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A creditable record

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

The experience of Kerala and West Bengal in the matter of land reforms, as discussed at an international conference in Kolkata.


THE policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation followed in India through the 1990s by successive governments at the Centre and in many States have been characterised also by attempts to reverse even the limited land reforms carried out in the decades immediately following Independence. In particular, attempts are under way to remove or raise land ceiling levels, and to enable agribusiness corporations to buy or lease land for capital intensive farming of high value commercial crops. Yet, available evidence and the historical experience suggest that basic land reforms, which greatly reduce inequalities in the ownership and operation of the most crucial productive asset of an agrarian economy, namely land, and break the economic and social power represented by large tracts of landed property, constitute an important prerequisite for the elimination of the more extreme forms of deprivation and socio-economic oppression.

Land reforms were part of the agenda of the freedom movement, and included three components: tenancy reforms, enactment of land ceiling legislation and distribution of ceiling-surplus land to the landless and the land-poor, and promotion of consolidation of landholdings and of various forms of cooperation among the recipients. Yet, soon after the achievement of Independence with the participation and crucial contribution of the landless and the land-poor, peasant struggles having receded, the issue of land reforms was all but ignored, except to the extent of abolishing the zamindari system and absentee landlordism, with a view to promoting capitalist development in agriculture without breaking land concentration, and providing some security of tenure to encourage investment in agriculture by tenant cultivators. An idea of the failure in respect of redistribution of land can be had from the fact that, as late as 1992, only 2 per cent of the operated area in the country had been redistributed. Ownership rights were conferred on tenants only with respect to 3.8 per cent of total area operated. Except in the case of three States, the land area redistributed is less than 1 per cent of the area operated. Not surprisingly, the concentration of owned as well as operational holdings remains high, with that for operational holdings having in fact increased between 1960-61 and 1990-91. The important exceptions to this generally abysmal picture of implementation of reforms have been Kerala and West Bengal under Left-led governments.

The international conference on 'Agrarian Reforms and Rural Development in Less Developed Countries' held in Kolkata from January 3 to 6, 2002, discussed in some depth the land reforms experience of Kerala and West Bengal. There were two papers on West Bengal and a presentation on Kerala.

Surjya Kanta Mishra (West Bengal Minister for Panchayats and Rural Development) and Vikas Rawal (Jawaharlal Nehru University) provided in their paper a clear picture of agrarian relations in West Bengal following land reforms carried out over nearly three decades under the leadership of the Left, starting with initiatives taken by the United Front governments of 1967 and 1969, and climaxing in Operation Barga and the redistribution of ceiling surplus lands by successive Left Front governments under the leadership of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) since 1978. They also discussed the challenges ahead for rural development in the context of globalisation and the policies followed by the Indian state. In his paper, Nirupam Sen (West Bengal Minister in charge of Industry) set out the major achievements of land reforms and issues facing the peasantry and rural labour in the State.

The major objectives of land reforms included:

* Weakening the domination of landlords and providing security of tenure to sharecroppers and land to landless and poor peasants;

* Stimulating the growth of productivity and output in agriculture by eliminating feudal and semi-feudal land relations;

* Expanding rural markets by means of a significant redistribution of productive assets, especially land, and by adequate public investment in the agrarian economy;

* Improving human development levels through investments in education and health;

* Empowering women, Dalits and tribal people, with a view to tackling caste and gender oppression.

The achievements in this regard are remarkable. Through Operation Barga, a movement to register sharecroppers and provide them security of tenure through appropriate legal enactments as well as popular strength, 14.98 lakh sharecroppers have been formally provided security of tenure. Of these, 4.25 lakhs are Dalits and 1.7 lakh belong to the Scheduled Castes. Registered sharecroppers cultivate 11 lakh acres (4,45,156 hectares) of land. In terms of redistribution of ceiling surplus land, 13.81 lakh acres (5,58,873 ha) was acquired by the government, of which 10.55 lakh acres (4,26,945 ha) was distributed to 26.01 lakh landless and marginal cultivator households.

To put West Bengal's achievements in this regard in perspective, it only needs to be noted that though the State accounts for only 3.8 per cent of total agricultural land in India, land acquired under the State's land reforms process accounts for 18 per cent of all land acquired in the country under such reforms. Land distributed in the State accounts for an even higher share of 20 per cent of all land distributed in the country. Further, of the 26 lakh households which have received ceiling surplus land, over 56 per cent belong to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Also, about 4.25 lakh titles have been given either jointly in the names of spouses or exclusively in the name of women. Besides, about five lakh poor households were given homestead land.

The pro-poor impact of land reforms was enhanced by the emergence of the system of decentralised local government put in place by the Left Front in 1978 soon after coming to office. The change in the balance of class forces brought about by land reforms, in turn, was reflected in the social and economic composition of the members of the panchayats. Peasants owning less than 2.5 acres (about a hectare) and the landless account for between 70 per cent and 85 per cent of all panchayat members, and the proportion of members from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes is greater than their presence in the general population.

THE papers on West Bengal, while summarising these achievements, also focussed on a number of issues which have emerged, and which need to be addressed. As Mishra and Rawal put it, "The major demands of the peasantry in the face of liberalisation and globalisation relate to provision of non-land inputs, institutional credit and infrastructure, and support in terms of prices." Inadequate supply of institutional credit, which provides space to moneylenders and leads to high rates of interest, was acknowledged as a problem in post-reform rural West Bengal. Since the State has little control over commercial banks, it has been trying to tackle the issue by expanding the network of cooperative banks. Thanks to the high proportion of small and marginal farmers in cooperatives in the State, two-thirds of the agricultural credit from these banks go to such farmers, whereas the proportion is only 30 per cent for India as a whole. In addition, self-help groups are being organised through these banks with the aid of the mass organisations of peasants and agricultural labourers, largely to meet the short-term consumption credit needs of the poor. Mishra and Rawal identified "proactive land use planning, measures to promote cropping pattern diversification and provision of sustainable and efficient irrigation" as needed interventions.

Nirupam Sen highlighted the issues of fragmentation of holdings and the need for consolidation, the implications of market-determined cropping patterns for land use, irrigation needs and food security, the viability of small farms with increases in real wage rates and the implications of urbanisation and resulting diversion of agricultural land for other uses.

Discussing the challenges facing West Bengal with regard to agriculture and rural development, the participants raised several issues, such as the slowing down of the growth of real wages and the increasing rate at which rural households were becoming landless in recent years, the impact of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the role of local bodies in helping farmers in this context, the privatisation of groundwater resources, the ecological implications of chemical-intensive farming, and so on. The importance of class relations and the ongoing class conflicts, and the need to handle them in a manner that united peasants and agricultural labourers against imperialism was highlighted by Surjya Kanta Mishra and Nirupam Sen, and this view found a wide degree of acceptance among the participants.

The presentation on Kerala by Professor P.K. Michael Tharakan (of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram) focussed more on the lacunae in land reforms in Kerala and the need to address them. It was argued that while the middle classes in rural Kerala had gained substantially from land reforms, these had not substantially benefited the landless agricultural labourers, the tribal people or the fisherfolk. Land reforms in Kerala, Tharakan argued, had essentially benefited the tenants - especially Syrian Christians and Ezhavas - but had led to little redistribution.

IN the discussions, it was pointed out that the reforms in Kerala had several historic achievements to its credit. The process broke the back of landlordism and abolished the janmi system. By 1993 it had conferred ownership rights/protection on 28 lakh tenants, and 6 lakh acres (2,42,812 ha) had accrued to tenants.

Thirdly, 5.28 lakh persons, mostly agricultural labourers, many of them belonging to the Scheduled Castes, had received allotments of house sites and dwellings. Apart from the direct benefits, the movement for land reforms had led to a series of successful struggles against caste oppression, for mass education, public health, and public distribution of food and essential commodities, thanks to the leadership of the movement by the Left. However, land reforms had remained incomplete.

On the current situation in Kerala, the coexistence of high wages in agriculture and high levels of unemployment was noted as an issue that had to be addressed by bringing about cooperation between peasants and agricultural labourers, and promoting investment in agriculture.

It was pointed out that periodic change of governments had made it difficult for the Left in Kerala to implement land reforms in a thoroughgoing manner. The major challenge of declining prices of agricultural products in the context of globalisation and liberalisation was a key issue, and had to be seen as being as important as the land issue. The problems of management of an open economy like Kerala in the era of globalisation was a task that had to be addressed.

In his response, Tharakan clarified that he was in agreement that land reforms in Kerala had many achievements. But the needs of the groups that had been largely neglected in the process had to be addressed. Tharakan saw the land issue as one of continued relevance in Kerala.

The discussions at the conference contributed considerably to clarifying many aspects and issues of land reforms in the two States where some genuine land reform has taken place.

Dr. Venkatesh Athreya is Professor and Head of the Department of Economics, Bharatidasan University, Tiruchi.