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close this bookKerala: Radical Reform as Development in an Indian State (FF, 1994, 140 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgments
View the document1. Introduction to the 1994 printing
View the document2. The land of coconuts
View the document3. Kerala's achievements
View the document4. Behind Kerala's success
View the document5. Food for all
View the document6. Health
View the document7. Education
View the document8. Land reform
View the document9. Helping workers
View the document10. Overcoming caste
View the document11. Women and the Kerala reforms
View the document12. Lessons from Kerala
View the documentNotes
View the documentNotes to the introduction
View the documentBibliography
View the documentInstitute publications
View the documentAbout the institute

8. Land reform

Most underdeveloped countries are primarily agricultural. The distribution of land ownership is widely regarded as a major factor in the persistent poverty of these countries. Without some kind of land reform, many experts believe little else can change. Indeed, in the last forty years most third world countries have carried out some type of land reform, but it has often aided the rich even more than the poor for whom it was ostensibly intended. This may be the case in much of India as well. By contrast, Kerala's 1969 land reform is considered one of the most radical and most successful in South Asia. It contained four major components: a rice levy on the largest owners, to be collected by the government and redistributed to the poor through the fair price shops; a ceiling on absolute size of land-holdings, with excess land to be redistributed to the landless; the abolition of tenancy, and thus the abolition of rent from the operators to noncultivating landlords; and the abolition of tenancy in house-compound land, and thus the abolition of rents to the landlords who held title to them.92

There is widespread agreement among observers that the rice levy and the ceiling on land-holdings have not been effective. The abolition of tenancy, however, has resulted in massive redistribution of land rights, and therefore, of income, since much income in agrarian societies is derived from the land. Evaluation of these provisions has stymied researchers, however, because land surveys at various times have collected widely different types of information.93 In this report, we focus on the minimum effects of the reform.

Land in Kerala is of two major types: rice or paddy land, and the garden lands around a family's house. Both are important and both were affected by the land reform. We examine agricultural land first and follow with a consideration of the nearly equally important house-compound land.

Redistribution of Rice Land

One of the difficulties in assessing the Kerala land reform is the complexity of the system it attempted to abolish. Ignoring for this discussion the differences among the three preindependence political units that became the state of Kerala in 1956, we can summarize the land system as follows.

At the top was a class of landlords (jenmies) mostly of the Brahmin (Nambudiri) caste who owned end controlled the land but did not cultivate it. Below them was a class of "superior" tenants (kanamdar), who leased land from the jenmies, then subleased part to all of it to yet a third class of "inferior" tenants (verumpatramdar) who were the actual cultivators. The cultivators often employed members of the lowest caste untouchables (Pulayas) who did most of the hard field labor. A great deal of land was also owned by Hindu temples in some villages, but this was rented at a nominal fee to Brahmin landlords, who in effect added it to their already large estates.

Prior to the 1969 abolition of tenancy, the lowest-caste tenants (the verumpattamdar) were in the most difficult position. Despite some British and princely-state legislation intended to protect them in Cochin and Malabar, their leases could usually be terminated by the superior tenants or the jenmies above them. Because of the insecurity of their tenure, they could be compelled to pay exorbitant rents.

To get an idea of the level of exploitation involved in these complex relationships, we can refer to a study from Cochin in the 1940s, in which it was found that cultivator households were paying at least 50 percent and sometimes even above 75 percent of the gross returns to the classes above them. The split between the jenmies and the kanamdars is not reported.94 Data collected by the Communist-led peasants' association in central Kerala in 1948 showed a sample of twenty-four tenant households paying from 60 percent to 94 percent of their gross harvest to the landlords. All but five of these tenants had substantial debts.95

Another way to view the situation is shown in the following statistics gathered just before the 1969 act 8.1 percent of landowning households controlled 44.4 percent of all rented land and 61.8 percent of irrigated rental lands. Landholding inequality among farming households in Kerala in 1971-just before the act was fully implemented-was the third most unequal in India.96

Focusing on one village, a 1971 survey indicated that Brahmincaste landlords totaling 7.6 percent of the households controlled 50 percent of agricultural land while the local temple board (controlled traditionally by the same Brahmin households) held title to another 37 percent of the rice herds. Seven percent of the land was owned by Brahmin households outside the village, leaving only 5 percent of the rice land for members of other castes, representing 3 percent of the sample households.97

A further example of the concentration of wealth and power is provided by the land records of one family that allowed us access to their rental listings, which had been kept for many decades. Data for 1954 showed the family owning nearly sixty acres of rice land and another twenty-eight acres of house-compound land. In 1966 only 2.5 percent of Kerala households owned more than ten acres of land. Although records for earlier periods are difficult to evaluate precisely because of price differences and so on, this nonfarming landlord near the end of the pre-land reform period took a rent of 33 percent of the gross rice harvest, amounting to about half of what remained after the farmer paid production costs. Such data indicate that the abolition of tenancy must have en tailed a major redistribution of income. About 1.5 million families received some land in the Kerala reforms.98

