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

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Reviving Land Reforms?

The government has notified a Draft Land Reforms Policy which, on paper, has all the requisites of an earnest programme. Yet, the near total failure of earlier efforts at land reforms in India leave little room for hope that something substantial will at last be done to combat landlessness.

I am grateful for research assistance from my colleagues Shikha Sethia and Gitanjali Prasad at the Centre for Equity Studies.

Rural poverty in India is closely tied to conditions of landlessness or small unviable holdings. Even today, ownership and control of land remains central to economic and social well-being in the countryside. It is remarkable therefore that even the rhetoric of land reforms has long disappeared from the policy and political agenda as a serious instrument for battling rural poverty, and since the 1980s replaced by softer options such as micro-credit and wage employment programmes. The recent notification, on 18 July 2013, of a Draft Land Reforms Policy by the Government of India should be welcomed, at least as an opportunity to revive the debate about the continued relevance of land reforms, its agenda in the 21st century, and the prospects of its implementation.

In the first three decades after Independence, land reforms remained high in the stated agenda of governments and state administrations. Actual success was significant in the abolition of large estates, for which there was high political backing because the zamindars of the past were close allies of the British colonial rulers. The success in redistributing ceiling-surplus land, abolishing or regulating tenancy, allocating surplus cultivable government land to the landless, and preventing land alienation from tribal and other socially vulnerable landholders was, however, much more limited.

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