In India land reforms fail, 5% of farmers control 32% land


The average land given to the rural landless is small and falling, from 0.95 acres in 2002 to 0.88 acres in 2015—a 7.4% drop over 13 years–and a slowdown is evident in the process of taking land away from rich landlords, the reports of India Spend reveal.


The 2011-12 agricultural census and 2011 socio-economic caste census and this correspondent’s data, summarise the failure of India’s land reforms:

  •  No more than 4.9% of farmers control 32% of India’s farmland.
  • A “large” farmer in India has 45 times more land than the “marginal” farmer.
  •  Four million people, or 56.4% of rural households, own no land.
  • Only 12.9% of land marked–the size of Gujarat–for takeover from landlords was taken over by December 2015.
  • Five million acres—half the size of Haryana—was given to 5.78 million poor farmers by December 2015.

As many as 570 million Indians, or 47.1% (including 6.7% in urban areas), still depend on agriculture, which contributes 15% to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to this 2011-12 National Sample Survey Office 2011-12 report and 2011 census data.

As of December 2015, land declared “surplus” (meaning, it could be taken away from landlords) across India stood at 6.7 million acres, the government took over 6.1 million acres; and distributed 5.1 million acres—less than half the area of Haryana, or five-and-a-half times the area of Goa—to 5.78 million people.

Similarly, the land declared surplus has fallen over the years. Between 1973 and 2002, an average of 150,000 acres was declared surplus, and an average of 140,000 acres was distributed every year. In contrast, between 2002 and 2015, the land declared surplus every year was 4,000 acres, while land in government possession and distributed declined by 29,000 acres and 24,000 acres per year, respectively.

What has largely failed nationwide—with the exception of West Bengal—over 54 years since a land-redistribution law was passed is not likely to improve, according to data received through RTI application filed with the Department of Land Resources of the Indian government’s Ministry of Rural Development.

This means that there is less land declared surplus every year over the past 13 years and what was once a growing trend of government possession and distribution has reversed.

The slowdown and fluctuations in land-distribution data over the years are usually because of disputes over how much is to be taken away; courts restored some land to original owners; and some land was unfit for cultivation, according to this 2009 report from the Centre for Rural Studies, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Mussoorie.

The surplus land under litigation increased by 23.4%, from 920,000 acres to 1.14 million acres between 2007 and 2009. Some states, such as Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Gujarat and Maharashtra, created land tribunals to quickly settle such cases.

Irrespective of the fluctuations, the land declared surplus, up to 2015, is 12.9% of 51.9 million acres—almost the size of Gujarat—the land that should be taken away from landlords, the LBSNAA estimated as cited in the report of the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms from 2009. The land in government possession and land distributed is 11.7% and 9.8%, respectively of the 51.9 million acres that should be declared surplus.

As many as 95.1% of Indian farmers are called “marginal, small and semi-medium”, meaning they own up to 2.47, 4.94 and 9.88 acres of land, respectively. These farmers own 68.2% of cultivated land, while 4.9% “medium and large” (owning up to 24.71 and 49.42 or more acres, respectively) farmers own 31.8% of cultivated land, according to the 2011-12 agriculture census.

A “large” farmer on average has 45 times more land than a “marginal” farmer, as we already said, and 101.4 million people—equivalent to the population of Germany and Sri Lanka combined—or 56.4% of rural households, own no land, according to the socio-economic caste census 2011.

A national law that guides the land a farmer can own was passed in 1972. It recommended that farmers should own between 10 and 18 acres of irrigated land with two crops, 27 acres of irrigated land with one crop and 54 acres for dry land.

The surplus land was to be taken away by state governments and distributed to the rural landless, identified by village panchayats. Land ceilings varied by state and land quality.

The RTI report reveals that West Bengal has outperformed other states. It has declared the most land “surplus” (1.41 million acres, or nearly one-and-a-half times the area of Goa), and accounts for 21% of such land so declared nationwide. West Bengal has taken possession of 1.32 million acres, 93.6% of land declared surplus statewide, and distributed 1.05 million acres, 79.8% of the land in the state’s possession.

West Bengal also accounts for more than half (54.2%) of India’s land-reform beneficiaries. As many as 3.14 million of the rural, landless got free land over 60 years.

The Draft National Land Reforms Policy has credited West Bengal, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir for having performed best in surplus land distribution.

Jammu and Kashmir is the worst performer, according to data from the RTI reply, which is also riddled with inaccuracies.

  • For Jharkhand, it says no “surplus” land was declared and taken over—yet it shows 860 acres distributed among 1,316 beneficiaries.
  • For Karnataka, land distributed is more than that declared “surplus” and taken over by the government.
  • For Punjab, land taken over and distributed is more than land declared surplus.

These inconsistencies raise concerns over the reporting and verification of surplus land declaration and distribution nationwide.

(In collaboration with India Spend)