ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Improving Land Access for India's Rural Poor

improving land access for india

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW March 8, 200849Improving Land Access for India’s Rural PoorTim Hanstad, T Haque, Robin NielsenIndia’s states have employed several land reform measures, including reforming tenancy, imposing land ceilings, distributing government wasteland, and allocating house sites and homestead plots. With relatively modest revisions, some of the existing laws and policies can further their original intent of increasing the poor’s access to rural land and providing for secure land tenure. But old land reform approaches, such as blind adherence to land ceilings and tenancy reform, need reconsideration.Tim Hanstad ( and Robin Nielsen ( are with the Rural Development Institute, Seattle, USA, while T Haque is with the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, ministry of agriculture, New Delhi.India has the largest number of rural poor as well as landless households in the world. Even though landlessness is the best indicator of rural poverty in the country, redistributive land reform lost its favour with the central policymakers till recently. TheDraft Eleventh Five-Year Plan however has revived the issue of land reform for agricultural efficiency and equity, along with some innovative approaches that would work better for the rural poor. This article analyses the evolution of land reform policy in India in the new context.1 IntroductionAs mentioned, India contains both the largest number of rural poor and the largest number of landless households on the planet. The two statistics are intrinsically related: landlessness – more than either caste or illiteracy – is the best indicator of rural poverty in India.1 Indian leaders are well aware of the connection between rural poverty and landlessness. Since independence, the country has taken substantial policy and legislative steps to address the problem, and has produced an unrivaled volume of land legisla-tion in the process. India’s experience is a reminder, however, that adopting well-intended laws does not, by itself, guarantee good results.2 From the perspective of most rural poor, India’s land reform laws have not had the desired effect, and some legis-lation has resulted in perverse and unintended consequences. Sixty years after independence, India’s poorest households still struggle for access to rural land and land tenure security. The story of land reform in India need not end here, however. With relatively modest revisions, some of India’s existing policies and laws can further their original intent of increasing the poor’s access to rural land and providing for secure land tenure. Other areas require more drastic measures. Old land reform approaches, such as blind adherence to land ceilings and tenancy reform, need reconsideration. The time has arrived for policymakers to take inventory of India’s land reform experience, distill lessons learned, and use land laws, policies, and programmes more innovatively and with the focused objective of broadening land access and strengthening land rights for the poorest and least empowered. The “land route” is not the only route out of poverty, but in a country where landlessness is the best predictor of poverty, it is a route that cannot be ignored.Land reform legislation is within the states’ jurisdiction. Since independence, India’s states have employed several land reform “tools”, including reforming tenancy, imposing land ceilings, distributing government wasteland, and allocating house sites and homestead plots. This article briefly summarises some past efforts in these areas and attempts to distill broad lessons for informing possible policy paths ahead. Our intent is not to be directive but rather to identify issues for consideration and to
SPECIAL ARTICLEmarch 8, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly50promote discussion and debate – with the hope that the process will ultimately lead to concrete action benefiting India’s rural poor.2 Tenancy ReformIn the period after independence – due in no small part to British colonial interference with the traditional land tenure systems – tenancy was ubiquitous and circumstances had converged to create a perfect storm that favoured powerful landlords at the expense of their tenants. Most tenancies were oral and termina-ble at will. Laws provided no (or virtually no) protection or even legal recognition of the most vulnerable tenants, including sharecroppers and tenants-at-will on ex-intermediaries’ home farms. The exploitive relationships were ripe for legislative intervention.In the 1960s and 1970s, every Indian state passed tenancy reform legislation aimed at giving tenants greater tenure security and, in many cases, severely restricting prospective tenancies. However, the results of tenancy reform laws were, with some exceptions, weak or even counterproductive. While the laws allowed tenants to acquire ownership or owner-like rights to about 4 per cent of India’s agricultural land, the same laws led to the ejectment of much larger numbers of tenants.3Productive analysis of the tenancy laws begins with recogni-tion of a distinction between the laws’ affect on tenancies exist-ing at the time the law was adopted