Land reforms in reverse?

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

At Kilapaakam, a village in Kancheepuram district identified as wasteland - R. RAGHU

At Kilapaakam, a village in Kancheepuram district identified as wasteland - R. RAGHU

The Tamil Nadu government's wasteland development programme, which will pave the way for the entry of corporate giants into the State's agricultural sector, is likely to deprive thousands of farmers of their land and livelihood.

FOR Tamils, Pongal is not just a festival of farmers. The first day of the Tamil month of Thai (mid-January to mid-February), which is celebrated as Pongal, symbolises hope. People believe that Pongal will ring in new avenues in their lives as the Tamil adage Thai piranthal vazhi pirakkum suggests.

This year, however, Pongal brought no cheer to a substantial section of the people of Tamil Nadu. While the farmers in the Cauvery delta are neck-deep in trouble owing to devastating drought conditions, agriculturists in most other areas of the State, particularly cultivating tenants, marginal farmers and agricultural workers, fear for their future in view of the now-certain entry of big business into agriculture. The State government's proposal to open up agriculture to corporate giants under its Comprehensive Wasteland Programme (CWP) was to have become operational from Pongal day. However, it is getting delayed, owing to the government's failure to identify the beneficiaries well in time or its desire to go slow in view of its predicament on various fronts.

According to government estimates, the total wasteland, comprising culturable wasteland, current fallow land and other fallow land, available for the programme is 25.74 lakh hectares. Over 200 corporate houses from across the country, including some industrial giants, are waiting in the wings to take the plunge. They are among the over 1,500 applicants for a package scheme that offers not only land on long lease at cheap rates but also governmental assistance in forward linkage to market facilities. The major corporate houses in the fray include Reliance, ITC, TVS, and EID-Parry. The State-run corporate entity, Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Ltd. (TNPL), has also staked its claim.

The massive programme is seen as a major policy initiative of the Jayalalithaa government to put the State firmly on the road to the World Bank-World Trade Organisation-driven reforms regime. Right from the beginning of her second term as Chief Minister, Jayalalithaa has been eager to pursue vigorously the neo-liberal economic policy along with the Union government. A series of actions such as curtailing the procurement of paddy by the State, reducing the coverage of the public distribution system, curbing legitimate trade union rights and denying government employees their rights and privileges under the pretext of effecting cost cuts, and the move to privatise the public transport system are cited in support of this perception.

Leaders of the Left parties, agricultural labour unions, Dalit organisations, social activists and environmentalists have expressed their misgivings about certain features of the proposal and the way the government plans to implement it. They have cautioned that it will have serious implications for the rural community. The entry of corporate houses into agriculture, they say, will pose a threat to the right to livelihood of the people and their right over and access to natural resources, besides degrading land and causing depletion of water sources, because enlarging profits at any cost will be the major driving force for these operators.

In a public interest writ petition filed in the Madras High Court, P.V. Bakthavatchalam, president, Organisation for Civil and Democratic Rights, Tamil Nadu, has challenged the government order (GO) on the wasteland development programme on a number of grounds. The petition said that the order was unjust and against the basic structure of the Constitution. The government, it said, was "guilty of usurping power under the guise of ordinary administrative orders without considering the limits of its powers set by the Constitution." The petition contended that the order failed to mention its source of power, apart from being violative of Part IV of the Constitution and also the Tamil Nadu Land Reforms (Fixation of ceiling on land) Act, 1961. The petition states: "Under the Tamil Nadu Panchayats Act, 1994, lands vest in the panchayats. The government cannot take over the land without the consent of the panchayats and the duly constituted gram sabhas."

At the first meeting of the Wasteland and Watersheds Development Authority of Tamil Nadu on December 14, 2002, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa announced that 1,597 applications from companies which wanted to participate in the CWP were being processed. She said: "My vision for the people of Tamil Nadu includes doubling the per capita income of the State by 2010, for which strategies such as integrated and holistic development of rain-fed areas, water harvesting, augmentation of bio-mass production by involving the watershed community through agro-forestry, horticulture and agri-business and reclamation of wasteland have to be earnestly employed." The major thrust of the CWP is to extend the benefits of new technologies to a larger number of crops and to the dry land regions, which account for 52 per cent of the gross cropped area in the State. The focus of the new programme, the Chief Minister said, would be on "the reclamation of wasteland, improving sub-optimal cultivation by small and marginal farmers, and encouraging rural non-farm activities".

