Unfinished Task of Land Reforms: Will the UPA Govt. Heed the MRD Report?

(The Committee On State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms has submitted its report to the Ministry of Rural Development at a time when land is once again emerging as a key issue of struggle all over the country. We are witnessing an upsurge in movements against corporate land grab, and struggles for sharecroppers’ rights and homestead land – in the face of severe state repression and a virtual ruling class consensus to betray the agenda of land reform. In this backdrop, the observations and recommendations of the above Committee, set up by the Ministry of Rural Development, are timely and significant. The Committee has also termed the Salwa Judum operation in Chhattisgarh to be the “biggest land grab since Columbus” [see entire quotation in the previous article, ‘Maoism’, State and the Communist Movement in India]. Will the UPA Government heed the recommendations of a Committee set up by its own Ministry? We reproduce excerpts from some of the report’s recommendations. – Ed/-)

1.6 It may also be emphasized that the changes in overall macroeconomic policy regime since the early 1990s may have significantly contributed to acceleration in loss of land and other critical natural resources from the vulnerable segments of the country’s population. This may be at the root of the significant spurt in increasing rural unrest and ‘extremist’ violence in 220 districts of the country, as has been recognized by the Expert Group of the Planning Commission. In other words, not only the progress in land reforms may have been halted in the recent years, but there is real danger of the reversal of the land reform agenda.

1.7 After independence, as is well-known, the State recognized the vital link between land and livelihood of the masses in rural areas and launched land reform measures, but such measures in most parts of the country have fallen dramatically short of their objectives, including that of required minimum in terms of homestead land for every family. Grossly inadequate achievements are clearly evident from the distorted land holding pattern. According to the NSSO Report on landholding (2003), 95.65 per cent of the farmers are within the small and the marginal categories owning approximately 62 per cent of the operated land areas while the medium and the large farmers who constitute 3.5 per cent own 37.72 per cent of the total area....

1.10 Nowhere is the distress more evident than in the tribal areas, particularly those falling within the Schedule V. The tribals have been the biggest victims of displacement due to development projects. Though constituting only 9% of the country’s population the tribal communities have contributed more than 40% to the total land acquired till so far. The Parliament has legislated the most radical of its Acts in the form of Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, applicable to 9 of the States. All these States under Schedule V have stringent laws protecting the corpus of tribal lands which, however, continue to be subject to steady erosion due to connivance of the Government machinery, weak implementation, a political economy growing around the tribal lands and marginalisation of tribals in the national polity.

1.11 There have been disturbing trends noticed in recent times. PESA area constitute the main target of mining/industrial zone/protected forest reserve after denial of rights/access of local community recently. Thousands of acres of protected & scheduled areas are forcefully transferred in the name of mining and industrialization. Masses in several North Eastern States have also suffered drastically on this count. In Assam alone, about 3, 91,772 acres of land has been transferred for development projects without considering either the ecological consequences or other adverse effects on life and livelihood of the marginalized communities.

1.12 Massive transfers of agricultural and forest land for industrial, mining and development project or infrastructural projects has created rural unrest and distress migration in those areas. Findings indicate that about 7,50,000 acres of land has been transferred for mining and another 250,000 acres for industrial purposes during last 2 decades [Centre for Science and Environment]. SEZs have mostly focused on prime agriculture land resulting in untold misery for poor peasants. Large chunks of land have been rendered degraded because of industrial waste and effluents. These industrial units have also affected the quality of river waters which have traditionally been the lifeline for the rural masses in a number of ways. Unplanned urbanization has frequently resulted in illegal grabbing of significant chunks of agricultural and commons land.

