Historically, land has defined rights of a man. A man who did not possess a private property did not have right to vote or other acquisition. It is associated with a person’s economic status, strength in the society and a good source of revenue generation for the state. Land as a commodity, therefore, has been of utmost importance across civilizations since times immemorial.
However, its possession stratified the society and fragmented it. This stratification continued for a long time, passed on to generations and land accumulated in the hands of few. Even today there is a huge population of India which is landless.
The objective of land reform in India was hence twin-fold, redistribution of the land among landless through persuasion to achieve socio-economic distributive justice and efficient use of land to boost the agriculture production. In short, Land to the tiller and growth with equity.
Why Land Reforms are needed?
The government of India has been committed since the independence to undertake land reforms. Features like rampant ‘absentee landlordism’, no ceilings on the extent of property that can be held by an individual and no security of tenure to the tenant, dominated the agriculture landscape of India. Largely this condition was owing to the land policies adopted by the British.
At the dawn of Independence, the country was dotted with peasantry population. Yet maximum cultivable land of British India, up to 70 percent, was owned by landlords. Compared to this 75 percent of a rural population was landless, consisting of landless tenants and agriculture labour.
The lands if so rented out to peasantry, generally in small parcels, saw traditional and outdated techniques of farming, employing petty indigenous crop farming compared to large-scale modern means of cultivation. Lack of investment due to peasant’s profile and landlord’s ignorance negatively affected production that became rudimentary and started to decline. Also, no addition to soil fertility or land rejuvenation was done. Irrigation investment was negligible and couldn’t support the demand of water. This mismatch made the plight of peasantry grave, agriculture deplorable and economy stagnant.
To rectify this, laws were enacted to abolish zamindari, introduce land ceilings and ensure tenancy rights. The laws met with success but have some limitations that still haven’t been addressed satisfactorily.
Land reforms in pre-independence era
The British never took any interest in land reforms. No efforts were undertaken during their rule; rather their focus was on revenue maximization through land and agriculture. They employed exploitative taxation on land and its produce and never put back a fraction of what it extorted that decayed the agriculture and peasantry profile.
They created a buffer of zamindars and landlords, appointed solely for revenue collection from the farmers and peasant, to supplement British treasury. Zamindari, Ryotwari and Mahalwari, all forms of revenue collection model, were designed to achieve the above objective. Intermediary class appointed under the model was never interested in agriculture and its productivity.
Further, British made land a private property, a concept new to Indian village economy. The time observed increased sale and resale of peasants land on his failure to pay rent, ruining him and his condition.
Another major feature of the colonial period was extreme indebtedness of peasantry due to high tax demand made on produce. High taxes were propagated on Ricardo’s theory of Rent. Peasant eventually sought moneylender support and fell prey to their usurious rates.
Revenue collection model created absentee landlordism and sub-infeudation. This added to the problem of already exploitative tax and rent collection. Peasants were left with nothing and lived in constant fear of being ousted.
During independence movement the leaders supported no tax campaigns and forced the British to lower the rents at some places, but these measures were only of some respite. The deplorable situation of peasant and understanding of the issue being connected with land and its reform pushed the government of India post independence to undertake the much-needed course correction.
Land Reforms after Independence
The challenge before the independent regime in 1947 was to reverse the long-term distortions landholding that emerged during the colonial time and to put Indian agriculture on a high growth, being intrinsically linked to the former. The government therefore set out towards a daunting task.
Starting with Zamindari Abolition, numerous provinces passed laws and bills for it and compensation was set from the point of tenants. Challenge to laws came on the ground of violation of Right of property and to avoid the striking down of laws by the judiciary, 1st amendment of 1951 and 4th amendment of 1955 was passed. With one stroke many erstwhile tenants now became owners. However, the reform suffered from three major drawbacks
- The inclusion of clause “personal cultivation” though ousted absentee zamindars; it did secure many small landlords. The definition loophole helped them secure their holdings that came often at a cost of a mass evacuation of less secure tenants.
- The area that could be permitted for personal cultivation was not defined or limited.
- The main benefit came to the upper tenants, who had a direct lease from the zamindars already.
- Following this Tenancy Reforms with the objective of securing the tenure, reducing the rent paid by tenant and right to acquire ownership had to be introduced. However, barring Kerala and West Bengal, they delivered partial success.
- The major push for reforms came with Land Ceiling that made land distribution more equitable. The idea mooted right after independence saw its implementation by 60’s. However, there were some major weaknesses.
- Land being a state subject, the ceiling was to be imposed at state level individually. It was not equal across the country and ranked too high, in some states up to 312 acre.
- Ceiling was applicable on individual and not family basis. This gave an opportunity to landowners to consolidate their holding by transferring them 'notionally' in name of relatives, to escape the clutches of law.
- Many plantation areas were exempted from its application.
In late 60’s and early 70’s however government brought about certain changes. State governments were pressurized to plug the loopholes in the law and recommendation of Central Land Reforms Committee was implemented. The ceiling area according to the crop pattern was altered maximum being 54 acres for inferior dry land. Family of five was made the unit for the purpose of the law. Land distribution with priority to landless, particularly SC & ST’s was speeded and compensation of surplus land was lowered.
Nonetheless over a period of time, land use had to be done wisely. This was to meet equally the purposes of development as well as agriculture.
The government being responsible for acquisition, for a long time did so under the Land acquisition Act, 1894 that at best could be defined an archaic law. Realizing the problems of how farmer were at the receiving end due to this law in terms of acquisition, consent and compensation and were being pushed to the sidelines, the government decided to change the law. The original Act of 1894, a colonial vestige, was replaced by the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act Of 2013’.
In 2015, the government again proposed some amendments to the Act of 2013 and introduced the ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement’ (Amendment) Bill of 2015. Later, the Bill got in to effect via the ordinance route. In this context let’s analyze the pros and cons of the amendments brought about by the ordinance.
1. The consent clause as introduced under the Act of 2013 stands diluted for the five categories of projects i.e., Defence, Rural Infrastructure, Affordable Housing, Industrial Corridors and Infrastructure. The clause required consent of land owners for acquisition upto 70% for public and 80% for private projects as per the Act of 2013. This 2013 Act as per its schedule IV had already exempted 13 categories of projects from fulfilling the requirements of consent but with the latest ordinance in place it has further added 5 more categories. This means the scope of public participation in this exercise has shrunk further.
2. Social Impact Assessment was introduced in 2013, to study the impact of any project on the lives of those where such land is to be acquired. This study was to be conducted within 6-7 months and to be released in public domain so as to get public feedback on land acquisition in that particular area. After, the 5 new categories have been added the SIA requirement need not be fulfilled for such projects as well.
3. In the previous Act, acquisition of a multi-cropped land was to be exercised only as a measure of last resort and that too up to a certain limit to avoid any severe impact on food security of the nation. But, the ordinance states that for the new five categories this clause of multi-cropped land would not apply.
4. As per the 2013 act the land was to be returned back to the farmer if it remains unused for 5 years. But the amendment provides that the land would be returned only if the project fails to meet the deadline.
1. The present amendments bring under its purview all the 13 exempted categories under the Act 2013, for the purposes of compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement. Therefore the amendment would benefit farmers and such other people affected by such projects.
2. The new five categories added by the way of amendment would fast track the whole process of land acquisition, ensure removal of bottlenecks and further the agenda of development.