Taking another look at land reform

October 17, 2008 at 11:57 pm Leave a comment

Taking another look at land reform




The Britannica Concise Encyclopedia states that the most common political objective of land reform is to abolish feudal or colonial forms of landownership, often by taking land away from large landowners and redistributing it to landless peasants. Other goals include improving the social status of peasants and coordinating agricultural production with industrialization programmes.Land reform has become the main agenda in Nepal since 1960 when King Mahendra ousted the elected government and banned the multi-party political system to impose his own “panchayati raj”. In order to legitimize and justify his move, King Mahendra made land reform the main tool for strengthening and sustaining the panchayat system.

Despite the hidden political motive, some remarkable acts were introduced and enforced. Among them was the abolition of traditional land management systems such as birta, kipat, guthi and so forth under which the ownership of land was limited to an individual or a small group of individuals. Consequently, the traditional land tenure system has been partially abolished resulting in land under different management systems being converted to raiker, which grants equal access to land to all the citizens of the country.

In addition, various laws have been enforced to abolish such authoritarian ownership of land, and to fix a ceiling on the amount of land that an individual or a family is permitted to hold and provide tenancy rights to tenants.

The objectives of land reform were clear, revolutionary and effectively implemented in the beginning. The programme also launched a compulsory saving scheme to generate necessary funds for investment by requiring every household to save a certain amount of money every year. It was a progressive step towards mobilizing domestic resources which formed the basis of investment funds at the grassroots level.

However, people began to hide their property and transfer ownership of excess land to their relatives. As a consequence, there was no expected surplus land to be redistributed among the landless and marginal farmers. In essence, it can be said that the land reform programme failed due to lack of regulation and proper supervision. The policy makers and executors were not committed to implementing it because of their feudal character. Some critics at that time remarked that the programme did not benefit poor and marginal farmers but asserted the rights of landlords instead.

After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the then major political parties, particularly the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML), made land reform their main agenda as a means to gain political popularity. They formed high-level commissions one after another to shape and implement land reform, like the one formed by the CPN-UML in 1996. However, the people hardly heard anything about the outcomes of these commissions.

Similarly, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) has made a political agenda to implement revolutionary land reform right from the beginning of the so-called people’s war aiming to abolish the feudal land tenure system. Among other things, the political slogan of land reform has played a vital role in bringing the CPN-Maoist to power and providing it an opportunity to fulfill their commitments. Land reform has become a multifaceted task due to the dramatic increase in population over the last six decades. This has further strengthened the case for implementation of the agenda as there is no alternative considering that the pattern of land holding is extremely skewed.

Fixing an upper limit on the amount of land that an individual or family can hold cannot be done arbitrarily, and requires thorough research. Fertility, production and productivity, prices and size should be taken into consideration. The present land distribution pattern is very lopsided although the intensity of land fragmentation is on the rise. Experience proves that fragmentation weakens the fertility of land. What this country needs is a land redistribution policy that prevents land from being fragmented, and at the same time, guarantees the individual’s right to land.




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