The imposition of landholding size ceilings was a major plank of India's land reform effort, with the goal of making land distribution more equitable. However, societal consensus was weak, if not non-existent, on this issue, as evidenced by the extreme difficulty in implementing this program with even a moderate degree of success.
• In 1946, the All India Kisan Sabha supported the demand for a maximum landownership limit of 25 acres per landowner.
• Soon after independence, the Congress, perhaps for the first time, officially introduced the concept of a land ceiling. The AICC appointed a committee in November 1947 to draught the Congress's economic programme.
• ‘The maximum size of holdings should be fixed,' according to a committee led by Jawaharlal Nehru. Over this amount of land, surplus land should be acquired and made available to village cooperatives.' Similarly, the Congress Agrarian Reform Committee, chaired by J.C. Kumarappa, recommended a landholding ceiling of three times the size of an economic holding in its report submitted in July 1949.
• The First Plan (1951-1956) was also "in favour of the principle that an individual's land holdings should be limited." Despite the Plan's acceptance of the Kumarappa Committee's suggested upper limit as "fair," it was stated that the exact upper limit would be "fixed by each State, having regard to its own agrarian history and current problems."
• It's no surprise, then, that despite early declarations of intention and recommendations, little progress on the issue of ceilings was made in the first years after independence. The Congress recognized this, and the AICC urged, “The State Governments should take immediate steps in regard to the collection of required land data and the fixation of ceilings on land holdings, with a view to redistribute the land, as far as possible, among landless workers,” at its session in Agra in 1953. Over the next few years, the Congress Working Committee and the AICC reaffirmed their position.
• The National Development Council's Standing Committee (NDC) was established in 1952. It was a forum where all of the state chief ministers would gather under the chairmanship of Nehru to discuss critical development issues) adopted a decision to complete the imposition of ceilings in the few states where such legislation had been passed by the end of 1960, and decided that other states should pass such legislation by 1958-59.
• Meanwhile, opposition to ceilings grew in many parts of the country, including the press, congress, state legislatures, and even within the Congress party. Rural landowners as well as urban interests saw a threat to their right to private property.
• In January 1959, at the Indian National Congress's Nagpur session, things came to a head. Despite opposition from prominent Congressmen at the AICC and the Subjects Committee meeting prior to the open session, the Nagpur Congress (January 1959) passed a resolution stating that “in order to remove uncertainty regarding land reforms and give stability to the farmer, ceilings should be fixed on existing and future holdings and legislation to this effect... should be completed in all Statues...”
• In the months following the Nagpur session, there would be a barrage of criticism. In February 1959, N.G. Ranga, the Secretary of the Congress parliamentary party, resigned from the party after sending Nehru a letter signed by a hundred Congress members of parliament criticising the idea of ceilings in December 1958.
• The Nagpur Resolution played a significant role in the consolidation of right-wing forces in the country's rural and urban areas. Alarmed by moves toward land ceilings and threats of compulsory cooperativization, N.G. Ranga and C. Rajagopalachari joined forces with Minoo Masani, an important leader of the Forum for Free Enterprise, which campaigned against the threat of nationalization and the public sector swamping the private sector, to found the Swatantra party in June 1959, with Ranga as its president.
• The abolitionists and beneficiaries of zamindari abolition, the tenants who had now become landowners, also opposed the next step in land reform, an attempt to redistribute land ownership by imposing land ceilings.
• Opponents of the ceilings legislation, on the other hand, were to win a real victory at the state level, because it was up to the states to draught and implement the legislation. The state legislatures, which met soon after the Nagpur session, did not rush to put the Nagpur Resolution into effect. As a result, the ceilings debate dragged on, and most states only passed enabling legislation by the end of 1961, nearly fourteen years after the idea was first proposed.
Weaknesses in Land Ceiling Legislation
Because of the long delay and the nature of the legislation, the ceilings had a minor impact, releasing very little surplus land for redistribution. The ceiling laws in most states, on the whole, had significant flaws.
1. First, in a country where more than 70% of land holdings are under five acres, the state-imposed ceilings on existing holdings were extremely high.
• Furthermore, the ceilings were initially imposed on individuals rather than family holdings in most states, allowing landowners to divide up their holdings ‘notionally' in the names of relatives merely to avoid the ceiling.
• Furthermore, if the size of the landholder's family exceeded five, the ceiling could be raised in many states.
• Only a few landed families would have holdings that were larger than these permissive limits. Only in a few states, such as Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab, where very few holdings exceeded the ceiling limit, was no allowance made for the size of the family.
2. Second, most states allowed a large number of exemptions to the ceiling limits in response to the Second Plan's recommendation that certain types of land be exempted from ceilings.
• These included tea, coffee, and rubber plantations, orchards, specialised farms engaged in cattle breeding, dairying, wool raising, and other activities, sugarcane farms operated by sugar factories, and well-managed farms with significant investments.
• The goal was to encourage rather than discourage large-scale progressive or capitalist farming, while also putting an end to absentee landlordism practised by large landowners through tenants and sharecroppers.
