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Landholding Categories

India is a land of small farms, of peasants cultivating their ancestral lands mainly by family labor and, despite the spread of tractors in the 1980s, by pairs of bullocks. About 50 percent of all operational holdings in 1980 were less than one hectare in size. About 19 percent fell in the one-to-two hectare range, 16 percent in the two-to-four hectare range, and 11 percent in the four-to-ten hectare range. Only 4 percent of the working farms encompassed ten or more hectares.

Although farms are typically small throughout the country, the average size holding by state ranges from about 0.5 hectare in Kerala and 0.75 hectare in Tamil Nadu to three hectares in Maharashtra and five hectares in Rajasthan. Factors influencing this range include soils, topography, rainfall, rural population density, and thoroughness of land redistribution programs.

Many factors--historical, political, economic, and demographic--have affected the development of the prevailing land-tenure status. The operators of most agricultural holdings possess vested rights in the land they till, whether as full owners or as protected tenants. By the early 1990s, there were tenancy laws in all the states and union territories except Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. The laws provide for states to confer ownership on tenants, who can buy the land they farm in return for fair payment; states also oversee provision of security of tenure and the establishing of fair rents. The implementation of these laws has varied among the states. West Bengal, Karnataka, and Kerala, for example, have achieved more success than other states. The land tenure situation is complicated, and it has varied widely from state to state. There is, however, much less variation in the mid-1990s than in the postindependence period.

Independent India inherited a structure of landholding that was characterized by heavy concentration of cultivable areas in the hands of relatively large absentee landowners (zamindars--see Glossary), the excessive fragmentation of small landholdings, an already growing class of landless agricultural workers, and the lack of any generalized system of documentary evidence of landownership or tenancy. Land was important as a status symbol; from one generation to the next, there was a tendency for an original family holding to be progressively subdivided, a situation that continued in the early 1990s. This phenomenon resulted in many landholdings that were too small to provide a livelihood for a family. Borrowing money against land was almost inevitable and frequently resulted in the loss of land to a local moneylender or large landowner, further widening the gap between large and small landholders. Moreover, inasmuch as landowners and moneylenders tended to belong to higher castes and petty owners and tenants to lower castes, land tenure had strong social as well as economic impact (see Varna , Caste, and Other Divisions; Settlement and Structure, ch. 5).

By the early 1970s, after extensive legislation, large absentee landowners had, for all practical purposes, been eliminated; their rights had been acquired by the state in exchange for compensation in cash and government bonds. More than 20 million former zamindar-system tenants had acquired occupancy rights to the land they tilled. Whereas previously the landlord collected rent from his tenants and passed on a portion of it as land revenue to the government, starting in the early 1970s, the state collected the rent directly from cultivators who, in effect, had become renters from the state. Most former tenants acquired the right to purchase the land they tilled, and payments to the state were spread out over ten to twenty years. Large landowners were divested not only of their cultivated land but also of ownership of forests, lakes, and barren lands. They were also stripped of various other economic rights, such as collection of taxes on sales of immovable property within their jurisdiction and collection of money for grazing privileges on uncultivated lands and use of river water. These rights also were taken over by state governments in return for compensation. By 1980 more than 6 million hectares of waste, fallow, and other categories of unused land had been vested in state governments and, in turn, distributed to landless agricultural workers.

Land Reform

A major concern in rural India is the huge number of landless or near-landless families, many of whom are wholly dependent on a few weeks of work at the peak planting and harvesting seasons. The number of landless rural families has grown steadily since independence, both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the population. In 1981 there were 195.1 million rural workers: 55.4 million were agricultural laborers who depended primarily on casual farm work for a livelihood. In the early 1990s, the rural work force had grown to 242 million, of whom 73.7 million were classified as agricultural laborers. Approximately 33 percent of the employed rural workers were classified as casual wage laborers.

Because of the large number of landless farmers and the frequent neglect of land by absentee landlords in the early years of independence, the principle that there should be a ceiling on the size of landholdings, depending on the crop planted and the quality of the land, was embodied in the First Five-Year Plan (FY 1951-55). An agricultural census was conducted to provide guidance in setting such ceilings. During the Second Five-Year Plan (FY 1956-60), most states legislated fixed ceilings, but there was little uniformity among the states; ceilings ranged from six to 132 hectares. Certain specialized branches of agriculture, such as horticulture, cattle breeding, and dairy farming, were usually exempted from ceilings.

All the states instituted programs to force landowners to sell their over-the-ceiling holdings to the government at fixed prices; the states, in turn, were to redistribute the land to the landless. But adamant resistance, high costs, sloppy record keeping, and poor administration in general combined to weaken and delay this aspect of land reform. The delays in legislation allowed large landowners to circumvent the intent of the laws by spurious partitioning, sales, gifts to family members, and other methods of evading ceilings. Many exemptions were granted so that there was little surplus land.

To ensure more uniformity in income, to combat evasion of the intent of the laws, and to secure more land for distribution to the landless, the central government in the 1970s pushed for greatly reduced ceilings. For a family of five, the central government guidelines called for not more than 10.9 hectares of good, irrigated land suitable for double-cropping, not more than 10.9 hectares of land suited for one crop annually, and not more than 21.9 hectares for orchards. Exemptions were continued for land used as cocoa, coffee, tea, and rubber plantations; land held by official banks and other government units; and land held by agricultural schools and research organizations. At the option of the states, land held by religious, educational, and charitable trusts also could be exempted. To protect the states from legal challenges to their land reform laws, the constitution was amended in 1974 to include in its Ninth Schedule the state laws that had been enacted in conformance with national guidelines. Land reform laws enacted after 1974 also were included in the amendment.

By the beginning of the 1990s, all states and union territories, except Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and Tripura, had passed ceiling laws to conform to central government guidelines. In Maharashtra, for example, the revised ceiling law that became effective in 1975 set upper limits at perennially irrigated land, 7.2 hectares; seasonally irrigated land, 10.8 hectares; paddy land in an assured rainfall area, 14.6 hectares; and other dry land, 21.9 hectares. By the early 1980s, about 150,000 hectares had been declared surplus under this act, about 100,000 of which had been distributed to 6,500 landless persons. A 1973 land reform amendment in Bihar set a range of ceilings on holdings for a family of five, from six to eighteen hectares depending on land quality, and offered an allowance for each additional family member, subject to a maximum of one-and-one-half times the holding. Within five years, the Bihar government had acquired 94,000 hectares of surplus land and had distributed 53,000 hectares to 138,000 landless families. Success nationwide was limited. Of the 2.9 million hectares of land declared surplus, nearly 1.9 million hectares had been distributed by the end of the seventh plan, leaving 1 million hectares still to be distributed as of early 1993.

By the early 1990s, nearly all the states had enacted legislation aimed at the consolidation of each tiller's landholdings into one contiguous plot. Implementation was patchy and sporadic, however. By the early 1980s, the work had been completed only in Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh and had begun in Orissa and Bihar. In most of the other states, nothing had been accomplished by the early 1990s. The Sixth Five-Year Plan (FY 1980-84) set a goal for the completion of the consolidation of holdings within ten years, which was not achieved.

In order to protect tenants from exorbitant rents (often up to 50 percent of their produce), the states passed legislation to regulate rents. The maximum rate was fixed at levels not exceeding 20 to 25 percent of the gross produce in all states except Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, and Punjab. The states also adopted various other measures for the protection of tenants, including moratoriums on evictions, minimum periods of tenure, and security of tenure subject to eviction on prescribed grounds only.

By the early 1980s, most of the cultivated area had been surveyed and records of rights prepared. In most states, revenue assessment--the tax on land--against farmland had been revised upward in keeping with a rise in farm prices (see Agricultural Taxation, this ch.). In several states, steps were taken to associate village assemblies, or panchayat (see Glossary), with the maintenance of land records, the collection of land revenue, and the management of lands belonging to government; the results of these efforts have frequently been unsatisfactory.

Data as of September 1995

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