Karunanidhi's land reforms

Decline of landlordism

Print edition : August 31, 2018

May 27, 1990: Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi giving away land pattas belonging to Vadamathimangalam Sugarcane Corporation to a landless farm labourer. Photo: DIPR

December 17, 2006: Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi planting a sapling at Ural village in Villupuram district after distributing land to landless farmers. Photo: T. Singaravelou

October 10, 2010: Taking a look at samba paddy (right) cultivated under the System of Rice Intensification method, renamed “Rajarajan 1000” method, in Tiruvarur.

Farmers displaying the free two-acre lad pattas they received, in Thanjavur in September 2006. Photo: THE HINDU

March 20, 2015: DMK President M. Karunanidhi, along with party cadre, staging a demonstration near Valluvar Kottam in Chennai against the Land Acquisition Bill. Photo: M. PRABHU

The DMK’s rise to power in 1967 led to the passing of several laws that empowered tenants and agricultural labourers in Tamil Nadu in important ways and consolidated political power among the lower castes. Karunanidhi was central to these socio-economic changes.

Despite having emerged as a model State in recent years, Tamil Nadu has often been critiqued for its poor implementation of land reforms. Although many laws have been passed, the existing literature on these measures repeatedly highlight the enormous loopholes in them and the poor implementation of the provisions of these laws.

In this context, one would therefore naturally presume that landlordism would have thrived in its earlier form with high levels of tenancy and stiff rents, particularly in areas such as the Cauvery delta region, which has been noted for high incidence of tenancy. However, landlordism has declined in the delta in general and tenancy conditions have eased enormously. The power relation between the landlord and the tenant is completely reversed, with the tenant enjoying certain powers to negotiate compensation for giving up the right to cultivate. Mobilisations by the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Dravidian movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam in particular, have been critical to the creation of a culture of collective action and resistance to landlord power. Further, the coming to power of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1967 created conditions for consolidating the power of lower-caste tenants who benefited both from a set of State initiatives launched by the DMK and the culture of collective action against Brahmin landlords.

The Cauvery delta had evolved elaborate agrarian relations over a very long time as it is one of the oldest deltas. Another notable feature of the delta was the predominance of Brahmin landownership, particularly in its upper part. Land distribution in the delta was highly unequal, with both large family-owned landed estates and Hindu temples and mutts owning vast tracts of land. Apart from direct cultivation of their land, the landlords leased out their land to tenants. Land tenure arrangements along with pannaiyal relations defined the agrarian relation of the Cauvery delta production system. Land tenure systems involved both fixed rent (kuthagai) and sharecropping (varam) arrangements. Kathleen Gough (1981:47) found in 1952 that the tenant could get only 7 to 10 per cent of the produce as his net share after meeting all the expenses in a village in the western delta.

In response to such unequal distribution and exploitative land relations, the CPI formed the Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam in Thanjavur district in 1943. The initial support for the CPI came from the untouchable labourers in the coastal delta, particularly from the Mannargudi and Thiruthuraipoondi taluks of the district, where they organised around issues of higher wages and protection of the rights of the tenants. These communist agitations were the main force propelling the government towards instituting the Mayuram Agreement in 1948 and the Thanjavur Tenants and Pannaiyals Protection Act in 1952 (Gough, 1981:149-150). While the struggle between the landlords, the tenants and the labourers was intensifying, the state tacitly supported the landlords. It used its police and judiciary to foist numerous false cases against the leaders and agitating members of the Vivasayigal Sangam (Menon, 1979:63). Despite the Congress party passing many resolutions in support of the tenants and agricultural labourers in various forums, none of them was implemented. Following a decision to abandon the militant struggles of the previous years and to contest the general elections, with support from the Dravidar Kazhagam, the CPI won five seats in the Madras Assembly and one in the Lok Sabha in Thanjavur out of a total of 12 Assembly seats (Gough, 1981:150).