1.16 It hardly needs emphasis that all these key concerns need to be acted upon on an urgent basis for reasons of efficiency as well as equity. Ignoring just aspirations of the masses in rural India for inclusive development will only entail huge economic and political costs...As mentioned in the foregoing the process of rapid industrialization has resulted in acquisition of land on a large scale and displacement of population. Industrialization is important for the development of the country but it cannot be supported at the expense of agriculture and the basic rights for land and livelihood of the population. Thus it is very important that every state clearly demarcates land to be used for different purposes. So revitalization of Land Reforms Council at the Centre and Land Reform Boards for every State is an urgent need to clearly specify the land use policy. In fact it would be really worthwhile to have a Standing Land Commission for every State in the country.


4.1 The land ceiling programme continues to retain its relevance; there is an urgent need to revisit and revive the same. The States may have the option to revise the ceiling even on regional considerations without exceeding the upper limit.

4.2 There should be discontinuation of the existing pattern of exemptions to religious, educational, charitable and industrial organisations, plantations, fisheries and other special categories. The religious institutions should not be allowed more than one unit of 15 acres while Research Organisations, Agricultural Universities Educational & Other Institutions and others may be allowed more than one unit on customised case-to-case bases.

4.3 Where more than one unit is allowed in addition to general exemption it shall be incumbent upon such beneficiary organisations to purchase from the open market and distribute an equivalent area amongst the landless poor.

4.4 Not more than one appeal and one revision should be allowed to be decided by Composite Tribunals including representatives of the landless poor and reputed community based organisations. Boards/ Fast Track Courts and Land Tribunals under Article 323-B, should be setup in all States.

4.5 There needs to be an urgent physical survey of all ceiling land including those not distributed and those in unauthorised possession and must be restored in the same transaction.

4.6 Not more than one acre of wet land and two acres of dry land should be allotted as ceiling surplus land.


5.1 The status of the Bhoodan lands remains indeterminate. There should be an authoritative survey of all Bhoodan lands in a campaign mode involving the civil society and organisations of the rural poor and the Gram Sabha within a specified time frame.

5.2 Recognising the fact that multiple transfers might have taken place in the intervening period it is necessary that appropriate changes be brought to annul the effect of these transfers.

5.3 Restoration of possession and distribution of the Bhoodan lands to the rural poor including their village collectives should be completed along with the survey in the same or continued transactions.

1.1.4 The major recommendations of the Sub Group on Land Ceiling include:

    • (i) Ceiling limits must be re-fixed and implemented with retrospective effect. The new limit should be 5-10 acres in the case of irrigated land and 10-15 acres for non-irrigated land, to be decided by the concerned State Governments.

(ii) Absentee landlords or non-resident landowners should have lower level of ceiling.

(iii) Introduction of Card Indexing System for preventing fictitious transfers in benami names. This card should be related to allottee’s Voted I/D Card or PAN.

(iv) Discontinuation of exemptions to religious, educational, charitable and industrial organisations. The religious institutions should be allowed one unit of 15 acres.

(v) Research organisations and Agricultural Universities should be allowed more than one unit on customized case to case basis.

(vi) Withdrawal of the general exemptions to plantations, fisheries and other special categories.

(vii) Imposition of criminal sanction on failure to furnish declaration on ceiling surplus land.

... (xi) The Benami Transactions (Prohibition of the Right to Recover Property Act) of 1989 should be amended so that evasion of ceiling laws through fraudulent land transactions can be monitored.

... (xii) Revision in definition of landless poor person to include one who owns no land...

(xv) A group should be set up composed of Gram Sabha members and revenue functionaries to identify benami and farzi transactions.

(xvi) Redistribution of the land acquired but not being used for the purpose.

xvii) Adoption of single window approach for redistribution of ceiling surplus. ...


6.1 Tenancy should be legalised in order to provide the rural poor with access to land, discourage the land being left fallow and for enhanced occupational mobility of the rural poor. Subsequently, depending upon the experience leasing could be legalised for all areas up to the ceiling limits.

6.2 In order to facilitate land leasing standard contracts in simple language protecting the rights of both the parties should be devised enforceable at the Panchayat level rather than getting mired in judicial proceedings thereby reducing the transactions cost to a bare minimum.

6.3 Women farmers’ co-operative and other women land based groups should be encouraged on a preferential basis to lease in land as experiences show that such organisations of women farmers have emerged as the most viable farming units.

6.4 All States should impose ceiling on operational holdings and not just ownership holdings. Under no circumstances should the landowners having land above the ceiling limit be allowed to lease in land for agricultural purposes.

6.5 The fixation of fair rent may be reconsidered in areas with high institutional strength and the market determined rent should be allowed to prevail.

6.6 All tenants and sub-tenants including share-croppers/under-raiyats may be recognised by law regulating incidents and conditions of tenancy. There should be adequate safeguards including adequate institutional support and rural development schemes to overcome poverty and indebtedness. The financial institutions will be required to come up with suitable schemes of credit support directed either through the collateral institutions or Self-Help Groups.


7.1 Homestead land and a house need to be recognised within the minimum rights structure of every homeless/landless. A priority list of landless/homeless should be prepared with the approval of the Gram Sabha.

7.2 A minimum of 10-15 cents of land should be provided for such landless-homeless in a time bound manner and land entitlement should be in the name of the women.

7.3 The SC/ST and OBC beneficiaries, as decided at the State level, may be given land in contiguous blocks with infrastructural facilities like road, electricity, school, drinking water, health centre and technological and extension support for supplementing the livelihood, etc.

7.4 A National Policy on Homelessness should be prepared and put in place in consultation with the States.


8.1 Considering the half-hearted implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 being undertaken by the States it becomes necessary to create awareness and mobilise the Gram Sabha to recognise and protect the rights of the forest dwellers and the tribal communities in a definite time frame.

8.2 Forests have traditionally served as commons both ecologically and economically for the tribals dependent upon them. Biodiversity of the ecologically fragile regions like the North-East and Western Ghats also need to be safeguarded to ensure their role as ecological buffers for the burgeoning human population. In most of the hilly regions – south Rajasthan, Western Ghats, Central India, Himalayas and Eastern India large tracts of forests lands are part of many local watersheds. Proper development and management of these common lands is critical to the success of a watershed as they act as reservoirs of water and are also often located along the watershed ridges.

8.3 Common property rights of the community over forest lands including the village forests need to be recognised, recorded in the record-of -rights and protected.

8.4 The role of Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) should be strengthened. Under article 238/2, the Governor can make regulations for the Scheduled Areas by prohibiting and restricting transfer of land by or among the members of Scheduled Tribes and regulate money lending. There is provision for TAC in Schedule V areas and the Governor is bound to consult them.

8.5 Withdrawal of minor cases filed against tribal communities under encroachment/ violations of Wildlife Act/ other forest offences etc.

8.6 Tribal communities who were earlier displaced because of national parks and wild life sanctuaries must be rehabilitated under the purview of FRA.

8.7 All land acquisition process in tribal areas must be stopped before settlement of tribal community under FRA.

8.8 All primitive tribal groups must be exempted under FRA without their date of occupancy on a particular piece of land. Any land that has been claimed under FRA must not be identified/ utilized for Jatropha plantation.

8.9 All primitive tribal groups must be exempted under FRA without their date of occupancy on a particular piece of land.Any land that has been claimed under FRA must not be identified/ utilized for Jatropha plantation.

8.10 All claims of non-tribal communities on the same piece of land must be taken to a fast-track court for timely settlement.All claims for common property resources should be brought under time bound action and resettlement should be provided on the basis of ‘Record of Rights.’ Forests should be recognised as Common Property Resources (especially protected forests and unclassified forests and rights and concessions must incorporate the needs of the community for non-timber forest produce)

8.11 All land regularized under FRA must not be alienated/ acquired in the next 100 years and in case of any emergency acquisition, the same category of land must be provided.

