Land reforms in India remain a stalled and forgotten agenda; no progress made on CSLR report on issue

As the agenda for upcoming general elections for Lok Sabha shapes up, one agenda that is likely to be missing is that of wealth inequality and, more precisely, land ownership. Yet, the issue remains ever relevant as about 5 percent of farmers hold about 32 percent of farmland and a large farmer (owner of around 43 acres) owns 45 times the size of land that a marginal farmer (owner of around 0.96 acres) owns.

Seeing the magnitude of the problem of land inequality, the Indian government had initiated land reforms programmes soon after Independence which were subsequently adopted in different states. While the programmes succeeded in a few states, they largely failed in most. The stagnation of the progress of land reforms programmes in various states and in the nation as a whole, especially in recent times, has been elaborated in detail by this correspondent in an earlier published article.

Acknowledging this failure, in 2009, the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task of Land Reforms (henceforth referred to as CSLR), appointed by the Government of India, prepared an extensive report looking over the entire gamut of land reforms which was forwarded to PMO, the same year in September. Yet almost a decade later, no progress has been made on the report as revealed by the Ministry of Rural Development (MORD) in response to an RTI application made by this correspondent.

The matter of the report is still “being processed” at the PMO, response to a separate RTI application to the PMO says. Along with the committee, a National Council for Land Reforms (NCLR) under the chairmanship of the prime minister had also been appointed in 2008, which is yet to meet even once as informed by the MORD response.

The committee and the council were appointed as part of a “renewed focus on land reforms”. The agenda of land reforms, with regards to land ceiling, land redistribution and rehabilitation of tribal population alienated from their land among other issues, was part of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) released by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in May 2004 after coming to power.

The report contains observations and recommendations from seven sub-committees which looked at issues of land ceiling and redistribution of ceiling surplus, government and bhoodan land; tenancy, sub-tenancy and homestead rights; governance and policies related to land; alienation of tribal and Dalit lands; modernisation of land management; common property resources and conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural use and land management in the north-eastern states.

A quick study of the report reveals its perspective to be favouring landless, marginalised communities, historically deprived communities, women, tribal population and poor farmers, among others. At multiple points, it critiques the provisions of the various legislations and executive decisions such as Special Economic Zones Act 2005, Central Land Acquisition Act, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2006 and other policies, many of which were enforced during the UPA reign itself.

For instance, it highlights that the monitoring of compliance of EIA is self-regulatory and some of the EIAs are being funded by the proponents of the project themselves which could be adversarial to norms of public consultation. Similarly, it severely criticises the SEZ Act 2005 for no mention of the role of the Pollution Control Board and coastal regulation provisions, among other shortcomings and defects. It also recommends for the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act 1996 (PESA) to be extended to non-scheduled areas where there is a sizeable tribal population and its better implementation in nine states where it is enforced.

At the same time, it also recommends strengthening the role of tribal advisory councils, better implementation of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 and amendment of Land Acquisition Acts (Central and States) to incorporate rehabilitation and resettlement act for all projects. It also proposes a Minimum Land Holding Act for settling of nomadic tribes as well as enforcement of ‘samata’ judgment in all acquisition of tribal land by private companies. These are few of the many observations and recommendations that suggest the report’s inclination for vulnerable sections of population by contextualising them both historically and in present day scenario.

The committee underlines the implementation of land reforms as paramount for equitable agrarian relations and as part of country’s national psyche in the report itself. It also raises concern for the health of the land reforms agenda in the wake of neo-liberal reforms and highlights the huge discrepancies in the total land controlled by the small farmers and the large and medium farmers. The report also indicts the poor implementation of land reforms programme by various states in the past.

With regards to the action taken on this report, the MORD annual reports reveal that the report which was finalised within a year’s time was also sent to the PMO and the various state governments for their review and recommendations since land is a state subject. In the meantime, it was sent to a Committee of Secretaries (CoS) for review, which had forwarded its recommendations and comments to the PMO.

However, in the response to the RTI application, the Department of Land Resources, MORD declined to disclose the details of the deliberations of the CoS on the pretext of Section 8 (1) (i) of the RTI Act 2005, which allows non-disclosure provided that once the final decision is taken, the material on basis of which the decision has been taken shall be made public. With decisions still pending, these deliberations are not likely to be made public anytime in the near future. Thus, there had neither been any action taken on the report nor are there deliberations or recommendations on the same in public domain.

The lack of action on the report in the past ten years is reflective of a policy paradigm shift when it comes to land reforms, tenancy issues, land redistribution, protection of tribal lands and forest areas and protection from land acquisition policies and acts in general as reflected by a quick analysis of MORD annual reports from 2007-08 onwards. The section on land reforms in the 2007-08 report initially mentions the importance of agrarian reforms and land reforms for ensuring social justice and poverty alleviation respectively.

The ensuing sections talk about rehabilitation and resettlement in cases of land acquisition, tenancy rights, prevention of alienation of tribals from their lands alongside renewed focus on land reforms. The report also mentions efforts for computerisation and modernisation of land records, especially for “effective enforcement of land reforms”.

In subsequent reports during the UPA era, the National Land Records Modernisation Programme (NLRMP) acquires greater significance with a focus on its technical aspects and efficiency in the interest of conclusive land titling. The mention of rehabilitation and resettlement is retained while the section on land reforms is increasingly diminished with absence of any reference to social justice and poverty alleviation.

The report for 2013-14 is not available on the website of the Ministry of Rural Development. The one from 2014-15, the first available from the present NDA term, talks about NLRMP in detail with separate section on land titling, national land use policy and land governance assessment. The section on land reforms has no mention of the report on land reforms or the NCLR. The 2015-16 report begins with informing that the NLRMP has been renamed as the Digital India Land Records Modernisation Programme (DILRMP).

The 2016-17 report signifies the conclusive transformation in the land reforms agenda. The ‘land reforms’ section of the report begins with highlighting the modernisation of land records and mapping of land but the sub-section on land reforms agenda with regards to land redistribution, prevention of land alienation etc is completely absent. The transformation seems complete in the 2017-18 report, even as a chapter in the report is completely done away with.

Based on the RTI responses and the analysis of annual reports, it is evident that the agenda of land reforms, as prioritised in the CMP in 2004, gained momentum in 2008 with the appointment of the committee and the council. However, after the exit of CPM from UPA during the vote of confidence motion in Lok Sabha on the issue of Indo-US nuclear deal the same year, apparently the momentum slowly dissipated. The UPA government dragged its feet on this issue for the remaining term and during UPA-II, only lip service was paid to it. During the subsequent NDA term, the agenda of land reforms has been completely forgotten, if not abandoned as the National Council on Land Reforms still awaits a maiden meeting.

Courtesy: First Post