Kochi: The history of land reforms in Kerala is not a single narrative. It is a story of multiple perspectives traversing through social, political, economic changes and the infusion of fresh crops such as rubber making their presence and expansion of coconut cultivation in the agrarian landscape of the state. Prof. P.K. Michael Tharakan, former vice-chancellor of Kannur University and a prominent historian of modern Kerala, locates the significance of the land reforms brought in by the Communist government in 1957 to the fact that the decision, for the first time, opened the possibility of land ownership to the lowest strata of the people belonging to the caste hierarchy. “As a historian I think it was a momentous decision and its significance cannot be eliminated in the history of modern Kerala,” he said.
The importance of this decision can be understood only by gaining a grasp of the land ownership norms prevailed in the state, he said. Prof. Tharakan is not in full agreement with those belittling the importance of the land reforms by highlighting that the decision of the Communist government had sidestepped the demand of Dalits for the land and led to the alienation of the land holding by the Adivasis. The long delay of more than a decade for the adoption and its implementation of the Bill watered down many of its radical potential, he says. “The bill was first mooted in 1957 and was finally adopted in 1970,” he pointed out. “In between the political landscape of the state underwent a change and that might have impacted the land reforms too.” The first objection to the Bill came from the Supreme Court and then from the President of India invoking rights on private property, he recalled.
According to Prof. Tharakan, a major flaw that has taken place following the delay was the changes in the composition of Land Board and land tribunals. “In the original Bill, members of the Land Board included MLAs while tribunal members had representatives from the local bodies,” he said. “A major objection by the conservatives to land reform was connected with the membership of these boards. The upper caste sections could not digest the idea of them going and reporting before the Board or tribunals having members belonging to the lower castes.” When the bill was finally adopted in 1970 by the Achutha Menon ministry, the provision for membership for MLAs and representatives of local bodies in the Land Board and tribunals was changed.
“The land reforms needed to be understood as a continuation of the process of changes in the land ownership in the erstwhile states of Travancore, Kochi and Malabar taking place from the second half of the 19th century. When we look at the event after 60 years we are not confining our gaze into that particular event alone; we look at a series of developments that preceded the event instead. In simple terms we needed to historicise the event and form a judgment. Many of the now familiar criticism of land reforms will have to be looked into with more deep frameworks,” he said.
On the question of the land reforms being instrumental in denying the ownership of land to the tiller and bestowing the same to leaseholder, Prof. Tharakan said such an approach will be simplistic in the understanding of the reforms. “The first decision of the ministry in 1957 was prohibition of eviction of agricultural labourers with retrospective effect,” he said. “The impact of the decision was huge as it was for the first time that the people having no ownership of land in the state were given the protection of the state that they would not be evicted from their place of dwelling. This is a major achievement and its significance cannot be belittled when we know that only a few decades ago none other than Swami Vivekananda described the society in Kerala as a lunatic asylum, he pointed out.”
There is no doubt that more was needed to be done but that should not become a reason to belittle whatever progress we have achieved, he pointed out. A major change in the land ownership took place in 1865 with erstwhile kingdom of Travancore granting the rights to ownership of Pandaram land to tenants belonging to the Syrian Christian community and Ezhavas. Till then the land ownership was limited to the upper caste Hindus. Parayil Tharakans and Alummootil Channar, the highest tax payers in Travancore, were not allowed to own land till 1865. The decision of Travancore was later extended to Kochi and Malabar. Syrian Christians and a few Ezhava families benefited from the change as in Travancore and Kochi while Muslims in Malabar. The decision paved the way for the investment of trading capital from these sections of society into agricultural sector in the state, especially the rapid spread of a rubber places close to Kottayam in the early 20th century and expansion of coconut cultivation in the coastal regions.
The plantations set up by the British companies for tea and coffee further accentuated this process. Another crop that came into existence around this period was tapioca. The Nair Regulation Act in 1925 was another major change that took place in the landholding pattern in the state. The Act led to the dismantling of the joint-family property and individual ownership of the land became the norm. It has further led to alienation of a section of upper caste from the land as they preferred to sell their land assets than holding it. Looking back at the land reform Prof, Tharakan said that the authorities concerned should look for a second edition of the reform focusing on the land utilisation pattern in the state. “The government should take some serious measures to preserve land as a space for agricultural purposes,” he said. “It should not be reduced to a speculative commodity for real estate purpose alone.”