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India : Reviving Land Reforms ?

Land distribution occurs today via three main mechanisms, which differ in their emphasis on market transactions, state appropriations, and grassroots mobilizations: the market, state, and civil society. Grassroots mobilization to demand access to land has been a key factor behind most if not all land distribution programs.

There is a growing literature on the transnational peasant movement TPM , but much of it is laudatory and descriptive, focusing on the formation of various movements and campaigns. Comparative work is needed to elucidate general trends and retain sensitivity to local conditions in the future. Furthermore, the literature on land reform must be interdisciplinary, with attention to economic issues, political factors, social relations including power , and historical particularities. Keywords: landless movements , land reform , property rights , Karl Marx , capitalism , Agrarian Question , land distribution , grassroots mobilization , civil society , transnational peasant movement.

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For questions on access or troubleshooting, please check our FAQs , and if you can't find the answer there, please contact us. In democratic countries, it was seen that governments paid lip service to the recommendations of NGOs while pushing through land legislation favourable to the landed and corporate interests.

In other cases, such as Nepal, we observed small but effective initiatives such as the CSRC, a movement where the social and economic roles have been fundamentally altered and formerly subjugated people are now empowered. However, to replicate this experience within Nepal and the world requires sweeping changes in larger economic policy and intense pressure on state mechanisms.

The pressures of external agencies such as the World Bank on the agricultural policies of postcolonial nations also need to be read critically.

The Case for Land Reform, 1st Edition

On the one hand, the implementation of market-led land reforms has deepened poverty and inequality internally and on the other side, multilateral loans have buried South Africa in a cycle of debt. State-enforced collectivization may often run into difficulties because of the loss of incentives on the part of the peasantry.

It failed to take cognizance of the character of land as a living unit rather than a production unit. Any effort at land reforms, therefore, should follow a bottom-up approach, at least in policy formulation and implementation design at various stages. The experience of countries such as Japan proves beyond doubt the economic viability of small farms, indicating that economies of scale are not an issue in agriculture.

Wherever land reforms succeeded in redistributing a significant proportion of quality land to a majority of the rural poor, and when the power of rural elites to distort and capture policies was broken, the results have invariably been real, measurable poverty reduction and improvement in human welfare. An unambiguous political direction combined with an elaborate structural intervention result in significant victories for land rights.

Operation Barga, in West Bengal in India is a clear example of this. Here administrative officers recorded the rights of tenants while party workers from state government supported the tenants in mobilizing and claiming their right to land.

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Clearly, the lesson is that peasant mobilizations can influence and transform the economic regime when supported by broader networks and mechanisms. Women sustain rural households through unpaid labour both within and outside the home, yet in most third world countries, they are far more impoverished than men.

The lack of land and the inability to draw on its related resources prevents women from breaking the cycle of poverty. The enormous benefits of winning land rights for women are shown in improved family structures, better nutrition and rising incomes in rural households. The gap between policymaking and implementation continues to debilitate possibilities of effective land reform. Thus, successful transformation of an inequitable agrarian structure warrants not only a pro-active state whose policy orientation derives from the needs and welfare of the masses, but also a peasantry which is not only conscious of its needs and interests, but is ready to seek them pro-actively.

Mobilizations and movements have the power to impact political processes, which ultimately lead to policy transformation. Clearly, what is at stake is a model of development that is inclusive, rather than exclusive. The varied examples here prove land as a fundamental basis for citizenship.


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Internationally, strong social justice movements have been the impetus and motivation behind changes of overarching economic policies, and have inevitably encountered resistance from those in power. Both the state and international agencies have to come to terms with the fact that their policies will fail to survive if they continue to benefit the few at the expense of the majority. Land reform also agrarian reform , though that can have a broader meaning involves the changing of laws, regulations or customs regarding land ownership.

Land reform can, therefore, refer to transfer of ownership from the more powerful to the less powerful, such as from a relatively small number of wealthy or noble owners with extensive land holdings e. Land reform may also entail the transfer of land from individual ownership—even peasant ownership in smallholdings —to government-owned collective farms; it has also, in other times and places, referred to the exact opposite: division of government-owned collective farms into smallholdings.

Thus, while land reform may be radical in nature, such as through large-scale transfers of land from one group to another, it can also be less dramatic, such as regulatory reforms aimed at improving land administration. Nonetheless, any revision or reform of a country's land laws can still be an intensely political process, as reforming land policies serves to change relationships within and between communities, as well as between communities and the state. Thus even small-scale land reforms and legal modifications may be subject to intense debate or conflict.

Land ownership and tenure can be perceived as controversial in part because ideas defining what it means to access or control land, such as through "land ownership" or "land tenure", can vary considerably across regions and even within countries. Western conceptions of land have evolved over the past several centuries to place greater emphasis on individual land ownership, formalized through documents such as land titles.

Different people in a family or community had different rights to access this land for different purposes and at different times.

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Such rights were often conveyed through oral history and not formally documented. These different ideas of land ownership and tenure are sometimes referred to using different terminology. For example, "formal" or "statutory" land systems refer to ideas of land control more closely affiliated with individual land ownership.

Terms dictating control over and use of land can therefore take many forms.

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Some specific examples of present-day or historic forms of formal and informal land ownership include:. Land reform is a deeply political process [13] and therefore many arguments for and against it have emerged. These arguments vary tremendously over time and place. For example, in the twentieth century, many land reforms emerged from a particular political ideology, such as communism or socialism.

Or, as can be seen in the 19th century in colonized states, a colonial government may have changed the laws dictating land ownership to better consolidate political power or to support its colonial economy. Land reforms need not be as dramatic in scale as Zimbabwe. Today many arguments in support of land reform focus on its potential social and economic benefits, particularly in developing countries , that may emerge from reforms focused on greater land formalization. Such benefits may include eradicating food insecurity and alleviating rural poverty.

Arguments in support of such reforms gained particular momentum after the publication of "The Mystery of Capital" by Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto in Without land titles or other formal documentation of their land assets, they are less able to access formal credit.

Political and legal reforms within countries, according to de Soto, will help to include the poor in formal legal and economic systems, increase the poor's ability to access credit and contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction. Many international development organizations and bilateral and multilateral donors, such as the World Bank, have embraced de Soto's ideas, or similar ideas, about the benefits of greater formalized land rights.

Other arguments in support of land reform point to the need to alleviate conflicting land laws, particularly in former colonies, where formal and informal land systems may exist in tension with each other. Also, conflicting formal and informal land laws can also clog a country's legal system, making it prone to corruption. Additional arguments for land reform focus on the potential environmental benefits of reform. For example, if reform leads to greater security of land ownership , through either formal or informal means, then those that use the land will be better stewards of it.

Many of the arguments in support of land reform speak to its potentially positive social and economic outcomes. Yet, as mentioned previously, land reform is an intensely political process. For example, some may fear that they will be disadvantaged or victimized as a result of the reforms. Others may fear that they will lose out in the economic and political power struggles that underlie many land reforms.

Other groups and individuals express concerns about land reforms focused on formalization of property rights.


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