The land question

Print edition : January 18, 2008

Demands for a review or reversal of the land reform law, citing the needs of industry, are becoming insistent.

in Thiruvananthapuram

Kalpetta, in Wayanad district. The chain of farmer suicides from 2005 onwards in the primarily agricultural districts of Palakkad, Wayanad and Idukki was a visible sign of the extreme distress on the State's agricultural scene.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

LAND has become more of a premium commodity than a means of production in Kerala, the State that boasts it has implemented the most comprehensive land reforms in India, with equitable distribution of wealth and increase in farm production as their most important objectives.

The legislative process to introduce the reforms began in 1957 under the first communist ministry and had to face several legal and political hurdles before it lost steam after a much diluted law was finally put in place in 1970. However, by then it had ended statutory landlordism and the janmi system and provided security of tenure to tenants and ownership rights to occupants of homestead lands.

It also imposed limits on land ownership and distributed surplus land to the landless (though both these measures were not as successful as they were originally intended to be). It offered tenants protection from eviction, provided hundreds of families sites for the construction of houses, and was instrumental in raising rural wages and introducing minimum wages and social security schemes for agricultural workers. Without a doubt, it brought down to a great extent economic, class and caste inequality in Kerala society and became the backbone of what was later known as the Kerala model of development.

But over three decades later, as a direct consequence of the land reforms, the State (which has a very high population density) finds itself facing the prospect of extreme fragmentation of landholdings and the consequent decline in farm production. There has also been a gradual shift in land ownership from households that have a livelihood interest in agriculture to those that have no major interest in cultivation and basically consider land as an additional source of income, if at all.

Many new owners see the value of land as being much more important to them than any additional income they may get from farm production. There are also signs that tenancy, prohibited under what has come to be known as the Kerala Land Reform Act, is reappearing in a big way in the State and that land ceiling regulations are being flouted with impunity.

The picture (though incomplete) that emerges from recent surveys and studies of land ownership and distribution patterns in Kerala is significant. According to one estimate, over 33 per cent, if not more, of the people in Kerala have no land of their own; they include the poorest of the poor and the fishing, tribal and Dalit communities. There is an abnormal concentration of land in the hands of the richest 8.8 per cent of the population.

A study by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) indicates a definite trend away from the post-Independence ideal of equitable distribution of land. Even though the Land Reforms Act prohibits tenancy, the simultaneous increase of two categories of people, those who have land but are unable to cultivate and those who have the labour and the skills, but no lands or not enough lands of their own to cultivate, has led to the re-emergence of illegal tenancies in a big way, a 2005 study by the Centre for Development Studies indicates.

Lease-land farming is taking place on at least 1.5 lakh hectares in Kerala, of which Kudumbashree self-help groups are cultivating crops on over 57,000 acres (23,085 hectares), obviously with government sanction. Contract farming has also spread in many parts of the State without legal support. The prevalence of tenancies in the State is likely to be much higher than the situation revealed by available surveys. In some regions, for instance, in tribal areas, landlordism of the most exploitative kind continues unhindered, according to some scholars.

Of late, easy conclusions that land reforms have failed have been made and demands for a review or reversal of the reforms, especially regarding tenancy regulations and land ceiling norms, have become increasingly frequent and insistent. The latest and most controversial of such suggestions came in November 2007 from within the State bureaucracy itself when a senior government official in the Industries Department proposed the repeal of the Kerala Land Reform Act as a necessary measure if the State was to progress economically because, he argued, the Act had achieved its objectives in a remarkable manner and had outlived its utility.

The note prepared by T. Balakrishnan, Principal Secretary (Industries), for discussion at a monthly meeting of senior government officials convened by the Chief Secretary in Thiruvananthapuram triggered allegations that the proposal would not have been made without the knowledge of at least a section of the political leadership, even though Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem described it later as a mischievous suggestion.

Curiously, the note said, among other things: Even though this proposal will not affect a large section of people in any way, such a move may not be to the liking of the general public immediately. Therefore, widespread discussions have to take place about this proposal in order to mould public opinion in favour of the repeal of the law. It is time that we looked beyond land reforms. The government should don the leadership role as it had done while implementing the law. However, this time it should be for the repeal of the law.

It is now well understood that it is in Kerala, more than in States such as West Bengal or Jammu and Kashmir, that land reforms were implemented in a wide-ranging manner and that yet the changes that should have accompanied the reforms failed to materialise in the State. The long delay in the implementation of the reforms gave many big landlords ample time to sell their lands or devise other strategies to circumvent the provisions of the law, for instance, by registering land in the name of relatives or by utilising provisions such as the exemption from land ceiling regulations granted to certain types of plantations.

In short, land reform, though implemented with the intention of transferring land to the tiller, did not really transfer land to agricultural labourers and poor peasants in Kerala. As many scholars have pointed out, the further redistribution that ought to have taken place for the complete success of the land reforms never happened. The old janmi system was replaced, but by landlordism of another type, as E.M.S. Namboodiripad, under whose leadership the reform process was launched in 1957, once remarked: the landlordism of tenants who had no direct dependence on land for their livelihood and who got their land cultivated through wage labour.

The labourers who really worked on the land for a living did not benefit much from the reforms and got very little cultivable land. A number of them only got hutment dwelling rights. Moreover, technological changes, high-yield seeds and crops, credit and marketing facilities, and a system that ensures a fair price for farmers, which ought to have followed the reform process, did not materialise in an integrated manner in the farmlands of Kerala. Land reforms as implemented also had other drawbacks, an important one being the exemption on land ceiling limits granted to certain types of plantations.

