Five decades after Bimal Roy in Do Bigha Zamin portrayed the plight of a farmer, who was forced to sell his land, there hasn’t been much progress in identifying illegal land holdings and ensuring its distribution among the landless rural poor. Ownership patterns remain skewed: the top 20 per cent holds more than 60 per cent of the land, while the lower 20 per cent has less than 5 per cent. Last week, the government got an angry wake-up call: 25,000 people marched from Bhopal to New Delhi to share their stories of dispossession. Their stories were near-similar: lands illegally taken over by landlords or the land mafia, displacement due to industrial projects, urbanisation and policies denying them access to traditional sources of livelihood, such as forest produce or fishing rights. Janadesh 2007, as the march was called, demanded framing and implementation of policies on resolution of land and livelihood issues as a means of alleviating poverty, reducing forced migration and preventing starvation in rural areas — all key to the inclusive growth promised by the UPA.
What the participants of Janadesh said is well-documented in government reports also. The Planning Commission says the government has had limited success in changing the ownership pattern of cultivable land. Another report for the Eleventh Five Year Plan says that economic liberalisation has pushed land reform off the government agenda. It also points out that there is a strong lobby working to enhance or give up land ceilings. The anger against this disparity has been visible: in West Bengal, portrayed by the Left as an example of successful land reforms, second-generation reorganisation has not happened. Singur was the face of that discontent. In July, police in Andhra Pradesh had to open fire on protesters demanding land reform and redistribution. Recently, the Supreme Court has made a distinction between land acquired by the government for public purposes and land acquired for a private enterprise, stating that a land acquisition notification cannot state both reasons simultaneously.
There is no doubt that the government has what is known as the ‘permanent sovereignty’ over ‘natural resources’, which empowers the State to take property for public use without the owner’s consent. But the State cannot make this an absolute right, especially when its idea of compensation leaves much to be desired. Since ownership of land will always remain the central point, the government would do well to establish a National Land Commission to formulate land policies, provide direction to states and monitor progress on land distribution. With industrialisation on at a frenetic pace, it will be worthwhile to set up a time-bound legal mechanism to settle conflicts involving land rehabilitation and related compensation.