and their affect on tenancies that might be created in the future. The initial inquiry is: what provisions addressed existing tenancy relationships and what was the impact of those provisions on those relationships? A separate inquiry should follow: what provisions are aimed at future tenancy relationships and what is the current impact of those provisions? As the discussion following notes, to the extent that India’s tenancy reforms benefited existing tenants, those benefits were realised in the years immediately following imple-mentation of the reforms; no further benefits are anticipated.4 What remains effective in the reforms are the continuing restrictions on future tenancies – legislative provisions that are now limiting the livelihood options for the rural poor and landowners alike. 2.1 Effect on Existing TenanciesPrior to any existing tenant receiving the benefits of tenancy reform, an enormous loophole in the reforming laws erased the rights of a significant percentage of existing tenants. In almost every state, tenancy laws granted landowners generous rights of resumption for “personal cultivation”. Landowners took full advantage: using the legal and largely unfettered rights of resumption, landowners took control of tenanted land, leaving a population of evicted tenants in their wake.Most states rewarded tenants who remained on non-resumable, tenanted land with ownership rights.5 The laws varied in approach. Some states deemed eligible tenants to be owners, their ownership becoming final on payment of the price estab-lished by the government (which is typically paid to the government rather than directly to the landowner). Other statesassumed ownership of eligible tenanted land by paying compensation to the landlord and subsequently transferring rights to tenants based on their application and payment, which may not equal the amount paid to the landowner. However, even on non-resumable land, “voluntary” surrenders of tenancy rights by tenants frustrated the objectives of tenancy reform. Many landlords repossessed their non-resumable land by persuading their tenants to relinquish their tenancy rights “voluntarily”. Once such coercive tactics became widely recog-nised, the national Planning Commission recommended that states amend their legislation with specific procedural protec-tions against landlord coercion. Most states amended their laws, but by that time the damage had been done.2.2 Effect on Future TenanciesWhether states would permit the creation of future tenancies was perhaps the most controversial aspect of tenancy laws. Heated debates resulted in legislative provisions that fall into four broad categories.6 Complete prohibition: The laws of Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir place a virtual or absolute prohibition on the creation of agricultural tenancies. General prohiition/limited leasing: The laws Andhra Pradesh (Telan-gana area), Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa are characterised by a general prohibition on future tenancies, with exceptions for certain defined categories of landowners and/or under certain conditions. Permissible leasing with ownership potential: Assam, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra and Punjab permit leasing, but with a stipula-tion that the tenant acquires a right of ownership or a right to purchase ownership after a period of one to six years. No prohibitions on leasing: The Andhra area of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu place virtually no prohibitions on leasing. Even in these states, however, provisions on maximum rent, minimum length of term, and tenants’ rights to purchase land disincentivise tenancy arrangements or push tenancies “underground”.2.3 Extent and Impact of Tenancy Reform The state tenancy reform laws contain prominent defects and sizeable loopholes that have limited their potential reach. Half-conceived, often lackluster implementation efforts led to even wider gaps between the declared objectives of the tenancy reform policy and law and their actual achievements in the field. According to government of India statistics, by the end of 2002, 12.4 million tenants on 15.6 million acres of land had benefited either by having ownership rights conferred upon them or by otherwise having their rights protected.7 This comprises approxi-mately 8 per cent of all rural households and about 4 per cent of India’s cultivated land. While the benefits received by these tenants cannot be discounted, a considered evaluation of the impact of tenancy reforms must also include those negatively impacted. Those negatively impacted by tenancy restrictions can be divided into two broad categories: Evictions: Throughout India, tenancy reform was the impetus for the large-scale ejectment of tenants. Based on an extensive study of histor-ical data and reports, P S Appu estimates tenant families were ejected from as much as 33 per cent of India’s agricultural land as a result of tenancy reform legislation.8 Passive dispossession: In addition to causing active dispossession of tenants through evictions, the existing tenancy laws led to some
