Let us make an in-depth study of the subject-matter, meaning, objectives and different measures of land reforms.
Land reform constitutes the most important package of measures to improve the economic condition of agricultural tenants.
It aims at the redistribution of land-ownership in favour of the cultivating class (so as to make them feel themselves a part of the rural life), regulation and rationalisation of rent, improving the size of farms and providing security of tenure in order to transfer in traditional agriculture and raise cultivators to new heights.
Land reform also helps landless agricultural tenants.
Thus, two main objectives of land reform are:
(i) to change the agrarian structure in a way as not to obstruct but promote the growth of agriculture; and
(ii) to replace the old land system by a new one, free from the exploitative features which characterised the former.
In short, growth and social justice are the two basic objectives of land reform in India.
Meaning and Objectives:
Land reform means provision for proper institutional system for the development of agriculture. In the ultimate analysis, agricultural development and rise in productivity depends upon two factors technological and institutional. Among the technological factors are the use of agricultural inputs and methods such as improved seeds, fertilisers, improved ploughs, tractors, harvesters, irrigation, etc., which help to raise productivity, even if no land reforms are introduced.
Institutional hindrances act as disincentives to the farmers to increase production, weaken their capacity to save and invest in agriculture as also to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Hence there is the need for institutional reforms. Land reform, especially the establishment of peasant proprietorship, is the most important aspect of institutional reform in Indian agriculture.
Ending the exploitation of the poor by the rich, narrowing economic inequality and, ultimately, moving towards egalitarian set-up are among the chief aims of these principles. The rehabilitation of agriculture is also one aspect of Directive Principles of State Policy. Land reforms become indispensable to this end and thus help to move towards establishing an egalitarian society.
Various land reform measures have been adopted in India during the plan period.
These can be classified as follows:
1. Removal of intermediaries between the State and cultivators;
2. Providing security of tenure and ownership to the tenants;
3. Rationalisation of the rent structure;
4. Fixation of ceiling on land-holdings and the redistribution of surplus land among landless cultivators; and
5. Consolidation of holdings to transform agriculture into a profitable activity.
1. Abolition of Intermediaries:
The abolition of intermediaries started in India in 1948 with the enactment of legislation in the then Madras (Chennai). Since agriculture is a State subject, no Central legislation could be enacted. Different States have passed different laws from time to time depending on their political environments and the demands of the situation.
Legislation was passed in almost all States except in Assam, Gujarat, Chennai and Maharashtra. West Bengal is perhaps the only State affected by the adverse effects of absentee landlordism and was able to enact legislation for abolition of intermediaries in 1954-55. As a result of the conferment of rights, about 30 lakh tenants and sharecroppers in India acquired ownership rights over a total cultivated area of 62 lakh acres during the entire plan period.
Critics, however, comment that while the basic objective of land reform was to abolish intermediaries between the tiller and the State, in reality, the legislative enactments equated intermediaries with zamindars and, consequently, the legislation left a class of rent-receivers and absentee landlords virtually untouched. The truth is that the Governments at the Centre and in the States began to give thought to curtailing the power of non-zamindari rentier class only at a subsequent “stage of their agrarian policy.
Up to 1972, when the old ceiling laws were in force, only about 23 lakh acres were declared surplus in India, out of which only about 13 lakh acres were redistributed. It is surprising to note that in four major states, viz., Rajasthan, Karnataka, Orissa and Bihar, no land was declared surplus. So the ceiling legislation could be imposed in those States.
Up to 1992, 75% of the land involved in litigation before the Revenue Courts should have been freed and distributed. But the progress of the distribution of surplus land was very slow and tardy. In fact, between March 1985 and June 1992—a span of more than 7 years—only 7.11 lakh acres could be distributed additionally.
According to National Sample Survey (26th Round, 1971-72), the surplus land should have been 30 million acres and not just 4 million acres, as had officially been declared. The perfunctory manner in which land reform has been dealt with since 1977 makes it quite clear that the basic approach to acquiring surplus land, plugging loopholes in tenancy cultivation, reducing rent, preparation of land records, and redistribution of land among the landless labourers and marginal farmers continues to be half-hearted, casual and sporadic.
By and large, all intermediary tenures have been eliminated and over 20 million farmers have been brought into direct relationship with the State. Some of these tenures were of great antiquity and their abolition represents a remarkable transition to modernised agriculture.
2. Tenancy Legislation:
Measures (2) and (3) fall under the broad measure of tenancy reforms. Tenancy legislation has by now been passed in every State to remove the difficulties of tenants, both tenants-at-will and sub-tenants. The living conditions of them are deplorable in so far as they are subject to ruthless exploitation, frequent enhancement of rent, eviction at will, extractions of other kinds and the cruel system of begar. According to one estimate, about 20% of agricultural land are under the system of such non-occupancy tenancy. The National Sample Survey (98th round) puts the figure in different states as varying between 11% and 26%.
Tenancy legislations have taken three main forms:
(1) Regulation of rent,
(2) Providing security of tenure and
(3) Conferring rights of ownership for tenants.
The maximum rates of rent that can be charged have come to be fixed or regulated by such legislations. Before 1951, as much as 50% or more (even 70 to 80% in some cases) of the output was to be paid as rent. Besides, most cultivators had also to render some free services to the landowners.
