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History Of The Indias Agrarian Structure History Essay

India with its vast culture of diversity had been exposed to various political, social , economic and cultural influences throughout history. This was evident in India’s agrarian edifice prior to Independence which was characterized by acute inequities in agrarian relations, variety of tenurial conditions, exploitation, stagnancy in production and the absence of incentives. The erstwhile agrarian system, although heterogenous in its diversity, was broadly dominated by two forms of tenures i.e. zamindari and ryatwari systems. While in systems like Zamindari, there existed a small yet dominant class of landlords who owned huge stretches of land and appropriated more than half of the agricultural output from the tillers of the land in the form of rent to pass it on to the British as land revenue.It was characterized by the existence of more than one layer of proprietary rights between the State and the actual holders of the land. In the Ryatwari system on the other hand,no such intermediary interests existed. The ryats (proprietory farmers) appointed tenants , mostly sharecroppers and agricultural wage labourers to cultivate the land. It was estimated that at the time of independence the Zamindari tenures covered one-half of the country’s agricultural land. Despite the differences there were certain features common to these land structures such as the concentration of land ownership in few hands which practically formed the material basis for the caste system prevalent among Hindus in India. “The landowners invariably belonged to the so-called upper castes, the cultivators to the middle castes and the agricultural workers to the lowest castes, a situation that led to economic disabilities being aggravated by social disadvantages.” [i] The cultivators ended up paying abnormally high rents known as rack renting. This was true even for the Ryatwari system which was described as a system of peasant proprietorship. But because of the concentrated ownership of land, owners used to lease out land to tenants who would pay fixed rents or share the produce, and enjoyed no “security of tenure or fixed rent.”Such was the background against which a need for tenancy reforms and national land policy evolved after Independence.



The national policy on tenancy reform gradually evolved over a period of nearly four decades. With the advent of Gandhi and the subsequent transformation of the Indian National Congress into a mass movement,it witnessed massive social and political mobilization reaching out to deal with actual peasant grievances in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and North Canara. One of the initial efforts towards the abolition of Zamindari system was a conference of the Congress and Kisan Sabha workers held at Allahabad in April 1935 under the presidentship of Sardar Patel. It recommended "the introduction of a system of peasant proprietorship under which the tiller of the soil is himself the owner of it and pays r evenues to the Government without the intervention of any zamindar or talukdar.”At its 50th Session held at Faizpur in 1935, the Indian National Congress adopted a resolution laying emphasis on the reduction of rent and land revenue ,abolition of illegal levies, redemption of debt etc. Thus there were various committees and conferences of the INC that rallied the slogan of ‘Land to the Tiller’ to mobilize peasants in the participation of the freedom struggle.


The national objectives of increasing food production and improving productivity of agriculture to foster growth and self-reliance (i.e. food security) mandated an overhauling of the prevailing agrarian structure. The inherited agrarian system of the past was viewed as an exploitative system that denied incentives to any improvements in agriculture. As a consequence, after India attained its Independence, the Indian National Congress set up a high-powered committee with Jawaharlal Nehru as its Chairman to draw an economic programme. Some of the recommendations on agrarian reforms made by the Committee included the eliminations of all intermediaries between the tiller and the State and the replacement of all middlemen by non-profit taking agencies such as co-operatives. The land under non-cultivating landlords was to come under the village cooperative and an upper limit was fixed on the size of holdings. Small holdings were to be consolidated in order to prevent further fragmentation. The Agrarian Reforms Committee headed by J C Kumarappa later on, formulated the policy of land reforms of the Indian National Congress in more precise terms. The committee recommended the abolishing of all intermediary interests and transfer of land to the tiller. It also recommended that leasing of land should be prohibited except in the case of widows, minors, and other disabled persons. Further in an attempt to protect the tenants they were to be granted occupancy rights for cultivating land continuously for a period of six years and had the right to purchase their holdings at reasonable price to be determined by a land tribunal. All of these recommendations were eventually accepted by the Congress party. But there existed some contradictions as were pointed out by Januzzi in the way it gave the owners of land a chance to resume their land for personal cultivation from the actual cultivators and using servants, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers to cultivate. Moreover the committee emphasized on further fragmentation of land holdings and giving back land to communities which was against the ‘land to the tiller’ policy. The committee thus failed to provide a solid analytical and factual base to bring about agrarian reforms in the newly independent India.

According to the Constitution of India, land was regarded as a state subject i.e. only the respective state governments could pass laws and undertake executive decisions on matters related to land. Hence, the Central Government along with its various bodies (i.e. Planning Commission) played an advisory role i.e. it defined the agrarian problems and ascertained the broad functional parameters within which the states should act and implement effective land reforms. However, it must be noted that in the two decades post-Independence the Central government and a majority of the State governments in India were formed by INC.