The Tamil Nadu Watershed Development Agency (TAWDEV) has been constituted to implement the programme, which has two components: a participatory watershed development scheme and a plan to develop government wasteland by involving the corporate sector, small companies and cooperatives. The total cost of the project, involving about 20 lakh ha, has been estimated at Rs.1,485 crores.

The first component - participatory watershed development - is already operative in 10 districts. In the first phase of the project, which is to be completed in five years, 55,000 ha of land has been taken up in the current financial year. A total land area of 18.5 lakh ha will be brought under participatory watershed development. It will involve rain-fed agro-forestry and the cultivation of fruit trees. Private sector participation will be promoted through contract farming.

The second component envisages the leasing of government land to private sector operators at concessional rates. The maximum period for lease of land to corporate houses will be 30 years. The normative ceiling for the land to be leased to each applicant is 1,000 acres (404.85 ha). The GO, however, said: "In exceptional cases this may be considered for relaxation as a case-to-case basis. In respect of land below 20 acres cooperative societies and small companies will be given land on lease. No allotment to individuals will be made.''

Under the scheme, the corporate sector will have forward linkages to agri-businesses, cold storage and markets. One lakh hectares of wasteland will be developed by the corporate sector as orchards, using drip and sprinkler irrigation and other infrastructural facilities. High-value cash crops such as medicinal plants, herbs, aromatic plants, spices, condiments, oilseeds, vegetables, cotton, silk cotton and cashew plants will also be grown.

At the Development Authority meeting, the Chief Minister said that the government would act as a "facilitator" between corporate houses and small landholders to ensure the integrated development of wasteland and agri-business, thereby providing new employment opportunities in the rural areas. The participation of corporate houses is expected to help accelerate capital flow and technology transfer in a big way.

There has been no clear definition of wasteland either in the three GOs or in the guidelines evolved for the implementation of the CWP. The first GO, dated September 4, 2001, says that the scheme will only cover waste and fallow lands that are cultivable, leaving out permanent pasture land. The second GO, dated May 5, 2002, said that the first component of the programme would cover "an estimated watershed area of 2.15 lakh ha", while the third GO, dated July 2, 2002, said that the CWP was meant to develop "cultivable wastelands" and added that the "unique" programme involving the corporate sector would be taken up in blocks of land lying "waste and fallow". According to the guidelines issued by the government, forest lands, vested porombokes and watercourse porombokes have been excluded. Over the years, large tracts of land declared in government records as "wasteland" are said to have been brought under the plough by thousands of small and marginal farmers on the basis of assurances from government officials that pattas would be issued to them in due course. Even in the case of those who manage to get pattas, land records are not updated promptly, it is said. While District Collectors have been asked to identify the available wasteland, Revenue Divisional Officers will be the nodal officers for the programme.

The mega scheme, which the government is determined to implement with assistance from financial agencies, both internal and external, has drawn flak from a cross-section of people. A major criticism is that the programme violates the Tamil Nadu Land Ceiling Act, the Tamil Nadu Land Reforms Act and the Tenants Protection Act. While the Land Ceiling Act has fixed the ceiling of land one can possess at 15 standard acres (6 standard hectares) the programme intends to hand over hundreds of hectares of land to corporate bodies.

Corporatisation of agriculture will only mark the negation of all the reforms in relation to land ownership, tenancy rights and so on, that were introduced after long and strenuous struggles since the pre-Independence era. The programme has rendered the slogan "land for the tiller" meaningless, although in its election manifestoes the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) has repeatedly promised land for the landless labour, the slogan of the Left movement in the country for over half a century. "Had all the ceiling-surplus land been redistributed over the years to the landless labour, many of the State's problems such as poverty, mass unemployment, caste-related tensions and unrest could have been solved," observed Dr. M. Thangaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. Only 1,78,801 acres (72,000 ha) of ceiling-surplus land has been distributed so far and this forms less than 1 per cent of the total area of operational holdings (73,03,206 ha) in the State. (On the other hand, in West Bengal the redistributed ceiling-surplus land constitutes 20 per cent of the total area of the operational holdings in the State.) He said that over the years the revenue officials had failed to distribute thousands of hectares of unused land to eligible people.

Among the southern States, Tamil Nadu remains at the bottom in the matter of wasteland transfer. While about 20 lakh ha of wasteland has been transferred to eligible people in Andhra Pradesh, about 1.5 lakh ha in Karnataka and 1.8 lakh ha in Kerala, the wasteland distributed in Tamil Nadu is less than one lakh hectares.