The Planning Commission recommended (during the First and Second Five Year Plans) that land rents should not exceed one-fourth or one- fifth of the gross produce of the land. In the light of this guideline, all the States have enacted laws for fixation of rent payable by cultivating tenants.
However, large inter-State variations exist in the fixation of land rent rates which are different in different places even within the States. While in Orissa and Bihar the rate has been fixed at one- fourth of the gross produce, in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Kerala the maximum rate is one- sixth of the gross produce. In States like Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu the rates are much too high. Thus, we see a lack of uniformity in the fixing of rents of land. The rate normally varies between 20 to 25% of the gross produce of land.
Tenancy legislations have made it clear that in no case the tenants can be evicted except only in the situation where the landlords themselves want to resume cultivation. Tenancy legislations have made it obligatory to leave a minimum area for the tenant. The overall purpose is to confer upon the tenants-at-will the right of permanent occupancy so that they might be enthused in land and agricultural improvement.
Of all the measures to reform the tenancy system, the most important step is the rights of ownership for tenants. Legislations have been, enacted in most of the States to this end. Clear-cut directives were also given to all States to pass laws in this regard in 1973. But laws are different regarding the manner of acquiring ownership rights, the amount of compensation to be paid to landlords, etc., in different States.
3. Ceiling on Land-Holding:
Almost all States have enacted necessary legislations for redistribution of surplus land after determining the ceiling on land holdings. The permissible size of holding varies according to the quality of land. The ceiling legislations were revised on the basis of guidelines formulated in 1972.
Lands are usually divided into different categories on the basis of irrigation, nature of soil, etc. However, a few categories of farms—viz., plantations, orchards and sugarcane farms operated by sugar factories—are exempted from the ceiling.
Farmers who have excess land over the ceiling fixed will have to surrender the surplus amount to the State against due compensation. The surplus land will be vested in the State and will be distributed among the landless labourers and small and marginal farmers with uneconomic holdings.
Operation barga implies the right of the cultivator, i.e., the bargadar, to cultivate land which the belongs to the owner, i.e., the jotedar. Under ‘operation barga’, share-croppers or bargadars get legal sanction from the jotedar regarding their rights on land. Under the scheme, the names of the bargadars, quantum of crops produced, ‘numbers’ of different plots of land, etc. are given in the form of a receipt to the bargadar by the jotedar. In this way, eviction of tenants from land is stopped.
An Overall Assessment:
Radical transformation of land relations has been recognised as a key to India’s economic development since 1930s. The right to implement the land reform policies is vested in the State Governments. Some States had started the removal of intermediaries even before the First Plan (1951- 56). This had the effect of bringing a vast amount of cultivable waste land and forest land under State proprietorship. Out of it, quite a significant quantity—58 lakh hectares of land—has been distributed among landless cultivators.
The programme of land reform—in terms of the twin objectives of growth and social justice— may be said to have been formulated in the right direction. And land reform measures were conceived boldly but were implemented badly. The basic defect of the Indian land reform policy has been the low pace at which the whole programme moved. Consequently, even after the removal of intermediaries, cultivators have not become owners of the soil, but remained tenants and sub-tenants.
The various legislative measures introduced to this end did not produce any real benefit to the small and marginal farmers. The landlords, the jagirdars and other vested interests got sufficient time to devise ingenious methods to dodge legislative measures. In most of the States, for example, landlords have avoided the law of ceiling on land- holding by keeping their land in fictitious names.
The Sixth Plan (1980-85), deploring the slow progress of the land reform laws, notes that “the will to implement this policy has been badly lacking all along.” As a result, extent of rural poverty was not reduced at all. The growing rural distress has been converting the poorer cultivators into agricultural labourers. The number of agricultural labourers was 31 million in 1964-65 but increased to 73.7 million in 1991. The rise in such labour force has been mainly in States like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, U.P. and West Bengal.
There are also inter-State differences in land reforms in regard to fixing the ceiling on holding, the maximum rate of rent on land, etc. Some States have not given the tillers the optional rights to purchase the land they cultivate. There are also no legislative provisions in some States like U.P., Orissa, Karnataka to prevent mala fide transfers of land (which acts against the policy of distributing land among the landless labourers). There are also the problems of tenants in invoking the support of law against the powerful landlords.
Again, in spite of the laws passed since 1950s, about 22% of land-holders still continue to own about 76% of the land. About 22% own no land at all. Another 25% own fragments of land or less than one acre. In brief, about 61% either own no land, or own economic or marginal holdings of one hectare or less. All of them together own less than 8% of the total area. This reveals a great inequality, despite passing of Ceiling Acts.
With the introduction of HYV technology to step up production and solving rural poverty in the late 1960s, the importance of land reform measures have removed the vestiges of feudalism. And the policy of encouraging capitalism in agriculture got strength in the name of green revolution.
The highly profitable new technology has spread in India and the Government is actively promoting capitalism in agriculture. But fedual type of exploitation still prevails in the country. The growing conflict between landowning classes and poor, backward peasants and cultivators in different States—mainly Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—is an indication of such exploitation.
Though these conflicts and clashes are branded as clashes between upper castes and backward castes, in fact, the basic reason behind these clashes are nothing but feudal exploitation. “Fedual practices are still in vogue”. A washerman is quoted as saying:” We have to run in front of or behind the bullock cart when the landlord goes anywhere in the village or the town. People of lower status are not permitted to smoke, ride a bicycle, wear shoes or a full length dhoti (cloth) in the presence of the landlord.”