An army of landless persons from different states is now marching towards Delhi. Their demand is simple: land for building a home and a patch for cultivation. In the anarchic years that India has witnessed of late, this demand is perhaps the most outlandish.
Decades ago such issues had some traction. At that time, the “agrarian question” was a code name for what is being attempted again today: re-distribution of land.
Efforts at “land reforms”—basically redistribution of land from landlords to the poor farmers—were made during the 1950s and 1960s in different parts of the country. Not only were these reforms politically difficult to carry out—as landlords were politically well-entrenched in the countryside—economically, too, there was no case for such reforms. Even when farmers were handed out a slice of land, they simply could not do anything much with it. The credit requirements and the capital required for inputs such as fertilizers and seeds defeated most of them. But the essential flaw in such “reforms”—the size of landholdings being below what economies of scale defined as being efficient—made nonsense of the word reform.
Today, the demand for reforms is based on a far more flimsy ground. The talk now is that of “rights” for everything—food, jobs and now even land. For one, there is no case, even politically, for re-distributing land. Even in that socialist paradise, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, there was no such redistribution. Economically, of course, the case borders on being anarchic. If land is earmarked for making “homesteads”—as the leader of this protest P. V. Rajagopal is demanding—the demand for land in the future on this ground will be endless. Forget industrialization, there will be nothing left for agriculture.
The flaw in this demand for “right to land” is that it treats land as a public good—a good which all enjoy in common in the sense that each individual’s consumption of such a good leads to no subtraction from any other individual’s consumption of that good. It is not. Land is a good example of a private good—your ownership of a plot means that I cannot go and claim it for my use. Not only will individuals who currently own land will have to be dispossessed but even many uses to which such land can be put to (growing crops and establishing industries to cite two uses) will have to be restricted.
If this “right” is acknowledged and put into practice, in however diminished a form it may be, it will only have detrimental economic and political effects. The government will do well to disperse this so-called jan satyagraha.
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