Indian Land Rights: a History

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Before British rule there was no formal individual ownership of land in India. However, during the two centuries of British rule (1757–1947), India’s traditional land ownership and land use patterns were changed with the introduction of the concept of “private property”.

Land ownership systems

Various land ownership and transfer systems were introduced by the British:

  • The ‘zamindari’ system prevailed in most of northern India whereby feudal lords (zamidars) became owners of large tracts of land. They had to pay fixed revenue payments to the government and so peasants became tenant farmers and had to pay rent on the land they farmed.
  • The ‘ryotwari’ system was followed in south and west parts of India. Individual cultivators (ryots or raiyats) were proprietors of land against revenue payments. They had rights to sub-let, mortgage and transfer land.
  • The ‘mahalwari system’ was a third system whereby entire villages had to pay revenue, with farmers contributing their share in proportion to their holdings.
  • The Indian Forest Act was passed in 1920, making all forest land government-owned. This de-legitimised the traditional community ownership systems in adivasi (tribal) societies.

Land distribution under these systems became extremely unequal - rural society was polarised: landlords and rich peasants versus tenants and agricultural labourers. By the time of Independence in 1947, about 40% of India’s rural population was working as landless agricultural labour.

Post-independence land reforms

In the lead up to Independence, Indian leaders promised landless and marginalised farmers that once the British left the country, there would be equal distribution of land.

India has indeed brought in many land reform legislations including:

  • Articles 23, 38 and 39 under the Indian Constitution – these Articles allow states to make their own Zamindari Abolition Acts, abolish Begari (free labour) and redistribute land and community resources (such as ponds, lakes and forests).
  • The Agricultural Land Ceiling Act - these state-wise Acts limit the maximum area that one landholder can own to minimise inequality in land ownership. All surplus land should be distributed among landless and marginal farmers.
  • The Forest Rights Act (2006) – this Act overrides the 1920 Indian Forest Act, allowing tribal communities and forest dwellers to apply for the rights to forest land that they have been living on and using for generations.

However, this legislation has not led to substantial progress towards equitable land distribution. Most landowners still belong to the upper castes, cultivators to the middle castes and agricultural labourers to the dalit and adivasi (tribal) socially excluded groups.

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