Land Reforms in India- Part I

The Emergence

Land Reforms in India
Land Reforms in India

Land has always been used as a resource for agrarian purposes, and the importance of land could be seen when taxes were imposed on the produce obtained from the land. There have been several yardsticks to collect taxes in different eras. From the earliest of times, produce on the land was taxable, there were reforms initiated in the Mughal Era, with the advent of the British various reforms were initiated by them, to make more revenue.


More than 60% population of the country is, either directly or indirectly, dependent on agriculture as a livelihood. Land is one of the prime resources of agriculture. As a result, in nearly every debate or deliberations concerning eradication of rural poverty, the speakers tend to focus on the need of equitable distribution of land or land reforms. This part explains the administrative and socio-economic perspective of Land Reforms, Land Tenure Systems introduced by the British, Role of the Peasants and Agrarian measures undertaken in post-Independence period.

Not all reforms were welcomed, with some of the most famous peasant rebellions during the Colonial Era to have origins with failed or unwelcome land reforms. Importance of land reforms can also be gauged by considering that Indian National Congress way back in 1935 had passed a resolution on land reforms. After Independence we notice the changes in the institution of land reform with the abolition of Zamindari and followed by various reforms, in land tenancy and land holding patterns. The latest of Land reforms have tried to bridge the gap between the rural and the urban.

Just after India won her Independence, the Congress Agrarian Reform Committee (generally known by the name – Kumarappa Committee) was established by the All India Congress Committee (AICC). Among several other measures, the committee proposed fairly radical ceilings on land. The recommendations of the ‘Kumarappa Committee’ was endorsed in the First 5-Year Plan but the provisions for ceilings were left at the discretion of the states so that it could be implemented in accordance with the realities of each state. Henceforth, land reform was seen to become an integral part in all the 5-Year plans. A clear statement on linking land reforms with major programmes was made in the 7th 5-Year plan. It stated that land reforms would constitute a critical element both in terms of modernization and increased productivity in agriculture and anti-poverty strategy. Through land redistribution, a huge section of rural landless poor would be provided with a permanent asset base which they could utilize for carrying out land-based or other supplementary activities. Likewise, updating of land records, consolidation of holding and tenancy regulation would widen the access of marginal and small landholders to enhanced inputs and technology which in turn will the increase production in agriculture. In other words, the statement made in the 7th 5-Year Plan acknowledged the centrality of land reform in the entire process of poverty alleviation and rural development. This recognition brought in the tsunami of liberalisation which drowned all issues of justice and fairness in the socio-economic field.

In the early-60s, a decline in the enthusiasm for land reform was noticed when a severe food crisis hit India, particularly in the eastern region. This forced the focus from land reform to shift to enhancement in production and productivity of food-grains. Land reforms retreated from the foreground. But, towards the end of 60s and beginning of 70s, rural unrest was witnessed across India which again brought back land reform to limelight. In 1972, PM Indira Gandhi convened a meeting of Chief Ministers to address the escalating issue of rural unrest which was commonly called ‘Naxalism’. In the meeting, it was agreed that ceilings on land would be reduced and family-based ceiling on land, tenancy reform and other similar measures would be introduced.

But things didn’t run how one would have anticipated. After assessing the situations for nearly a decade, the 6th 5-Year Plan deduced that when progress on land reforms was less than satisfactory, it wasn’t because of some flaw in policy but due to indifferent execution. The fact was, there was a dearth of effective action, especially in matters concerning consolidation of holdings, implementation of ceiling laws and not vigorously pursuing concealed tenancies beside having them vested with occupancy/tenancy rights as enjoined under the law.


Land reforms cater to a wide variety of changes that are implemented with the intention of improving the entire institution and people related to land. It is a planned as well as institutional re-organisation of the relation between man and land.

Administrative Perspective

  1. Rational use of the scarce land-resource by altering conditions of landholding
  2. Improving land tenure and institutions related to agriculture.

Socio-Economic Perspective

  1. Redistributing agricultural land in favour of the poor and landless class and of improving the terms and conditions
  2. Means of redistributing agricultural land in favour of the poor and landless class and of improving the terms and conditions on which land is held for cultivation by the actual tillers
  3. To remove the barriers for economic and social development caused by deficiencies in the existing land tenure system

The Advantages of Land Reforms

It is often argued that 1% increase in agricultural GDP can create more equitable growth in rural India than many more fold increase in service sector or industrial GDP. Land reforms has the potential to create a base for further egalitarian distribution of wealth and motivate farmers to take initiatives as the farmers themselves, as the owners of the land, will enjoy the benefit.