The Planning Commission while formulating its five year plans had the twin basic objectives of land reforms, i.e. economic efficiency the agrarian reforms should help in removing all obstacles to achieve high agricultural productivity and also work towards creating conditions for evolving as speedy as possible ,an agricultural economy with high level of efficiency, and social justice wherein the agrarian reforms should help to eliminate all elements of exploitation and ensure social justice within the agrarian system to provide security for the tiller of the soil and assure equality of status and opportunity to all the sections of the rural population. Thus in order to achieve these objectives, the following policy measures were envisaged:

abolition of the prevalent intermediary system between the state and the actual tillers;

tenancy reforms such as conferment of ownership rights on the cultivating tenants in the land held under their possession;

imposition of a ceiling on agricultural land holdings as a measure contributing to the modernization of agriculture and to eliminate parasitic absentee landlordism;

rationalization of the record of rights in land so as to make the rights of tenants, share croppers and other categories of insecure landlords;

consolidation of holdings with a view to making easier the application of modern techniques of agriculture; and development of co-operative farming and co- operative village management.


The policy laid down in the First Five Year Plan (1951-56) was set in statistical vacuum with only fragmented data available in states like Punjab and UP, and no data available for the eastern part of the country. The goals set out for agrarian reforms included conferment of permanent occupancy rights to land to some of the occupant tenants, protection of tenants at will and determination of a ceiling for future acquisition of land. The large landowners could resume land for personal cultivation upto the ceiling limit set at three times the family holding and tenants would acquire permanent and heritable rights in land above the limit.As a result the tenancies were rendered insecure as the landowner could choose the plots that he would bring under personal cultivation by threatening the tenants and leaving them in a precarious position for that period. The plan also failed to come up with a rigid definition of the term 'personal cultivation' which went on to become a classic gap for all future legislations giving leeway to landlords to hold most of their traditional holdings. The only safeguard suggested in the Plan for the tenants of such landowners was that tenancy should be for a period of five to ten years and that the rent should not exceed one-fourth to one-fifth of the gross produce. Thus the first five year plan failed in its attempt to bring about a structural change in the agrarian system.

While formulating the Second Five Year Plan(1956-61) , it was recognised that tenancy reforms had failed to confer any measure of security on tenants. It was found that there had been large scale illegal ejectment of tenants under the guise of 'voluntary surrender' of tenancy. It was diagnosed as a result of inadequate land records and ineffective administrative arrangements. Thus emphasis was laid on the definition of ‘personal cultivation’ and its three elements i.e. risk of cultivation, personal supervision, and labour. The second plan also accepted the landowners right of resumption of tenanted land for personal cultivation on ‘general grounds’. It reiterated the proposal in the First Plan that fair rent, be reduced to the level of 20 to 25 per cent of the gross produce. Moreover the tenants of non-resumable areas should be enabled to purchase ownership rights by paying purchase price in instalments, fixed at a reasonable level.

It was quite evident that post independence, the notion of development had become one where economic growth was equated to economic development, which had no parallel to social justice. It emphasized the need for investment for capital accumulation in industry, particularly heavy industry but laid no emphasis on the need for investment in agriculture.

Despite all the efforts towards the implementation of reforms, the Third Five Year Plan (1961-66) made this telling understatement:

"the impact of tenancy legislation on the welfare of tenants has been in practice less than was hoped for". The reasons for this state of affairs were the failure in bringing about a uniformity among various states to enact the laid down rules and legislations. The Third Plan made no new proposals but maintained the position stated in the Second Five Year Plan. It was only at the time of the Fourth Five Year Plan (1969-1974), that the government took a clear stand on the issue of land reforms. This was followed right after an intense agrarian unrest that gripped almost all the states between the periods of 1967-1971, with economic hardships aggravating as a result of the price rise and unemployment which further added to the socio-economic disparity and mounting asset poverty. Thus in order to provide security of tenure to tenants and sub-tenants, the Plan proposed that the following measures be taken: all tenancies were declared non resumable and permanent (except in cases of landholders who are serving in the defence forces or suffering from specified disability);arrangements for quick disposal of applications of resumption that have already been made; provisions for complete security of tenure in respect of homestead land; regulation of Voluntary surrenders' prohibiting land-owners from taking possession of land at present tenanted and empowering local authorities so that provisions of law are not circumvented by the landlords. The Fourth Plan admitted to the fact that there existed a huge gap between objectives, legislation and laws, and their implementation. But at the same time, it claimed to turn land redistribution into a reality in all the villages and cities of India.


We shall now examine the extent to which the guidelines as laid down in the Five Year Plans have been adopted in the state legislation on tenancy reform and the manner in which the laws were implemented.

Regulation of Rent:

All states have enacted legislation for regulating the rent payable by cultivating tenants. However in a few states the procedure of fixation of rents were done in multiples of land revenue. In Punjab and Haryana, fair rent is one-third of the gross produce, while in Jammu and Kashmir, for tenants of land owners holding above 12.5 acres fair rent is one-fourth of the gross produce for wet-lands and one-third for dry lands. However, in the case of tenants of landowners who own less than 12.5 acres of land, fair rent is one half of the gross produce. In Tamil Nadu fair rent is 40 per cent of the gross produce for irrigated lands, 35 per cent where irrigation is supplemented by lift irrigation, and 33.33 per cent in other cases. In the Andhra area of Andhra Pradesh the maximum limit has been put at 30 per cent of the gross produce for irrigated land and 25 per cent for dry land. Despite the fixation of the fair rent the tenants still face a risk of illegal ejectment. At the 1961 Census it was estimated that about 82 per cent of the tenancies in the country were insecure. Since 1961, there has been significant improvement in the conditions of such insecure tenants only in a few areas. Hence the majority of the existing tenants have not derived much benefit from the provisions in the tenancy laws for fixing fair rent.(!)