Role of the Dravidar Kazhagam

The non-Brahmin movement piloted by Periyar E.V. Ramasamy gained strength during 1920-1945 (Irschick, 1969 and Barnett, 1976). This movement had weakened the power of the Brahmins in the villages in the delta. With the gains made through kuthagai cultivation and the political capital provided by the spreading non-Brahmin movement, the non-Brahmin tenants were turning out to be more assertive.

Even before the CPI found its roots in east Thanjavur, the caste-based oppression of Parayars and Pallars by the Brahminical order was challenged by Periyar. Periyar’s virulent opposition to Brahminism (which was the ideological plank of landlordism) attracted the attention of a large number of peasants and workers in east Thanjavur. The Dravidar Kazhagam formed the Dravidar Vivasaya Thozhilalar Sangam (DVTS, or the Dravidian Agricultural Workers Union) in 1952. The union had 15,000 Dalit agricultural workers and 5,000 backward caste workers as members in the Nagapattinam area alone (Kasthurirangan, 2013:33). The union was stronger in the Kilvelur region with more than 50,000 members (Kasthurirangan, 2013:36). The DVTS struggled for the rights of Dalit workers and therefore was in direct conflict with landlords.

While this led to further consolidation of the movement against Brahmin landlordism, the coming to power of the DMK decisively tilted the struggle in favour of tenants both through the passing of a series of legislations and through a further consolidation of political power among the lower castes.

Several pieces of legislation were passed during the Congress period, such as the Thanjavur Tenants and Pannaiyals Protection Act, 1952; the Tamil Nadu Cultivating Tenants Protection Act, 1955; and the Tamil Nadu Cultivating Tenants (Payment of Fair Rent) Act, 1956. Further, the Tamil Nadu Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling of Land) Act, 1961, allowed a family with five members to hold no more than 30 standard acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare).

The DMK, which captured power in the State in1967, wanted to build a strong base among the agricultural workers and peasants in Thanjavur district, particularly in east Thanjavur. Karunanidhi, who hailed from the heartland of east Thanjavur, became the president of the DMK and the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1969. He made conscious efforts to break into the strongholds of the CPI in the district to find a foothold for his party among the peasants and agricultural labourers. Apart from bringing in legislations that would benefit agricultural labourers and tenants, he realised that Dalits held the key to this political segment in the delta. He saw to it that the party secretary of the district in the eastern delta was always a Dalit. It is evident that he succeeded in his efforts as he contested from Tiruvarur constituency in the 2016 Assembly elections and won with the highest margin in the State. The DMK thus combined party work on the ground that led to greater empowerment and a culture of mobilisation along with legislative politics around concerns of the tenants and agricultural labourers.

Important laws

An important law enacted by the DMK government was the Tenancy Land Record Act of 1969. It was an important step that strengthened the tenants in their negotiations with the landlord. The government appointed a select committee of the Legislative Assembly and sought the views of the landlords and tenants. The process of preparing the tenant register was liberalised. The presiding officers visited the villages and held public hearings to record the lease holders in the register. The sub-tenants were also to be recorded as tenants. The initiative to record the tenancy right was to originate from the tenant. There was an amendment to the Act in 1972 which authorised the record officer to conduct inquiries suo motu. The number of revenue courts was increased from two to five. The 1972 legislation wrote off all rent arrears that were due until June 30, 1971. In 1973, the DMK government introduced a law that gave the tenant the right to purchase all or part of the land, not exceeding five standard acres. Simultaneously, the landlord could resume half of his leased-out land not exceeding five standard acres for self-cultivation. The law also had provisions for payment in instalments and fixed the price based on fair rent.

An important aspect of the law was that it did not insist on any documentary evidence from the tenant about the tenancy arrangement to confer the tenancy right on the tenant. Local inquiries, oral evidence and depositions by neighbouring cultivators were sufficient evidence to include a tenant’s name in the register of tenants. The Left unions printed thousands of required applications and distributed them among tenant farmers in the district. This effort resulted in the registration of more than one lakh tenant farmers as registered tenants under this Act (Veeraiyan, 2011:15). Nearly five lakh tenants and about seven lakh acres of land are registered against their names in Thanjavur district under this law (Sivaprakasam, 2009:73).

