Walking through villages in Nainital and Bageshwar districts, I remember being struck by the number of barren fields I encountered. Enquiries revealed that the owners had moved out of the villages and preferred to let their lands remain uncultivated rather than lease them to others for the fear of being subsequently dispossessed.
Growth in population and the decline in joint families in rural Kumaun have led to the fragmentation of land holdings. This leaves nuclear families with small plots that barely meet their food requirements for more than four months in a year. Yet, significant tracts of land remain barren and uncultivated.
Why do the owners of these fields hesitate to permit the landless or small and marginal farmers to cultivate their land? The answer lies in our archaic land laws. The fear of tenants staking a claim to ownership of land by virtue of being able to prove that they are the cultivators inhibits owners from leasing their land. In other parts of the country, owners of large tracts of land frequently replace sharecroppers who cultivate their land because of a fear of the same laws. This practice leads to a systematic degradation of the land. The cultivator or sharecropper has no incentive to make significant improvements in the land as tenure is uncertain.
It is time we recognized that the idea of social justice through land reforms and, in particular, by the redistribution of land, has no political support or future. In other words, the notion of “land to the tiller” is an idea of the past. Our inability to recognize this and move on leads to the government denying the existence of widespread sharecropping in the country or recognizing the fact that oral and informal tenancy arrangements comprise the bulk of tenancy in the country.
There is an urgent need for states to reform land laws and, in particular, tenancy laws. These need to be replaced with contracts that permit and encourage the leasing of lands from owners for long periods. The laws must ensure that the property rights of owners are protected and leasing these lands cannot lead to their being dispossessed by archaic clauses of “adverse possession”. Alternatively, land owners who have land that they are unable to cultivate can be encouraged to lease them to land banks managed by gram panchayats. Since the existing tenancy laws only pertain to individual tenants and cultivators and not institutions, no gram panchayat can claim ownership. These institutions, in turn, can lease these lands out for longer periods to those who need it or even to self-help groups or institutions of producers.
Reforming tenancy laws and replacing them with contracts will protect property rights, bring more land under cultivation, encourage investment, promote efficient use of land and lead to greater productivity. Under these arrangements, returns for cultivators and owners both will increase. More importantly, the presence of contracts and legal documents can lead to improvement in the terms of land use and facilitate access to credit and other social security benefits from the government for tenants and cultivators.
Land acquisition for infrastructure creation and industry is a policy priority. Despite the fact that land laws are a state subject there is a conscious effort to evolve a national consensus. It is tragic that agricultural land reforms to ensure their optimum and efficient utilization find no takers. How can agriculture develop without addressing issues of property rights and contracts for sharecroppers and tenants? Or worse, by pretending that sharecropping and informal and oral tenancies do not exist in this country?
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V.K. Madhavan has worked in the not-for-profit sector for two decades and spent 15 years living and working in deserts and hills. He’s still on the fringe asking questions and looking for answers. He writes every fortnight.