Land Reforms and Rural Reconstruction
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.
of Zamindari was part of the manifesto of the Indian National Congress party
even before Independence.
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.
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.
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.
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
of the total compensation amount due).
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
like Bhoodan started by Vinoba Bhave to persuade large landowners to surrender
their surplus land voluntarily attracted much public attention.
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.
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.