The Land Reform Act was amended in 1970, and that brought down the ceiling from 30 standard acres to 15 standard acres. The rate of compensation for the surplus land was also drastically reduced (Gough, 1989:24). Tenancy Act amendments in 1979 reduced their rent further to 25 per cent and protected them against eviction even if they failed to pay the rent during natural calamities. Another important piece of legislation that gave enormous strength to the tenants and agricultural labourers was the Conferment of Ownership of Homestead Act, 1971. Anyone living in a homestead belonging to someone else or on land belonging to the government as on June 19, 1971, was conferred ownership absolutely free from all encumbrances. This important legislation freed the landless from the control of the landlords. Next year, in 1972, the government of Tamil Nadu passed another piece of legislation that waived all the rental arrears of the tenants.

Three other important pieces of legislation were passed in the Assembly but did not get Presidential assent. One Bill gave the tenant the right to purchase the rented land by paying 12 times the fair rent to the owner, the payment of which could be made in instalments. If the tenant was paying a lump sum, it was enough that he paid 75 per cent of the purchase price as a consideration. Most of the religious mutts objected to this legislation and represented their case to the Union government and the President. The Bill was never returned to the State and therefore the legislation never saw the light of day. Two other laws which tried to declare as void transactions in the immediate past prior to the passing of the legislation also did not see the light of day from Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Thus, the ascendancy of the DMK to power led to refinements and innovations to laws which empowered tenants and agricultural labourers in important ways. Registration of tenancy, remission of rent, more revenue courts, provisions to buy leased-in land and conferment of ownership title over the homestead increased the negotiating position of the tenants manifold.

Change in power relations in villages

The Dravidar Kazhagam-led labour union was very strong in east Thanjavur at one point of time. Subsequently, most of its members drifted towards Left unions. The DMK was in its infancy at that time. However, the DMK gained enormous foothold very rapidly and grew in strength in other parts of the State, including the western delta. Since 1962, most of the constituencies in the western delta were returning DMK candidates to the Assembly. However, it took the party some time to spread in the inner parts of the eastern delta. Very soon, by a combination of policy interventions and organisational acumen, it spread its wings in the eastern delta. To begin with, it got cadre from the parent organisation of the Dravidar Kazhagam. Subsequently, it broke the strongholds of the CPI and the CPI(M). Two prominent MLAs from CPI joined the DMK in the mid-1970s. Such poaching by the DMK continued unabated at the lower levels. When the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) was formed, it also started gaining strength in the delta but not as much as the DMK. The DMK, which contested alone in the 1977 Assembly elections, won the second largest number of seats from Thanjavur district, next only to Chennai city. The delta returned more DMK MLAs continuously in all the subsequent elections except during waves such as the 1991 elections to the Assembly immediately after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. However, the AIADMK also started gaining strength in the delta districts and, as of now, both the DMK and the AIADMK bag all the Assembly seats between themselves.

Contemporary tenancy in Cauvery delta

The most prominent feature of tenancy today in the delta as compared to the past is the complete decline of Brahmin dominance in most of the villages. Brahmins have lost their land either through sale or through appropriation by lower-caste tenants.

There was a general consensus among the respondents who were interviewed about landlordism in Thanjavur. All of them opined that landlordism was a relic of the past and the communist and the Dravidian parties had successfully fought against it. The “benami” holders, who were entrusted with the land fearing land ceiling laws, refused to return the land and thus many landlords lost further land. Most of the landlord families experienced the emigration of their next generation to urban jobs. All these factors combined and resulted in the decline of landlordism in general in Thanjavur district.

