Festering Agrarian Problem:

How Long Can We Dither?

Continued from “Sordid Story of a Betrayal”

“The farming sector is fast heading for a total collapse if no rapid remedial measures are taken.” — M.S. Swaminathan, Chairman, National Commission on Farmers

In matters of policy thrust we failed in many a sphere since Independence, but perhaps the most spectacular failure was on the agrarian front. Our failure to introduce meaningful agrarian reforms has been, in fact, a blatant betrayal of the trust of those hundreds and thousands of peasants who, on Gandhi’s prompting, threw in their lot with the Independence movement and suffered grim deprivations.

Whatever legislations were enacted to effect land reforms were full of loopholes that were most deliberately incorporated to defeat the laws. Landlords, for instance, were allowed to retain what was described as “self-cultivated land”. And for legal purposes that meant whatever land was cultivated under the supervision of landlords which practically meant all the land that they once held.

Intriguingly enough, the legislation had a provision of resumption of land which meant that the land owners could take back whatever land they now intended to have cultivated under their own supervision but was earlier being cultivated by tenants. That was reform in the reverse gear.

Unparalleled Deceit

As the late Prof. A M Khusro pointed out in his study The Economy of Land Reforms and Farm Size in India, such a magnificent gesture of appeasement of yesterday’s exploiters of tenants is absolutely “unparalleled” in the history of land reform movement in the world. Consequently, lakhs of cultivators of marginal holdings lost whatever they had clung on to for generations to eke out a bare subsistence.

That’s not all. Laws dealing with land reforms incorporated another devious provision — voluntary surrender — whereby a tenant could voluntarily relinquish his holding in favor of the original landowner who could, henceforth, have it cultivated under his own supervision. What it meant, in practice, was to snatch the land away from the tenants and under duress make them sign the documents — something that has been happening in our society for centuries.

Can you think of a more ingenious diversionary tactic? The hidden agenda was to provide big landlords their chance to parcel out excess land to escape the ceiling laws if and when they were implemented. Fictitious sale deeds, divisions and subdivisions within extended families and bogus transfers of deeds were unabashedly resorted to. There were always ever-obliging revenue officials who fixed things up as the Thakurs wanted. (None to beat us as a nation when it comes how to defeat the law! We excel in circumventing the law, legally.)

And that’s not all. Certain categories of land — orchards and plantations, for example — were exempted from the application of ceiling laws. As a result, vast tracts of land overnight became orchards which the village patwari and the district revenue authorities only too readily endorsed for considerations well-known for centuries in our society.

What a reward for the descendants of peasants who on Gandhi’s call had given all their meager possessions to make India free one day! And while this was happening, a self-declared socialist Prime Minister looked passively on.

Altogether, the history of our land reform movement is a saga of sheer betrayal. It was a let-down of those who had longingly looked forward to a new dawn once the yoke of foreign rule was discarded. All that freedom did was to condemn them to live in an ever-continuing night.

Class Interest

Those who have studied this sordid chapter of our history in detail have looked for explanations. The most obvious of these, I believe, is the class interest — to use a Marxian cliché — of those who controlled the levers of political power. Suppose you’re an MLA in Bihar with a 500-acre zamindari conferred on your ancestors during the Permanent Land Settlement that was concluded in 1793, by the East India Company administration headed by Lord Cornwallis, would you accord your consent to preside over its liquidation? (Kerala’s Communist Chief Minister E M S Namboodiripad was a rare exception.) Hence, all the delay in passing the ceiling laws and the ample provision of loopholes to defeat their implementation.

But what about the Central leadership, and especially Nehru’s oft-declared concern for peasants? The fact is that behind the facade of imposing idealism, the practical politician in Nehru whose exclusive concern was to stay entrenched in power, had taken over the supposedly idealist freedom fighter. Any means useful towards that end were acceptable.

