Nation Other News 21 Sep 2016 Kerala: Time to roll ...

Kerala: Time to rollback reforms

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | R AYYAPAN
Published Sep 21, 2016, 1:27 am IST
Updated Sep 21, 2016, 7:16 am IST
Inherent defects in Land Reforms Act have severely hit state’s agriculture productivity
The Act considers land leases as perhaps the greatest evil that even verbal leases are banned.
 The Act considers land leases as perhaps the greatest evil that even verbal leases are banned.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The revolutionary Land Reforms Act, by unshackling the ‘adiyalanmar’ (bonded labourers) from the smothering fetters of feudalism, was expected to let loose the monster of agricultural productivity in the state. Nearly half-a-century later it looks as if the freed monster, after an initial burst of activity, had curled up in a corner and fell asleep. After Land Reforms Act came into force in 1970, area under paddy cultivation in the state swelled to 8.8 lakh hectares in 1974-75, the largest it could ever manage. From then on, it was a nosedive. By 2011-12, which is the latest figure available, the area under paddy shrunk to 2.08 lakh hectares; a shocking decline of roughly 20,000 hectares annually in the last four decades. More disturbingly, the share of agriculture in employment declined from over 60 percent in the seventies to 29.5 percent in 2009-10. (At the national level, the share of the sector in employment was as high as 53.2 percent in 2009-10.)

Surprisingly, it has been found that agricultural productivity improved whenever Land Reforms Act has been violated, especially the clause in the Act that bans land leases. Land lease was the weapon tyrannical landlords used to crush tenants and serfs under their feet.  The Act considers land leases as perhaps the greatest evil that even verbal leases are banned. Yet, in what can be seen as a blatant violation of the Act, farmers continue to cultivate in leased lands. Interestingly, in most cases it is the state that is prompting marginal and landless farmers to seek out leased lands to cultivate. Kudumbashree Mission’s joint farming initiative is proof of how an essentially illegal can turn out to be beneficial for the state. Since 2004 about 59,206 hectares of unused land (in Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha districts) have been taken on lease and cultivated by 38,054 Kudumbashree groups of four to ten women members. There is an average return of nearly Rs 50,000 per hectare.

 

In the light of the Kudumbashree farming success, even NITI Aayog had urged the state to revisit the legal ban on land leasing so that “poor people can benefit from growth of an active land lease market.” Lease farming, without legal sanction, is highly restrictive. “Farmers cultivating on leased lands are not offered even basic privileges like crop loans, leave alone legal recourse if anything goes wrong” said agricultural expert R Haley who has formed ‘Sangha Maithri’ to extend help to farmers growing bananas in leased lands in Neyyatinkara on the fringes of the capital district. Farmers supported by a large network like Kudumbashree or Sangha Maithri or ‘padasekhara samithis’ are insulated from legal pitfalls and landowner whims. “But it will not be the case of individual farmers who do not have the political backing of a Kudumbashree network,” said Prasanth Sivan, a Kudumbashree’s consultant in Alappuzha. “These farmers could be taken for a ride by landowners,” he added.

 

Planning Board member Dr K.N. Harilal, who had done extensive studies on agriculture, said that in many areas landowners have become exploitative, charging high lease rates and denying fixity of tenures to poor growers. Rolling back land reforms, partially, has therefore become inevitable if landless farmers are to be protected. A partial rollback can also function as a rectification of history. That land reforms made the society more egalitarian is undisputed but the failure of reforms to deliver on the production front is now attributed to an oversight on the part of the architects of the reforms. “They handed over surplus land to tenants, not the scheduled castes or actual tillers of the land,” said Prof M.A. Oommen, the state’s foremost social scientist. These tenants leased lands from landlords but the actual tilling, cultivation, was done by labourers hired by these tenants. “When these tenants got possession of lands, they were not really interested in cultivation and became absentee landlords,” said R Haley, agriculture expert.

 

Dr Harilal said that as a result the conversion of land into a speculative asset had assumed alarming proportions in the state. “The ‘means of production’ function of land is losing its importance to its asset function. Large tracts of agricultural land in Kerala are remaining unused or under used in its capacity as means of production,” he said. What ails agriculture in the state, according to him, is not scarcity of land but sheer inability to use it. He wants an amendment to allow land leases in a controlled manner, which ‘would resolve the contradiction between the landowner who wants to hold the land for speculative purposes and a tiller eager to grow’. Haley, too, is for an amendment but said the word ‘lease’ can be avoided if it is politically unwieldy. He uses ‘rent’, instead. He frames the change thus: “land can be given on rent for crop-raising purposes alone for a particular period.” But amending the Act might seem as strange as the act of the mythical madman who rolled stones up a mountain only to push them down again: after bringing in a revolutionary piece of legislation to end tenancy, a Left-led government is now tweaking it to create a new set of tenants. But then, there was a method to the madness of Naranath Bhranthan.

 

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Location: India, Kerala




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