Apart from individual landlords, the religious mutts and temples owned vast tracts of land and all these lands were necessarily cultivated by tenants. Earlier, the mutts and the temples were as oppressive as individual landlords. While the landlords lost considerable power owing to law, politics and social changes, the status of these institutions regarding the tenancy arrangements also weakened considerably.

Temples and mutts own vast tracts of land and are exempted from land reform legislation. However, the Tenancy Protection Act protects the tenants of the land owned by temples and mutts. In the course of interviews with tenants, the following narratives emerged.

Uthirapathy, who belongs to the Mutharaiyar community (a Most Backward Caste), cultivates 1.5 acres of land owned by a temple. He is a fourth-generation tenant. Earlier, the rent for the land was 11 bags of paddy an acre per annum. When he filed a petition in the revenue court, the court ordered a payment of five bags of paddy an acre per annum. He has been paying this rent for the past 11 years to the temple. The land is fit for raising only one crop in a year as there is no groundwater. Canal water is available only for five months in a year and hence, only one crop can be cultivated. He could register the land under the registration of Tenancy Act only during the time of special officers. Kallars, who form the dominant backward caste in the region and the village, are usually appointed as trustees to this temple. They would not have allowed the registration of tenancy during their tenure. Kallars, as trustees, force tenants from other castes to pay the rent regularly but cannot force fellow Kallars to pay the rent. In the neighbouring village, this temple owns more than 70 acres of land. Kallars from that village are the tenants and none of them pays any rent to the temple and the Kallar trustees of the temples never attempt to collect the rent from them. The trustees did not even take the legal course to collect the rent, nor could they retrieve the land.

Since the land is registered under Record of Tenancy Rights (RTR), Uthirapathy says that he can exchange the land, pledge it or even sell it at the market rate. The registration will remain in his name. The buyer can enjoy the land but does not have the alienable right in law. Generally, eviction of a tenant from temple lands is next to impossible. There are several legal provisions to protect a tenant and plenty of opportunities are provided by law. This is the reason why the rent arrears to temples, mutts and other such establishments run to several crores of rupees n the State. Even if they manage to get a favourable verdict, the eviction of a tenant is impossible and finding another tenant is even more difficult. The reason is that there is a social consensus about the right of the tenant over his cultivation rights. This consensus is all-pervasive.

What did empower the tenants? It happened because of the Uzhavadai Paathiyam (right to cultivate) of the tenant. The law protects the tenant from eviction under normal circumstances. However, a convention has evolved throughout the delta whereby the tenant has the right to cultivate. The right is unconditional. If the tenant has to give up that right, then compensation is due to him. The minimum compensation is one-third of the land that the tenant had been cultivating.

This convention forms the basis of mediation in the disputes between a landlord and the tenant. If the landlord is powerful, then he can reclaim two-thirds of the land by giving up his ownership right over one-third of the land. The share of the tenant is inversely related to the power of the landlord. In the extreme case scenario, the tenant will not give a cent of land if the landlord is a non-resident and does not have any caste power within the village. Thus, the caste and power of the tenant and the landlord define the outcome of the negotiation. Registered tenants hardly give up without compensation. Unregistered tenants have an equal right by convention and this convention is quite pervasive. Thus, while the law protected only against the eviction of tenants, the convention bestowed compensation on the tenant.

The political power enjoyed by the backward castes and the new assertion by Dalits have all combined to stabilise the de facto right of tenants. As a result, the rent has fallen steeply over time. Non-payment of rent over a long period of time could not be penalised in most cases. Inability to enforce court directives, which are very difficult to obtain, have emboldened the tenants. It is therefore not surprising when a leader of the peasant wing of the CPI(M) of the State unit opined that tenancy is a dead issue in the delta. No tenant from the district raises the issue of tenancy protection anymore in party forums.

Thus, a combination of historical, political and social factors has led to the decline of landlordism in the delta and tenancy has become a non-issue. How this combination works in practice is important to understand the outcomes of these macro processes.

