Policies related to land that have been tried in different countries in various forms are of two broad kinds: (a) redistributive reforms whereby a ceiling on the ownership of land is imposed by legislation and the surplus land thus obtained by the state is redistributed amongst the landless and the marginal farmers; and (b) tenancy reforms which usually take the form of fixation of maximum rent, prohibition of resumption of land and guarantee of security of tenure. If one leaves aside the socialist countries and the thoroughgoing land reforms carried out in some East Asian countries (e.g., Japan and the Republic of Korea), examples of unsuccessful land reforms (of both the varieties mentioned above) abound so much in development literature1 that there is hardly any justification for undertaking another full-fledged review of the Asian experience with land reforms. Some examples may nevertheless be worth citing.
The Indian experience has been summed up by Srinivasan thus: ‘The sad history of land reforms in this country has been well documented... except for a set of ceiling legislations passed by some states nothing of significance has happened. Predictably, the implementation of ceiling legislations has yet to result in any significant amount of surplus land becoming available for redistribution. This together with the fact that available data on concentration of ownership invariably show reduction in concentration indicates that, apart from subdivisions of family holding arising out of normal demographic factors, benami transfers, specifically to evade ceiling legislation, have been successfully concluded’.2 The Planning Commission of the country also conceded in its Draft Fifth Five Year Plan: ‘the results achieved have been meagre due to the high ceiling level, large number of exemptions from the law, malafide transfers and partitions, and poor implementation. So far only about one million hectares of land has been declared surplus and about 0.53 million hectares of land has been distributed to landless agricultural workers and smallholders’.3 Regarding tenancy reform also, the same document admitted: ‘... the objectives of tenancy reform still remain to be attained’.4
In Nepal when the Lands Act of 1964 (which is still known to be the most comprehensive land reform programme in that country) was promulgated, only 66,380 ha. (i.e., 3 per cent of the total cultivated area) were found to be above the ceilings that were imposed, although initial estimates showed this to be as high as 600,000 ha. Ultimately, area appropriated was only 33,823 ha. and the area redistributed was even lower at 23,588 ha. (a little more than 1 per cent of the cultivated areas).5
The impact of rent-regulatory measures that were adopted was at best inconclusive. While one study1 shows that the position of tenants deteriorated after the promulgation of rent regulation act, another2 reports that about 60 per cent of the tenants in various districts said that their economic condition improved following the regulation of rent.
In Bangladesh the first attempt at land reform was made immediately after the liberation of the country in 1971.3 The land reform measures introduced in 1972 included the imposition of a ceiling of 33.3 acres per family on agricultural land and the acquisition of surplus land in excess of this ceiling. The inefficiency (or the lack of willingness) that surrounded the implementation of this ceiling is indicated by the fact that there was no firm estimate of the surplus land that would be available. While government statements ranged from 0.8 million to 1.2 million acres, one estimate based on the 1960 census data put the figure as low as 0.4 million acres.4 However, the land ultimately obtained was only 58,409 acres (which is less 15 per cent of the lowest of the above estimates of surplus land); and in four years after the promulgation of the ordinance, the amount that was officially taken possession of was only 31,250 acres. Moreover, the quality of land surrendered was found to be extremely poor (consisting mainly of ditches, marshes, waste land, etc.), and when good land was surrendered, it was generally scattered in bits.
In Pakistan the land reforms of 1959 succeeded in acquiring a surplus land of only 2.53 million acres, representing about 4% of the then cultivated land.5 One evaluation found that as much 0.93 million acres of the acquired land consisted of ‘uncultivated land, hills and riverbeds’.6 In the case of the more recent reforms of 1972, the amount of land resumed was only 1.83 million acres - a little more than half the land acquired during the previous reform.
In Indonesia, some interest in land reforms was observed during 1960-65.1 But the ceiling fixed for Java (a very densely populated island) was 17 times the average farm size; and only 6 per cent of farm land was found to be potential excess land. By 1966, 0.7 million ha. of land was distributed among less than 5 per cent of rural households. Moreover, only a small part (17 per cent)) of this land came from excess land of large farmers or land owned by absentee landowners; and the rest was taken from state-controlled land and former plantations.2 An earlier attempt (in 1959) at tenancy reform (aimed at regulating rent and registering contracts) was also not implemented.
The story of Sri Lanka is also similar in this regard. A high ceiling compared to average farm size, very slow progress in the redistribution of acquired land, small size of allotments and the inferior quality of the land available for redistribution characterised the attempts at redistributive land reform in the seventies. The success in tenancy reforms which started in the fifties was also limited. Large-scale eviction of tenants, continuation of high rents and unregistered tenancies point to the ineffectiveness of legislations.3
In the Philippines, the really serious attempt at land reform was made in 1972.4 However, since it was a tenancy reform, it excluded the landless. Moreover, the coverage of the reform was limited to land under rice and corn - implying that over 3 million hectares of land under other crops (constituting about half the land under crops in 1971) were excluded from the reforms.5 On top of all these, implementation of the reforms slackened after an initial burst of fast action during the first couple of years - mainly due to government’s indecision and opposition from landlords.6
It is thus evident that the history of land reforms in most Asian countries is characterised by high ceilings compared to average farm size, lack of will as well as the administrative machinery of the governments for implementing even such soft reforms, and opposition from landlords. The result has been a very little redistribution of land among the landless and the land-poor and a meagre impact on the condition of living of the rural poor. Attempts at tenancy reform have also faced a number of problems regarding implementation, and consequently contributed very little towards improving the levels of productivity and income of the tenant farmers.
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