The Continuing Possibilities of Land Reform

Nov 23rd 2004, C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh
There was a long period during which land reforms had completely dropped from the national policy agenda, and even from the policy discussions of most state governments. Not only were there seemingly insuperable barriers, but it was made to appear that land reforms were unlikely to deliver much in terms of growth or productivity. Also, land reforms were typically seen as essentially taking the form of land redistribution, which is generally regarded as politically so difficult as to be next to impossible.

The more recent crisis in agriculture has created a new and different sort of cynicism about land reforms: it is being argued that since peasant cultivation is barely viable given the increasing costs and uncertain prices, it is in any case pointless to try and provide small amounts of land to peasants.

All these arguments ignore the range of possibilities of changes in land relations which remain not only necessary but even essential for ensuring viable conditions of farming. While land distribution is doubtless important, it is not the only kind of institutional change that can affect the peasantry. Indeed, there are large problems in farming today because of poor recording of land rights, inadequate official recognition of tenants,

The experience of West Bengal shows very clearly how even relatively limited land reforms such as tenancy reform and distribution of vested land can play very important roles in improving agricultural productivity, generating a range of complementary economic activities in the countryside, and generally enabling a small-producer led pattern of growth at least for some time. Therefore, it is important to consider how even small changes in legislation - and in some cases - the mere enforcement of existing legislation - can transform the conditions facing a large proportion of small farmers.

Since land reforms are essentially a State subject in the Indian constitution, it is more useful to consider the possibilities in any one state. In this article, we focus on Andhra Pradesh, a state which has been experiencing agrarian crisis for some time now, and where the need for major policy changes has been recognised also by the state government.

Land relations in Andhra Pradesh are extremely complicated and this complexity has contributed significantly to the problems facing actual cultivators in the state. Because of the fact that in many areas (especially Telengana) the names of the current holders and actual cultivators are not recorded in the land registers, such cultivators are not eligible for institutional finance and a range of other public benefits such as subsidised inputs from public agencies, compensation in the event of natural calamities, and so on.

In addition, some regions (especially in more irrigated areas) have a high proportion of tenancy, which is typically unrecorded, and tenant farmers face similar difficulties in accessing bank loans and other benefits. They are therefore all driven to the informal credit market, which supplies loans at very high rates of interest, which in turn adds greatly to their cost of cultivation. In tribal areas there are even more difficult issues of land entitlement, and tribal people are typically being denied their land rights through encroachment and lack of official protection.

Recording of land rights

In large parts of Andhra Pradesh - as , indeed, in many other states - the state, the existing land records do not accurately portray the actual position with respect to land holding and cultivation. Subdivision and fragmentation of holdings over generations, consequent upon household division, are not reflected in the land records, which sometimes continue to list the names of deceased holders, etc. This problem is especially acute in Telengana. The settlement of revenue records is meant to take place every ten years because of such processes of changing ownership and cultivation holdings; however, in Andhra Pradesh, the revenue records have not been altered for more than fifty years. (This is not uncommon - in most states, land records have not been altered for several decades.) This has meant increased disputes related to land and insecurity of holding, especially for small farmers.

Additionally, women cultivators are rarely if ever listed as the owners of land, even when they are the actual cultivators. This is despite the fact that the state's own Land Revenue Act of 1999 makes it the responsibility of the state government to enter the name or names of the actual cultivators in the Record of Rights.

It is obvious that several things can be done to resolve these problems without embarking on any legislation at all, and simply implementing the provisions of existing legislation such as the Land Revenue Act of 1999. To begin with, a fresh settlement of revenue records is imperative. This requires a major administrative drive to record the actual cultivators. While this has to be undertaken by the state government, it will obviously require the assistance of local panchayats and other agencies, since it can of course urn out to be a complicated process.

The state government had tried to bypass the problem of poor and inadequate revenue records through the provision of pattadar passbooks to all cultivators. However, as can be expected, this process was flawed in the absence of adequate proof, and many farmers have not received such passbooks. Once again, a concerted administrative drive would ensure that pattadar passbooks are provided to all cultivators. A special focus on recognising women farmers would ensure that women cultivators also receive passbooks. In addition, the land rights of tribal populations need to be clearly recognised and tribal farmers should also be issued pattadar passbooks.

Recognising tenancy

In Andhra Pradesh there are no records and therefore no official statistics on the extent of tenancy. But reliable estimates suggest that tenancy is quite high, amounting to around one-third of the cultivated land and often a larger proportion of farmers. It has been seen that, in addition to completely landless cultivators, many small farmers who own very small plots also tend to lease in additional land. The incidence of tenancy tends to be higher in irrigated tracts and in regions where rainfall is more plentiful, in other words, where there is more assured water supply.

The increasing extent of tenancy in this state over the past few decades has been associated with a shift away from sharecropping to fixed rent tenancy. Earlier, sharecropping tenancy dominated, with the crop being shared on a 50:50 basis. However, most tenancy contracts are now fixed rent contracts. The fixed rent systems are of two kinds: those which involve an advance of working capital from the landlord, and those which involve no such advance. The latter type of tenancy contracts tend to be more common.

Tenant farmers face a range of problems, dominantly stemming from the lack of official recognition of tenancy and the fact that their status as actual cultivators is nowhere recorded. This continues despite the fact that the Land Revenue Act 1999 stipulates that the names of tenants should be recorded in the revenue records. This lack of recognition effectively denies tenant farmers all access to institutional finance such as bank credit and crop insurance. In addition, they cannot benefit from any of the government schemes directed to farmers, or get any assistance or compensation at times of natural calamity, since such benefits go to the registered owner of the land. Nor do they receive any of the free or subsidised inputs which are distributed to owner cultivators from the state government, such as seeds, subsidised fertilisers and pesticides and implements.

Cash rent rates in rural Andhra Pradesh are typically quite high, ranging from Rs. 3,000 per acres in unirrigated and less fertile areas (such as in parts of Anantapur district) to as much as Rs. 7,000-9,000 per acre in irrigated areas of higher soil fertility (such as in Guntur). In the fertile south coastal Andhra region, rents can go up to as much as Rs. 15,000 per acre. These rates are in direct contravention of existing legislation (such as the AP Tenancy Act of 1956 and its 1974 amendment) under which land rents are controlled. Of course, such legislation has been so totally ignored that it is now effectively forgotten, and so neither landlords nor tenants pay much attention to such limits. In actual practice, tenant farmers are currently paying more than 3 or 4 times the rents stipulated in this Act.

It is fairly clear that some measures would immediately remedy the situation. For example, obviously the names of tenant farmers (including also women) should be recorded in the revenue records. Of course, this is not likely to be simple - it is not only politically difficult, it is also hard to record cash rent tenancies that may change with every season. The administrative costs are likely to be very large, especially in the absence of a properly functioning system of panchayati raj. But that may be yet another reason to make sure that panchayats are representative and function effectively.

Once tenant farmers are recognised as actual cultivators, they should automatically be entitled to the various benefits provided by government to other farmers, including subsidised inputs, compensation for losses, etc. This will require careful separation of owners from tenants and clearly establishing who is actually cultivating any piece of land, which means continuous monitoring by some local body.

Land distribution

Land ceiling laws have been relatively ineffective in Andhra Pradesh - only 5.1 lakhs of surplus land have been acquired in total, which suggests that the laws have been counteracted on the ground by benami transactions and distribution of large ownership holdings among family members. In addition, in the recent past there appears to have been substantial corporate acquisition of land. Much greater regulation of land grabbing of public or common land by corporations or powerful individuals is obviously required. In addition, of course, stricter enforcement of land ceilings would make available much more vested land for redistribution among the landless population.

Despite this relative lack of implementation of land ceilings, operational holdings have become much less concentrated. The data in Table 1 suggest that there has been a decline in the absolute number and area covered by large and medium holdings since 1971. There is therefore an increase in ''peasant'' holdings compared to large holdings, and it is evident that many of these must be held under tenancy contracts. The substantial increase in marginal holdings, which accounted for more than half of farmers in the early 1990s, is likely to have contributed to the difficulties of ensuring that cultivation provides a reasonable livelihood.
Table 1 >>

There is also substantial landlessness in rural Andhra Pradesh. The NSS data of Table 2 show that AP has the second highest extent of landlessness among rural households, after Punjab. Some of this landlessness is itself the result of the growing difficulties of cultivation, as indebted small and marginal farmers have been forced to sell or give up their land because of the inability to repay their debts through the proceeds of farming. It is also the case that landlessness is heavily concentrated among the Dalit and tribal populations. This high degree of landlessness is why agricultural labourers outnumber cultivators by nearly two times according to the 2001 census.
Table 2 >>

Land Degradation

Once problem that is inadequately recognised across rural India is the decline in soil fertility that has in some areas quite dramatically affected agricultural productivity. Even in Andhra Pradesh, there are increasing problems of soil degradation and fallow land.
Chart1 >>

As is evident from the chart, the proportion of waste and fallow land has increased significantly since the early 1990s. This has actually meant a decline in cultivated area. While adverse weather and rainfall conditions have certainly been associated with this, it is true that cultivation practices have eroded soil qualities over time. The problem is especially acute in certain areas of Rayalseema and northern Telengana, where cropping pattern shifts and greater use of chemical inputs have led to declining soil fertility and even forced fallows.

In other areas, the increase in current fallows also reflects the lack of viability of cultivation, as small farmers migrate in search of other incomes rather than cultivating their fields at a loss. Obviously, a focus on strategies for land regeneration, such as soil regeneration practices which can be part of a rural employment programme, would be important for dealing with such concerns.

While these may be achievable - and even necessary - policy goals, there is no doubt that they cannot be achieved without strong political will. In West Bengal, the land reforms were an outcome of decades of peasant struggle which eventually brought to power a state government committed to these reforms. Even in other states, similar motivation and social pressure will be necessary, even to make sure that the existing laws are actually implemented.

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