Land of inequalities

Print edition : October 22, 2004

The land question comes to the fore in Tamil Nadu as the Land Ceiling Act remains ineffective even after four decades of its enactment.

THE stated purpose of the Tamil Nadu Land Reforms (Fixation of Ceiling on Land) Act, 1961, was to reduce the concentration of land in the hands of a few, end disparities among landholders and ensure a just and equitable redistribution of land. Over four decades after it became operational, has the Act achieved its objective?

`Land for the tiller' is still a dream in Tamil Nadu.-SHAJU JOHN

Studies reveal that the concentration of land has not been reduced to any significant level and that the disparities among landholders continue, though in a different form and among different classes. The inhuman torture of the poor by the zamindars and mirasdars is a thing of the past, but social and economic domination of the village community by neo-rich landholders and moneylenders continues.

Power remains with those in the top layers of the land-owning sections and the empowerment of the rural poor has not happened. "Land for the tiller", one of the cherished slogans of the progressive sections of the freedom movement, continues to be a distant dream for the vast majority of the 85 lakh agricultural workers in the State.

This stark reality stares social activists and leaders of the kisan movement in the face at a time when they are at their wits' end to rescue the rural poor from the distress caused by three successive spells of drought and the onslaught of the market-driven economic policies of an indifferent reforms regime.

"Unless and until the Land Ceiling Act is implemented in its true spirit and the surplus land is vested in the landless agricultural workers to strengthen their economic base, the benefits of any ameliorative measure or development initiative will not reach the needy," said K. Balakrishnan, general secretary, Tamil Nadu Vivasayigal Sangam, affiliated to the All India Kisan Sabha. "So, land remains the central factor," he observed.

Although it was hoped that the Act, when implemented, would render about 20.23 lakh hectares of land surplus, what was actually obtained as surplus during the past four decades, even after reducing the ceiling through amendments to the Act in 1972, was only around 0.81 lakh ha (two lakh acres).

Balakrishnan challenged the Tamil Nadu government's claim that most of the surplus land had been distributed, barring a few thousand acres involved in judicial disputes. He attributed the Land Ceiling Act's failure to "the many loopholes in the Act, such as the generous exemptions given to religious institutions and trusts, the absence of political will in the government and the lack of sincerity in the bureaucracy". The government's premature announcement about bringing an Act on land ceiling two years before its introduction, "gave enough time for the sharks to escape the net", he said.

Expressing the Sangam's determination to fight for the proper implementation of the Land Ceiling Act, Balakrishnan said that certain cases of violation of the Act across the State had been brought to its attention. The organisation would first take up these cases, he said (see box). Apart from the inordinate delay - running to even 25 years and more in some cases - in distributing the ceiling-surplus land to the eligible beneficiaries, the poor peasants in different parts of the State are not in a position to utilise even the little pieces of land allotted to them through pattas.

In Pudukkottai district alone, scores of landholders have found that their patta lands had been "sold" out to "persons from other States" without their knowledge through bogus papers. Hundreds of acres of land is said to be have been siphoned off thus. The police have made some arrests. In Krishnagiri district similar cases have been reported.

BASED on the data available for the period up to 1999, which does not vary much from the 2004 data, Dr. M. Thangaraj of the Madras Institute of Development Studies observes: "The ratio of the total area of surplus land distributed to beneficiaries to the total operated area was only 0.9 per cent. The break-up of the beneficiaries by social groups is available for the period up to 1995. Out of the 1,31,801 beneficiaries, 58,625 (44 per cent) persons belonged to the Scheduled Castes and 61,518 (39 per cent) acres of ceiling-surplus land was distributed to them. These data unmistakably suggest that the Land Ceiling Act could not alter the agrarian structure. Significantly, the guidelines for the distribution of the ceiling-surplus land show that preference will be given to agricultural labourers belonged to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But the data on distribution of ceiling-surplus land shows that 61 per cent of the land was distributed to others (non-Scheduled Castes and non-Scheduled Tribes). It is clear that the implementing officers have vested interest and hence the benefit of ceiling-surplus land could not fully reach the target groups." (Land and Caste in Tamil Nadu, Land Reforms in India - Tamil Nadu: An Unfinished Task, Sage Publications, 2003).

