Agriculture Agriculture in History

The Story of Wealthy Zamindars and Landless Tillers

(This column space will talk on the policies and laws of Indian government pertaining to agriculture and environment, instigated ever since the day of independence in a series.)

Session No.: 01

What is the background for reforms?

Let you be an eternal farmer. You are living in the Mughal period and your Emperor is very much worried about the very mild financial crunch his administration is facing, that it is running out of treasures. Now there comes the Finance Minister of the cabinet. The embarrassed FinMin does not step down (or swap portfolios!), instead comes up with a new strategy to regulate the financial malfunction. Your FinMin finds irregularities in the land revenue collections which form a major part of the treasury. So he plans to fix the derailment by installing new officers called the “Zamindars” whose work is to maintain an accounts note with the details of all the farmers in his jurisdiction and collect the revenue from all the farmers at regular intervals. The Zamindar collects all the revenue and hands it over entirely to the Department of Land Revenues and collects his income from the Ministry of Finances. Like many other gentlemen, this Zamindar also dreams of becoming rich straight away and he feels he needs some excesses for that. The Zamindar chooses not to loot from the government’s funds as he fears the creepy punishments if caught. So he overthinks overnight and comes to you for the next collection and demands extra charges from you. You rebel against him the very moment, but at the end you are helpless. The influential Zamindar threatens you and seizes the surcharge. As time flies, all of you farmers stop rebelling against the Zamindars as it is made to appear like the order of the day. Happy days for the Zamindars, for their incomes do not simply double, but exponentially double!

As you are an eternal farmer, you live through the timeline and now there is a new comer in your place. The Britishers are here and sure they are to change your life in no time. Firstly, the Britishers acquire the powers to source the land revenue but later they come out with something amazing, for them – never for you!  There is one, Lord Cornwallis who rules you and when you are ploughing your field in 1793, he introduces an act called the Permanent Land Settlement Act which makes life amusing, for them – never for you! This PLSA takes your land from you and gives it to the Zamindars, and you have to work in the took-away-land as well as pay revenue to the Zamindar! Technically, the act declares the Zamindars to be proprietors of land, in exchange for the payment of land revenue they need to disburse to the East India Company. The Landlords (Zamindars), are now kind of more commanding and they have recruited many staff for revenue collection from farmers like you. As the intermediary layers increase, the surcharges also increase proportionally. That’s making you truly miserable. And you know what, you are named “Tenant” henceforth, for you owe your income or produce to the new owner. As time flies, new variations of Zamindari System finds place almost throughout the country known by Mahalwari, Ryotwari Systems etc., but none makes any of your community’s life better. Dreadful days these are, for you, never for them! Many reforms are demanded and peasant movements are organised as an element in your compound form of Freedom Struggle, but none pays off and you remain dreaded.

This sad story forms the background for the reforms to be discussed further.

What is done to make reforms?

As the country gets a rebirth on eve of independence, agrarian reforms top the list for reforms and development. A committee for the first time is appointed in 1949 to initiate the land reforms. The committee is named as Congress Agrarian Reforms Committee also known as Kumarappan committee headed by J. C. Kumarappa, a Congress leader. This makes the beginning of land reforms in India. The committee recommends the Abolition of Zamindari System, Fixation of Land Ceilings, Consolidation of Land Holdings and Promotion of Co – operative Farming among many other suggestions. These agrarian reforms are carried out through the nation’s development programmes by the Planning Commission in almost all of the 5 year plans till the early 2000’s. Meanwhile, as the Constitution lists “Land” under the state list – the state governments are let to make their own laws barring Zamindari System and regulating Tenancy Laws. In 1949, Uttar Pradesh Government becomes the first state to make Zamindari Abolition Act and consequently many other states follow the reforms in their own terms. As the Constitution of India guarantees its citizens the Right to Property (as in 1950), the Zamindars take to court saying the act violates their fundamental right by seizing their land and farm resources (earlier, the ponds, lakes, wells and all such public utilities were owned by Zamindars and the locals had to pay them for usage. The act directed the Zamindars to cede those public resources to the Village Panchayat). Owing to the escapism exhibited by the Zamindars citing the Constitutional provisions, the Government plans to amend the Constitution in 1951. The first amendment of Constitution, provides a schedule called the 9th Schedule, under which all the 13 laws pertaining to land reforms passed by various states are brought in. Further the amendment adds two articles, Article 31A and Article 31B, which ensure that the states can bring in any laws for reforming lands and the same cannot be brought under judicial review, i.e., the courts can’t pass orders or declare the laws void. Also, consequently the Tenancy Act and Land Ceiling Act are also passed by the state governments in later phases in 1960’s and 1970’s.

How do the reforms take place?

The Zamindari Abolition Acts passed by different states have different provisions, but all are on the same line. The act enables the state governments to take hold of the lands from the Zamindars and in turn they are given Compensation Funds from the “Zamindari Abolition Fund” maintained by the government. However, the Zamindars are allowed to sustain a limited span of land for “Personal Cultivation”. The surplus lands seized from the Zamindars are redistributed among the tenants. Most importantly, the intermediaries between the farmers and the government are abolished by the act. The Tenancy Act regulates the fair rent payable by a tenant subject to mutual agreement limited to a maximum of 25 – 33 percent of the produce. A few states prohibit leasing, whereas few others allow leasing within stipulated limits. The Land Ceiling Act also ensures that no individual can hold an area of land more than the limit specified by the state government. Again, this act also varies from state to state.

What is the aftermath of reforms?

The key accomplishment of these land reforms is the abolishment of bonded labour kind of exploitation by the Zamindars. The next is, abolishment of intermediaries called Zamindars. (However, in later stages middlemen emerge to bump off farmers!). Also, the farmers gain security of tenure and landholdings. On socialistic lines, the redistribution of lands on the basis of land for the tillers upheaved the living standards of poor farmers and also the public utilities were made open for all – removing caste based indiscriminations. The 5 year plans are also contributory in implementing land reforms. But still, the Zamindars used the loopholes in the “Personal Cultivation” to bypass the laws and registered the lands under splits in the name of relatives to break away from the ceiling limitations.

At the end of the day, the landless tiller gets hold of his land!

…Session adjourned until next month…

This article was originally published in ‘The Agraria’ e-Magazine. Please subscribe it to continue reading the series

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Chandini S Amaan
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