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 8, 200851degree of passive dispossession by preventing more poor farmers from accessing land through tenancy. Most rural households perceive that landowners risk losing some (often substantial) rights to their land when they rent it out.9 Three common consequences result: (1) some landlords choose to leave their land fallow or to use it sub-optimally rather than to lease out the land for fear of losing rights and control to tenants; (2) landowners who rent-out land may only rent to people trusted not to assert rights and, for an extra measure of protection, the landowner typically rotates tenants, often every year; and (3) land-poor households (especially those with surplus labour) commonly report that they wish more land was available for rental. They do not fear exploitive landlord practices as much as they fear not being able to access land to meet their needs and improve their livelihoods.2.4 TenancyReformRecommendationsIndia has moved beyond a time when it needs to cast tenancy in the role of an exploitative institution and charge tenancy with negatively impacting socially optimal equity and productivity outcomes. India is well positioned to recognise and take advan-tage of the consensus emerging in the economic literature concluding that land rental markets can play a significant positive role in increasing land access for the poor by supplying the following opportunities:Rental markets can create a critical rung on the “agricultural ladder” toward landownership, particularly as growing economic opportunity (especially non-agricultural) and socio-political advancements begin to remove feudal-like vestiges and improve the bargaining position of poor tenants.10 Land tenancy markets can reduce the vulnerability of poor households by offering a more stable livelihood source than frequently volatile and imperfect labor markets.11 As opportunities in the non-farm economy increase, tenancy markets can facilitate a broader choice of livelihood opportunities such as migration, specialisation, and invest-ment. Households better suited to pursue non-farm livelihoods will be benefited if they are able to rent out their land for others to cultivate. Looking to other countries, China’s experience indicates that in a growing economy, the role of land tenancy will expand and increase incomes for all.12 Other research teaches that rental markets have more potential for providing access to the poor in settings where agriculture is not capital-intensive.13Rental markets are likely to provide the smaller, poorer farmers with more opportunities to access land. As a consequence of tenancy restric-tions and protections, landowners who rent-out must select tenants they trust not to reveal the relationship or assert their rights. Thus, it is generally considered that, all things being equal, larger farmers (who qualify for tenancy protections or because they belong to the same socio-economic class as the landowner) present lesser risks as tenants. Liberalising the tenancy markets could provide proportionally greater land access to the poor.2.5 Support from the Field We are quite sympathetic with the pro-poor agenda objectives of those who promote continued or even stronger tenancy regula-tion/restriction. However, we have seen increasing evidence in recent studies and in our own field research that much of the current tenancy legislation in India operates to restrict livelihood opportunities for the poor. A study of 5,000 rural households over a 17-year period finds that tenancy restrictions limit the supply and demand for agricultural land and prevent access to land by the landless and most efficient producers.14 These findings are supported by results of a smaller survey of 400 rural households. This survey, conducted by the Rural Development Institute, Seattle, and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore in Karnataka in 2001, documented the following attitudes toward tenancy restrictions:Ninety-four per cent of respondents answering definitively stated that existing tenancy restrictions harm the landless; Ninety-one per cent of respondents answering definitively stated that the existing tenancy restrictions harm landowners; andThirty-eight per cent of respondents answering definitively reported that at least one farmer in their village keeps land fallow rather than renting it out because renting may lead to the loss of such land. The potential for positive impact from relaxation of the restric-tions on tenancy is equally strong. The data collected in the 5,000 household survey regarding the operation and impact of mostly informal land rental markets found significant potential in the land rental market:Thirty-seven per cent of households who rent-in land (usually contrary to tenancy restrictions) are landless; Access to land through rental improved the well-being of poor house-holds; Households that rent-out land are more likely to pursue non-farm opportunities; Land rental increases productive land use because the land market allows land to transfer from lessefficient to more efficient producers;Access to land through a rental market increases opportunities for women to be self-employed and realise greater gains from their labour; and The land rental market transfers land to those households with higher endowments of family labour, improving the scope for gainful employ-ment of labour in rural areas.In sum, the study found that the rental market is not biased against the poor, and