A micro-level study

For a micro-level study, we selected VP, a village in the western delta, a region that existing studies indicate had a predominance of Brahmins as landlords. VP village lands were entirely owned by Brahmins and the village has a sizeable Brahmin population which continues to be involved in agriculture. Importantly, tenancy had transformed predominantly into owner cultivation by the lower castes, replacing the tenancy cultivation for Brahmin landlords.

VP is on the north bank of the Cauvery river. The village is bound by the Cauvery in the south and the Kollidam river in the north. Smartha Brahmins were the dominant landowners and they lived in an exclusive habitation of two streets. Kallars (an Other Backward Class) were their tenants and farm servants. They lived in a separate street. Parayars and Pallars (both Scheduled Castes) were the permanent farm servants of the landlords. There were a few carpenters and blacksmiths serving the village apart from other service castes. All the village artisans and the service caste men were paid in grain during harvest in return for their services.

Migration for work among Brahmins increased from 1960 onwards when the anti-Brahmin movement gained enormous strength and with the ascendancy of the DMK to power. Kallars and Pallars became assertive. Pallars started contesting the local elections and the VP Brahmins were openly challenged for the first time. A Pallar contested and won the village panchayat election defeating a Brahmin landlord in the late 1960s. The Brahmin landlord had vast tracts of land in the village as well as outside and all his brothers were either in Chennai or Delhi with connections in the judiciary, legislatures, the Central Secretariat and so on. The local panchayat election clearly indicated the shift in power. The 1967 election to the Assembly returned a local schoolteacher and a Kallar who was nominated by the DMK. A person with humble resources could win against a moneybag for the first time. Several MLAs of the DMK had such humble backgrounds. Teashop owners, cycle mechanics, barbers, carpenters and so many others were elected. For the first time, political power went from the elite to the downtrodden. Kallars have come to occupy Assembly seats as well as panchayat union chairmanships. Kallars became district secretaries of the DMK, the AIADMK, the Congress and other parties. Thus, a Kallar network came to power in all public spheres in the late 1960s and this dominance continues even today.

However, Pallars did not get such political power. But, as a militant caste, they could break free from the hold of the Brahmins easily and emerge as an independent economic and social group in the village. The laws introduced by the new DMK government too protected the tenants from eviction and gave complete ownership of homestead land. The material foundation of the social order built up by Brahmins by owning and controlling land was shaken. As a numerical minority and without their socially approved superordinate position, their power diminished.

In this process, there was a huge shift in the landowning patterns and a detailed analysis of the land transfer data shows that land was acquired by Kallars and S.C.s from Iyer Brahmins between 1967 and 2014 in VP. The land transfer data could be broadly classified into (a) market sale of land; and (b) sale of lands that were rented out to tenants.

When the research team looked into the number of sale deeds executed, it found that about 70 per cent of the transactions were market-based transactions. The remaining 30 per cent were transactions between the landlords and the tenants. When we disaggregated these transfers by caste, 45 per cent of the transactions executed by Iyers was between the landlords and their tenants. They could manage only 55 per cent of the transactions under market conditions. However, among Kallars and SCs, market transaction was much higher at 91 and 83 per cent respectively. Even the tenant transactions executed by them were release settlements where they would have received cash compensations from Iyer landlords. A negligible number of landowners from Kallars and S.C.s and other castes have leased out their land. Thus, one can safely deduce that the entire tenant transfers were from Iyers to non-Iyers in VP.

The laws enacted per se were not effective to address the agrarian issues. Many micro- and macro-level studies have indicated the numerous inadequacies of the laws. However, a socially acknowledged de facto compensation right had evolved and had been widely acknowledged and practised.

What a de jure provision could not do has been achieved by evolving a de facto norm through a social and political process. And M. Karunanidhi was central to these socio-economic changes.

J. Jeyaranjan is an economist and the Director of the Institute of Development Alternatives, Chennai.


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