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India : Reviving Land Reforms ?

The government has notified a Draft Land Reforms Policy which, on paper, has all the requisites of an earnest programme. Yet, the near total failure of earlier efforts at land reforms in India leave little room for hope that something substantial will at last be done to combat landlessness.

Rural poverty in India is closely tied to conditions of landlessness or small unviable holdings. Even today, ownership and control of land remains central to economic and social well-being in the countryside. It is remarkable therefore that even the rhetoric of land reforms has long disappeared from the policy and political agenda as a serious instrument for battling rural poverty, and since the 1980s replaced by softer options such as micro-credit and wage employment programmes. The recent notification, on 18 July 2013, of a Draft Land Reforms Policy by the Government of India should be welcomed, at least as an opportunity to revive the debate about the continued relevance of land reforms, its agenda in the 21st century, and the prospects of its implementation.

In the first three decades after Independence, land reforms remained high in the stated agenda of governments and state administrations. Actual success was significant in the abolition of large estates, for which there was high political backing because the zamindars of the past were close allies of the British colonial rulers. The success in redistributing ceiling-surplus land, abolishing or regulating tenancy, allocating surplus cultivable government land to the landless, and preventing land alienation from tribal and other socially vulnerable landholders was, however, much more limited.

By the end of 2005, state governments across India had declared 7.34 million acres to be above ceiling (1.8% of India’s agricultural land). Of that land, the governments had taken possession of 6.5 million acres and distributed 5.39 million acres to 5.64 million households. The total acreage distributed amounts to approximately as little as 1% of India’s agricultural land, the beneficiaries being as few as 4% of rural households (Binswanger-Mkhize et al 2009 : 247). Even this was concentrated in a few states – West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, and Assam. West Bengal alone has around 40% of the country’s ceiling beneficiaries (Hanstad et al 2009). Poor rural households have been allotted 14.7 million acres of government wasteland (MRD 2003), which is a fraction of the estimated 32.57 million acres of culturable wastelands accounting for 4.3% of the total geographical area (Unfinished Task 2009). The success is greater at least on paper with tenancy rights – 12.4 million tenants, comprising around 5% households, have been given rights over 15.6 million acres of land, comprising again 5% of agricultural land (Hanstad et al 2009).

Ephemeral Gains

However, innumerable field studies demonstrate that even these modest gains are highly ephemeral on the ground. Large landholders benefited from numerous exemptions such as to bogus religious, educational, and charitable trusts ; they distributed land to their relatives ; they let go only of their most marginal lands ; or they continued to retain benami possession of many of these lands through fraud and force (Herring 2008). The culturable wastelands are often actually being cultivated by large, upper-caste landowners, and allotments to scheduled caste and scheduled tribe (SC/ST) landless households often remain on paper, as allottees are forcefully evicted or even not allowed to take possession. I have found in many villages that local revenue officials sometimes do not even measure or point out the allotted land to the landless households. In tribal districts where I served as a district officer in Madhya Pradesh, I tried to implement the land reform laws to restore land alienated fraudulently or coercively from tribal landowners, and found that these laws are probably those most unimplemented of all land reform laws, as millions of former tribal landowners are utterly powerless to engage with the unfamiliar legal system. There is no official data even of the extent of tribal land alienation, let alone of the restoration of land to them.

Tenancy was also subverted widely by misusing the provision for repossessing land for “personal cultivation”, large-scale eviction of tenants, collusion with local land authorities to ensure that their tenancy was not recorded, and even forceful dispossession of legal right-holders even after the transfer of legal titles to them. Appu (1996), one of India’s most credible scholar administrators, estimated that as high as a third of all tenant households in rural India were evicted from the lands that they cultivated to evade tenancy reform laws.

Impact on Landlessness

It is hardly surprising therefore that the cumulative impact of all these measures of land reform on rural landlessness has been negligible. The Draft Land Reforms Policy, using National Sample Survey Office (nsso) data (2003-04), notes that while one-third of all rural households are landless, those near to landlessness (less than 0.4 hectares) add up one-third more. The next 20% hold less than 1 hectare. In other words, 60% of the country’s population has rights over only 5% of the country’s land, whereas 10% of the population has control over 55% of the land (DLRP 2013). Even admitting that the data from 2003-04 is not strictly comparable to NSSO 1992, Rawal (2008) suggests that it shows an increase of as much as 6 percentage points in landlessness, while inequality in landownership also increased.

To the small extent that land reforms have actually been implemented on the ground, what has been its impact on the lives of those who received land allotments ? Many field studies show that while the possession of land added to their social standing and self-confidence, very often they were unable to cultivate it because supporting credit or grants were not available for land development and input costs (Iyer 1997).

This depressing history of the nearly failed project of land reforms in India and its negligible impact on rural poverty and landlessness is familiar both to scholars and administrators. In the light of this, what optimism can there be about the new Draft Land Reform Policy ?

Unexceptionable Draft

The content of the Draft Policy is largely unexceptionable. It begins with an appropriate affirmation of the continued relevance of land reforms.

India has the largest number of rural poor as well as landless households in the world. Landlessness is a strong indicator of rural poverty in the country. Land is most valuable (for) ...economic independence, social status and a modest and permanent means of livelihood ...identity and dignity and ...opportunities for realising social equality.

Harriss (2013) affirms that even though semi-feudal forms of landlordism no longer exist in the more capitalist framework of agriculture, there remains a strong case for redistributivist land reform because landed power remains a major factor in Indian politics and society.

What it proposed in concrete terms in the Draft Policy is to establish

[T]he mechanisms of preparing a land use plan for every village ...which will guide the best utilisation of each and every parcel of land, putting in place policies and systems for ensuring effective distribution of land to landless poor, protecting them from losing their lands, restoration of alienated lands, effective safeguards for lands of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, ensuring homestead rights, tenancy rights, land rights for the women and effective usage of common property resources.

It suggests the application of “modern scientific methodologies” to undertake “a detailed and comprehensive survey and documentation of the existing land area, its use, titles, and all the information relating to the land, so that its possible potential use can scientifically be determined”, and a land pool created in every village of wasteland and ceiling surplus land available for allotment to the landless.

Failure to Learn from the Past

The basic problem with this plan is that it forgets that the failure of the first generation of land reforms was not because of techno-managerial failures, but because of structural failures built into the political economy of a highly unequal society, in which caste, class and patriarchy converged with political and bureaucratic power to subvert redistributive land reforms. Indian agriculture has profoundly changed in the past two decades, but not at all in ways that are more conducive to a radical agenda like land reforms. Even the stated socialist goals of those times have been abandoned, leading a commentator like Thimmaiah (1997) to observe that

tenancy abolition and impositions of ceilings on landholdings have no justification when such restrictions have been scrapped in the industrial sector...Farmers should demand abolition of land ceilings.

If genuine political will to implement land reforms was absent in the heyday of Indian socialism, it seems idle to suggest that mere “modern scientific methodologies” such as information technology (IT) will help avoid the pitfalls of the past in post-socialist India. The Draft Policy therefore reads like a set of pious platitudes than a real plan for serious and imminent action.

Lower Ceilings

It calls for every state to revise its ceiling limits downwards if the existing limit is more than 5 to 10 acres in the case of irrigated land and 10 to 15 acres in the case of non-irrigated land ; to withdraw exemptions to religious, educational, charitable, research, and industrial organisations, and plantations ; to curb and monitor evasions of ceiling laws through fraudulent benami transactions, and to ensure actual possession. Again, as a set of goals, these are unexceptionable, but there is nothing in the document to suggest how the will to execute a new generation of ceiling laws will be mustered in a context of the sway of market economics combined with a rural situation in which caste and landownership continue to converge to dominate political power. Also, the average area owned per rural household has gone down from 2.01 hectares in 1961-62 to 0.81 hectares in 2003 (NSS 2003), leaving much less scope for surplus land from large holdings.

The prospect of the dawn of a new generation of land reforms is rendered even more unlikely by the contemporary deep agrarian crisis in India, reflected variously in slowing agricultural growth, reduced public investment in agriculture, the substantial withdrawal of formal rural credit, the dangerous over-exploitation of groundwater, the salinisation of agricultural lands, unequal integration with the global farm economy, an estimated 60 million “footloose” desperately poor people engaged annually in distress circular migration (Breman 2007), the unabated epidemic of suicides, and the permanent abandonment of the vocation of agriculture by an estimated 2,000 persons every day.

In such a situation, even if for a minute it is assumed that political will is mustered for actual implementation of land reforms, what sense will this make for landless SC or ST rural workers, unless the land is allotted within a much larger and comprehensive package of agrarian reforms, of renewed public investment in agriculture focusing on reviving sustainable technologies for smallholding rain-fed farming, of income protection and support to farmers, of watershed development in rainfed areas to develop land and conserve water, and of strengthening rural credit, among other measures. But there is no sign whatsoever of any such public priority and the near-terminal crisis in the farm sector continues. In such a scenario, a policy for a new generation of land reforms appears like a pie in the sky.


I am grateful for research assistance from my colleagues Shikha Sethia and Gitanjali Prasad at the Centre for Equity Studies.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.