3. Finally, the lengthy delay in enacting ceiling legislation largely defeated the bill's purpose. Large landowners had plenty of time to sell their excess lands, make sham transfers in the names of relatives, or even make benami transfers.
• Furthermore, landowners used mass evictions of tenants, resuming their lands up to the ceiling limit and claiming, often falsely, that they had switched to progressive farming under their direct supervision.
• As a result, by the time the ceiling legislations were enacted, there were few holdings above the ceiling left, and thus little surplus land became available for redistribution. The Congress leadership recognised this, and the Third Plan acknowledged it as well.
Effect of polarization on land ceiling:
• Since the mid-sixties, there has been a sharp increase in polarisation in the countryside, necessitating a new initiative in land reform due to the poor track record of using ceiling legislation to achieve a more equitable distribution of land.
• The owner cultivator/rich peasant interests consolidated in the Indian countryside, and they found a distinct political voice in formations like the BKD (formed by Charan Singh after he brought down the C.B. Gupta-led Congress government in U.P. in 1967).
• The BKD later merged with Swatantra and other parties to form the BLD in 1974, and the BLD was a major component of the Janata Party, which came to power in 1977 after the Emergency, bringing the strong influence of owner cultivator/rich peasant interests, which had previously only been felt at the state level, to the central or national level.
• In the aftermath of the mid-sixties political and economic crisis, inflation, devaluation, the Indo-Pak war, and other events, a strong strand of agrarian radicalism emerged in many parts of the country. To the end of the 1960s, the Naxalite Movement, led by the CPI (ML), peaked in West Bengal and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Bihar.
• The year 1970 saw a widespread ‘land grab' movement by the landless in many parts of the country under the leadership of the Communist and Socialist parties, and in some cases, such as West Bengal, the preceding few years. In 1969-70, there were riots in Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and West Bengal.
• The total amount of land seized was small, and the majority of it was government wasteland, land taken over by the government but not distributed, and to a lesser extent, homestead land. The uprising was effectively put down.
• Approximately 20,000 political activists have been detained. Despite the movement's limited success in land seizure and its swift suppression, the movement had a significant symbolic impact overall. The agrarian question drew the nation's attention in a dramatic way.
Efforts of national development council:
• In the 1960s and early 1970s, this was the context in which the second wave of land reform efforts would take place. The National Development Council's Land Reform Implementation Committee met in June 1964 and exerted sustained pressure on chief ministers to close loopholes in land reform legislation and effectively implement it.
• These efforts gained new impetus after Indira Gandhi's political shift to the left in the late 1960s, particularly after 1969. She argued forcefully in September 1970 at a land reform conference of chief ministers that social discontent and violence had erupted in the countryside because:
• The land reform measures implemented have failed to match the legitimate expectations that were first fostered among millions of cultivators during the national movement... To summarise, we have yet to establish institutional conditions that will allow small farmers, tenants, and landless labourers to participate in the agricultural New Deal.
• One of the main topics discussed at the Conference was the reduction of ceiling limits, with the majority of chief ministers flatly rejecting such a proposal. The matter was referred to the Central Land Reforms Committee, which was charged with investigating this and other contentious issues raised during the Conference. The Committee issued a series of recommendations in August 1971, including a significant reduction in ceiling limits, the elimination of exemptions such as those for "efficient" or "mechanised" farms, and the application of ceilings to the family as a unit rather than to individuals, as was the case in most states.
• Following months of bitter opposition, the Congress, now strengthened by electoral victories in 1971 and 1972, was able to persuade the chief ministers' conference in July 1972 to approve new national guidelines.
The new guidelines were largely based on the Central Land Reforms Committee's recommendations from August 1971. The July 1972 guidelines, which marked a turning point in India's history of ceiling legislation, included the following key features:
• Double-cropped perennially irrigated land had a ceiling of ten to eighteen acres, single cropped land had a ceiling of twenty-seven acres, and inferior dry lands had a ceiling of fifty-four acres.
• A ceiling was to be applied to a family of five members as a unit (husband, wife and three minor children). Additional land per additional member could be allowed for families with more than five members, up to a maximum of double the five-member unit's ceiling.
• Priority was to be given to landless agricultural workers, particularly those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, in the distribution of surplus land.
• Compensation for surplus land was to be set well below market value in order for the new allottees to be able to afford it.
Following the 1972 guidelines, most states (with the exception of a few north-eastern states and Goa, which had no ceiling laws) passed revised ceiling legislation, lowering ceiling limits within the guidelines' range. Efforts to evade the ceiling laws and resist the laws continued in a variety of ways. Obtaining judicial intervention on a variety of grounds was a common strategy. Hundreds of thousands of cases challenging the ceiling were filed in courts across the country. According to one estimate, there are over 500,000 pending cases in Andhra Pradesh alone!
Government affords to address the challenges:
• In an attempt to counter this threat, the government had the 34th Amendment to the Constitution passed in parliament in August 1974, which included most of the revised ceiling laws in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, making them constitutionally unchallengeable.
• While the renewed effort of the 1970s resulted in some progress in the redistribution of surplus land, the overall results were far from satisfactory. Nearly 1.6 million acres of land declared surplus but not distributed were being litigated.
