Liberalised land leasing laws fail poor Indian farmers, say activists

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian states are increasingly allowing land to be leased, but campaigners say the move has not helped the rural poor obtain land as promised six decades ago.

Most Indian states ban or restrict leasing of agricultural land to prevent the abusive tenancy arrangements of the past. But more governments are adopting a model leasing law proposed in 2016 by the government think tank Niti Aayog.

States have largely failed to redistribute land in line with laws passed almost 60 years ago, said T. Haque, chairman of Niti Aayog’s land policy unit.

“To improve rural poor’s access to land, the only solution is liberalising land leasing laws,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a conference in New Delhi.

Campaigners disagree, arguing that leasing will not resolve the unequal distribution of land.

“Land leasing will not solve landlessness,” said Ramesh Sharma, of the rights group Ekta Parishad.

“Encouraging leasing instead of redistributing land is a gross failure of the state to understand the needs of the poor and landless.”

By 1962, all Indian states had adopted laws that limited the amount of land an individual or family could own. Surplus land was meant to be redistributed amongst the poor for farming.

Haque noted that only about 5 million acres (2 million hectares) have been redistributed to approximately six million poor farmers.

Sharma said that even when land is redistributed on paper, there is often a long delay before farmers can take possession.

The model Land Leasing Act proposed by Niti Aayog recommends that all lease arrangements be formal to protect the owner’s rights, while also giving tenants access to benefits such as farm credit and insurance.

Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand states now allow leasing, while Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Gujarat are also expected to do so, Haque said.

“It is the only hope for the rural poor,” he said.

Liberalising leasing laws is key to doubling farmers’ incomes by 2022, a flagship policy goal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Haque added.

While more than half India’s population depends on agriculture for a living, land holdings are small and fragmented, and productivity is among the lowest in the world.

About five percent of farmers control nearly a third of farmland, while more than 56 percent of rural households are landless, according to the non-profit IndiaSpend.

Less than a fifth of about 52 million acres of surplus land in the hands of families and individuals has been declared, IndiaSpend estimates.

Over the weekend, protests erupted in Gujarat following the death of an activist who immolated himself over delays in handing land to the Dalit community.