New Zamindaris

All through the 1950s and early 1960s the landed interests controlled what are called the vote banks. And since the powerful landed interests controlled these they couldn’t be displeased. On the contrary, they had to be looked after and rewarded. And for that Nehru resurrected the Mughal administrative system. In addition to a regular army, the Delhi Sultans had faujdars — barons in the language of European feudalism — who provided the then king a certain specified number of soldiers in the hour of need. One who undertook to marshal, say, 30,000 cavalry was called tees hazari and the one who could muster only 10,000, was a das hazari. In lieu of such an undertaking, the faujdars had jagirs allotted to them to maintain themselves — and their luxury-steeped life style — and the required number of soldiers and horses.

The Nehruvian model of zamindari worked exactly on those lines. Now that the big landlords had been legally assured the retention of their lands, they must muster, say, 200,000 votes for the Congress candidate in the election to the State and Central legislatures. And they readily did. The arrangement worked extremely well in Nehru’s days. That no arrangement can last forever, is another matter. All said Nehru will go down in history as the betrayer of the Congress commitment to bring about agrarian reforms. His own colleagues and party members derailed the process and he watched it disinterestedly so long as his own political authority remained unchallenged.

Indian economy would have been qualitatively different today, had the right — though difficult — alternative been adopted in solving the country’s agrarian problem. But that called for a different type of leadership. Nehru didn’t have the leadership quality which Field Marshal Slim described “that combination of example, persuasion and compulsion that makes men do what you want them to do”. Even if he wanted to, Nehru lost the will to press for land reforms because of his shaky authority over the Party satraps at the State level. Principally, the failure to implement agrarian reforms was on account of the significant presence in State Congress Parties of vested landed interests, over whom Nehru had no control and who, in turn, ensured passage of such laws that provided legitimate ways in which landed families could retain sizeable holdings.

Did Nehru realize what Daniel Thorner brought out so poignantly in his piece “Land Reforms” (in Rural Sociology in India).

The heart of power, prestige, and standing in the village lies in land. Put land in the hands of those who are working it and you crack the existing concentration of power.

Did Nehru want to do that? He was content to see himself atop the pyramid of power, unconcerned with the foundation at its base.


The only way Nehru discharged his historical debt to India’s peasants was to provide in his will and testament (written on June 21, 1954):

I want (a major portion of my ashes) to be carried high up into the air in an aeroplane and scattered from that height over the fields where the peasants of India toil.... )

The execution of the will, unfortunately, made no difference whatsoever to the lives of the peasants of India. It was, ironically, followed by three consecutive years of drought. Indian peasantry had been toiling under tyrannical conditions for centuries. Their last hope, after Gandhi, was irretrievably belied by a Prime Minister who vociferously claimed to carry a socialist conscience.
And look at the blatant hypocrisy of the Nehru descendants – Rahul Baba in particular — shedding, today, crocodile tears on the plight of farmers.


After a very thorough study of our festering agrarian problems the Swaminathan Commission made several recommendations. The following are some of them

  • Distribute ceiling-surplus and waste lands;

  • Prevent diversion of prime agricultural land and forest to corporate sector for non-agricultural purposes.

  • Ensure grazing rights and seasonal access to forests to tribals and pastoralists, and access to common property resources.

  • Establish a National Land Use Advisory Service, which would have the capacity to link land use decisions with ecological meteorological and marketing factors on a location and season specific basis.

  • Set up a mechanism to regulate the sale of agricultural land, based on quantum of land, nature of proposed use and category of buyer.

Basic Problems

Indeed the Congress-cooked omelet cannot be unscrambled within the existing constitutional framework of our polity. However, everything considered, the following four basic issues plaguing the agrarian scene for decades have to be urgently addressed.
The first and foremost is to correct, as far as possible, the gross inequality of existing land holdings. And this is highlighted in the report of the Swaminathan Commission:

Table: Distribution of Land

Land Holding % of
% of
Land Less 11.24
Sub-margin holdings
(0.01 - 0.99 acres)
40.11 3.80
Marginal holdings
(1.00 to 2.49 acres)
20.52 13.13
Small holdings
(2.50 - 4.99 acres)
13.42 18.59
Medium holdings
(5 -14.99 acres)
12.09 37.81
Large holdings
(15 acres + above
2.62 26.67
100.0 100.0

Land reforms are necessary to address the basic issue of access to land for both crops and livestock. Land holdings inequality is reflected in land ownership. In 1991-92, the share of the bottom half of the rural households in the total land ownership was only 3% and the top 10%was as high as 54%.