removing the restrictions on tenancy will increase land access for the landless, women, and the more efficient producers.15 2.6 Understanding the ControversyDespite this empirical support and the acknowledgement in the existing Five-Year Plan of the substantial failures and unintended negative consequences of many existing tenancy reform laws, amending these laws is controversial. In the present policy dialogue on this topic, there is an overpowering tendency to view the tenancy debate within the twin context of the need to attract investment into agriculture and to facilitate a smooth process of land transaction during economic transformation without relying upon land sale markets. Particularly in government circles,16 a view that enhanced investment will cure agricultural backwardness dominates. Those promoting liberalisation of tenancy restrictions often connect the desired liberalisation to increased investment by (and benefits accruing to) large farmers or agri-business concerns, a connection that generates understandable resistance from those representing the interests of marginal/small farmers and agricultural labourers. Many policymakers lack a balanced understanding of the trade-offs and make ill-informed assump-tions that the existing legislation protects the poor. They are unfamiliar with the potential that removing or revising tenancy restrictions has to benefit the poor, and they lack a pressing reason to alter their settled thinking on the subject. But a pressing reason to confront the issue does exist: the need to provide the rural poor with access to land. Indian states should
SPECIAL ARTICLEmarch 8, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly52consider amending tenancy legislation to better meet (and, in some cases balance) the objectives of equity and efficiency. The basic aim should be twofold. First, consolidate the benefits of past tenancy reform by converting “protected”, “registered”, or “occupancy” tenants into owners. Second, liberalise ongoing tenancy prohibitions and excessive tenant “protections”.2.7 Guidelines for Legislative and Policy Change The specific content of amendments to tenancy laws will differ from state to state and should be informed by the results of rigor-ous field research. In general, however, we recommend the following guidelines for policy and legislative changes: In settings where past tenancy reform beneficiaries are not full owners, states should consider converting them into owners. The necessary legislative changes will differ from state to state. In West Bengal, for example (the state with the largest number of tenancy reform beneficiaries, the ‘bargadars’), the law could be improved by giving bargadars a unilateral right to become owners by “buying out” the landowner for a government-deter-mined sum, by providing for a streamlined voluntary transaction process, and/or by activating the financing mechanism for barga-dar purchases of barga land that is already contemplated by state’s land reform laws.17 In settings where tenancy is now prohibited, states should consider amending the legislation to provide legal recognition of tenancy while incorporating enforceable provisions that balance the interests of the tenants and landowners.The drafting of these provisions balancing the interests of tenants and landowners should, as always, be informed by rigorous field research. Provi-sions might include stipulations that: Tenancy agreements be in writing, using a mandatory, standardised form that forces the parties to state important terms;Guarantee the tenant exclusive possession of the tenanted land for the duration of their agreement, but without maximum rent payments or minimum length of terms that deviate significantly from those prevail-ing in practice (otherwise they become unenforceable); Prohibit new tenants from receiving any long-term or hereditary rights to land beyond those contained in the written agreement between tenant and landlord; and In settings where there are fears that liberalising leasing will result in excessive land concentration and further limit opportunities for the land-poor, states might consider: (1) revising land ceilings to include owned and rented-in land; or (at least initially) (2) limiting lessees to those owning less than a prescribed amount of land.18 In settings where tenancy is allowed, but subject to maximum rent levels and/or a minimum lease term, states should consider amending the legislation to remove the maximum rents and minimum length terms. If that is not politically feasible, the states should revise the maximum rent levels and/or minimum lease terms to reflect more accurately what is reasonable and enforce-able. The central government’s recommended policy for limiting rents to 20 to 25 per cent of the produce (and “slightly more” if the inputs are provided by the owner) is well below prevailing market rents throughout India and therefore difficult or impossi-ble to enforce. One reason that West Bengal succeeded in imple-menting tenancy reform is because its legislation provided that the landlord shall receive 50 per cent of the produce (when the landlord provided inputs). The reasonableness of the percentage assigned to landlords made implementation feasible, while still improving the position of the tenants (bargadars). 3 CeilingsonAgriculturalLandholdingAgricultural land ceiling laws are one of the best known of India’s land reform efforts. However, with some exceptions in a few states, the effect of the laws has not met expectations. Examina-tion of the reasons why results have succeeded in some areas and fallen short in others is an important initial step toward creating a plan for using laws, policies, and programmes to broaden land access in the future. All Indian states adopted legislation that places ceilings on the amount of agricultural land a person or family can own, with the objective of redistributing land in excess of the ceiling to poor, landless, or marginal farmers. The ceiling laws were enacted and enforced in two phases: (1) the period from 1960 to 1972, when no specific policy guidelines were present; and (2) the period since 1972, after the adoption of national policy guidelines. As of 2002, states have redistributed approximately 5.4 million of acres of land to 5.6 million beneficiary households.19 (West Bengal accounts for 20 per cent of that redistributed land and 47 per cent of the ceiling-surplus beneficiaries.) While the laws on land ceiling follow a common pattern, varia-tions exist on several key aspects including: the ceiling area, compensation for above-ceiling land expropriated, and defining and prioritising beneficiaries. This article does not detail those variations,20 but focuses instead on the impact of the laws.3.1 Impact of Land Ceiling LawsBy the end of 2002, state governments had declared 7.4 million acres of land as exceeding the ceiling. Of that land, the state governments had taken possession of 6.5 million acres and had distributed 5.4 million to a total of 5.6 million households. The total amount of ceiling-surplus land distributed to individual beneficiaries amounts to approximately 1.4 per cent of India’s agricultural land.21 The only states where more than 5 per cent of the operated area has been redistributed are West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir and Assam. In these states, some evidence suggests the ceiling laws have had a significant impact. For example, in West Bengal, 34 per cent of all agricultural households have received ceiling-surplus land and numerous studies document the importance of the ceiling-surplus distribution in improving the livelihoods of beneficiaries and in promoting agricultural growth and stability in the countryside.22 However, the benefits realised by beneficiaries in West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, and Assam did not extend to the rest of India. Excluding the achievements of these three states, P S Appu concludes that “the imposition of ceilings has not led to any worthwhile redistribution of agricultural land in the rest of the country”.23 Defects in the law are a partial cause for the failure of most such laws to achieve their objectives,24 but the more relevant factor is the absence of political will at both the central and, apart from a few exceptions during limited time periods, state levels. That lack of political will continues today, despite occasional political rhetoric to the contrary.
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 8, 2008533.2 LandCeilingRecommendationsGiven (1) the lack of political will, (2) the limited success of past efforts (even when the political climate for redistribution was more receptive), and, particularly, (3) the existence of more practical tools for providing meaningful land rights to the poorest, India should not view ceiling laws as a fundamental component of future land reform efforts. On the other hand, without solid empirical evidence to the contrary, neither should Indian states race to increase or remove existing land ceilings. While in most states the ceilings have not led to a significant government redistribution of land, those ceilings may be serving a useful role in preventing a further exces-sive concentration of land and in providing appropriate incentives for some large landowners to sell land to smaller farmers and/or diversify into the non-agricultural sector. States might consider focusing their efforts in this area on the following:Remove the obstacles preventing the distribution of the nearly 20 lakh acres (India-wide) that have been declared surplus but not yet distri-buted to individual beneficiaries. Because lengthy litigation is a princi-pal obstacle, Indian states could focus more legal aid resources or establish special tribunals to resolve long-standing cases.Allocate the remaining land for distribution in smaller plots in order to benefit greater numbers of landless. States should consider allocating the remaining unallocated land as either homestead plots or small field plots (one acre or less) so that a larger number of families can enjoy the benefits.25 Some question the potential impact of distribut-ing small plots, noting that the income earned from the plot is not itself sufficient to raise the beneficiary households above the poverty line. From a livelihoods perspective, however, this is not a relevant standard. A sustainable livelihoods approach recognises that people draw on a range of capital assets to further their livelihood objec-tives and acknowledges that in many cases, a diversity of assets provides the best buffer against the vulnerability factors that threaten the rural poor. Even after receiving small plots, the benefi-ciary households typically pursue other income-generating strate-gies such as working as agricultural labourers. Receiving land through the land reform has not, in most cases, changed the primary “occupation” of most beneficiaries. The land has, however, provided those households with a significant opportunity to supplement their nutrition and income, in addition to increasing their status and credit worthiness.Amend legislation so that land ceiling beneficiaries are not perma-nently prohibited from selling their land. International experience indicates that permanent prohibitions on land sales are unnecessarily restrictive.26 States with permanent prohibitions should consider revising their laws to provide for time-bound restrictions of perhaps 10 to 15 years.If any Indian states do plan to continue using land ceilings as tool to redistribute land, the following legislative changes should be considered:Increase the amount of compensation provided to landowners who lose ceiling-surplus land. While higher compensation is not required under principles of constitutional case law, it is recommended. Compensation need not be market value, but should be meaningful and well above the token amounts in many state laws, which border on confiscation. Use individuals rather than families as the unit to which the ceiling applies. West Bengal’s experience indicates that a unit based on an individual ensures greater equity and eliminates an easy loophole by which larger families split into additional families in order to retain more land.27Limit the amount of ceiling-surplus land that a beneficiary family can receive to one acre. Given the large numbers of landless rural households, it is more important to increase the number of beneficiary families than to provide each beneficiary family an “ideal” amount of land. If any states are seriously considering increasing or removing land ceilings, they should first undertake rigorous empirical research to determine the equity and efficiency effects of revising existing land ceilings.3.3 Non-CeilingApproaches:LandPurchaseAll states should also consider other non-ceiling approaches to redistributing private land. One approach that deserves consid-eration is a land purchase approach, especially one implemented through women’s self-help group activities. The government of Andhra Pradesh has recently initiated a land purchase programme in partnership with civil society organisations as part of its Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) project (formerly called Velugu). Under the programme, landless female agricultural labourers can purchase up to one acre of irrigated land. The women undertake land purchases as a self-help group activity, with the community-based organisation structure providing support and assistance Mindful of issues and challenges faced by other land purchase schemes, Andhra Pradesh designed the land purchase activity with the following features:Beneficiary-driven Process: In contrast to schemes in which bureau-crats initiate the process of identifying land and negotiate for the purchase before identifying beneficiaries, Andhra Pradesh’s land purchase activity is initiated by the beneficiaries. Self-selected benefi-ciaries that have demonstrated capacity for a land purchase identify the land, negotiate a price, and develop a business plan for farming the land. Purchase plus improvements: Andhra Pradesh requires beneficiaries to consider what improvements (such as irrigation) are necessary and to include the costs of and plan for such improvements in their business plan. This consideration and budgeting for necessary improvements avoids the problems inherent in schemes that allow land purchases without factoring in the costs of necessary improvements essential to successful farming of the land.Business plan requirement: Andhra Pradesh’s requirement of a business plan prior to purchase focuses the beneficiaries on the economic feasibility of their land purchase and requires consideration of options. Schemes that do not identify beneficiaries until after land purchase cannot benefit from this kind of essential business planning. Cost recovery plan: Andhra Pradesh’s land purchase scheme includes a substantial grant component and reasonable repayment terms so beneficiaries are not saddled with an unmanageable debt and unreal-istic repayment plan. The repayment plan is included in the pre- purchase business plan so beneficiaries can evaluate the extent of their obligation and understand how the repayment obligation factors into the overall economics of the land purchase activity. Including these features in a project aimed at broadening land- ownership through purchase will help avoid problems that have plagued land purchase projects implemented by scheduled caste development corporations. Such schemes have had some success, but have also faced significant problems, including allowing the landowners seeking to sell land to initiate and control the process, failing to anticipate the need for improvements and technical assistance and to include those costs in budgeting, identifying beneficiaries after the land is purchased, permitting beneficiaries to take on unmanageable debts and establishing often unreason-able repayment schemes.
SPECIAL ARTICLEmarch 8, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly54In contrast to these schemes, Andhra Pradesh’sIKP programme is designed with an understanding of the realities faced by landless rural labourers. The orientation toward the programme beneficiaries has served the programme well. A study of the programme’s early experience indicates that beneficiary house-holds have significantly higher levels of food security, have improved levels of health and education, and experience less migration than non-beneficiary households.28 4 Allocation of Government Wasteland Wasteland allocation programmes often suffer from poor reputa-tions. The reasons are varied. First, wasteland is, by definition, land that is barren or producing significantly below its economic potential.29 Thus, while state governments report allocating 14.7 million acres of government wasteland to poor rural households (three times the amount of ceiling-surplus land distributed),30 the topic of government wasteland allocation is rarely mentioned in the literature, perhaps because the quality of such allocated wastelands is often very poor. In isolated studies, researchers have typically found that a majority of the government waste-lands allocated are not utilised.Second, the government figures on wasteland allocation are likely over-stated. Field investigations in Andhra Pradesh, for example, indicate that perhaps as much as 30 per cent of the reported beneficiaries do not have both legal and physical possession of the allocated land. The gaps between the reported numbers and secure land rights occur for a variety of reasons, including: (1) assignment of land is on paper only, and the beneficiaries are not in physical possession; (2) more powerful interests have evicted the beneficiaries from their lands; and (3) in numerous cases, especially in Telangana where large compact blocks have been assigned to the poor, the beneficiarieshave not received their individual parcels of land because the survey subdivision work is incomplete. Other statesreport similar circumstances concerning past govern-ment land “allocations”. These “gaps” represent both a problem andanopportunity. The failure of past allocations of government land to provide secure land rights for the intended beneficiariesistheproblem. State governments now have the opportunity to address those “gaps” and thus broaden access to secure land rights. Andhra Pradesh’s recent efforts to address the shortcomings in earlier “allocations” of government land provide a model for other states to consider. Andhra Pradesh’s IKP project identifies – often with the help of community-based organisations – specific, local opportunities for enhancing the poor’s rights to government land (as well as other land). Once those opportunities are identi-fied, the project (under the rural development department) works with the revenue department and local communities to facilitate the actions necessary to enhance those land rights. To date, the combined efforts of the revenue department, IKP, and numerous state officials and local communities have put secure rights to at least tens of thousands of government land into the hands of the rural poor. The model starts with multifaceted and decentralised efforts to identify “gaps” of the type listed above or other opportunities to allocate unallocated government land. These gaps or opportunities are then classified by project officials, after which they determine the most appropriate approach, select a course of action, and see that action to completion. The Andhra Pradesh IKP project takes a multifaceted, flexible, decentralised approach. The project has brought new life to government efforts to broaden land access by taking advantage of the land-related circumstances unique to each setting and tailoring programmes to take advantage of specific opportunities. 5 Allocation or Regularisation of House SitesSome state government post-independence land reform efforts included measures to provide house sites and homestead plots to landless labourers or other land-poor households. States have distributed land from a variety of sources, including: (1) state government land; (2) vested ceiling-surplus land; and (3) land under the control of the panchayats. Some land distribution programmes do not provide “new” land but grant current occupants enhanced rights. Examples includes granting residen-tial tenants ownership of the land they occupy and regularising the possession of illegally occupied land. Some states, such as West Bengal and Bihar, enacted separate laws for one or more of these methods, but most states have incorporated provisions in their land reform laws, land revenue laws, or both.Pursuant to these laws and provisions, an estimated four million households received house sites and homestead plots across India. The plots typically have ranged in size from 0.02 acre (about 900 square feet) to 0.10 acre (about 4,300 square feet).31Policymakers intended the allocations to provide agricul-tural labourers with land for a residence and in some cases, to free them from the control exerted by employers who are also their residential landlords. Studies demonstrate, however, that the benefits of the allocation of such small plots often exceeds the legislators’ intent: small plots also provide house-holds with important non-residential benefits (income, nutri-tion, status and credit access), particularly when the plots are large enough to include a garden and space for a few animals.32 Allocation of homestead plots is, therefore, worthy of new consideration as a critical tool to providing the rural poor with access to land.5.1 Small Plots Yield Significant BenefitsAs discussed in the section on recommendations relating to land ceilings, past land reform programmes in India have beenbased on the assumption that the government should give poor rural households at least two to three acres of land. However, experience in numerous countries as well as recent research findings in India suggest that poor, rural households can significantly improve their well being on house plots if the plots are larger than 0.03 acre. The research, conducted by the RuralDevelopment Institute (US) and the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, includes several findings worth consideration: Functionally landless, agricultural labourer families that own a house plot typically derive substantial non-housing benefits from the plot