The reforms, therefore, did not increase agricultural production or rural employment but resulted in extreme fragmentation of land, which is an important reason why agriculture has become a low-profit venture in Kerala. Many new landlords turned to less labour-intensive crops or other avenues to generate additional income or tended to leave their lands fallow, resulting in a sharp fall in agricultural employment and a rise in farm wages disproportionate to the yield. As the trend towards less labour-intensive crops became the norm, the area under paddy, the main food crop, fell drastically by over five lakh hectares (from eight lakh hectares in food-deficit Kerala) in the two decades from the mid-1980s.

Farmers also increasingly turned towards horticulture and the cultivation of exotic varieties such as vanilla and medicinal plants, which were in high demand in the international market of late, they are doing this by taking land on lease or through contract farming. Workers, too, migrated to non-agricultural sectors, especially to satisfy the demand caused by large-scale construction activity. After the Gulf boom, land prices became so high that selling agricultural land for real estate development became the norm. This was encouraged further by the growing needs of the States industrial sector, which got a boost with changing government perceptions about the drawbacks of the so-called Kerala model of development that eventually found the State having to deal with a serious economic crisis despite its human development achievements.

The crisis in Keralas agricultural sector, a large part of which is dominated by cash crops, came to a head with the introduction in the 1990s of the liberalisation policies. The prices of coconut and rubber, and all other plantation crops in which the State had a substantial stake, namely, tea, coffee, rubber and cardamom, fell sharply, and the domestic produce had to compete with low-cost imports. The farm workers agitation of July-August 1997, which led to the destruction of crops and other income-generating ventures on vast tracts of reclaimed paddy fields, and the chain suicide of farmers from 2005 onwards in the primarily agricultural districts of Palakkad, Wayanad and Idukki were the visible signs of the extreme distress on the States agricultural scene.

Since the 1990s, Kerala has witnessed a growing number of people and political parties blaming all such ills in agriculture and industry on what they often describe as the outdated provisions of the States land reform law. Important among the recent initiatives to scuttle the law was the Bill introduced by the previous, Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government with the objective of removing the limits on land ownership. A piece of draft legislation prepared by the UDF government was modelled on the requirements of the agricultural policy of the then Central government, which advocated the promotion of contract farming and the reintroduction of leasing of agricultural land, among other substantive reforms in land policy.

A tea plantation in Munnar. After the liberalisation policies of the 1990s, the prices of plantation crops in which the State had a substantial stake fell sharply, and the domestic produce had to compete with low-cost imports.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

The recent proposal from the Principal Secretary, Industries, argues for a repeal of the land reforms law itself in order to overcome many of the problems in agriculture and industry caused by extreme fragmentation of land, including loss-making cultivation, alienation of private capital and ineffective management. Such a measure, it further argues, is also necessary to attract the large-scale industrial investment that Kerala badly needs for setting up IT parks, real estate projects, amusement parks and commercial centres.

It says that the land reform law has achieved all its objectives in Kerala, including ushering in peace in the agriculture sector and curbing naxalism in the State, but has several stipulations that adversely affect the States economic growth and run counter to global trends. If Kerala is to attract new industrial ventures, if more jobs are to be created, if more investments are to come in, we need to withdraw the law, it says.

This argument is not much different from those that have come before. The proposal similarly draws attention for its abject lack of concern for the complaint of thousands of poor people in the State that there has been little progress in distributing land equitably despite decades of reforms or in tackling the combination of new-age landlords, mafia groups, thriving industrial interests and liberalised government policies that continue to deny them access to land or rights over natural resources.

The note, though immediately shot down by Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and later also disowned by the Industries Department and political leaders, has achieved its immediate purpose. It has helped relaunch the debate on the land reform law in Kerala at a time when the Central government, responding to the demands of thousands of landless people who marched to New Delhi demanding protection of their rights, has set up a committee headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prepare a national land reforms policy.

Significantly, at a press conference convened to announce the constitution of a State Planning Board working group to study the implementation of land reforms in Kerala, Achuthanandan said the proposal by the Principal Secretary was meant to serve some others but not the people of the State and that no one need try to engineer changes in such an important law through shortcuts.

He said in no uncertain terms that Kerala had not yet fully implemented the provisions of the land reform law and that unlike the scenario presented in the controversial proposal, the issues of concern were the abnormal rise in the price of land in Kerala, which had pushed it far beyond the means of the common people; the concentration of land in the hands of a few individuals; the blooming of a land mafia in the State; and the exclusion of a large section of the poor from the prospect of ever owning a piece of land. Real estate businessmen have started controlling Kerala, the Chief Minister said.

It is perhaps an irony that the forces that have started arguing ever more vociferously for the scrapping of the land reforms have themselves drawn their strength from the very same sections in Kerala society that actually benefited from land reforms. Their critics say, however, that such forces should not fail to see the harsh reality of Keralas land reform: that nearly one-third of the States population still does not have any land; that the land reform law as it was implemented had excluded from its purview a major chunk of the land in the State, including plantations; and that only one-tenth of the surplus land identified for redistribution has actually been distributed to the landless so far.

As Achuthanandan indicated at a recent meeting of the National Development Council, Kerala is witnessing a battle between the forces that seek to integrate the States productive sectors with global capitalism and those who seek the protection of peasant agriculture from the baneful consequences of such integration, through deliberate interventions by the State.

The working group has been constituted to study in detail the situation in Kerala since the implementation of land reforms so that the government can arrive at a true conclusion about its defects, Achuthanandan said.

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