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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 9, February 20, 2010

Next Step in Land Reforms in the Context of UP

Monday 22 February 2010, by Kripa Shankar

The UP Zamindari Abolition Committee Report, which is supposed to be the most radical among such reports of other States where zamindari was abolished, was wholly opposed to any land redistribution despite the fact which it had noted that less than two per cent of the zamindars in UP owned nearly 58 per cent of the land. It had found that top 9000 zamindars owned above 100 acres of land each and that their Sir and Khudkast land alone constituted one-fourth of the agricultural land. Still the Report observed that “... we do not think that the result achieved (through land redistribution) would be commensurate with the discontent and hardship resulting from it. We therefore, recommend that no limit be placed on the maximum area held in cultivation.”1 It further observed that land distribution would “increase the difficulty of zamindars in adjusting them to changed conditions”. And it also opposed distribution of land on the strange logic that “the dismenberment of large holdings would have the result of displacing a large number of agricultural labourers”.2 The UP Zamindari and Land Reforms Act that was passed in 1950 followed the recommendations of the Committee and did not envisage any redistribution of land. The Act was enforced only in July 1952 and gave ample time to zamindars to grant patta of gram samaj and other lands to influential persons on payment of Nazrana. The poor were nowhere in the picture. The Act had vested all cultivable wasteland, pastures etc. to the Gram Sabha (GS) which amounted to about 93 lakh acres which could be given on ‘patta’ to the landless as also to farmers with holdings up to 3.125 acres through the Land Management Committee (LMC) which was to be constituted in every Gram Sabha with the Pradhan as the President and the Lekhpal as the Secretary. The two were all-in-all as the LMC only existed on paper. They allotted the GS land to those who were either close to them, were members of their own family or sometimes in their own name or those who greased their palms. This alarmed the government which legislated that approval of the SDM was necessary. It was only a formality and even if a complaint was made the latter would refer to the Tehsildar for enquiry who in turn will ask the same Lekhpal to enquire. The latter would report that allotment has been done according to rules. The Bhoomi Vyawastha Janach Samity (popularly known as Mangaldev Vishrad Committee) expressed its grave dismay over the distribution of GS land to ineligible persons.

The UP Imposition of Ceiling of Land Holding Act, 1960 provided a high ceiling of 40 acres for fair quality land and if the family was of more than five members it could go up to 64 acres. It provided for various exemptions and the large landowners took full advantage of it. Hardly two lakh acres of land could be declared surplus. The Act was amended and the UP Land Ceiling (Amendment) Act, 1972 reduced the ceiling limit to 7.3 hectares. The ceiling could go up to 13.3 hectares if the family had more than five members. Certain exemptions were withdrawn. There had been a spate of fictitious transfers ever since ceiling measures were talked about. The amended Act significantly recognised as valid all transfers made prior to January 1971. The landowners invariably approached the courts challenging the notices issued to them. According to the Annual Report of the Ministry of Rural Develop-ment, Government of India 2006-07 as regards UP out of 369,362 acres of land declared as ceiling surplus land, 339,385 acres had been taken possession out of which only 263,225 acres had been distributed. The fact that only 70 per cent of the land declared as surplus could be distributed so far speaks volumes about the “success” of the ceiling measures. This constitutes slightly more than 0.7 per cent of the net sown area in the State and is generally the most inferior land. The landowners have the option to declare land of their choice as surplus ceiling land and naturally they declare the worst land as surplus which may be even unfit for cultivation. They have currently 14 lakh acres of land which is barren and unfit for agriculture. At the time of imposition of ceiling they had nearly 30 lakh acres as barren and unfit for cultivation. Obviously it was this land out of which land for ceiling was surrendered. Similar is the case with cultivable wasteland.

