Govt of India Model Act to “help” corporates, seek separation of cultivator from landowner, commodify land

By Pankti Jog*
The Government of India, after failing amend the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013 through ordinances, appears all set to achieve its aim by asking states to adopt a Model Act, and make laws for land leasing which facilitate land privatization, even as benefiting corporates.
India’s top policy making body, Niti Ayog, constituted an experts committee on September 7, 2015, in order to come up with the Model Act for land leasing based on critical reviews of the existing state agriculture tenancy Acts.
The committee consisted of senior officials of land management or revenue department of Andhra Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Maharastra, Rajasthan, Assam, and Meghalaya, as also joint secretary, land resources, Government of India, and agriculture adviser to the Niti Ayog.
As per its terms of reference (ToR), the committee was supposed to examine distinctive features of land system in the erstwhile zamindari, royatwari and mahalwari areas, and suggest amendments, keeping in views the need to legalize and liberalize land leasing for agriculture efficiency, equity, occupational diversification and rapid rural transformation.
The committee submitted its report to the Niti Ayog on March 31, 2016, along with the model legislation named Model Agriculture Land Leasing Act 2016.
The report is silent on many important aspects like methodology of its working, data collections, details of consultations that were supposed to be done with states, whether any comments from any states etc.
The report and the Model Act are principally based on the assumption that there are large chunks of land which are not cultivated, or fallow, and that the main reason for it is the restriction in the current tenancy Acts existing in states. However, the report does not give any details of basis on which the assumption has been made.
It also assumes that there is a need for legalizing and liberalizing the tenancy process. It further assumes that there is inefficiency in the present system of agriculture, and that the tenancy Acts are responsible for this.
The report does give a table showing provisions of tenancy laws in various states, but fails to justify the change needed. It does not mention any study, data, figures, or facts to show that the existing tenancy laws are leading to “inefficiency in agriculture”. Interestingly, the limitations of the existing laws have been analysed from the perspective of how it is limiting the transfer of land, and does not look into the aspect of securing rights of marginalized on land.
What are the provisions of the Model Act and its probable implications? One of the key provisions of Model Act is that an agreement between the land owner and the lease holder should not be registered, and that the tenure, rent, crop share should be mutually decided. It does not answer the questions how a landless marginalized farmer is going to have equal say in deciding terms of lease, rent, and tenure with mutual consensus with the land owner.
The Model Act very clearly and repeatedly insists that the government won’t be having any role in deciding, or regulating, the tenure, rent, and conditions of lease. Also, it specifically says that such an agreement would be signed by the sarpanch of the village.
Another important provision is that, the lease could be given by the land owner and could be taken by a “person”. This also means that any company or legal person would also be allowed to take the land on lease.
Surprisingly, a lease holder is given the right to mortgage the leased out land. There is no control on how many leases could be done at one go. This means that any company could sign agreement with many farmers holding small pieces of land, and then the entire land could be mortgaged with the bank for getting loan. As there is no government role for regulations, there are chances that small farmers might lose their land if the lease holder does not pay its loan amount.
The existing law clearly states that a lease holder cannot get the right of ownership, and if rent is not paid, the right to cultivate or for doing allied activities is also lost. The disputes are to be resolved by the district administration.
If Model Act is read along with Gujarat’s amendments to LARR Act, 2013, that was recently passed by the state assembly, then compensation of any kind would not be given to the tenant.
At the same time, the farmer would lose the right to cultivate if the rent/crop share in terms of produce is not paid on time. And, with no documentary evidence and no registration of the contract, the tenant would not be able to fight the land owner for securing its rights.
The Model Act also overlooks issues of major concerns of food insecurity, shrinking share of grains and millets, and increasing share of cash crops. It should be remembered, India is one of the signatory of the Voluntary Guidelines on Governance of Tenure of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The Model Act is not going to get land to the poor but would promote corporate farming, facilitate consolidation of small land holdings, and slowly push out small-scale farming, treating it as less productive.
Many of the state tenancy laws have been very progressive and have historically contributed in giving land as means of production in the hands of the poor and the marginalized, and thus changing their socio-economic status.
The Model Act seeks to separate land owning and cultivation, and would create a new category of “agriculturist” looking towards land as a commodity that could be used without restrictions.
Not without reason, land being one of the important means of production, the government wants to liberalize it from all kinds of restrictions. This step of the government in the name of land reforms would facilitation capital and technology intensive investment in agriculture, and would create safety net for new investments.
*Senior activist, Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP), Ahmedabad