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Land Reforms In Kerala

During the colonial period, there were certain important changes introduced in the socioeconomic structure of the Malayali society. Land tax began to be collected on a systematic manner and that too in cash. In order to enable the people to pay tax in cash, they had to be encouraged to acquire capital. For this, permanent ownership rights over land were created. The Pandara Pattam Proclamation of 1865 in Travancore and the Settlement Proclamation of 1905 in Cochi granted permanent ownership rights to tenants who held land directly from the state. In Malabar, the Janmis or landlords were declared as the real owners of land by the colonial government.


The two distinct aspects of the socioeconomic history of Kerala during the colonial period were the ever-increasing monetization of the economy and the popularization of commercial cultivation. The colonial government and their dependent native governments of Travancore and Cochin had abolished the system of payment of tax in kind. Hence the cultivators were compelled to sell their products in the markets to remit the taxes in cash. The change over to commercial crops and high priced food grains due to tax pressure meant a shift from the traditional cultivation of food crops for local consumption. Commercialization of agricultural production was thus a process forced on the cultivators.


Commercialization led to the introduction of market economy and monetization of the exchanges. Another major trend emerged was the increasing dependence of cultivators on money lenders. Cash crops usually required higher inputs and therefore more credits. In the absence of proper credit facilities from the part of the government, the cultivators were often thrown on to the mercy of the money lenders.


Land reforms had been accorded an important place in the Indian economic development agenda ever since independence. The abolition of intermediaries, the reform of tenancy, and the imposition of ceilings on the ownership of landholdings were the major objectives of land reforms as envisaged by the Planning Commission.


Even before the formation of the linguistic state of Kerala, there were administrative efforts to introduce land reforms. In Malabar, an Amendment to the Malabar Tenancy Act was introduced in 1951 which gave many protections to the tenants and small cultivators. Fair rent payable by the tenants to the landlords was substantially reduced. The tenants were also freed from the liability to pay advanced rent. Rent settlement authority was established for the fixation of fair rent. In 1954, the government of Madras brought in another amendment to the Tenancy Act by which protection from eviction was granted to all cultivating tenants occupying a piece of land for a period of six years or more.


In the united state of Travancore-Cochin, ‘Travancore-Cochin Prevention of Eviction of Kudikidappukars Act’ was passed in 1955. It aimed at the prevention of eviction of the hutment dwellers (Kudikidappukar) and other small tenants from the land they held. In 1954, the government of Travancore-Cochin introduced ‘Restriction on Possession and Ownership of Land Bill’ in the legislature. It aimed at limiting the total area of land that a person could have held to a maximum of 30 acres. However, due to political instability, this bill could not become an act.


The linguistic state of Kerala was formed in 1956 and elections were held in the next year. The Communist Party of India with the support of a few independents formed the government. On 11th April 1957, the government promulgated an ordinance prohibiting the eviction of all kinds of tenants and hutment dwellers from their holdings. In December 1957, the government introduced the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill in the Legislative Assembly.


The Bill conferred fixity of tenure to all classes of tenants. The definition of tenant was broadened to incorporate crop sharing, all prevailing tenures and persons carrying on fugitive cultivation. Another provision of the Bill was related with the fixation of fair rent. The Bill fixed the minimum and maximum rent in respect of different classes of land. It empowered the government to fix the actual rates of rent for different localities by taking account of the various factors including the yielding capacity of land. In regard to each category of land, the rent would be settled by the Land Tribunal. The Bill also provided for the scaling down of arrears of rent which accrued due before April 11 1957.


Another notable feature of the Bill was that the tenants in possession of holdings were given the right to purchase proprietary rights from the landlords on the payment of a compensation or purchase price. To tackle the problem of unequal distribution and excessive accumulation of land, ceiling limits for families were fixed. The Bill fixed 15 acres of double crop Nilam (paddy field) or its equivalent as the ceiling area for a family consisting of five members. In case there were more members, every additional member could get an extra acre subject to a maximum of 25 acres. The ceiling limit of an unmarried adult was fixed as seven and half acres. All plantations were exempted from ceiling provisions. The landed property of factories, mills, workshops, private forests, commercial sites etc. had been left out of the ambit of the ceiling provisions.


The land in excess of the ceiling area was to be surrendered to the Land Board. Land held by the Land Board is to be distributed by assignment after reserving land necessary for public purposes. Kudikidappukar would get high priority in the distribution. There was provision for the constitution of Land Tribunal for the implementation of the legislation. The Land Tribunal consisted of one presiding officer nominated by the government from among advocates or judicial officers and two members elected by the local authorities of the concerned areas. The Land Board had jurisdiction over the entire state. Whereas land assignment was its main function, it controlled the Land Tribunal settlements and distribution of compensation.


The Assembly decided to circulate the Bill for eliciting public opinion and subsequently it was referred to the Select Committee. But the landlords and similar vested interest groups opposed the Bill tooth and nail. The Bill was passed on 11th June 1959 and the liberation struggle against the government began on the 12th June. In July 1959, the President of India took over the administration of the state under section 356 of the Constitution. The President returned the Agrarian Relations Bill for modifications. In the meanwhile, the general election of February 1960 brought the anti-Communist coalition to power and the new government passed the Kerala Agrarian Relations Act in the same year. The Act was the first united legislation which embodied the broad principles of land reforms as laid down in the five year plans. But several provisions of the act were struck down by the courts. So a fresh legislation was introduced and passed as the Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1963.


This Act retained most of the provisions of the Agrarian Relations Act, but with certain modifications. The definition of small land holders was slightly widened. The Act gave fixity of tenure to tenants, giving at the same time a limited right of resumption to landlords. It prescribed uniform rates of rent. There was also provision for the imposition of ceiling on holdings. A uniform extend of 12 standard acres has been prescribed as the ceiling limit for a family of five members. The maximum area for a family consisting of more than five members was fixed at 20 acres. However, the working of the Act brought on many fresh cases of eviction. The powers of resumption given to the small land holders proved to be disadvantageous to certain categories of tenants. Even certain decisions arrived at by the Land Tribunals uphold the instances of eviction. In this backdrop, more specific provisions appeared to be necessary to ensure protection for all categories of tenants. So, when the United Front Ministry came to power in 1967, they enacted the Kerala Stay of Eviction Proceedings Act 1967. This Act stayed the eviction of all types of occupants of land.


The Kerala Land Reforms Amendment Act 1969 was considered to be the most comprehensive of all pieces of land legislations. It abolished landlordism once and for all. It conferred full ownership rights on the actual tillers of the soil. This act extended the definition of tenant in such a manner as to make it difficult to evict a person in occupation of land.


The ceiling provision in the Land Reforms Act did not generate expected surplus land for distribution. The expected surplus land in 1959 was about 7,20,000 hectares. But the extend of land ordered for surrendered was only 67,000 hectares in 1988. Several land owners with large tracts of land above the ceiling successfully circumvented ceiling limit by creating bogus tenancies. The exemption given to plantations had led to large scale conversion of land into plantations.


The tribals engaged in shifting cultivation under oral tenancies were given no protection. But the encroachment of their land by the non-tribals and their legitimization of such encroachments uprooted the tribals and led to deforestation. As far as agriculture was concerned, land reforms seem to have reinforced the already well- established trend of shift from food crop cultivation to cash crop cultivation. The cost of cultivation of paddy is very high in the state as compared to other states in India. There may be several reasons for such a plight. The high price of manure, lack of irrigation facilities and drainages, hike in the real wages of agricultural labourers, the organization of labour on trade union lines and declining labour efficiency forced cultivators to shift to cash crop cultivation. This in turn led to the under employment and unemployment of the aged agricultural labourers in the villages.

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