When ceiling surplus land is allotted to a beneficiary the latter cannot take possession until the same is demarcated by the Lekhpal who mints money in the process. On account of the cordiale entente between large landowners and the Lekhpal, the latter would not like to go against the former. Even if the Lekhpal demarcates it, the owner may refuse to vacate the land. He may say that this part of the plot has not been allotted as usually the plot is much larger in area from which land is allotted for redistribution. Can the poorest person, who often depends on the same landlord for his livelihood, come one fine morning with his plough and bullock and begin tilling the land and ask the landlord to get out of the land? How many of the allottees are actually cultivating the land distributed to them and to what extent it has been distributed in favour of the landless and other poor who are entitled to it? These are moot questions. Periodic drive by the State Government to give possession to beneficiaries of the land distributed shows that land distribution has been mostly done on paper.

The developmental process has resulted in shifting of the agricultural population to non-agricultural activities, primarily to industries, in the developed countries over the years. But the experience in India and in its various States has been different. Although an overwhelmingly large part of the investment is going to the non-agricultural sector, adequate jobs are not being created on account of it being highly capital intensive in the first instance and whatever job opportunities are being created are skill intensive which the rural poor lack. As only five per cent of the investment goes into rural areas, very few job opportunities are coming up there although there is a vast possibility of job creation in the rural areas in infrastructural development, particularly construction of roads, water harvesting structures, storages etc. Extension of irrigation leads to more intensive agriculture creating more jobs in that sector. Labour use per unit of land in countries like China, Korea, Japan etc. is much higher due to the higher level of irrigation but with much lower irrigation intensity in UP the possibility of employing more persons in agriculture hardly exists. The rural labour force that is rising is forced to stay in agriculture even with very low income as there is no alternative. In UP the growth of marginal holdings of below one hectare is shown in the following table.

Table 1: Growth of Marginal Holdings

(Less than 1 ha) in UP

Lakh As %

1985-86 137.8 72.6

1990-91 150.0 73.8

1995-96 155.7 75.6

2000-01 166.6 76.9

Source: Board of Revenue, UP, Sankhikiya Diary (various years)

The average size of a marginal holding is 0.40 hectare and the average size of a holding in UP is 0.83 hectare. The number of marginal holdings in UP is rising annually by over two lakhs. Sub-marginal holding of less than 0.5 hectare is rising even faster.

There is no doubt that there is great disparity in the ownership of land as the area held by the top one per cent of the rural households is equal to the area held by nearly 60 per cent of the households at the bottom. But any measure to acquire land without any compensation will witness great resistance.

The acquisition of ceiling surplus land and its distribution is beset with great difficulties as the landowners wield political and social power in the villages. They provide wage employment to the poor and also consumption loans. The lower rung of the revenue bureaucracy comes from this class and would not go against them. For example, the Lekhpal is required to record all the land that is leased-out by land owners but no Lekhpal ever does so and no DM or Tehsildar or SDM bothers to ask them to do so. Now the same Lekhpal is enjoined to demarcate the surplus land. And even if he demarcates the land can the poorest of the poor, who depends on the land, owner for his livelihood, one fine morning ask him to vacate his land? Can he dare come forward and prevent the landlord from ploughing the field for which he is permitted under the Act until actual possession is given to the allottee? He can do so only when the landlord agrees to allow him to cultivate the demarcated plot.3

The government is promoting policy of Special Economic Zones by facilitating acquisition of even highly fertile agricultural land because when farmers get a very high price they sell the land. The banks are providing huge finance to the real estate sector. The poor have no access to bank finance. Under the circumstances the government intervention should be to directly purchase land at market price for redistribution to the poor.

In this connection the government can also intervene in the land market. It has been estimated that 0.1 per cent of the agricultural land is being purchased and sold every year.4 The Panchayats should be empowered to negotiate such deals and provided with funds to purchase such land to be distributed to the poor.

The failure of the land distribution programme has largely been due to the fact that it was an expropiatary one. The World Bank is also emphasising this.5 As even a much higher rate of growth of the economy is not likely to lessen the burden on agriculture, the only option is that the government should purchase land from bigger landowners at market price and distribute the same to the poor through the Panchayats.

Leasing Business

If there is large landlessness at the bottom and extreme concentration of land and the top leasing will continue to exist clandestinely if is illegal. This has been the case in UP ever since leasing was made illegal when zamindari was abolished more than five decades ago. The number of landless and tiny farmers is increasing with no decline in the concentration ratio. As the trend is likely to continue in the foreseeable future, providing security of tenure and increasing the share of the lessees have been the concern of all but these cannot be implemented in the context of the increasing pressure on land. As leasing is illegal no statutory measure can be undertaken to give greater security raising the share. The first step should be to make it legal so that the lessors may not frequently change the lessees and thus some degree of security may be provided in an indirect manner. But the lessors cannot countenance any increase in the share of the produce for in that case they may opt for fixed produce and now fixed money is proving to be more attractive as it absolves them from any risk of cultivation. If there is any loss the lessees will have to bear it.

In UP in the village Khatauni maintained by the Lekhpal there is no recording of leasing activity; hence officially there is no land under lease. The National Sample Survey provides data on leased land but there is considerable under-reporting because lessors do not want such a phenomenon to be recorded. According to the 48 round of NSS 1992 data, nearly six per cent of the rural households lease-out land and nearly 17 per cent lease-in land. The data show that nearly eight per cent of leased-in area was under fixed money, 19 per cent was on fixed produce, 56 per cent of the area was on share of produce together with other terms, seven per cent was on share of produce with no specified terms, seven per cent from relatives and so on.

Given the assertion of Dalits in UP politics, the lessors are apprehensive and in order to pre-empt any measure to benefit the lessees they are increasingly moving towards fixed money as in that case it becomes a contractual arrangement as opposed to the sharecropping one. It will be outside the ambit of any law to provide greater share or security to the lessees if the land is given on fixed money.

In the given situation it is meaningless to talk about greater security or for that matter increasing the share of the lessees. On the other hand, the strategy should be to create massive job opportunities in the non-crop producing sector both in the rural and urban areas so that the surplus rural population may be absorbed in these activities and the new entrants in the rural labour force may also find an opening there. If this happens there will be few to lease-in land and the lessees then may be in a better position to demand greater share and greater security. But this is easier said than done. It requires a thorough change in the policies which have failed to utilise the vast manpower potential. Conservation and augmentation of soil water and forest resources and creation of infrastructure itself is highly labour intensive and has the potential to absorb the idle labour force provided the village community is enjoined to undertake these activities with popular participation, transparency and accountability instead of relying on a largely corrupt bureaucracy. For financing such schemes additional resources should be mobilised from the richer sections who are cornering the benefits of development and are resorting to speculative activities for their further aggrandisement. The Centre has command over the resources and through greater resource mobilisation it should finance such programmes.6


1. Report of the Zamindari Abolition Committee Vol. I, Allahabad, 1948, p. 343.

2. Ibid., p. 389.

3. Surplus land to be demarcated for distribution is small and the plot out of which it has to be demarcated is large. The Lekhpal puts no boundary indication on the actual plot to be distributed and mints money in the process from allottees for demarcating the actual area. Even after the demarcation the landlord may turn away the allottee saying that this is not the portion which he had surrendered.

4. Kripa Shankar: Land Transfers, Gian Publishers, New Delhi, 1990.

5. World Bank: World Development Report, 2000-01, pp. 93-94.

6. Tax-GDP ratio in India at nearly 12 is one of the lowest and is half of what it is in many developed countries. The annual tax exemptions given to richer classes is over Rs 4 lakh crores. The subsidies on petrol, diesel, power is largely enjoyed by them amounting to nearly Rs 4 lakh crores. Rather than taxing the rich the government has relied on borrowings and the annual out go on repayment of debt and interest obligation is met by further borrowing because almost nothing is left for repayment of debt and interest.

The author is a Fellow, G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. He can be contacted by e-mail:

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