Thursday, August 21, 2008

Are you with the land mafia or with the landless?

Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary says talk of a second land reform is extremist gibberish. The Chief Minister says opportunists are afraid of extremists. The problem before Kerala is not whether to go with the extremists or the opportunists, but whether to stand with the landless who are getting increasingly marginalized or with the land mafia, which is steadily tightening its hold. Those with a sense of history can see the new phase as a repetition of the early days of the medieval era when monarchy, landlordism and caste supremacists established themselves. The Dalits and the Adivasis, who suffered most as a result of that change, are the main victims of the emerging social order too. Those who grabbed lands for agriculture became lords in the feudal era. Those who grabbed lands for industry become lords today. The old rulers and warlords have gone. Political sharpshooters are the new rulers.

The land reform, which was initiated by the communist regime 50 years ago and completed later by parties of the left and the right, totally ignored the landless farm labourers, who were Dalits. It treated the Adivasis even more cruelly. The law turned them into landlords and recognized those who cultivated the lands in their possession as tenants who were entitled to get ownership.

In 1957, according to official records, 35% of the farm land in the state was under paddy. By 1997 it had shrunk to 13% and by 2006 to 9%. The ruled that prohibited conversion of farm land and the destruction of other crops on converted land could not save paddy. Planning Board documents show that on an average 22,000 hectares of paddy land was lost annually during the Eighth Five-Year Plan, 13,000 hectares during the Ninth Plan and 11,657 hectares during the Tenth Plan. At this rate, the remaining 275,000 hectares will disappear during the next five Plan periods. The authorities who are wracking their brains to devise new laws to prevent this must find out why people are turning away from paddy. If a sincere effort is made in this direction, they will realise that those who got farm land as a result of land reform were not interested in continuing as farmers. They sold the land to educate their children and equip them to join the middle class. Those who stayed put in farming switched to profitable commercial crops.

In 1966-67, before land reform, 60% of all land holders possessed less than 0.40 hectare each, 22% between 0.40 and one hectare each and 10% between one and two hectares each. In 1990-91, after land reform, 72% had less than 0.50 hectare each. Five years later, those with holdings below 0.50 hectare rose to 75%. That a large majority of Dalits are still landless shows that the claim that land reform changed the society is hollow. Among Dalit land holders 97.5% and among Adivasi land holders 97.8% own less than 0.50 hectare each.

Legislature committees have reported that several of the plantations, which were exempted from land ceilings, are in possession of land in excess of their entitlement. Experts are of the view that if the land illegally held by them is repossessed there will be enough to meet the needs of landless farm workers. No government has shown the will to act with determination in this regard. Just as delay in enforcing land reform helped the landlords to transfer excess land and escape the provisions of the ceilings law, by the time the government wakes up and gets ready to act the plantation owners may have sold all their land.

Official statistics about land are not entirely reliable. This will be clear from a scrutiny of records relating to extent of forest. According to an official document of 1957-58, forests covered an area of 10,18,000 hectares. Forty years later, in 1997-98, official records gave the extent of forest as 10,82,00 hectares. Five years later, in 2005-06, forest area remained the same, according to Planning Board papers. That is to say, during the half- century, when extensive denudation is believed to have taken place, there was actually a marginal increase in the area under forest! As the comedy character says, ‘how clever!’ In the matter of revenue lands, too, government figures are not reliable. Resurvey which began decades ago is continuing without the end in sight. According to the report of a recent unofficial study, there is a trend towards concentration of land in a few hands. The study was conducted not by extremists but by the Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishad, which has undertaken some missions for the Left. The Parishad study revealed that a large section of the very poor, comprising Dalits, Adivasis and fisher folk, are landless and the very rich section, accounting for 8.8% of the population, has amassed a lot of land.

The concept of second land reform provides an opportunity to correct past mistakes. The government and the party that leads it must realize that it will be a folly to miss this opportunity. The landless asking for farm land is not extremism. Also, it is not opportunism to say that it is necessary to find land for industries. If leaders see extremism and opportunism in them, it must be because they are seeing things which we are not able to see. When the partyu secretary says seizing the land of small holders and giving it to the landless will create anarchy, he is spreading misunderstanding. The landless have not raised such a demand. Although he says there is no difference of opinion in the party on the land issue, the question whether it is with the land mafia or with the landless is valid.

The administration has the duty to make available land to meet the needs of agriculture and industry. Kerala’s high population density and the current pace of rapid urbanization increase its responsibility. Developments in the State are similar to what happened in post-War Japan. We can, therefore, learn some lessons from that country’s experience. At one stage Japan had relied upon other countries for 75% of its food needs. As its economy boomed, farmers experienced two problems. They realized that their farming methods were outdated. As returns from paddy cultivation were low, farmers started moving away from it. At that stage, the government stepped in and guaranteed high price for paddy. When paddy cultivation became remunerative, farmers who were growing other produce switched to paddy. Since produictivity increased, production rose in spite of a fall in the number of farmers. Now food deficit is down to 33%.

Kerala can follow the Japanese example of land use. Taking into account the rapid urbanization, the Japanese authorities divided the land into four zones: one where urbanization is promoted, another where agriculture was promoted, a third where both agriculture and urbanization were promoted and parkland. If land use is regulated in this manner, it will be possible to ensure that there is land for both industry and agriculture. It will also help avoid a siyuation where mafia gangs loaded with black money run around grabbing land. There is room to doubt the intentions of rulers who are reluctant to frame a scientific land use policy.
Based on column ‘Nerkkazhcha’ appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated August 21, 2008

No comments: