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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 41

The UPA Government should Fulfil its Promise on Land Reforms

Friday 5 October 2007, by Bharat Dogra

The Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) clearly stated: “Landless families will be endowed with land through implementation of land ceiling and land redistribution legislation. No reversal of ceiling legislation will be permitted.”

Such a statement makes it very clear that even though land reform is a State subject, the UPA Government is fully aware of its responsibility to ensure that land reforms remains firmly on the nation’s agenda. Any reversal of land reforms will certainly lead to an escalation of agrarian unrest, and this is what no responsible government of a country with a vast rural base like India can afford to ignore. It is also well known that earlier various State governments had enacted ceiling laws based on strong policy directives from the Central Government.

HAVING made a firm commitment towards land reforms in the common minimum programme, what has been the actual record of the UPA Government? It has chosen to remain a silent spectator while one State Government after another have taken steps which amount to a violation of ceiling laws—and certainly the spirit of land reforms—while allocating land to influential persons, groups or companies. In addition the government itself has enacted laws like the Special Economic Zone Act which will displace a large number of peasants.

The Report of the Working Group on Land Relations for Formulation of the Eleventh Five Year Plan-2006 (hereafter referred to as the WGLREP Report) makes a strong plea for bringing back land reforms as a national priority and advances important recommendations for strengthening land reforms; but it appears that the government is likely to ignore its crucial recommendations.

The WGLREP admits quite frankly that land-reforms have been badly neglected in recent times. The Report says: “In the wake of economic liberalisation, land reform seems to have lost its flavour and favour with the government.” This Report does not hesitate to point out that “there is a strong lobby to enhance or give up land ceilings”. Pointing to the disturbing trends within the government to sabotage or derail land reforms, the WGLREP Report says: “From the mid-eighties when liberalisation started entering the Indian economy at first rather stealthily and then with thunderous gale force from 1991, land reform went off the radar screen of the Indian polity. It became a forgotten agenda. Marketeers in the government find it repugnant to talk about it, just in case the operators in the market get frightened by any state intervention in the land market. They are finding the existing land reform laws that were enacted on the basis of Central Guidelines of the early seventies not only unwanted roadblocks but also obnoxious to the free play of capital in the land market.”

This Report makes it clear that land inequalities are still high, very little has been achieved by way of re-distribution and still there is much scope for land redistribution in the near future. To quote, “Land holding still remains quite skewed. In 1995-96 tiny holdings constituted 78 per cent of the total operational holdings commanding 32 per cent of the area. Thus 22 per cent of operational holdings command 68 per cent of the arable area. It looks that there is still considerable scope of further vesting of surplus land even with the existing ceiling laws, not to speak of a situation with further reduction of family ceilings.”

REGARDING the progress during the Ninth Five-Year Plan period, this Report says: “There had been no progress in the detection of concealed land and its distribution to the landless poor.” On the progress during the Tenth Plan period, the WGLREP Report says: “The Tenth Five Year Plan witnessed lack of progress in the components of the land reforms programme, namely, implementation of land ceiling laws, security of tenure to tenants, etc. Land reforms took a back seat in the 1990s. The liberalisation policy has liberalised the land laws in order to promote large scale corporate farming which was in sharp contrast to the land reforms policy mainly based on equity considerations.”

In the context of this alarming neglect of land reforms in recent times, the people’s campaign— called ‘Janadesh’—should be used as an opportune time by the government to make up for lost time and assert its commitment to strengthening land reforms. Janadesh, a peaceful campaign of activists for social justice and land reforms, has announced a march of 25,000 oppressed of the earth from October 2 (Gandhi Jayanti) to October 29. This march will cover 322 kms from Gwalior to Delhi. This will be a suitable time for the government to announce wide-ranging steps for protecting the rights of the landless and marginal/small peasants.

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