India’s landless poor: Amid rising rural poverty and lower access to land, empowering this group must be priority

Landlessness is increasingly becoming endemic in India’s rural belt, as over 56 percent of the rural population has no landholdings. For decades, there has hardly been any attempt to bring in land reforms in India, even as this critical index affects income, social security, health and education, among other factors that impact households. This two-part series attempts to study the gravity of the situation and suggest ways to address it.

The farmers may have lifted their seize and gone away but a 25,000-strong group of landless poor are marching towards Delhi from Gwalior with their own set of demands: a national land reform policy, implementation of the Forest Rights Act and right to agricultural land, among others.

The word ‘landless’ conjures up the black and white images of a breathless Balraj Sahni running furiously on the streets of Kolkata as he pulls his cart carrying a young man goading him to run faster and faster to catch up with his love interest. The end is tragic, both in the scene when one of the wheels gives in and at the end of the movie when he and his family bid adieu and walk away from their land, Do Bigha Zamin – having lost it to the zamindar and where a mill is coming up.

Representational image. Reuters.

It was a classic Bimal Roy film on landlessness in contemporary India (released in 1953) but one would be forgiven for thinking that it was about a medieval reality, aeons away from today’s India.

But the truth is quite the contrary.

In 1951, the ‘landless agriculture labour’ numbered just 27.3 million which went up to 144.3 million (or 14.4 crore) in 2011. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, which acknowledged and counted landlessness is a major indicator of poverty, put the ‘households with no land’ at 56.41 percent of total rural households or 101 million households. With a mean household size of 4.9 in rural India (as per the 2011 Census), the number of landless comes to 494.9 million (or 49.49 crore).

Shocking! Well, the landless are the new invisibles of our market-driven economy, or market consciousness if you please.

It took quite some time for the enormity of the issue to hit home in the liberalised era. In 2009, the rural development ministry’s Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reforms pointed out that landlessness had witnessed a phenomenal rise from about 40 percent in 1991 to about 52 percent in 2004-5. It explained why: “While all the enhanced landlessness cannot be attributed to the liberalisation process alone the non-agricultural demands placed on land on account of industrialisation, infrastructural development, urbanisation and migration of the urban rich in the rural areas have certainly contributed to the process.”

It also explained why landlessness has gone out of economic consciousness: “The post-liberalisation era has been marked by a debate. There is the view that the possibilities of Land Reforms have exhausted and future growth is only to come from private investment in the rural areas. The protective legislation act as an inhibiting factor to this investment. Accordingly many States are proceeded to revise their legislation. Even within the Government there was the view that distributive justice programmes have been overtaken by development paradigm.”

It is useful to remember that this committee was set up when the Maoist violence was at its peak with 220 districts (one-third of the total) declared as ‘Maoist-affected’ by the then Planning Commission of India.

There is no official assessment of how many became landless because of all the factors listed above but the report quoted eminent sociologist Walter Fernandes’ study to peg the figure of people disposed of their land at 60 million during the period of 1947 to 2004, involving 25 million ha of land. The report particularly referred to the alienation of tribal land as “the biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus” in which the state was held complicit. It considered alienation of land and other critical natural resources to be at the root of the social unrest and violence in the Maoist-affected areas.

The NSSO data shows that the average landholding (including landless) in rural India has gone down from 1.53 ha in 1971-72 to 0.59 ha in 2013 — it halved between 1992 and 2013 — and 92.8 percent of rural households own less than 2 ha each. It also reflects another disturbing phenomenon — marginalisation of rural landholdings. The larger landholdings of 1 to 10 ha or more are gradually shrinking since 1971-72 with more and more households falling into the marginal category (0.002- 1 ha).

How does landlessness, or marginalisation of landholding, matter?

The 2013 draft National Land Reform Policy provides the answer: “Landlessness is a strong indicator of rural poverty in the country. Land is the most valuable, imperishable possession from which people derive their economic independence, social status and a modest and permanent means of livelihood. But in addition to that, land also assures them of identity and dignity and creates condition and opportunities for realizing social equality. Assured possession and equitable distribution of land is a lasting source for peace and prosperity and will pave way for economic and social justice in India.”

The landless are, in fact, the “poorest of the poor” — according to the Government of India’s own admission, for whom, among others, it launched an insurance policy, Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana (AABY), in 2007.

Here are some more sobering facts. The 2018 UNDP-OPHI report, Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which hailed India for reducing poverty in the last one decade, also said that India “still has the largest number of people living with multidimensional poverty in the world (364 million)” – which is “higher than the combined populations of the most populous Western European countries, including Germany, France, UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium”. Of the 364 million MPI poor, 113 million — or 8.6 percent of India’s population — live in “severe poverty”.

Surely, the landless fall within the MPI poor and deserve serious attention of the Delhi’s mandarins.

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