Distribution of House-Compound Land

A unique component of Kerala's land reform was the abolition of a second kind of tenancy. In addition to the rice fields, the same Brahmin landlords also owned the garden sites on which tenants and agricultural laborers built their houses. House-compound land in Kerala is often of great economic value. Bananas, coconuts, cashews, areca nut trees, mangoes, cassava, and other crops are grown there. There is apparently little research on the amount of these rents, but the threat of eviction from these lands was a powerful weapon in the hands of landlords in getting exorbitant rents for the paddy fields. House-compound tenancy yielded large amounts of produce. Although it is not possible to assess precisely the percent paid in rent out of the total garden-land produce, interviews about prior practices with former tenants yielded statements like "fifty strings of bananas," "several bunches of vegetables," and so forth. Since the harvest on garden lands was more or less continuous, as opposed to the paddy fields where harvesting would occur over a concentrated period of a few days, the returns from the garden lands were probably more difficult for landlords to supervise and control. Thus the direct wealth transferred from land to tenant in abolishing tenancy on these lands might have been rather small. In any case, the combined political and economic effects were probably great, because the eviction threat was removed and some additional produce was made available to the former tenant. Furthermore, the tenant now had a more direct stake in maintaining and improving the house-garden site and the house itself.

The end of house-land tenancy thus meant a major shift in power towards the poor, alongwith some improvement in their economic position. The poorest farm workers live on the rockiest and leastproductive garden sites, however, so many gained little direct wealth from this transfer. They lived and continue to live in dark, overcrowded thatch-roof huts with no furniture. They sleep on coconut fiber mats on dirt floors and still have grossly inadequate toilet facilities. The housing program described in chapter 6 has reached many of these households, but thousands remain in living conditions far below what any basic needs concept would require.

Effects of the Land Reform

Kerala's "land to the tiller" land reform is widely regarded as one of the most thorough and well implemented in South Asia. The abolition of tenancy transformed the parasitic landlord class of mostly high-caste Brahmin temple priests and rent recipients into schoolteachers, government administrators, and medium-sized farmers. Although some have suffered, most appear to have adjusted successfully to the loss of their giant estates and now contribute to the development of Kerala's economy. Kerala's land reform also provided compensation to the landlord class. For rice herds, they received sixteen times the fair rent as determined by a government committee. On house-compound land, compensation was set at 25 percent of the market value with half paid to the former landlord by the government and the other half by the new owner-former tenant, spread over twelve yearly installments. Unpaid installments are debts to the government and cannot become grounds for repossession by the landlord.99

At the other end, 1.5 million former tenants became small land owners. Despite gaining the land, they are not uniformly doing well. Many have suffered from the declining price of rice relative to other products. They would like to plant more lucrative crops such as coconuts or rubber. They often do not have the necessary capital to alter their land for this purpose, however, and cannot afford to guess wrong about how long rubber will stay profitable compared to mangoes, or coconuts, or rice. Consequently, the direct economic benefits of the land reform have been more problematic than many would have expected, thus illustrating some of the difficulties of transforming an agrarian society from a feudal-patronage system-however exploitative and unjust-into small-farmer private production when incomes are not rising and prices for agricultural goods are unpredictable. Furthermore, many of the former tenants, now small farmer-owners, find themselves at odds with their farm workers, who were once their allies in land reform struggles. These former tenants now have economic interests opposed to the workers, whose wage gains are their loss. Some have moved their political support away from the left parties and have come to support more conservative representatives in the Kerala Legislative Assembly elections.100

Despite all these dangers and limitations, however, there can be little doubt that land reform has improved the lives of the vast majority of people in Kerala's countryside. For tenants who received rice land, the land is often the source of one-half to all of their basic food needs. Now there is no rent to be paid. Now there is no fear of eviction. For those who received only house-compound land, the threat of that eviction is also lifted, and they have planted a few new coconut and other trees on what is now truly and fully their own property. For those who have also benefited from construction of a new home in the government housing scheme, life-while still below any reasonable standard for the modern world-has improved greatly within the period of just one generation.

Popular Struggles for Land Reform

Kerala's land reform law was passed in 1969, implemented over the next few years, and today has been more or less carried out. This dramatic land act, however, did not come about merely through a vote in the Legislative Assembly. Quite the contrary, it was the outcome of decades of organizing, petition signing, marching, meetings, strikes, battles with police and landlord goon squads, election campaigns, and parliamentary debates. Nearly every form of political activity except armed revolution took place in Kerala's land reform struggles.

In twentieth-century Kerala, no issue drew out the passions of the people as did land and tenancy. The reason is simple land was the major source of wealth. It was the means by which the rich and powerful maintained their control. It was a resource to which the poor looked eagerly and even desperately as their lives deteriorated often to the point of starvation.

