May 01, 2016

Model Land Leasing Act: Turning the Clock Backwards

Veeraiah Konduri

WHEN the BJP government announced, in its latest budget, that it is determined to double farmers’ income in next seven years, the nation looked with awe. Critiques pondered over how that could happen in such a short time. The analysts scanned the budget documents to find out the allocations for agrarian infrastructure. But the government silently worked its way to create a new agrarian structure that coerces the small and marginal farmers to part with their precious piece of land and become daily wage labourers in the by-lanes of urban landscape. This is what the expert committee appointed by the NITI Ayog, headed by former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices T Haque, recommended in its report. The expert committee also  went a step ahead  not only by designing a Model Act of land leasing but also asking the state governments to amend their tenancy laws in tune with the proposed Model Act.  This will have serious implications to the protections the tenants won over a long period of struggles. The best model of such protection is before us in West Bengal which is under constant attack since the Trinmool Congress came to power five years ago. If this Model Act is adopted by Parliament, it is going to deal a big blow to the small and marginal tenants.

The timing of the report is interesting. The month of April is 100th anniversary of the famous Champaran Satyagrah which brought farmers and their issues to the center stage of the freedom movement after a brief period of lull. Champaran Satyagrah was for liberating the farmers from a kind of corporate farming prevalent then which forced the farmers to cultivate indigo. Similarly, after 100 years of struggle to liberate the farming community from the clutches of customised farming, the government is now determined to turn the clock of agrarian reforms to pre-independence era. Neither the report nor the recommendations are substantiated by the rigor that usually underlies a government policy. The report is a barometer to gauge the attitude of the government towards an issue that is a question of life and death for about two-thirds of the country’s population.

Constant efforts were made to create an understanding that the agrarian crisis is a crisis of productivity which is caused by the stringent tenancy laws. Turning the heat on existing tenancy laws is the running theme from mid-term review of 10th Five Year Plan to 12th Five Year Plan as well as in the Draft National Land Reforms Policy, 2013. The expert committee report is also harping on the same theme. All these reports failed to deal with the issue in detail. The experts committee provided a bird’s eye view of what are the features of tenancy laws of various states and then moved on to conclude that these features are forcing the landowners to keep their cultivable land fallow. This could be gathered neither from the Situation Assessment Survey reports of National Sample Survey nor from the Agricultural Census that tells us the size of land that was kept fallow due to various tenancy laws in different states. This kind of faking policies, without any rational is only to further the reforms and deepen them that will have serious repercussions on the nation at large, has become the hall mark of the central government.

The report relegated the historical context in which the tenancy laws came into existence. The land reforms package in India in the immediate years of independence is fueled by the ideals of equity and social justice which are the cornerstones of our Constitution. The salient features of land reforms programme in India consists of abolition of intermediaries, tenancy regulation, land ceiling laws and land consolidation. The first of them, abolition of intermediaries was done in the immediate aftermath of independence as it proved to be an impediment in the agricultural production. The tenancy reforms are basically aimed at protecting the tenants from eviction and rent exploitation. These aims led the states to enact tenancy laws according to their specific conditions and to whims of ruling classes. For example, the Hyderabad Tenancy and Agricultural Landholdings Act, 1950 was an immediate outcome of the heroic Telangana Armed Struggle. This act conferred rights to six lakh households over 75 lakh acres of land. Similarly, the Andhra Pradesh (Andhra Area) Tenancy Act, 1956 was aimed at protecting the tenants from eviction as well as regulating the rents. Similar provisions are evident in the tenancy laws adopted by several state governments. Certain states like those in the northeast altogether prohibited land lease. Similarly the tenancy reforms of West Bengal is the singular story of success that established linkage between the tenancy reforms and agricultural productivity and the same was revealed in agrarian research by many. Instead of considering the rich data available about the efficacy of properly worked out tenancy laws in enhancing productivity and protecting the stakeholders in lease agreement, the expert committee decided to be influenced by selective use of data which suits its predetermined conclusions.