Another criticism against the programme is that the leasing of the common land in the village by the government was done in violation of the Panchayat Act under which panchayati raj institutions have been given the right and control over common land. In their gram sabha meetings on Republic Day, over 300 village panchayats adopted resolutions demanding the withdrawal of the programme in its present form and the launching of a new one to be implemented by the village panchayats with liberal assistance from the State government. In an appeal to the government, the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Presidents of Panchayat Government has demanded that the power to decide how best common land and other resources of the village, such as waterbodies, can be used be vested with the panchayats. The Federation has demanded that the village panchayat be consulted on any project undertaken within its boundaries.

"The programme will lead to massive displacement of marginal landholders and agricultural workers,'' said K. Balakrishnan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha. The corporate houses will try to evict thousands of people cultivating these pieces of land; they would sink deep wells that will bring down the ground water levels and cause acute water scarcity, degrading the land further, Balakrishnan said. Also, the small farmers' inability to withstand the competition from corporate houses would lead to the further transfer of land, as a result of which thousands of people would be thrown out, he said. The programme, which the Chief Minister claimed would play a major role in poverty alleviation, would result only in augmenting poverty, Balakrishnan said.

According to P. Shanmugam, Treasurer of the Kisan Sabha, in many places even grazing lands have been identified as wasteland and this would affect the cattle wealth of the State. For instance, of the nearly 10,000 ha of land identified as wasteland by the Kancheepuram district administration, about 8,000 ha is grazing land. In certain areas, entire villages, including government-built houses, roads and water tanks, have been declared wasteland (see box). In Maduranthakam taluk, the newly developed Samathuvapuram village has been classified as wasteland. However, following protests the administration reportedly agreed to take corrective steps. "This only shows how hastily the officials in different districts have prepared the lists," Shanmugam said.

According to the critics of the programme, Dalits, who form a significant percentage of the 86.55 lakh landless labour in the State, will be the worst hit. Most of them will be impoverished further owing to the loss of jobs. Dalit activists say that Panchami land to the extent of about 1.5 lakh ha that had been assigned to them decades ago but was now in the possession of other communities would be denied to them permanently unless corrective steps are taken.

According to critics, contrary to the government's claim that the entry of the corporate sector will enhance employment opportunities substantially, its operations would render a larger number of people jobless. They cite the State's experience in the field of aquaculture and horticulture in the mid-1990s when corporate houses and finance companies entered the fray in a big way but had to quit business after spoiling the land and leaving the workers in the lurch. Several finance companies had to abandon their orchards and other horticultural units half way through, mostly because of their over-ambitious operations and unfair trade practices, rendering thousands jobless, besides cheating depositors of their money.

T. Fatimson, State convener of the Campaign for Right of Livelihood and Food Security, Tamil Nadu, said the large-scale eviction of people from the land they had been cultivating for generations would render them homeless and rob them of their livelihood. The government's move would only add to the tension in the villages, he said. The mindless exploitation of natural resources by the corporate houses would result in acute water scarcity, Fatimson said. The changes envisaged in age-old agricultural practices, such as bringing rain-fed land under mono-cropping, would not only downgrade the quality of the soil but also alter the people's food habits, he said. The intrusion by big business, he said, would make a dent in the value system of the simple rural folk, damage their environment, and distort the socio-cultural atmosphere.

Fatimson disputed the contention that dry land agriculturists were not talented or equipped enough to introduce new technology. He said that successive governments had been neglecting agriculture and that in recent years the government had been withdrawing from the scene by downsizing its operations. Further, the competitive politics in the State had led to the collapse of the cooperative credit system. In these circumstances it was unfair on the part of the government to accuse the farmer of poor performance. Referring to the GO, which said that the cooperatives could also participate in the venture, he said: "With all cooperative societies having been superceded, it is futile to expect them to stake their claim in any such venture.'' He said that with enough funds and infrastructural facilities, the farmers could change the landscape. He cited the achievement of the Kundrakudi Adheenam in Sivaganga district in developing about 100 ha of wasteland with local talent and institutional support in the 1980s under its Kundrakudi Village Plan, which was hailed as a role model in those days.

The Campaign for Right of Livelihood and Food Security is one of the many organisations that have been creating awareness among the rural community about the socio-economic implications of the move to transfer agricultural land to ambitious commercial interests. They have been organising seminars, conferences and rallies across the State and holding demonstrations and sit-ins to protest against the programme.

Large-scale mobilisation by these organisations and the initiatives taken by the Left parties have helped build up a strong movement among the peasants to defend their rights. Fatimson hopes that "the people's resistance will gather momentum when the mega project gets going, exposing its weakness''.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment