REVENUE MINISTER KP Rajendran released last week a draft land policy to elicit comments from the public. The initial response has been muted, suggesting political parties are rather cool and the people probably cynical.
Kerala's political establishment, especially the Left stream, has claimed that the land reform completed more than three decades ago was the most progressive measure of its kind undertaken by any State in the country. Lately, however, that measure has come under severe criticism from different quarters.
Leftist critics have pointed out that the reform did not benefit the landless labourers, most of them Dalits and Adivasis. The landless are, in fact, now agitating for land with the active support of extreme leftwing elements. At the other end of the spectrum are people who complain that the reform measure stands in the way of acquisition of land needed for industries and other economic activities.
The Principal Secretary in the Industries Department recently circulated a note demanding scrapping of the law that sets ceilings on holdings. The new policy draft does not provide for scrapping of land ceilings. On the contrary, it pledges to protect land reform.
To check the activities of the land mafia, which has grabbed real estate in different parts of the State, it provides for checks on acquisition of land and fragmentation and sale of plantations.
While recognising the need to find land for industrial purposes, the draft policy stipulates that ownership of land made available to industrial units will vest in the government, and not transferred to them. This stipulation may not be acceptable to industrialists since they often pledge the property to raise funds.
The Revenue Minister said regional meets would be held at Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha and Kannur to elicit views on the draft. Representatives of various interests, including peasant movements, would be consulted. The question of fixing ceilings on urban holdings would also be taken up during the consultations.
He added that after completing the consultation process, the government would finalise the draft and place it before the State Assembly during the budget session.
The Congress, which heads the opposition United Democratic Front, offered no immediate comment. The Kerala Congress, the only UDF constituent to comment, said the draft contained nothing new.
The Kerala Congress generally champions the cause of landed interests, particularly those who have encroached upon forest land. Its cool response indicates that the ruling Left Democratic Front may not encounter much opposition from the UDF on this issue.
The earlier land reform resulted in the transfer of land from the landlord to the tenant.
By the time the tenant got land he had set his mind on taking his children out of agriculture by giving them an education that will qualify them for respectable jobs. Consequently, the reform, instead of boosting farm production, led to its decline.
This is best illustrated by the state of paddy cultivation. Today only about 250,000 hectares of land is under paddy. This is just about one-fourth of the area under paddy before the reform.
The draft policy does not address the problem of Dalits and Adivasis, who did not benefit from the earlier round of reform. The main weakness of the new reform effort is it has a very narrow focus.
The draft has been prepared without undertaking detailed studies. It is based on political considerations rather than the current needs of the society.
As the State with the highest population density (819 persons per square kilometre), Kerala faces acute land shortage. It is, therefore, necessary to carefully assess the requirements of different sections of the population and different sectors of the economy and apportion the available land in such a way as to yield optimum benefit.
The first requirement is a new land use policy, which will not merely earmark land for agriculture and industry but specify what kind of agricultural or industrial activity will be permitted and where. Efforts to save paddy cultivation will bear fruit only if they ensure that the activity can be carried on profitably.
The government is not right in assuming that plugging the loopholes in the earlier reform measure is all that is needed. Corrupt politicians and officials are the source of strength of the land mafia. Unless the Establishment can summon the courage to act decisively against these elements, the problem will continue to elude solution. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, January 7, 2008.