Karnataka: Undoing land reforms

Print edition : July 31, 2020

Members of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, a farmers’ organisation, burnt a draft of the proposed amendments to the Karnataka land reforms Act of 1961, in Mysuru on June 13. Photo: M.A. SRIRAM

The Karnataka government’s decision, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, to introduce an amendment Bill to make it possible for non-agriculturists to buy agricultural land, triggers protests by opposition parties and farmers’ bodies.

On June 11, the Karnataka Cabinet headed by Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) approved a policy decision that seeks to make major changes to the Karnataka Land Reforms Act (KLRA), There has been widespread opposition to the move by farmers’ bodies, Left organisations and opposition parties in the State. The KLRA, which originally came into effect in 1961, was radically amended and implemented in 1974 during the chief ministership of the zealous reformer Devraj Urs. Tenancy was abolished and ceilings on landholdings were significantly reduced. These changes, aimed at redistributing surplus land to tillers, marked a watershed in Karnataka’s agrarian scenario.

According to a press briefing by Revenue Minister R. Ashok and Law Minister J.C. Madhuswamy, the State Cabinet approved a proposal to repeal Sections 79 (A), (B), (C), 80 and amend Section 63 of the KLRA. They said that the proposed amendments would be introduced in the monsoon session of the Legislative Assembly. But farmers’ representatives fear that the amendments may be passed through an ordinance, the route taken for many pieces of legislation over the past two months in Karnataka. The proposed changes will dilute the vision of social justice that was enshrined in the 1974 legislation.

The changes will make non-agriculturists eligible for purchase of agricultural land. Dr. T.N. Prakash Kammardi, former chairperson of the Karnataka Agricultural Price Commission, says this will pave the way for “de-peasantisation” and “corporatisation” of agriculture in Karnataka (see interview).

Section 79 (A) of the KLRA says that the non-agricultural income of a person (or family) intending to buy agricultural land cannot exceed Rs.25 lakh; Section 79 (B) stipulates that only a person whose ancestral profession is farming can acquire agricultural land; Section 79 (C) says that punitive action can be taken for falsifying eligibility in order to purchase agricultural land. Section 80 makes it clear that agricultural land cannot be used for non-agricultural purposes. The State government intends to amend Section 63 of the Act to raise the ceiling of landholdings for an individual and a family from 108 to 216 acres. Clearly, the proposed changes will have serious consequences on ownership patterns of agricultural land.

In an interview published in the Kannada newspaper Praja Vani, Ashok stated that a 45-year-old legislation was preventing “youth interested in agriculture utilising modern agricultural technologies from entering the agricultural field”. He went on to argue that “rich people have purchased agricultural land after bribing officials over the past 45 years and after these amendments, this will stop”. There is some truth in Ashok’s statement as 83,171 cases have been registered for violations of Sections 79 (A) and (B) of the Act.

Citing the examples of neighbouring States such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra where non-agriculturists can buy agricultural land, he asked whether farmers in these States had become landless. He said that those opposing the proposed amendments were like “frogs in the well who are opposed to any change”.

In an interaction with the media, Yediyurappa claimed that “the amendments will improve the condition of farmers and help the State in attracting investments”.

In a letter to the Chief Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Siddaramaiah of the Congress, said his party would be forced to start State-wide protests if the government did not drop the proposed amendments. “If these amendments are passed, corporate companies can easily buy agricultural land,” he wrote. Former Minister Bandeppa Kashempur of the Janata Dal (Secular) also opposed the move: “We have 75 lakh farmers in Karnataka, of whom 55 lakh are small and marginal farmers with landholdings of one to five acres. Instead of improving the lives of these farmers who are somehow eking out a living on these small parcels of land, how correct is it to facilitate the sale of their lands? Is it justice to sacrifice farmers’ interests for the sake of capitalists?”

T. Yashavantha, State committee member of the Karnataka Pranta Raitha Sangha and a mulberry cultivator based in Maddur, has been coordinating State-wide protests against the move. He said that the proposed amendments would “destroy the very nature of the land reforms legislation in Karnataka”. “The State government has already amended Section 109 of the Act, facilitating easy sale and purchase of agricultural land for industrial use, in April. With this Cabinet decision in June, agricultural ownership will completely change in Karnataka,” he said. “Between June 27 and 31, around 100-200 farmers gathered in front of gram panchayat offices across the State. We were unable to organise a massive protest because we are in the midst of a pandemic,” he explained.

Representatives of 16 farmers organisations in Karnataka have come together to oppose the move. In a letter, they requested Governor Vajubhai Vala to not give his assent to the amendments. Among the signatories were representatives of apex farmer organisations such as the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha and Karnataka Pranta Raitha Sangha. The letter pointed out that with migrant workers returning to their villages, the government should strengthen programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme instead of pushing “people into drudgery by proposing these draconian laws via the ordinance route”.

One of the signatories, A.R. Vasavi, is a social anthropologist who has closely studied agriculture in Karnataka. She wrote: “The recently proposed amendment to Karnataka’s land reform Act that seeks to make land available to all, in terms of facilitating new economies and opportunities, is myopic and misleading. It overlooks the extent to which land markets are susceptible to speculation and the extent to which big-capital can override the long-term interests of small-holders.”

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