Land ownership/ tenure security will motivate farmers to work harder, invest more and thus create a ripple effect thereby reducing the overall poverty levels and improving the economic scenario while it can also be said that for the Development of Indian agriculture the importance of land reforms is greater than that of technological reforms.

Institutionary Mechanism

The British used the revenue collected from the Indians to buy the raw goods that would return as finished imported goods, to be sold in the Indian Market. To achieve this, the British dropped the system used under the Mughals and Innovated with their own systems.

One of the biggest byproducts to emerge from these systems, was the Institution of zamindars and middlemen. Lord Cornwallis was the first person to ‘outsource’ the work of collecting tax to desi middlemen: Zamindars, Jagirdar, Inamdars, Lambardar etc.

The British then introduced three land tenure systems in India, these were:

  1. Zamindari System

Lord Cornwallis introduced Zamindari System in 1793 in Bengal to create a vested interest in land by the East India Company and to cultivate a privileged and loyal class. Under this system, land was held by one person or by a few joint owners who were responsible for the payment of land revenue to the British.

The Zamindari System was of two types-

  1. Permanent Settlement
  2. Temporary Settlement.

The permanent settlement fixed land revenue in perpetuity. Such a system prevailed in Bengal, Madras and Benares. Under temporary settlement land revenue was assessed for a period ranging from 20 to 40 years in various regions, and thus it was subject to revision. Temporary settlements were done with the remaining zamindars of Bengal, Awadh, etc.

  1. Ryotwari System

Under this system, land was held in single independent holdings where the individual holders were directly responsible to the state for the payment of land revenue. Such a system was found in Central India and Bombay. The ryot could sub-let his land and enjoyed a permanent right of tenancy till he was able to pay the land revenue as demanded from him by the British.

  1. Mahalwari System

Under Mahalwari system, village lands were owned jointly by village communities and accordingly the members were jointly responsible for the payment of land revenue. Such a system was introduced in Agra, Awadh and Punjab. This system was a product of Muslim tradition.

These systems did not always work in favour of the tenants, but had seen certain major revolts, when the oppression and the zamindars, who functioned as an intermediary, worked against them. Hence, the next set of reforms initiated was by the peasants, which sometimes changed the prevailing law.

Role of Peasant/Tribal Movements in Building an Institutional Structure of Land Reforms

The peasant movements had a major role in modifying the structure of Institutional reforms in the context of the development of the country’s economic modules. The revolts varied from oppression of Zamindaris to high taxation and forceful measures to grow crops.

As for our discussion we would be focusing mainly on Gandhian movements to present day:

The Gandhian Era 

  1. Champaran Indigo Satyagraha (1917) – Removal of Planters
  2. 2nd Moplah – Working conditions of landless laborers
  3. Awadh Kisan Sabha
  4. Eka movement
  5. Bardoli Satyagraha

Efforts made After 1935

Efforts were made by Congress Ministries in provinces such as UP, Bihar, and Bombay and in Faizpur Congress session (1936), Telangana Outbreak in Hyderabad, Tebhaga Movement in Bengal, All India Kisan Congress and Varlis Revolt in Western India.

Land Reforms were passed by the Congress during their brief period of formation of ministries in 1937 across various states. They are listed below:

In Bombay,

  1. Forest Grazing fees were abolished.
  2. 40,000 bonded labour (Dubla/serfs) were liberated
  3. Debt Relief act: Reduced interest rate on debts to 9%.

In Bihar,

  1. Enacted “Restoration of Bakasht Land Act”- to give back land to farmers who were evicted between 1929-1937.
  2. Enacted Bihar Tenancy Act
  3. Reduced the salami rates.
  4. Abolished all increases in rent since 1911. As a result, rents were reduced by ~25%
  5. Gave occupancy rights to under-ryots after twelve years of cultivating the land.

In Uttar Pradesh,

  1. Rent of hereditary tenant can be changed only after 10 years.
  2. Tenant cannot be arrested, if he doesn’t pay rent.
  3. Nazrana (forced gifts) and Begari (Forced labour) were abolished.