The history of land struggles in Kerala is incredibly complex. We shall therefore note only a few of the highlights to illustrate how long and difficult the struggle was and how much courage and determination it required.

Of the three major regions that made up Kerala State at its formation in 1956-Travancore, Cochin, and Malabar-Malabar had the greatest struggles over land rights. In the nineteenth century, British-imposed legal concepts had caused vast deterioration in traditional tenancy conditions for the poorest groups. Frequent rebellions broke out against this deterioration. From 1836 to 1853, for example, more than twenty uprisings are recorded in Malabar, now northern Kerala, in which mostly Muslim tenants attacked mostly high-caste Hindu landlords. Despite the obvious class elements in these uprisings, many British officials chose to see them only in caste and religious terms.

For the next eighty years until the 1930s, these struggles resulted in government commissions, studies, reports, recommendations, and laws, all of which appear to have strengthened the owners rather than the tenants or workers.101 In 1921 a major violent outbreak occurred, the Mapilla, or Muslim, rebellion in which up to 10,000 people were killed and others imprisoned, but the 1930 law that resulted from this rebellion still achieved nothing for the poorest tenants. 102

In 1915 militants formed the Malabar Tenancy Association. By 1933 it had been transformed into the Kerala Karshaka Sangham (KKS), or Kerala Farmers' Association, which allied itself with the increasingly radical elements in the Kerala branch of the Indian National Congress, the umbrella nationalist movement that was struggling for independence. By 1940 the KKS had 30,000 members. In 1938, with the Great Depression ravaging already-impoverished living conditions, KKS units launched a massive series of rallies and jathas, or processions, all over Malabar. These jathas coincided with worker strikes in southern Kerala. Landlords hired thugs and frequently called the police to break up the disturbances, which continued throughout the area into the 1940s. The KKS was banned, but in 1942 militants reorganized it under a new name, the Kerala Kisan Sangham, or Kerala Peasants' Union. Much of the leadership had to operate from underground, and many organizers had by this time joined the newly formed Kerala branch of the Communist party of India (CPI). In 1946 the CPI led an unsuccessful worker uprising just to the south of Malabar in central Kerala. This uprising is known as the Punnapra-Vayalur rebellion, after two villages where it reached its climax.103 Many workers were killed in police and military attacks on their camps, and the party was outlawed. Despite the repression, organizing and protects continued. Many peasants and organizers were killed in prison.104

The turning point came in 1957, when voters of the new state of Kerala elected a Communist party of India (CPI) majority to power in the state Legislative Assembly. By this time, the KKS claimed nearly 190,000 members.

The CPI government included for the first time in Kerala cabinet members who were themselves seasoned militants of the peasant and worker movements. Their electoral charge clearly included the demand for radical land reform, and they set out to meet this charge with a series of four major land reform laws.

Landlords were quick to respond, organizing right-wing demonstrations and appealing to the Indian central government to dismiss the Communist government. They did this despite the fact that Kerala's proposed law was essentially what the Congress party, which governed all of India, had itself said was desirable. In 1959 the Communist government passed the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill which provided major economic relief to tenants. Just three weeks later, the state government was indeed dismissed, and Kerala entered a period of political instability with recurrent presidential rule from New Delhi. The Kerala High Court-declared the Communist land reform law unconstitutional. In 1964 a Congress party ministry passed a greatly watered-down land reform act which one socialist legislator ridiculed as "the Kerala Landlords' Protection Bill."105

Tenants and their allies continued to agitate. In 1967 the United Left Front was voted into power. In 1969 this coalition of Communist and other leftist parties finally enacted the law that has come to be considered Kerala's radical land reform. By this time tenants had become disillusioned with parliamentary processes, and in many areas they took matters into their own hands, planting red flags on their tenancies and claiming the right to farm the land without paying rents to the landlords. Further clashes occurred, but by this point popular pressure had become so great that most political parties supported the land reform. A constitutional device was worked out with the central government in New Delhi allowing the law to circumvent the ever-hostile Kerala courts, which ruled against land reform at every opportunity. Land reform in a compromised form that was less radical than that of 1959 but more radical than that of 1964 finally became law in 1969.106

Throughout the long period from the 1940s on, and particularly in the 1960s, many tenants refused to pay rents. Where radical organizations were most powerful, they were often able to prevent eviction despite landlord goon squads and court actions.

What can we learn from this brief overview of Kerala's land reform history? Land reform, it seems, no matter how apparently just, does not come about simply as a result of enlightened government or elections. Powerful, entrenched forces are prepared to obstruct it legally and physically. Only the organized and activist strength of large numbers of people with dedicated leaders and a willingness to struggle can eventually pry open the political process sufficiently to make such changes. The continuing militancy of Kerala's workers and peasants, observed in frequent demonstrations, strikes, and petition drives, is the major lesson that thousands of Kerala's people have apparently drawn from their land reform victory.