The recent proposal to amend Karnataka’s land reform Act and the debates around it require us to assess the previous Act and what the implications are of the proposed one. Promulgated at a time of significant attempts to address the widespread distress in the countryside, the Karnataka Land Reforms Act of 1961, and subsequent amendments especially in 1974, sought to protect the land of small and marginal farmers and the agricultural economy as a whole by preventing predatory capital, especially industrial, urban capital, from expropriating land and also pauperising the peasantry. The results have been mixed; while the structure of agricultural land holding has not been significantly dented, widespread dispossession of land and displacement of small and marginal landholders have not taken place. But there have been several other negative fallouts and distortions that the Act and the subsequent amendments have created. Primary among these is the fact that the ineligibility of all non-agriculturists to purchase agricultural land has created not only a bureaucratic trap but has enhanced the range of corruption related to land dealings. The state, and in reality the different political players, have used this blockage to create new rules and processes that bypass such regulation. The processes under which land is acquired and then allocated to industries, institutes, and persons etc have all become sources and strategies to strengthen crony capitalism and corrupt the government and elected representatives. As a result, the state has lost revenue and the real beneficiaries have been big political players, crony capitalists, real estate magnates, a land mafia, and fly by night entrepreneurs. Genuine buyers, especially those from urban and non-agricultural backgrounds, have had to go through a bureaucratic maze and unsavoury middle men to access land or in many cases have had to put to rest their dreams of being in agriculture or accessing land for other productive purposes. Worse yet, the farming community itself has suffered from the poor implementation, legal distortions, and bureaucratic burdens of the Act. Genuine farmers have not been able to expand their holdings to an optimum size, small holders have not been sell land to ‘out-siders’, and a mangled land market has resulted in benefiting middle persons and agents. Take for instance the way in which small holders, who are unable to cultivate their own land due to financial and or personal constraints, have been forced to enter into ‘lease farming’. As lease holders they have submitted their land to larger farmers or entrepreneurial cultivators who then use their land for limited periods while undertaking extractive agriculture on these plots. The result has been that this is a reversed tenancy with capitalists as tenants and the owners rendered into becoming coolies on their own land. The ecological devastation on these lands, seen primarily in the leased plots in which turmeric, ginger, bananas and a range of vegetables are grow is only one glaring example. Issues and trends such as these are not addressed and instead the focus seems to be on only facilitating a land market primarily for big capitalists and questionable entrepreneurs.
That the Act has created more tensions than protected the interests of agriculturists is visible in the fact that a large volume of legal cases are now pending in the courts and many citizens have become victims of the endless legal quagmire. Hence, there is a need to revisit this Act and to consider ways in which the interests of the most marginalised sections of agricultural society, the need to support the rural economy, and assure food security, and the need for justifiable and economically viable land access to non-rural citizens can be undertaken.
There is need for us to recognise that the agricultural economy itself has been in retrogression since several years and the impacts of climate change, marked by widespread droughts and periodic floods, have devastated vast stretches of the state’s hinterland. Added to this must be concerns related to what the C-19 pandemic, and the economic and social fallout of the lockdown flag as urgent issues. For one, the outbreak of the pandemic and the past recurring epidemics indicate that human despoliation of natural resources and big factory food production are the reasons for the start and spread of such viruses. As research has consistently indicated, small-scale and diversity-based production systems mean that small farmers are the real stewards of biodiversity and of food production. Given these facts, it is important that legislative measures seek to promote policies and programmes that address these issues and not promote the use of land as primarily a commodity for big, industrialised, capitalist production.
The recently proposed amendment to Karnataka’s land reform Act that seeks to make land available to all, in terms of facilitating new economies and opportunities, is myopic and misleading. It overlooks the extent to which land markets are susceptible to speculation and the extent to which big capital can override the long-term interests of small-holders. Instead of this free-for-all policy which will only result in further pauperisation of rural small-holders, it is important that the government formulate policies that are based on parameters and norms that discourage a speculative land economy but which can offer the possibility of land ownership to genuine persons (from any sector or background) who meet economic, ecological and social criteria. Missing in the proposed amendment are any mention of such criteria and instead simplistic and blanket assertions of catching up with new types of production, catering to the needs of the IT and BT sector persons, etc have been made.
The amendment itself needs to prioritise the types of new rural-urban and agro-home/cottage/co-operative production systems that need to come into being and which challenge the existing sharp divides between them. Despite the potential that co-operatives and farmer producer organisations have in addressing the problems faced by the majority of small and marginal farmers, new land policies seek to only promote the interests of big capital. In addition, no mention is made about protecting forests and biodiversity rich zones, promoting agriculture that is based on agro-climatic zones and which can be both climate resilient and market sensible, or enabling new production units that respect labour.
In this context of seeking alternative and integrated policies and programmes, we must realise that our current political dispensation is incapable of representing the interests of people. For long now politicians have built their own political and capital empires by twisting the limitations of agricultural and land policies to their interests. Most farmer organisations have also been myopic and they have not gone beyond making demands for moratorium on loans, free electricity, and subsidies for agricultural inputs. Hence it is time for people; for farmers, civil society members, and active citizens to come together to forge an alternative perspective that can facilitate appropriate policy and programmes to support the long-term interests of a majority of people. At this historical moment when the impact of C-19 requires us to rethink all dominant forms of economic structures, models and ideas, it is important that we seek alternatives which address widespread and intense problems of extreme economic inequalities, ecological risks, and health threats. It is time for us to recognise and assert that land is not merely a commodity, and that its usage and our relationship to it must assure us all social justice, ecological sustainability and economic stability.
A.R.Vasavi is a Social Anthropologist.