People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 38

September 19, 2010

On Land Reforms


K Varadharajan


AFTER independence, the principal contradiction in India was changed to the contradiction between the mass of the working peasantry and labourers on the one hand, and on the other the minority of landlords, traders and moneylenders who have monopoly control over land and money capital, thereby exploiting the peasantry through rent, interest and traders’ exorbitant margins. This principal contradiction implied that the need of the day was to break the land monopoly through the measures of effectively redistributing land from the landlords to the land-poor and landless. This also necessitated that we broke the monopoly of landlords and traders on the credit and marketing institutions. While the control of credit and marketing cooperatives should have passed on to the peasantry, the state should also have intervened in order to channelise credit to the credit-starved and to set up non-profit marketing institutions between the producer and the consumer with the aim of stabilising the prices for both.


These were the imperatives if we wanted to overcome the low level of productive forces in agriculture, ameliorate the situation of poverty which has been overwhelmingly rural in nature, and raise the abysmally low standards of material life in the villages. These steps were needed to expand the internal market and make industrial expansion and overall development self-sustaining, which was possible only through measures to increase the purchasing power of the mass of Indian people. Carrying out radical land reform was important to break the continuing caste, class, gender and other social types of oppression also, which have assumed a particularly intense form in our rural areas. But, under the leadership of big capital, the modern Indian state miserably failed to address the very important agrarian question and the question of national development free from imperialist pressures.




The non-Left political forces, economists and planners in India have consistently underestimated the role of effective redistributive land reforms for breaking the economic and social power of the rural landed minority, thereby widening the social base of rural investment, and raising the rate of growth of output. They did not understand its importance as a precondition of mass poverty reduction and for providing an expanding market for industry, or its importance for reducing the old class, caste and gender based forms of inequality which express themselves in high levels of illiteracy, declining sex ratios, atrocities against dalits and the persistence of child labour. Only in states where the Left movement has been influential were some effective measures of land reform undertaken, with a very positive impact despite their relatively limited nature.


While the achievements of the first four decades of planned development in India since independence were in many ways substantial, its economic and social failures have been equally glaring. These lay in the inability to substantially reduce the mass poverty, which is particularly concentrated in rural areas; an insufficient growth of the internal mass market and hence the emergence of pressures to seek external sources of growth in collaboration with foreign capital. It was thus that the Indian state succumbed to the neo-liberal economic philosophy in early nineties of the last century.


Except for the states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura under the Left-led governments, there has been in general no serious attempt at land reforms and distribution of either ceiling surplus lands or government wastelands to the landless and poor peasants. Today, poor and marginal peasants own about 84 per cent of land in West Bengal, and the state accounts for 22 per cent of the total ceiling surplus land distributed in the country. So far, over 29.8 lakh acres of land have been distributed among around 28.49 lakh landless families in Bengal. Moreover, over 10 lakh families were given homestead land. The total number of families with vested land allotted, recorded sharecroppers and recipients of homestead land exceeds 45 lakh in West Bengal alone, which accounts for 48 per cent of the total land reform beneficiaries in the country.


In Kerala, 1.4 per cent of the landowners with above 10 hectares of land had been owning 31.8 per cent of land in 1956. That, however, came down later and 0.4 per cent of the landowners were owning 12.4 per cent of the land in 1970-71. Due to the land reforms effected there by Left-led governments, 26 lakh tenants got land and 5.5 lakh families got 10 cents of land and household rights. The present LDF government has started a campaign to provide a homestead plot and a house to all homeless families in the state under the EMS Housing Scheme, and its target is to construct five lakh houses. The LDF government has vigorously started distribution of at least one acre of land to all the landless tribal families, distribute the surplus and wasteland among the landless poor and provide land possession documents and pattas to the peasants in the hilly regions.




As for the country as a whole, however, the situation of land reforms is still dismal even though some half-hearted measures have been taken in various states. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data of 2003, 3.5 per cent of the households with four hectares or more land today own as much as 37.72 per cent of the total land in India. The small and marginal peasants account for 80.40 per cent of the landowners but they own 43.50 per cent of the land. About 16.10 per cent of landowners have above one hectare and below 4 hectares of land and they own 18.78 percent of land.


The above data clearly establish the significant scope of redistributive land reforms in India.


In this situation, it is indeed a matter of concern that in many states of the country we see a distinct trend of reversal of whatever paltry land reforms had taken place there. In some states, the ceiling limit is being revised upward and, in others, the land in government possession is being assigned on long-term leases to big business and multinational companies (MNCs) at throwaway rentals. The penetration of the MNCs into the countryside in the form of contract farming and corporatisation, and the dilution of ceiling laws in many states to implement the neo-liberal model of ‘land reform’ on the pretext of land consolidation --- these are serious issues to be addressed  immediately.


As a result of the ongoing agrarian distress, the peasantry, particularly the poorer sections, are increasingly being forced to sell their land and livestock. According to yet another NSSO survey, the proportion of landless households was around 35 per cent in 2006-07, compared to 22 per cent in 1992. In several states, land grabbing by the rural and urban rich including the real estate mafia is widespread. Land is being bought at distress prices from the peasants indebted due to the agrarian crisis, and moneylenders are taking illegal possession of the peasants’ lands. Any resistance is sought to be suppressed by using criminal means.


The proliferation of special economic zones (SEZs) is emerging as a serious threat to the peasantry. In such areas, under the garb of industrialisation, there are efforts to deprive the peasants of their land and place it at the disposal of real estate mafia. The model APMC Act aims to promote contract farming and this will gradually lead to dispossession of the peasants from their land. The UPA government is hesitant to incorporate the clauses suggested by the parliament’s standing committee to the Land Acquisition Amendment Bill and the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill that could protect the interests of the peasants. This would allow market based land acquisition by undermining the state’s and the people’s right to determine land use policies, and the people’s right to fair compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation.


In this situation, the All India Kisan Sabha has decided to intensify the struggle to protect the limited gains of land reforms and to ensure that the government does not compromise the peasants’ interests for the benefit of the land mafias and MNCs.