ONE of the major reasons why the Land Ceiling Act failed to acquire more land for distribution is the advance public announcement about the proposed Act. The announcement, say experts, gave enough time for many big landlords to circumvent the law through fictitious transfers of land. According to one estimate, an extent of 31,970.16 ha (79,000 acres) had been transferred a few weeks before the Ceiling on Land Holdings Act came into force.

Another reason attributed to its failure is the exemption it grants to public trusts. There had been hectic transfer of hundred of acres to trusts. Thanjavur district has scores of public trusts possessing thousands of acres. The higher level of ceiling and also the allowances made for a family of more than five members also significantly reduced the extent of surplus land.

What is surprising is the absence of any big movement against the half-hearted implementation of the Act. It is true that the communist parties vehemently opposed the dilution of the Act in the State Assembly and moved scores of amendments to modify it. But in the absence of any provision to involve the panchayats in the redistribution process as has been done in West Bengal, a closer watch by the kisan movement would have filled the gap to some extent.

Before the Land Ceiling Act was brought in, the kisan movement, which understandably took root in the mid-1930s in the fertile Thanjavur region, where the gulf between the rich and the poor was the widest, had to wage several battles in support of the demands of small and marginal farmers, besides the agricultural labour. It had to protest eviction of cultivating tenants by landlords.

The struggles prompted the government to enact a series of legislative measures - the Tamil Nadu Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1948, which brought to an end the oppressive zamindari system, the Tamil Nadu Inams (Assessment) Act, 1956, and the Tamil Nadu Cultivating Tenants (Payment of Fair Rent) Act, 1956.

In fact, one of the major achievements of the kisan movement led by veterans such as B. Srinivasa Rao, P. Ramamurti and P. Jeevanandam during its formative years (1940-60) in Thanjavur district was its struggles against oppression of the agricultural labour, the majority of whom were Dalits. The movement could integrate the struggle against economic exploitation with the fight for the liberation of Dalits and other socially oppressed people. This is cited as the reason for Thanjavur remaining an island of peace when caste-related conflicts and violence rocked Tamil Nadu in the 1990s.

The let-up in the movement in the 1960s, though temporary, has to be seen in the backdrop of the political situation of the period in Tamil Nadu. The split in the Communist Party of India, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's (DMK) agitation against the imposition of Hindi and its subsequent emergence as the ruling party, the India-China war and the war with Pakistan - these factors radically changed the political face of the State and the agendas of the principal parties.

Above all, the Green Revolution, which stressed the role of technology in agriculture through improved seeds, fertilizer and so on had slowly shifted the emphasis away from land. The middle-level agriculturists, most of whom were formerly cultivating tenants, emerged stronger than ever before, thanks to the land ceiling law, the Green Revolution and what has come to be called the "pump-set revolution". The marginal farmers and agricultural labour were the losers, resulting in a steep rise in the number of agricultural workers and their migration. Although the kisan movement soon revived itself, its activities had to be confined to fighting for subsistence wages for agricultural workers, the lowering of power tariff and so on. The land issue was put on the back burner.

Then came the national Emergency and the World Bank-driven economic policies, which have essentially been anti-agriculture. But, when the corporate sector looks for a space for itself in agriculture to produce for global market, market-friendly governments are only too willing to welcome global players to rural India, offering them large tracts of land on a platter. Wasteland development projects and contract farming have emerged as favourites. Besides, the need to revive the long struggle for the recovery of panchami land (distributed to Dalits by the government during the pre-Independence period) from illegal occupation by non-Dalit people in various parts of the State has been highlighted in recent months.

"The system of contract farming has already entered Tamil Nadu. To start with, the corporate players will only be partners of the landowners in the `joint venture'. But, for them the next step - total takeover - cannot be far away. The people have to be on the alert and prepared for another round of land struggle," said Balakrishnan.

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