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Land Reforms and Rural Reconstruction
Under the Constitution of India, agriculture was a ‘state subject’, that is, each state had to pass laws relating to land reforms individually. Thus, while the basic form of land reforms was common among all the states, there was no uniformity in the specific terms of land reform legislation among the states.
Abolition of Zamindari was part of the manifesto of the Indian National Congress party even before Independence.
What was Zamindari and who were the zamindars? Zamindar referred to the class of landowners who had been designated during British rule as the intermediaries who paid the land revenue to the government under a Permanent Settlement. They collected rent from peasants cultivating their land and were obliged to remit a fixed amount to the government as land taxes. There was no legal limit to these demands, and zamindars generally extorted high rents from the cultivators leaving them impoverished. In public opinion, these zamindars were considered to be a decadent, extravagant and unproductive class who were living on unearned income. Abolishing their privileges and restoring land to the cultivators was therefore a prime objective of the government.
Three systems of revenue collection had been introduced by the British. In Bengal and most of north India, the Permanent Settlement placed the responsibility of paying land revenue on the rentier class of zamindars. In south India, the cultivators paid the land revenue demand directly to the government under the system known as ‘ryotwari’ (‘ryot’ means cultivator). The third system, found in very small pockets of the country, was ‘mahalwari’ where the village was collectively responsible for paying the land revenue.
Most provinces in India had enacted laws abolishing the zamindari system even before the Constitution was framed. By 1949, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Madras, Assam and Bombay had introduced such legislation. West Bengal, where the Permanent Settlement was first introduced, the act was passed only in 1955. Land taken away from the zamindars was distributed among the tenants. The provincial legislatures also recommended the amount of compensation to be paid to the zamindars.
Zamindars in various parts of the country challenged the constitutionality of the zamindari abolition laws in court. The government then passed two amendments to the Constitution, the First Amendment in 1951 and the Fourth Amendment in 1955, which pre-empted the right of zamindars to question the takeover of their land or the value of the compensation.
Finally, zamindari abolition was completed by 1956, and was possibly the most successful of the land reforms. About 30 lakh tenants and sharecroppers gained ownership of 62 lakh hectares of land. The total compensation actually paid to the zamindars amounted to ₹ 16,420 lakhs (which amounted to only about one-fourth of the total compensation amount due).
In sum, however, the reform only achieved a very small part of the original objective. Many zamindars were able to evict their tenants and take over their land claiming that this land was under their ‘personal cultivation’. Thus, while the institution of zamindari was dismantled, many landowners continued in possession of vast tracts of land.
Nearly half of the total cultivated land in India was under tenancy. Tenancy refers to an arrangement under which land was taken on lease from landowners by cultivators under specific terms. Not all tenants were landless peasants. Many small landowners who wanted to cultivate additional land leased out land from other landowners. Some richer landowners also took additional land for cultivation on lease. In general, the rent was paid in kind, as a share of the produce from the land. It was common for large landowners to lease out the land to tenants. Usually these tenancy arrangements continued for long periods of time. The rents received by the landowners generally amounted to about 50% or more of the produce from the land, which was very high. Tenancy was a customary practice and agreements were rarely recorded. Thus, tenants of long-standing were almost never deprived of tenancy rights. However, tenants could also be evicted at short notice, and tenants therefore always lived under some uncertainty.
Tenancy reform was undertaken with two objectives. One was to empower the cultivators by protecting them against the landowners. The other was to improve the efficiency of land use, based on the assumption that tenancy was inefficient. Landowners rarely had any incentive to invest in improving the land, and were interested only in deriving an income from their land. Tenants, who had no ownership rights and were liable to pay high rents, had neither the incentive nor surplus money to invest in land.
Tenancy reform legislation was aimed at achieving three ends:
(i) to regulate the rent;
(ii) to secure the rights of the tenant;
(iii) to confer ownership rights on the tenants by expropriating the land of the land owners.
Legislation was passed in the states regulating the rent at one-fourth to one-third of the produce. But this could never be implemented successfully. The agricultural sector had a surplus of labour whereas land was a resource in short supply. Price controls did not work in a situation when the demand exceeded the supply. All that happened was that rent rates were pushed under the table without any official record.
Laws to secure the rights of the tenant and to make tenancy heritable were equally unsuccessful. Tenancy agreements were made orally, and were unrecorded. The tenant thus always had to live with the uncertainty that their land could be resumed by the landlord any time.
When tenancy reform laws were announced many landowners claimed to have taken back their land for ‘personal cultivation’ and that tenants were only being employed as labour to work the land. Tenancy reform was bound to be ineffectual in the absence of a comprehensive and enforceable land ceiling programme.
Land reform measures initiated in Kerala and West Bengal met with reasonable success. While abolition of landlordism was remarkably successful, conferment of ownership rights to tenants had mixed results.
Land ceiling refers to the maximum amount of land that could be legally owned by individuals. Laws were passed after the 1950s to enforce it. In Tamilnadu it was implemented first in 1961. Until 1972, there was a ceiling on the extent of land that a ‘landholder’ could own. After 1972, the unit was changed to a ‘family’. This meant that the landowners could claim that each member of the family owned a part of the land which would be much less than the prescribed limit under the ceiling.
Deciding the extent of land under land ceiling was a complex exercise, since land was not of uniform quality. Distinctions had to be made between irrigated and unirrigated dry land, and single crop and double crop producing land. At the same time, exemptions from the Act were granted to certain categories of land such as orchards, horticultural land, grazing land, land belonging to religious and charitable trusts, and sugarcane plantations. These exemptions were also used to evade the land cieling acts and reported cases of manipulation of land records adversely impacted the otherwise laudable initiative.
Ultimately, only about 65 lakh hectares of land was taken over as surplus land. This was distributed to about 55 lakh tenants–an average of a little over 1 hectare per tenant. Clearly, with their political power the dominant castes who were the big landowners managed to dilute and vitiate the entire legislation.
Efforts like Bhoodan started by Vinoba Bhave to persuade large landowners to surrender their surplus land voluntarily attracted much public attention.
Land reform legislation has overall not been a great success. In economic terms, the dream of an agricultural sector prospering under peasant cultivators with secure ownership rights has remained just that – a dream – and there was no visible improvement in efficiency. In more recent years, when agriculture has grown due to technological progress, a more efficient land market is seen to be operating which is more conducive for long term growth.
In terms of social justice, the abolition of the semi-feudal system of zamindari has been effective. The land reform measures have also made the peasants more politically aware of their rights and empowered them.
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