• There was a lot of regional variation in how ceiling laws were implemented, with states that had more political mobilization of the targeted beneficiaries or showed more political will from the government having a lot more success. For example, West Bengal, which has less than 3% of India's cultivated land, is thought to have contributed about a quarter of the total land declared surplus under India's ceiling laws.
• By the middle of 1992, the declared surplus area had grown to 7.3 million acres (from 2.4 million acres in 1970), the area distributed had grown to about 5 million acres (from 1.2 million acres in 1970), and the number of beneficiaries had grown to about 4.7 million. Between 1985 and 1992, the number of beneficiaries increased far more than the amount of land distributed, with 1.4 million beneficiaries and 0.1 million acres distributed, respectively. This implies that the new beneficiaries will only receive small plots of land or homestead lands.
• While there was a noticeable improvement after 1972, the total area declared surplus that could be distributed to the landless accounted for only about 2% of the total cultivated area. While it is true that over 4.5 million people, the majority of whom were landless, received some land (however poor the quality or small the holding), the inequities in Indian agriculture, which the ceiling laws were supposed to address, remained to a large extent.
• One of the most significant effects of the ceiling laws, and perhaps the most important in the long run, was to kill the land market and prevent increasing concentration in landholdings through depeasantisation. ‘The law discouraged concentration of landownership beyond the ceiling level, thus preventing the possible dispossession of numerous small and marginal holders, which would have occurred through a competitive process in the land market in the absence of a landholdings ceiling,' said C.H. Hanumantha Rao, an eminent scholar of Indian agriculture and policymaker.
• In addition, while defective and delayed ceiling laws prevented large areas of surplus land from being acquired for redistribution, in the long run, high population growth and rapid subdivision of large holdings over several generations (in the absence of primogeniture for inheritance in India) resulted in little land remaining over the ceiling limits.
• In fact, from independence until the 1990s, the number of holdings and the area operated under the category of large holdings, 25 acres or more (even 15 acres or more), continued to decline. Very large semi-feudal landholdings, with the exception of a few small pockets across the country, are now a thing of the past.
• Because landholding was no longer skewed, landowner inequality was no longer a major issue. By 1976-77, nearly 97 percent of the operated holdings were under 25 acres, and 87 percent of the holdings were under 10 acres, according to one estimate. The problem of the landless or near-landless, who accounted for nearly half of the agricultural population, demanded immediate attention.
• Any further attempt at land redistribution through the lowering of ceilings, on the other hand, does not appear to be politically or economically feasible. Given India's unfavourable land-man ratio, and in particular given (unlike many other countries with similar ratios) the fact that agriculture continues to employ a large proportion of the population (nearly 67 percent of the total workforce in 1991) and thus the number of potential competitors for land is large, any attempt to reduce the number of potential competitors for land is futile.
• Also, any regime attempting to do so would be pitted against the entire, now politically powerful, landowning classes, which have been powerfully mobilized under the ‘new' farmers' movement. ‘Only a Pol Pot can try to do land redistribution on the basis of land to the tiller today,' an eminent radical journalist recently told us.
• Perhaps the only viable program left for the landless was that of distributing homestead lands or even just home sites, ensuring the payment of minimum wages, and providing security of tenure and fair rents to sharecroppers and tenants, which has been taken up to some extent in recent years. Other solutions include increasing off-farm employment in rural areas, increasing animal husbandry, and other activities that are related to agriculture but do not require land.
BHOODAN AND GRAMDAAN MOVEMENTS
• Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan and Gramdan movements attempted to bring about a "nonviolent revolution" in India's land reforms. These coordinated movements aimed to enact land reform by persuading the landed classes to give up a portion of their land to the landless.
• In 1951, the Bhoodan was established. In Pochampalli, Telangana, the problems of landless harijans were presented to Vinoba Bhave.
• In response to Vinoba Bhave's appeal, some land-owning classes agreed to donate a portion of their land voluntarily. The Bhoodan Movement was born as a result of this. Vinoba Bhave had received the necessary assistance from the federal and state governments. Bhoodan eventually gave way to the Gramdan movement, which started in 1952.
• The Gramdan movement's goal was to persuade landowners and leaseholders in each village to relinquish their land rights, with all lands becoming the property of a village association for equitable redistribution and cooperative farming. Gramdan is declared when at least 75% of the residents and 51% of the land in a village sign a written agreement to become Gramdan. Magroth, Haripur, Uttar Pradesh, was the first village to be incorporated into Gramdan.
• The movement was backed by a large number of politicians. Gramdan and Bhoodan have been the subject of legislation passed by several state governments. Around 1969, the movement reached its pinnacle.
• Gramdan and Bhoodan lost their significance after 1969, when the movement shifted from a purely voluntary movement to a government-sponsored programme. After Vinoba Bhave's departure from the movement in 1967, it lost its mass following.
• Landowners mostly donated land that was in dispute or unfit for cultivation in the later period. Rather than combining with existing institutional means, the entire movement was treated as something separate from the general scheme of development. This break from the mainstream scheme had a significant impact on its ability to continue as a policy.