Opposition is growing against an Ordinance promulgated by the Karnataka Government to amend the Karnataka Land Reforms Act 1961 and 1971. West Bengal and Karnataka were pioneering states in terms of redistribution of agricultural land in India. These were the states where maximum land was taken away from the former zamindars (in the aftermath of Zamindari Abolition Act 1955) and distributed among the landless tillers.
If one could recall, the Naxalbari Movement in the early 1970s spurred the action on the front and the first CPI (M) Government headed by Mr. Jyoti Basu took up the task with spirited zeal soon after it stepped into the Writers Building in Kolkata. This altered the economic scenario in West Bengal drastically. As tillers turned owners, it became difficult for Kolkata households to get housemaids and workers for the workshops. People from rural areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar rushed in to fill the gap. It had impact on the social hierarchy in the rural hinterland too. As I can recall, a journalist had summed up the situation more idiomatically, ‘Now it is Manu who salutes Marx in West Bengal.”
Karnataka was the second most successful state to bring in land reform. It was done under legendary Chief Minister Devaraj Urs, the first OBC to head the Government in the State. Urs took up the task with a vengeance and caused a major breakthrough in empowerment of politically powerless communities who were also the economic underdogs. Previously the levers of power in the State used to alternate between two powerful communities namely, Lingayaths (mainly concentrated in northern districts and Vokkaligaras (their bastion being the Old Mysore state south of Tungabhadra River).
The BJP Government brought in an Ordinance on July 13 to amend the Karnataka Land Reforms Act 1961. It removes major restrictions on purchase of farm land for non-agricultural purposes. That a popularly elected Government should bring in an amendment through an Ordinance is pointed out as an unpopular measure being pushed through the backdoor. Secondly, these are not normal times. COVID-19 induced norms of social distancing do not allow democratic protests to take place against an official measure that may divest hundreds of farmers of their only assets. Wider public consultations too cannot happen. The law is all likely to promote landlessness as farmers around expanding cities would be lured into sale of their land what with their offspring having taken up jobs in the urban areas. Fourthly, the real estate lobby would be the major beneficiary as land parcels would be up for grabs for industries, hospitals and educational schools. These are gradually getting monopolized by the politicians in Karnataka (other southern states also not being exception). Major deals are already in offing as Covid-led restrictions bar farmers and civil society organization to agitate in public.
Of the State’s 67 million people, 17 million are stated to be landless. Average landholding in the State has been coming down. It was 3.2 hectares (ha) in 1970 while it is estimated to be 1.55 ha in 2018. Karnataka is the fifth most urbanized state in India (after Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra and Gujarat) with almost 36% people living in towns and cities. The State has seen lopsided growth with cities in the southern part attracting all the capital, investments and talent and landless people from northern districts flocking around cities like Bengaluru, Mysuru and Mangaluru for menial jobs.
The Ordinance has knocked off a few important restrictions. Previously no person or a family that had an assured non-farm income of more than Rs. 25 lakh annually can acquire agricultural land. Only a person cultivating land personally could hold agricultural land. Moreover, under the 1961 Act a person or a family of four could own only ten units (around 55 hectares). The former law had provisions to penalize those falsely claiming eligibility to hold agricultural land. The Act also barred transfer of agricultural land to non-agriculturist or had tenancy of land as per the ceiling or to someone who is not an agricultural labourer. All these stand repealed under the new Ordinance. Furthermore the amendments apply retrospectively. This means that those who violated the land ceilings in past years (with cases pending in the courts) will have cases against them withdrawn. Significantly, there were over 83,000 such cases pending in the courts. Even in the past, cases of violations were very pursued listlessly by the Government and only in 11% cases the Government came out successful.
Implications of the amendments are too manifest to be told. The ground is being paved for large deals of agricultural land around cities that attract industries, investments and big time realtors. Who benefits from such deals is a public secret. Lands are registered all across the nation at prices much lower than the real value in order to avoid heavy stamp duty charges. Large amounts of black money exchanges hands. Politicians make huge cuts from such deals to line their pockets by appointing pliant officers as sub-registrars. The land deals thus generate huge black money which enables those in power to entrench themselves into offices.
The opposition to Ordinance is bound to gather force once restriction on gathering of people will be withdrawn or relaxed. Leader of the Opposition Siddramaiah has asked the Government to withdraw the Ordinance as it is anti-farmer and rolls back the revolutionary reforms brought about by the 1961 and 1979 Acts.
M.A. Siraj is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru