The subject of land reforms seems again to be in the air. Both India and southern Africa have had some land reform programmes following political liberation. I do not intend as such to “compare” the two. The land inequalities within the two regions are well known The pressure on land is, of course, great in India on account of its high population. But I have been curious to see the extent to which (a) a study of how land ceiling laws as conceived in India may have some relevance elsewhere and (b) a study of post-apartheid land restoration laws and procedures may have relevance in India. In the various Indian states, laws began to be passed especially since the 1950s limiting the amount of land an agricultural or rural family could hold.
At this stage, the focus was on protection of tenancy rights. Post-apartheid South Africa I believe also made legal provision for protection of certain tenancy rights.
The land ceiling laws in India really came into their own with another round of land reform laws in the early 1970s. Various land ceilings were fixed depending upon the quality of land. If it was arid land with low productivity, the ceiling (ie maximum holding possible) was higher. If it was fertile land, the ceiling was lower.
Similarly, irrigated land had a lower ceiling, un-irrigated land had a higher ceiling.
This way some land came to be declared surplus and was redistributed among the landless families. The ceilings differed from state to state. There has been some sluggishness in implementation and loopholes in the law have been taken advantage of by vested interests.
In some states like Bihar land reforms of this kind were subverted in various ways by the larger landowners. But, by and large, it helped to have such laws in place rather than not have them at all. On the possibilities of such land distribution in India I did a study some years ago
Of course, devising the proper ceiling is an agronomic art because one has to ensure that the ceiling is not so low as to result in an uneconomic holding even for a single family.
The advantage of the “ceiling” method of land reform is that a balance is struck and no one is completely expropriated.
India too may have much to learn from the land restoration laws and procedures that have operated in post-apartheid South Africa. Tribal-owned or Tribal controlled land in India has progressively been lost by the tribal population on account of several factors ranging from plain acquisition by the state to administrative re-designation of the land so as to not recognise tribal rights.
This problem was studied in great depth by the late India social anthropologist Prof. B K Roy Burman. He once pointed out to me an instance in India’s eastern state of Orissa where usufructuary and other rights over land were lost by tribals on account of an administrative sleight-of-hand by which a bureaucratic order simply defined hillside land with a slope steeper than a certain gradient as being public land rather than tribal land. Such administrative methods are just one of several causes for land deprivation especially among tribal communities in India which have no concept of individual ownership of land. I believe a study of South African tribunals and mechanisms of land restoration may be beneficial to us in India in resolving this problem.