Kochi: A call for a second round of land reforms in Kerala has triggered friction within the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and strong debate on how effective the first phase was.
Nearly 50 years after the first Communist state government in India started redistributing land to the poor, politicians and academics are still debating its efficacy.
Another redistribution? A file photo of a farmer on his farm in Mundur, Palakkad, Kerala. Economists say land reforms haven’t achieved their real purpose as most beneficiaries are not from the lowest rung of society. (Photograph: Prashanth Vishwanathan / Bloomberg)
More than 3.3 million people have benefited from land reforms, and only 4.8% of Kerala’s population was landless in 2003-04, according to the state’s finance minister Thomas Isaac.
The government has taken over more than 99,277 acres and redistributed 71,400, and is still to acquire another 43,776 acres, Isaac said.
While the CPM says it will continue with the existing reforms, Isaac says the they have not been entirely successful because measures meant to complement the redistribution, such as improved irrigation, better seeds and assured markets, were not ensured.
The Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1958 aimed at creating an equal society and growing farm production by placing land in the hands of tillers and ensuring homes for all. The Act was amended by successive governments and in 1963, plantations were exempted from a ceiling of 15 acres that an individual could hold.
Much of the recent criticism has come from economists who argue the reforms haven’t achieved their real purpose as most beneficiaries were not from the lowest rung of society. According to them, an impression of success was created as several intermediate castes and the middle-class benefited from the reforms.
Subsequently, several hardliners within the ruling CPM, including chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, and Maoist groups have started advocating a second phase of reforms to ensure distribution of land to the lower segments as well.
Last week, the chief minister indirectly backed a second phase of land reforms—going against the party’s official stand—and said opportunists and revisionists feared people with an extreme stand.
About a year ago, Achuthanandan had said a drive to reclaim encroached government land in the hill station of Munnar in Idukki district was the start of the “second land reforms”.
The state party leadership, led by its secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, is likely to raise the issue of Achuthanandan’s stance at the politburo, the party’s highest forum.
P.K. Michael Tharakan, an economic historian, said in his latest study for Kochi-based Centre for Socio-economic and Environmental Studies that land reforms had failed in satisfying the basic needs of the lowest castes and communities.
“What is significant about the picture is that while there has been redistribution of power, influence, opportunities and wealth from the highest level of the former agrarian hierarchy, which largely coincided with the highest in the caste structure, to the middle level of both agrarian and caste-community structure, such redistribution has not happened in the same manner further down,” he said.
The land reforms act made tenancy of farmland invalid but the practice continues, said K. Narayanan Nair, director at research institute Centre of Development Studies.
“It is a consequence of the simultaneous increase in two categories of people—those who have land but are unable to cultivate and those who have the labour and skills but do not have any or enough land of their own to cultivate,” Nair said in his study on lease farming in Kerala.
There is a need to re-look at the reforms and promote agriculture without taking away land rights and legalize collective farming on fallow land, he added.
Since joint families are coming apart, thus fragmenting households and land, farming has often become unviable, according to several studies. Also, high costs and lack of farm labour as an indirect result of higher education, have contributed to rice fields being converted for cultivation of other crops or real estate.
Rice cultivation has shrunk to about 275,000ha in 2006-07 from more than 800,000ha in the 1960s, government data show. Production had halved to 630,000 tonnes.
The state government, in response, recently legislated the Kerala Conservation of Paddy Land and Wetland Act, which calls for three years in prison and penalty ranging from Rs50,000 to Rs1 lakh for those diverting rice land for other uses.