Two promises and an opportunity

Print edition : May 05, 2006

MDMK leader Vaiko at Thriuvonam in Thanjavur district. - M. SRINATH

THE shifting strategies of electioneering in Tamil Nadu have brought centre stage poverty and the State's agrarian crisis, perhaps for the first time in several decades. Significantly, this will provide the next State administration a golden opportunity to redraw its priorities on the basis of a healthy debate that will hopefully ensue.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's assurance of "quality" rice at Rs.2 a kilo for ration card holders against the present Rs.3.50 a kilo, has apparently been received well by the people, but the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and its allies challenge its feasibility. When the crowd at a campaign meeting cheered DMK president and former Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi for the announcement and gave him a standing ovation, he waved disapprovingly and said: "This is not something to gloat over. That millions of people have been pushed into poverty should really be a matter of concern for us." (Two weeks later, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who is also the AIADMK general secretary, announced 10 kilos of rice free to ration card holders.)

In his speech Karunanidhi made a couple of other promises that are no less significant and they find a mention in the DMK's manifesto: "Assignment of two acres of land to landless poor families and waiver of cooperative loans in the event of the death of farmers". Though the assurances were listed 15th and 16th in the 30 promises categorised by the party as the "marvellous features of this manifesto", the DMK soon pushed them to the second and third spots respectively in its priority list. And then came the most populist of electoral promises: free colour television sets to families that do not possess one. Even if the promise of Rs.2-a-kilo rice and free TV sets may be dubbed a "political gimmick", the assurance of land for the landless and waiver of cooperative loans for farmers is significant.

The Left parties, which are together contesting 24 seats as constituents of the DMK-led Democratic Progressive Alliance (DPA), have given top priority to these two issues, particularly the redistribution of land.

In 2003, the Jayalalithaa government's initiative to offer land to the corporate sector under the Wasteland Development Programme was seen as an attempt to defeat one of the major purposes of land reform - reducing the concentration of land. Following a wave of protest the issue was taken to court (Frontline, March 14, 2003). The next year, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) launched a series of agitations to free from usurpers hundreds of hectares of ceiling-surplus land allotted to landless agricultural workers. The lands were mired in litigation for decades, preventing allottees from taking possession of them. Studies showed that the concentration of land had not reduced to any significant level in many areas owing to loopholes in the Act and ineffective implementation of the law (Frontline, October 22, 2004).

How the offer of land to the landless, initially unnoticed, came into sharp focus 10 days after the release of the DMK manifesto is an interesting story. The DMK strategy of projecting the "misdeeds" of the Jayalalithaa administration and its "anti-democratic" and "anti-people" policies, in response to the AIADMK campaign based on its "list of achievements", particularly post-tsunami, lacked punch. But when MDMK general secretary Vaiko, Jayalalithaa's alliance partner, mounted an attack on the "family politics" of the DMK leadership, adding to the discomfiture of the DPA, Karunanidhi changed the strategy and made the offer of cheap rice and free TV sets. It apparently went down well with crowds at elections rallies, notwithstanding Vaiko's challenge of the feasibility of the `two-rupees-a-kilo-rice" offer. On the DMK's promise of land for the landless, Jayalalithaa questioned the nature and status of the land available for distribution.

Beyond the immediate reasons for the agrarian crisis are the inefficacy of the laws governing agriculture, the absence of any effective follow-up to the 1971 land ceiling Act, the failure to ensure the promised re-distribution of ceiling-surplus land among the landless labour by removing legal hurdles, the collapse of the credit system, particularly cooperative institutions, the gradual withdrawal of subsidies and marketing support, the lack of a food security system and so on, which were glossed over by successive governments.

The DMK manifesto mentions in the list of achievements of its government during 1971-76, "Land Ceiling Act, fixing 15 standard acres [against the 30 standard acres under the 1961 Act] as the ceiling." Under the section `Election Promises', it says, "We will take necessary steps to bring back the agricultural labourers who went to other States in search of livelihood and make them once again get involved in agriculture."

Under the title `Wasteland Development', the manifesto says, "During the ADMK regime, though it announced that the wastelands owned by the government would be given to landless agricultural labourers, it had given away the lands to Indian and foreign firms. We will redeem them. A total of approximately 55 lakh acres of wasteland will be distributed to poor agricultural families at the rate of two acres per family." It also promised to take steps "to convert dryland and wasteland into proper agricultural lands" by using new development technology. The AIADMK's manifesto simply states that under the Wasteland Development Programme, 4.06 lakh acres have been converted into cultivable land at a cost of Rs.69 crores, "benefiting" 1,11,392 farmers.

Leaders of the CPI and the CPI (M), whose manifestos reiterate the parties' commitment to land reforms, are confident that as allies they will be able to press the DMK to implement its promise of giving land to the poor. In their perception, implementation of the DMK's promise would be a good beginning for their efforts to bring in more radical land reformss.

Asked how he would make the government implement radical land reforms, N. Varadarajan, State secretary of the CPI(M), said: "Over one crore agricultural workers in the State are the worst hit in recent time, mainly due to lack of employment, as part of the agrarian crisis. This will have a cascading effect on small trade and small-scale industries. So, the new government cannot afford to ignore the issue." Stating that the ongoing debate on redistributing 55 lakh acres of wasteland has proved this point, he says, "The two communist parties will bring pressure on the government to implement radical land reforms as was done in West Bengal and Kerala."

The general secretary of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Kisan Sabha, K. Balakrishnan, the CPI(M) candidate in Chidambaram, said the DMK proposal on wasteland was welcome. He said that his party would press the new government to finish the "incomplete task" of implementing land reforms.

D. Pandian, CPI State secretary, said that one of the major tasks of the new government would be to evolve a comprehensive plan for the farming sector, which would include land reforms. The plan should also provide for assured irrigation by finding a satisfactory solution to the Cauvery dispute, besides educating agriculturists in modern cultivation and creating the necessary mechanism for promoting exports of agricultural produce, he said.

S. Viswanathan
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