The need for land reforms (From Independence to 1970)

At the time when India got her Independence, ownership of land was highly unequal. On one hand was a parasitic class of intermediaries who had no contribution in the production process and on the other, there was a large number of cultivators who were either tenants or subtenants having no security of tenure. As per National Commission on Agriculture (1976), this was the principal reason for the chronic crisis in which the agricultural economy of India was enmeshed in pre-Independence era.

Broadly, there were three objectives of agrarian reforms:

  1. Changing the unproductive and unequal agrarian structure,
  2. Removing exploitative agrarian relations, commonly called as patron-client relationship in agriculture,
  • Promoting agricultural growth with social justice

The Land Reforms after Independence

Soon after Independence, in November 1947, an Economic Program Committee was formed under the Chairmanship of Nehru. The committee recommended the following for implementing land reforms:

  • All intermediaries between the tiller and the state should be eliminated – Abolition of Zamindari
  • Maximum size of holding should be fixed. The surplus land over the maximum must be acquired & placed at the disposal of the village cooperatives.
  • Current system of collecting land revenue to be replaced by progressive agricultural income tax.
  • All middlemen should be replaced by non-profit making agencies, such as cooperatives.
  • Pilot schemes for cooperative farming among small land holders
  • Consolidate small land holdings and prevent further land fragmentation.

By 1949: Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Madras, Bihar, Bombay and Assam introduced Zamindari abolition bills. The report of the Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Abolition Committee that was chaired by G.B. Pant was used as the initial model.

Constitutional and Initial Governmental Efforts:

After Independence, with the enactment of the constitution, there came certa in articles that directly or indirectly tried to abolish the Zamindari System. They are-

Art. 23: This prohibited Begari, but at the lowest level, Begari could not be stopped unless Zamindari itself was abolished.

Art. 38:  This article sought to minimize inequality of income, status and opportunities. There was no opportunity / status for tenant farmers working under Zamindars when Zamindars controlled ~40% of India’s cultivated land.

Art. 39: They wanted equitable distribution of the material resources of the community for common good. But in villages, these Zamindars controlled grazing lands, forests, ponds, lakes, etc. and didn’t allow others to freely access them.

Art.48: Organize agriculture and animal husbandry on modern-scientific lines but Zamindars were orthodox rent-seeking mindset, and tenant farmer had neither the money nor the motivation to apply ‘scientific farming’.

Five Year Plan: The first 5-Year plan asked for abolition of intermediaries/zamindars to increase agricultural production, farmer’s income and to provide social justice and move towards an egalitarian society. There were several efforts implemented in each of the four First Five-year plans and the formation of cooperative farming that had been a part of the Nagpur Resolution of the Congress of 1959 was a total failure in this regard.

The distribution of land had been largely unequal, and it was Vinobha Bhave who brought about an initial change in the way the land holdings had been made.

Land Reforms Measures

After Independence, J.C. Kumarappa was appointed as the Chairman of the Agrarian Reform Committee by the Indian National Congress for making a comprehensive analysis of the agrarian relations prevailing in the country. In 1949, the committee submitted its final report which had a significant impact on the evolution of agrarian policy in the post-independence era. As per recommendations of the committee, all intermediaries between the tiller and the state were to be eliminated and upon certain conditions the land would belong to the tiller.

The agrarian reform measures undertaken in the post-independence period include:

  1. elimination of intermediaries,
  2. fixation of landholdings and ceilings,
  • redistribution of surplus land among the semi-landless and landless peasants. Additionally, any special, measures espoused for consolidation of fragmented holdings and preventing alienation of tribal land must come within the purview of broad definition of agrarian reforms.

 Abolition of Intermediaries

According to the recommendations made by the Kumarappa Committee, in 1950s all Indian states enacted legislation to abolish intermediary tenures. However, the nature & effects of this legislation differed from state to state. In Jammu & Kashmir and West Bengal, legislation for abolishing intermediary tenures was accompanied by concurrent imposition of ceilings on land holdings. Apart from these two states, intermediaries were permitted to retain possession of lands under their personal cultivation without having any predefined limit, since the the ceiling laws were passed only in the 1960s. Therefore, the intermediaries got substantial time to make transfers of land. Moreover, there were a few states where the law applied did not applied to agricultural holdings but only to tenant interest like sairati mahals. As a result, a large number of intermediaries continued to exist even after Zamindari system was formally abolished. Nevertheless, approximately 20 million cultivators across the country were brought into direct contact with the Government after intermediaries were legally abolished between 1950 and 1960.


-To be continued-

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