8.12 The tribal communities who lived in Salwa Judum camps must be resettled in their occupied land irrespective of the cutoff date under FRA (2006).
8.13 No Special Economic Zone and/or Special Tourism Zone will be allowed on forest land and V Scheduled Areas.


9.1 Consent of all the stakeholders should be considered before land is acquired. This is imperative for smooth implementation and also for getting the right kind of benefits to the people. Thus, Gram Panchayat should be consulted at the time of acquiring land.

9.2 In many instances unutilized land acquired for a public purpose is difficult to reclaim. There should be a speedy process to reclaim and take possession of the unutilized land. Moreover, used land, especially in case of coal and other mines should be reclaimed and acquired instead of acquiring agriculture land for public purpose.

9.3 These assessments should be thoroughly carried out involving the stakeholders before projects are executed. And based on these assessments future course of action should be decided. Social impact assessment is highly advisable to deal with compensation, rehabilitation and resettlement issues....

4. Sub Group -IV : Tribal Land Alienation & PESA

4.1.4 The Sub Group notes with dismay that the process of restoration of alienated land is worse than alienation. The NIRD studies conclude on the basis of examination of records that the tribals would have been better off by purchasing the land by open market rather than obtaining to the State led process of market. All Courts, bureaucrats and mostly public men, the Sub Group finds are interlocked against the tribals presenting a formidable front. Even in Jharkhand, a State which has been carved out to protect the interests of the tribals the process of alienation has hastened under tribal Chief Ministers leading to impoverishment of the tribals. In Jharkhand the per capita income of tribals is less than half of the per capita income of the State and more than 45 per cent of the tribals live in poverty, 27 per cent under extreme poverty (IHD 2008). The State has developed into a rent extractor tribal impoverishing mechanism. Even the judgments of the Supreme Court like in the case of Samata Judgment are not implemented by the States claiming blatantly that it does not apply to them.



10.4 Survey and settlement operations should be taken up in those areas where it has not been done so far to remove any confusion or uncertainty. Following the recommendation made by the Expert Group on Tribal Land Alienation, survey of the hill slopes up to 30 degrees should be mandatory in the states with Schedule areas and such lands should be settled in favour of tribals who do shifting cultivation and subsistence agriculture. This will not only confer land rights on the tribals occupying such lands, but also help improve the forest cover. The areas under shifting cultivation should be brought under tribal community management.The Government land encroached by poor tribal families should be settled in their favour. (This has already been covered under the Forest Rights Act, 2005)

10.5 Tribals who have been living within a reserve forest, sanctuaries, wild life sanctuaries, national parks, biosphere reserves for generation and cultivating agricultural land should be given permanent patta rights and should not be displaced....

9.6 The legal provisions prohibiting the alienation of tribal land in Schedule V areas and its restoration should be extended to the non¬scheduled areas also. A cut off date should be prescribed while extending these provisions to the non¬scheduled areas.

10.7 A senior competent authority should exercise judgement in sale of tribal lands and protect the interests of tribals. The State should promote the concept of a Land Bank wherein tribal land is purchased by the State and allotted to other deserving tribal families in the same area. (Ceiling Surpluses should be distributed on a priority basis. CPRs should not be distributed).

10.8 At present PESA is applicable only to the scheduled areas but a large part of the tribal population lives outside scheduled areas. Therefore, the provisions of PESA should be applicable mutatis mutandis to village/areas where there is a sizable tribal population or where majority of the population consists of scheduled tribes. ...


14.1 All new homestead land distributed to landless families should be only in women’s name. Where more than one adult woman (widows, elderly women, etc.) is a part of the household, the names of all female adults should be registered.

14.2 When regularising the homesteads of families occupying irregular and insecure homesteads, the homesteads so regularised should be in the names of both spouses and single women.

14.3 Government should make provision for equal availability of agriculture inputs to women farmers.

14.4 Government should promulgate laws that protect women’s rights to adequate housing and land, for instance, introduce government orders mandating joint registration and joint title for marital property in the names of men and women, and registration of women’s property in the names of single women.

14.5 There should be representation for women, especially for SC/ST women, in agencies set up to monitor land reforms. ...


15.1 Schedule-I of the EIA notification, 2006 issued by the MoEF under item 7-C covers industrial estate/parks/complexes/areas/Export Promotion Zones/ Special Tourism Zones/ Biotech Parks/ Leather Complexes. The above categories continue to be exempted from the requirement of a public consultation even in the new notification. That needs to be brought under urgent amendment in concerned laws and policies.

15.2 Scrap Special Economic Zone Act (2005) under purviews of environmental and ecological concern where SEZ is completely silent. Single window clearance feature makes the Approval Committee at the State level under the District Collector responsible for approval of all SEZ units and even compliance to conditions of approval if any are to be mentioned by the Assistant Collector. There is no mention of the role of the Pollution Control Board. There is no mention of Coastal Regulation related provisions in the SEZ Act and rules. However, the amendment to the CRZ Notification 1991, have allowed for SEZs to be located in ecologically sensitive coastal areas and ‘no development zones’ that need to be brought under strict regulatory authority adequately represented by project affected community and local representatives.


The status of “Deemed Foreign Territory” to SEZs will snatch the sovereignty of locals from their lands and natural resources which sustains the local economy. The concentration of powers in the hands of Development Commissioner at the state level and board of approvals in the Centre is greatly going to challenge the local governance. The SEZ Act provides that grievances related to the SEZ can only be filed with courts designated by the State governments which will only be for trials related to civil and other matters of SEZ. No other courts can try a case unless it goes through the designated court first. Building of a physical boundary around the SEZ and restricting entry to authorized person’s only means that it would be difficult for any individual or civil society groups and independent agencies to enter the area without prior approval of the Development Commissioner.

SEZ Act (2005) has no mention of the sources of water for the proposed zones; leave aside the question of restrictions or impact assessment. The SEZ Act of various states gives a blank cheque to the water requirement for the zones. For example, the Gujarat Act says, “The SEZ developers will be granted approval for development of water supply and distribution system to ensure the provision o adequate water supply for SEZ units”.

As per the official website of the Mundra SEZ (Gujarat), it expects to get at least 6 million liters per day from the Sardar Sarovar Project, as promised by Gujarat Water Infrastructure Ltd. Critical water requirement would be 400 million liters per day. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India for Gujarat for the year ending on March 31, 2006 has already criticized Gujarat government for extra allocation of 41.1 million liters per day water from the Sardar Sarovar Project for industries. The CAG report said that this will affect share of water for drought prone areas.

The water requirement, as given on the POSCO website, is 286 million liters per day, will be procured from Jobra barrage on the Mahanadi River in Cuttack, district in Orissa. The water for this is forced to come from the upstream Hirakud dam. There is already an agitation against reservation of water from the Hirakud dam for industrial purposes.


The pattern of land distribution in India, therefore, reflects the existing socio-economic hierarchy. While large landowners invariably belong to the upper castes, the cultivators belong to the middle castes, and the agricultural workers are largely dalits and tribals. According to the 1991 census, 64 percent of dalits and 36 percent of tribal people were agricultural labourers who own no land and work as unregistered sharecroppers, un-recognized temporary or informal tenants or agricultural labourers for subsistence without any security. The National Sample Survey of 1992 reported that 13.34 percent of the dalits and 11.50 percent of the tribals were absolutely landless. While, in 1997, the Ninth Draft Plan Paper, placed 77 percent of the dalits and 90 percent of the tribals as either de jure landless or de facto landless in India. No uniform data on these categories is available in the country and the discrepancies in the data on landlessness from different government sources raise obvious questions of reliability. But at the same time, the data of absolute landless families proves that the feudal society is firmly anchored in large parts of India, notwithstanding claims to the contrary.

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