Security of Tenure:

Tenants were defined as the persons who cultivate the land of others on payment of rent in cash or kind. In some states, the status of tenant was not accorded to share-croppers who pay rent by the division of the produce. Thus share-croppers (known as 'Sajhis' in UP and ‘Bargadars’ in West Bengal) were not extended the same protection as the tenants until 1970.

Furthermore, in Gujarat, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Orissa, and Rajasthan, landowners were allowed to exercise the right of resumption within a limited period after which it was no longer allowed. Even where a limit was put on the area that a landowner could resume, he could threaten to exercise his right against any of his tenants.

Land Records:

One of the important prerequisites for the effective implementation of tenancy laws was the existence of correct and up-to-date records of tenancy rights. Though the need for such records was emphasized in the Five Year Plans, yet in reality in large parts of the country no record of tenancy exists and in areas where such records exist they are invariably incomplete and out-of-date.In the states of Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, the land records were expected to be kept up-to-date through annual revision. But there were discrepancies as several names of the tenants remained unrecorded. It was the absence of these records which is cited as one of the main reasons for the unsatisfactory implementation of the enacted tenancy legislations.

Although the ceiling laws enacted in the late 1950s and early 1960s were aimed at reducing inequalities in landholdings, the very class nature of the land reforms carried out in the country was unable to break the concentration of land in a few hands. The land reform programmes had serious loopholes and suffered from long delays in implementation which had been deliberately allowed in the legislations in the interest of the landlords and no steps had been taken to remove them. Some of these loopholes of the ceiling laws were as follows, ceiling in many states was imposed on the individuals instead of on the family. This allowed the landlord to deliberately suppress information and pass on his land in the name of his family and friends. The system also lacked hardly any machinery to keep a check except by chance detection. In states like Bihar, the landowners were permitted to transfer land to other members of the family up to the ceiling limit, thereby making a mockery of the ceiling laws. For instance, a bill of 1954 provided for the fixation of ceiling at 25 acres for a family of 5 members which if had become a law, it would have yielded a surplus of 10 lakh acres. The Ceiling Act in Bihar came into force much later in 1962. It provided that a landholder could transfer by way of gift any land held by him to his son or daughter or anyone who would inherit such land. Due to this provision, no surplus land could be made available for redistribution(*).

Another major loophole in the legislations was that it exempted tank fisheries, orchards, efficiently managed farms and religious institutions from their purview. As a consequence landlords freely used the provisions to evade ceiling. Any agricultural land , with occasional fruit-bearing trees planted here and there(orchard), or any area with a slight depression which held water in floods could be kept out of the ceiling provisions. Hence overnight the area of surplus vesting in the hands of the state governments was reduced considerably. The landowners even had recourse to mala fide transfers of land to persons not belonging to their families with a view to evade ceiling. Often such transfers were made without the knowledge of the transferee. This was quite prevalent in the state of West Bengal.

The legislation mostly kept the ceiling levels very high in most parts of the country which did not necessarily reduce the inequalities in landholdings. It required every person holding land in excess of the ceiling should furnish a statement within a specified time. Often it was found that the persons concerned did not care to furnish the required statements. In such cases appropriate steps were hardly taken. The main reasons behind this unsatisfactory state of affairs may be that the Revenue Departments in the various states, which were normally concerned with enforcing the ceiling laws showed a strong bias in favour of the big landowners and the big landowning classes had a direct pull with those who were in power, whether in the states or at the Centre, and could bring in indirect pressure on conscientious functionaries of the governments. There was also the successful abolition of intermediaries which resulted in over twenty million erstwhile tenants becoming peasant proprietors. However, large amounts were spent by the State in doling out compensations to the erstwhile landlords. Furthermore, the states did little to limit the size of khudkasht farms or protect the rights of tenants-at-will and sharecroppers working in these farms(8). Leasing and sub-leasing continued to abound despite a ban on them. Also on account of misuse of the dubious and ill defined ‘personal cultivation’ clause, many landowners evicted tenants on an unprecedented scale. Landlords mostly were successful in coercing tenants into surrendering their tenancies or converting them into work-contracts. Even where laws guaranteed security of tenure, tenants were not able to claim their rights owing to the informal and oral nature of their agreements. For instance many states had bypassed Centre’s recommendations on fair rent by fixing rent at one-third and one-half of the produce. Those tenants who initiated action to get fair rents fixed found themselves instantly evicted. Such were the atrocities inflicted upon the majority of tenants and sharecroppers.

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