of land. Therefore, land was made a Fundamental Right under Article 31. But due to innumerable cases in this regard 1st Constitutional Amendment changed the provision and made land as a legal right.

Some other notable efforts towards land reform in India are, Consolidation of land holdings; Bhoodan movement and Cooperative farming. Consolidation of land holding is aggregating of small fragments of land in an area and then purchasing it from the owner. Due to inheritance of land the property gets smaller with passing generation. Therefore, to make agriculture viable, government resorted to this technique. One of the most important events in the history of land reform is the Bhoodan Movement in 1951 that was started by Acharya Vinoba Bhave. He made an emotive appeal to rich landlords and appropriated almost 5460 lakh acres of land. But this effort was not successful, land donated was mostly not conducive for agriculture and only 25 % were distributed. Similarly cooperative farming was also promoted to solve the problems of sub-division and fragmentation of land holdings. However, in India the concept failed miserably as people were not agreeing to part with their land for community welfare.

After independence land reforms programme was started with great enthusiasm which was soon lost. The principal reasons behind this were lack of political will, absence of presume from the poor peasants, apathetic attitude of the bureaucracy, absence of up-to-date land records etc. Some states like West Bengal and Kerala took steps to better the fate of the agriculture labourers by providing security of employment to them ensuring prompt payment of wages to the workers and also by regulating the working hours.

In the Eleventh Five Year Plan tenancy was legalized in a limited manner. It provided security to the tenant for the contractual period, which could be long enough to encourage long-term investment by the tenant. Again one of the main objective of the Twelfth Five Year Plan is to move Indian agriculture from a low-productivity-staple-producing system to a rising-productivity-commercially oriented sector.

In the existing model of economic development followed worldwide, growth and wealth creation is dependent on setting up and expansion of industries. Development of infrastructure is a necessary precondition of this industrialisation led growth. Both setting up of industries and development of infrastructure require plenty of land. The British Government of India has legislated Land Acquisition Act of 1894 for this purpose. This law was heavily against land loosers. The matters were made worse because of rampant corruption in identifying land owners, fixing of suitable rates of compensation and actual payment of even the paltry sums assessed as compensation. There were many litigations and those with better access to Courts of Law could manage to gain much better compensation. This situation was somewhat redressed with the amendment of the Act in 1984. And there were separate Acts for acquisition of land for NHAI and Railways. A comprehensive legislation was promulgated in 2013, namely ‘The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act – 2013 (LARR) making the Land Acquisition process much more favourable to the land loosers, so that they are adequately compensated in case acquisition becomes necessary in public interest. But, this also made acquisition sometimes more difficult and time consuming. Keeping in view the interest of faster industrialisation, it was amended in 2014 through the Ordinance route to include the cases of acquisition under the other 19 Acts like that for NHAI and Railways, but diluted some of the provisions. ‘The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Amendment) Bill, 2015, popularly known as Land Bill passed by Lok Sabha and pending with Rajya Sabha seeks to replace the Ordinace. This Bill seeks to amend the Act of 2013. The Bill creates five special categories of land: (1) Defence, (2) Rural infrastructure, (3) Affordable housing, (4) Industrial corridors and (5 Infrastructure projects including Public Private Partnership projects where the Central Government owns the land. The Social Impact Assessment has been removed for these 5 categories decreasing the acquisition time for any project. But the present situation is that LARR-2013 is the ruling Act and some State Governments have amended its various provisions to suit its needs.

As we are in a phase of achieving sustainable economic development in the years to come, land and its contribution plays an active role in achieving this target. Since we are moving from an Agrarian economy towards an Industrial economy, the authoritative institution needs to ensure the appropriate use of land to meet this gap. Shortage of food supply in many areas and other land related problems which still exist tell us that yes, we do have an unfinished agenda on land reforms.

Land reform should include the people who will be affected by it. People should be the centre piece of any reform. The productivity of any legislation will be positive if the legislations are strongly implemented. Land should not become a tool of politics or violence rather it should be a facilitator of growth and development. The main purpose of land reforms is to help weaker section of society and do justice in land distribution that land should be allocated to the actual cultivator.