While framing the Constitution, the question of land and land relations was left to the legislative and administrative jurisdiction of state governments. The state governments, whose class composition during the first three decades of independence was dominated by landlord class, the key collaborator of bourgeois class, made its fullest attempts to scuttle the implementation of land reforms across the country. The bourgeois class extended its tacit support to such subversions. The then Plannning Commission, in its report, realised this hiatus and noted that “lack of political will is amply demonstrated by the large gaps between policy and legislation and legislation and its implementation. In no sphere of public activity in our country since independence has the hiatus between perception and practice between policy pronouncements and actual execution been as great as in the domain of land reforms.” Without considering this fact, we are not going to do justice in dealing with this issue and the expert committee neither cared for considering this fact nor even bothered to inform the nation about the size of acreage which was kept fallow just because of these tenancy laws and how much land is kept fallow due to lack of irrigation facilities or viability of farming.

Disregarding these historical political factors that exacerbated the agrarian crisis is not going to resolve the root causes of this crisis but deepens them. The governments moved away from the idea of land reforms as they were visualised during the freedom movement and this hiatus is more evident since the country embarked upon the economic reforms programme. The key to reforms package is to leave every thing to the market and government playing only a facilitating role. Despite a quarter century of reforms programme, that is yet to be translated into reality in case of agrarian policies of the country. That is why successive governments are keen to prepare the ground for eventual structural break and that is being used by the BJP government to meet its goals of deepening the reforms. Once the market is allowed to play on its own rules on the question of land, the key source of direct and indirect living for two-thirds of the countrymen, it is going to create havoc in their lives. Small and marginal tenants, who are already on the verge of extinction, are going to completely disappear from the scene. Yes, it is a fact that the small and marginal farmers are not able to gain security or protection or advantage from the government’s various schemes and packages. Taking this as alibi and in the name of protecting the tenants’ rights, the central government is silently laying foundations for contract farming on national level in whose case, creating a safety net for ownership of absentee land owners/ landlords is the key. Thus, the whole discussion of the expert group focused mainly on this aspect.

The essence of reforms is to keep every thing to the discretionary authority of market from the authority of government that was elected by the people. The earlier tenancy reforms are government mediated whereas the landmark recommendation urges for market mediation in terms of land lease. That is the crux of its argument when it recommends that the land rent is to be determined by parties to the lease agreement, that is land owner and lessee mutually and the state would not have any role in this. This is nothing but transforming the formally or informally regulated land lease market into an unregulated one where the weaker partner is bound to suffer. Unlike the assumption that the ground rent rates are increasing because of the landless are competing for tenancy, recent studies reveals that the large tracts of land is being cultivated  by the upper layers of agrarian classes. What came out from a personal interaction during my latest visit to my village is to be noted here. A handful of farmers from a tiny village in Guntur district are cultivating more than 2,000 acres in Gadchiroli district. A similar experience from a far flung village in T Narsapur of West Godavari also vindicates the fact of increased reverse tenancy where a landlord who officially owns 80 acres as per revenue record, cultivates 100 acres of land as tenant.

The report says, “The objective of post-independence land reform for creating an agrarian economy with high levels of efficiency and equity has been achieved only partially. More particularly, restrictive tenancy laws enacted in the 1960s and 1970s seem to have affected agricultural growth, equity and investment in rural non-farm development adversely.” This is clear indication of assumption based conclusion rather than fact based conclusion. The report also categorically backs the absentee landownership which was the crux of land reforms adopted during the post independence days. Instead of ensuring the constitutional mandate under Article 39 which says (b) that the ownership and control of the material  resources of the community are so distributed as best to subserve the common good; (c) that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment. The proposed recommendations and the Model Act are going to ensure not only enormous concentration of land in the hands of a few but also concentration of tenancy in the hands of a few. This is one of the findings that came out in a recent study by Sundarayya Vignana Kendram. Among the tenant land, more than 50 per cent is being cultivated by landlords and rich farmers in coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh. The spurt in reverse tenancy particularly became a noted feature since 1990s. The recommendations of the expert committee also decided to give boost to this trend, which is initially promoted by various studies sponsored by the World Bank Group in India. As the report advises the small and marginal farmers to let out their small pieces of land under tenancy and opt for wage employment where as similar advice is offered to the large land owners to let their uncultivated land out on tenancy and opt for non-agricultural entrepreneurships. This is what the report recommends when it terms that the model leasing act will promote occupational mobility and reduces the share of population dependent upon cultivation and other agricultural economic activities back in the villages. This is how the BJP government wants to double farmers’ income by reducing the population dependent on agricultural economy by a half! (END)