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW march 8, 200855including increased nutrition, income, status, wealth generation, and access to credit.Those benefits increase very substantially with relatively small increases in house plot size, especially as the house plot increases above three cents (about 1,300 square feet) to about seven cents (about 3,000 square feet).Families with house plots larger than three cents were more than twice as likely as those with smaller plots to report that their house plot had resulted in increased family income; three times as likely to report that the plot had resulted in improved nutrition; and almost twice as likely to report that receiving the plot had increased their access to credit.Rural families with well-developed house-and-garden plots of about seven cents were producing enough vegetables, fruit, and milk on their homestead plots to meet or significantly exceed their household nutritional needs of these products. Apart from direct household consumption, these households received about Rs 11,000 of annua-lised income from the sale of products from their house-and- garden plots. 33These findings from India are consistent with evidence from a variety of developing country settings showing that small homestead or garden plots have conferred multiple important benefits in terms of food, income, status, fuel wood, and economic security to poor households.34 Moreover, many of these benefits accrue specifically to women, and are thus most likely to be used to benefit the family’s nutrition, health, and education.35 The state governments in West Bengal, Karnataka, and Orissa have recently initiated new programmes to allocate homestead plots to landless labourers. These programmes obtain the land for allocation through multiple methods, including purchase in clusters. The Karnataka programme aims to allocate 0.10 acre per household, the West Bengal programme aims to allocate at least 0.16 acre per household, and the Orissa programme at least 0.04 acre per household. The Draft Eleventh Five-Year Plan proposes a homestead plot of about 10 cents to each of those landless families who do not have a roof over their heads.5.2 HomesteadPlotRecommendationsAllocating one-fifteenth to one-tenth acre homestead plots may be the most practicable method of providing meaningful land rights to India’s 17 million rural families that are completely landless. Because land in most village habitation areas is scarce and expensive, state governments should consider the approaches now being used in Karnataka and West Bengal that involve purchasing multi-acre land parcels within one kilometre of a village, dividing the parcel into house-and-garden plots of approximately 0.10 acre or more, providing some basic infrastructure to this new colony (eg, a road, drinking water, electricity, basic housing), and distributing the plots to landless labourers.The amount of land needed is not substantial. Allocating such plots to each of the 17 million landless families in India would require less than 0.5 per cent of India’s agricultural land. Moreover, the land costs per family are affordable. If non-irrigated agricultural land is targeted, typical costs of such land range from Rs 40,000 to Rs 1,00,000 per acre or Rs 4,000 to Rs 10,000 to benefit each family with a one-tenth acre plot. With land purchase as a feasible option, the government need not be limited by insufficient existing govern-ment land or face the political and administrative difficulties of expropriating land.Allocating homestead plots can be accomplished through new government schemes or can be incorporated into existing rural housing, integrated village development, or rural poverty alleviation schemes. The existing government rural housing schemes currently face two limitations in this regard. First, they typically limit the size of qualifying house sites to 1,200 square feet or less, which is not large enough to provide suffi-cient space for a garden and livestock. Government planners should aim to provide at least 3,000 square feet to each family. Second, housing schemes rarely include resources for land purchase. Thus, those receiving benefits must already have their own land, and the poorest often do not qualify because they do not own a house site. Rural housing programmes could address these limitations by devoting some significant portion of existing resources for obtaining land and increasing the size of the house sites.6 ConclusionsThe legislative foundations of land law and policy reform in India (tenancy reform, land ceilings, land allocations) were designed to increase the poor’s access to rural land. To date, the effective-ness of the legislation has been mixed and progress over the last few years has slowed. But the link between rural poverty and landlessness remains, and a well-considered plan for rethinking and reforming policies and laws in a manner that advances the interests of the poor should lead India’s agenda. The plan can be both pro-poor and market friendly, and the required costs are not unthinkable. The following approach, which involves selected revision to existing legislation and adoption of new methods of increasing land access, will help achieve the original equitable objectives of India’s land reform legislation:Revitalise tenancy reform by: (1) solidifying the gains of past tenancy reform by converting protected tenants into owners; and (2) selec-tively liberalising excessive tenancy regulation and restrictions;Assist beneficiaries of ceiling legislation in realising the benefits by removing obstacles to land distribution and relaxing moratoriums on the transfer of ceiling-surplus land;Consider adopting the decentralised IKP project approach inAP as a model for solidifying the gains of past wasteland allocation and other-wise providing secure land rights to the poor; andExplore using land purchase and existing government land to create new colonies of one-tenth acre house-and-garden plots for distribution to landless labourers.Unbound Back Volumes of Economic and Political Weekly from 1976 to 2007 are available.Write to:Circulation Department,Economic and Political WeeklyHitkari House, 284 Shahid Bhagat Singh Road, Mumbai 400

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top