The second issue relates to our perennial dependence on the monsoons. Out of the gross sown area of 192 million hectares rain-fed agriculture contributes 60 per cent of the gross cropped area and 45 per cent of the total agricultural output. The Swaminathan commissions report recommended:

  • A comprehensive set of reforms to enable farmers to have sustained and equitable access to water.

  • Increase water supply through rainwater harvesting and recharge of the aquifer should become mandatory. “Million Wells Recharge” programme, specifically targeted at private wells should be launched.

  • Substantial increase in investment in irrigation sector under the 11th Five Year Plan apportioned between large surface water systems; minor irrigation and new schemes for groundwater recharge.

Apart from the size of holding, the productivity levels primarily determine the income of the farmers. However, the per unit area productivity of Indian agriculture is abysmally lower than other major crop producing countries. And that’s the third main issue demanding attention.

Comparative Yield of Select Crops in Various Countries (Kg/ha)

Country Crop
Paddy Wheat Maize Groundnut Sugarcane
India 2929 2583 1667 913 68012
China 6321 3969 4880 2799 85294
Japan 6414 - - 2336 -
SA 6622 2872 8398 3038 80787
Indonesia 4261 - 2646 1523 -
Canada - 2591 7974 - -
Vietnam 3845 2711 4313 1336 65689

Source: Table 3 of the Fifth NCF Report

The fourth and perhaps the most pressing issue is job creation both for the landless and those with marginal land holdings. (Nearly half the members of the latter group migrate to bigger towns in search of seasonal and permanent work.) And these two constitute nearly half of our agriculture-dependent households.

The more we delay tackling these issues that brook no delay, the more we get nearer to the disaster that Swaminathan Commission warned the nation about.


More by :  H.N. Bali

Top | Analysis

Views: 3446      Comments: 2

Comment Who rules the cradle rules the country. Rulers are politicians not the people even in democracy. Educate them , train them, even bit them . Make them understand that farmers feed them. Without them there is no roti chapati and even votes they need to make them rulers ... at the end calling for farmer's revolution. To stop revolution , vote properly and wisely ...Let the farmers bring march with zanda unchha rahe hamara to bring rulers to senses, farmers have hammers too

pranlal sheth
24-May-2015 18:31 PM

Comment Reforms implement principles of fairness and justice held in affection by the principled as what life in a democracy is about, who, like yourself are observers of a democratic system operating on the contra principle of greed of gain. The latter is the principle of any business, to make a profit, or else it fails, and in the national context results in the control by the powerful over the weak in organisational skills and social influence. Even, at root, Gandhi for all his idealism for the welfare of the poor was side-lined for the more 'sensible' option of projects as ends in themselves for national prosperity, benefitting primarily the educated class and highly skilled at management of human resources. Fairness for the poor is a principle that must be geared to national prosperity in terms of GDP or it cannot take off in a democracy. The poor, meanwhile, are sustained in spirit, in affection, that forms the basis of fulfilment in their daily lives. The poor too are seduced by the higher standards of living around them, the gadgetry of modern life, and are prone to discontent that is the basis of their misery. In a democratic context, the poor themselves become greedy, and are caught up in a spiral of ever-increasing demands, which is not unnoticed by the well-off and used as an indicator for suppressing the former's rights. At base, fulfilment in principle is open to all, as fulfilling a life affection for principle, truth and honesty, and that’s all that matters. However, a lot of contentment in the poor is of a vicarious nature, whereby they enjoy the manifestation of prosperity and security of life in a democracy through observing it: the fashions disported by the wealthy, the splendour of the city, the songs and films they view In crowded cinemas or now on the ubiquitous TV screen. This is a variant on the magnificence of the maharajah being the glory of the beholding poor.

18-May-2015 09:04 AM

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