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Mainstream, VOL LV No 44 New Delhi October 21, 2017

Have Land Reforms Vanished from the Government Policy in India?

Monday 23 October 2017, by Bharat Dogra


Despite the widely acknowledged fact that land reforms constitute one of the most important means of reducing poverty and improving food security of the weakest sections, it has been well known for a few years now that the Government of India is no longer keen to accord any important place to land reforms in its policies. Still during the ten years of the UPA Government ending in 2014, there used to be an occasional glimmer of hope from time to time that perhaps with some strong promptings from the people’s movements, some major initiatives may still be possible. Even that small hope appears to be vanishing now under the NDA Government.

On such issues one also feels the absence of the Planning Commission. The Commission may not have been able to push the agenda of land reforms effectively but at least it kept reminding the government about the importance of land reforms and sometimes even warned that the neglect of land reforms may prove too costly. But after the very arbitrary removal of the Planning Commission from the policy and planning scene at a very early stage of the NDA Government, it appears that there is no one now in the government to speak for keeping alive the agenda of land reforms.

Due to the almost complete neglect of land reforms these days by the Government of India as well as by most State governments, a question may well be asked: whether the time has finally come to say good-bye to the prospects of implementing significant land reforms in India. Despite the almost complete neglect these days of land reforms, however, we should not forget that some progress in land reforms can be made also by State governments acting on their own and prospects of pro-poor governments being elected in some States still remain somewhat more compared to the prospects of a genuinely pro-poor government at the Central level. If significant success in land reforms can be achieved in one or more States, then this can also raise the aspirations of the people in other parts of the country and so the issue of land reforms can remain alive. In fact at a very decentralised level if even in some panchayats good land distribution among the landless can be done effectively, then apart from the benefits of sustainable livelihood of several people, this will also raise aspirations in several villages and panchayats. Therefore, despite the dismal and discouraging attitude of most governments, efforts for the success of land reforms should continue at the grassroots and these should be linked to strong national and State-level campaigns about the need for as also the potential of land reforms.

There is absolutely no doubt that land reforms which can increase equality and justice in the distribution of farmland can be very useful in reducing poverty and strengthening the overall food security in the country.

Land scarcity is acute in India. India has 2.4 per cent of the world’s geographical area and 16 per cent of the world’s population. It has 0.5 per cent of the world’s grazing area but has over 18 per cent of the world’s cattle population. India has nearly 18 million landless farm/rural labour households, a total population of about 100 million.

In these conditions providing a secure land base to landless and near landless peasants is of the greatest significance to provide them food security and to reduce/remove their poverty.

Land reforms are an essential and extremely important component of any paradigm of development that sincerely wants to remove poverty and provide food security in the conditions prevailing in India.

After independence, India’s land-reforms efforts started with the aim of helping the landless farm toilers to become small peasants owning small plots of farmland. Seventy years later we can see that this effort did not succeed—the achievements are so small as to be negligible. On the reverse side, there is a much more massive drive to turn small and middle peasants into landless workers. This takes the form of massive displacement, land-grab, indebtedness, high costs, ecological ruin and other forms. This is perhaps the biggest tragedy of India’s agricultural experience that the noble aim of helping the landless farm workers to become farmers got reversed with the harsh reality of farmers turning into landless workers.

Therefore any comprehensive land-reforms effort should include both these essential components—providing land to the landless peasants and protecting the land rights of existing farmers.

Such a land-reform effort can be more useful than any other programme in reducing poverty, increasing productivity, ensuring food security as well as bringing peace and justice to Indian villages. What is more, such a programme can create the most enthusiastic mass base for a programme of ecological regeneration.

The Planning Commission has expressed its agreement with this key role of land reforms. In the Tenth Plan document the Commission stated: “In an economy where over 60 per cent of the population is dependent on agriculture, the structure of land ownership is central to the well-being of the people.”

While acknowledging the crucial importance of land reforms, this official document also admitted the government’s growing reluctance (even opposition) to take up this important task, “Land reforms seem to have been relegated to the background in the mid-1990s. More recently, initiatives of State governments have related to liberalising of land laws in order to promote large-scale corporate farming.”

The report of the Working Group on Land Relations for Formulation of the Eleventh Five Year Plan (the WGLREP Report) stated even more frankly: “There are serious concerns that the phase of economic liberalisation may be accompanied by further erosion of land-reforms.”1

These concerns have been summarised by a senior researcher, Pushpendra, “The pro-liberalisation lobby is for the removal of all restrictions on leasing, upward revision of ceilings on holdings, concessions to the industry for investing in rural infrastructure, unrestricted entry in rural areas for national and multi-national companies, agro-farm houses, food and fruit processing industries to lease-in or purchase land through direct interaction with the peasants, speeding-up the acquisition process by the government, export-led and demand-driven agriculture, and for the removal of all restrictions on conversion of land from farm to non-farm activities. There is also immense pressure on the government to make available land to private parties either through land acquisition process or from its own pool of land meant for distribution to the landless and the small and marginal farmers. Land being a State subject, some State governments have already made changes in this direction in their legislations. This has given birth to several apprehensions in certain quarters.”2

Making a comparison with the land reforms effort of other countries, S.R. Sankran, a distinguished senior official who was Secretary of Rural Development, Government of India, wrote: “...the extent of land redistributed was 43 per cent of agricultural land in China, 37 per cent in Taiwan, 32 per cent in South Korea, and 33 per cent in Japan, whereas in India, the efforts of the Central and State governments to enact, revise and implement the ceiling laws, spread over 35 years, resulted in the redistribution of only 1.25 per cent of the operational area.”3

Task Ahead

Within the framework of the Constitution of India, a lot of untapped potential for the wider implementation of land reforms remains.

A Planning Commission Report says: “It has been estimated that there are about 15 million hectares of cultivable wastelands and 26 million hectares of fallow lands which can be acquired, reclaimed and distributed for providing addi-tional income and employment opportunities to the marginal farmers and landless labourers.

S.R. Sankaran drew attention to the importance of better laws: “....much larger extent of surplus land can be acquired even within the purview of the framework of the existing ceiling legislation, with a few limited changes in the provisions of law, (for instance) in AP, a modification of law in line with the judgement of the Supreme Court in the Ashraffudin case can bring in a few lakh acres of surplus land”.3

In brief, the following action plan may be recommended:

  • Prepare a comprehensive plan to distribute at least 50 million acres of land to about 25 million landless and near landless peasant households in the country (about 2.5 acres of land each to the entire landless peasants and about 1.5 acres of land each to those marginal peasants who already have some land) over the next decade.
  • Launch a time-bound effective drive to ensure that wherever land pattas have been given to the poor, they should be able to occupy the land and cultivate it.
  • Similarly launch a drive to ensure that the distribution of remaining bhoodan land should be speeded up.
  • Initiate a special drive to ensure that ceiling land identified, but not yet distributed among the poor, can reach them.
  • Bring necessary amendments in land reform (including land ceiling) laws to make available more land for the rural poor.
  • Apply irrigated land ceilings in irrigated areas to get more land for the poor.
  • An immediate review of the implementation of FRA should be taken up and corrections should be introduced so that the task of correcting historical injustice is achieved. More specifically the high rate of claim rejections should be brought down significantly, the tendency to reduce land cultivated in most cases should be checked and those who couldn’t get the chance to present their claims should get proper help to present their claims.
  • If still several tribals and other poor farmers involved in disputes with the Forest Department are left out of the scope of this legislation, then in such cases efforts should be made to involve such people in tree-farming schemes so that the objective of increasing tree-cover can be reconciled with protecting the livelihood of these people and no evictions are necessary.
  • All cases of tribal land alienation should be resolved speedily so that the land of tribals is restored to them.
  • Groups of landless and rural poor should be mobilised to identify additional land that can be made available to them in and near their villages.
  • Encroachments by the rich on community land/government land should be removed strictly so that this land becomes available for community use and for the poor.
  • Reclamation of cultivable wastelands should be speeded up, preferably by providing rights and resources to groups of the rural poor themselves.
  • Legislation to curb farm land ownership by the urban rich and absentee landowners should be enacted.
  • Homestead land with full legal rights, preferably with some space for kitchen gardens, should be assured to all rural poor households.
  • As far as possible, fertile farmland should not be acquired for non-agricultural uses.
  • When this cannot be avoided, alternative land should be provided to displaced peasants by developing cultivable wastelands and in other ways (with additional compensation for resettlement). Dam evictees can be given a part of the newly irrigated land (which will have lower ceiling).
  • Land of any small peasant should not be auctioned to pay debts, or for other reasons.
  • Inexpensive technologies, based on better use of local resources, should be encouraged to reduce the economic losses of vulnerable farmers.
  • Spread of liquor shops, gambling and dowry system in villages should be checked.
  • Overall better resources should be made available for small farmers and for rural health.
  • Existing wild life laws should be changed to involve people in wild-life protection instead of displacing them from protected areas.
  • Equal land rights for couples (husband and wife) and in addition land rights for single women should be ensured.


1. Planning Commission—‘The Report of the Working Group on Land Relations for Formulation of the 11th Five-Year Plan’.

2. Pushpendra, ‘Liberalisation and Agrarian Reforms: Some Recent Controversies’. This paper is published in Land Reforms in India—An Unfinished Agenda, edited by B.K. Sinha and Pushpendra.

3. S. R. Sankran’s Introduction in Land Reforms in India edited by B. N. Yugandhar.

The author is a freelance journalist who has been involved with various social movements and initiatives.

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