Land Reform Acts and Their Implementation

Prior to the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, the interests in land used to be governed in accordance with the Perma­nent Settlement introduced by the East India Company wayback in 1793, which had given rise to the following hierarchy of interests :

1. The Zamindar : legally a “proprietor”, but acting as an intermediary of the state in the collection of rent from tenants. The amount payable to the state was fixed in cash, in perpetuity, and was supposed to represent nine-tenths of what the zamindars received in rent from the tenants. The zamindars were, however, allowed the right to fix their own terms with tenants.

2. The Tenure-holder: “primarily a person who has acquired from a proprietor or from another tenure-holder a right to hold land for the purpose of collecting rents or bringing rents or bringing it under cultivation by establish­ing tenants on it, and includes also the successors-in-interest of persons who have acquired such a right” (vide Bihar Tenancy Act of 1885).

3. The Occupancy Raiyat : a rent-paying holder of land having the right of occupancy on the land held by him “for the purpose of cultivating it by himself, or by members of his family or by hired servants or with the aid of partners, and includes also the successors-in-interest of persons who have acquired such a right” (ibid.).

4. The Non-occupancy Raiyat: a rent-paying holder of land not having the right of occupancy on land temporarily in his possession.

5. The Under-raiyat: a rent-paying holder of land having temporary possession of a holding under a raiyat.

6. The Mazdur: a wage labourer having no right in land.

It was much later, only in 1936, that the Congress in its election manifesto advocated moderate reforms in the system of land tenure, revenue and rent. The Communists in 1930 and the Socialists in 1934 had already come up with radical reform proposals including the demand for abolition of zamindari. But when in the 1937 elections the Congress was voted to power, it did not pursue any meaningful agrarian reform, instead negotiating an agreement with the zamindars as we have already noted.

In 1947 the government of Bihar passed the Bihar Aboli­tion of Zamindari Bill. It was then amended and published as the Bihar Abolition of Zamindari Act, 1948 only to be repeated and replaced by the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, the validity of which was finally upheld by the Supreme Court only in 1952. The zamindars opposed the Act tooth and nail, while some of them succeeded in acquiring tacit support from important Congress leaders like Rajendra Prasad, the largest and most conservative among them joined the Janata Party launched by the Maharaja of Ramgarh who, however, rejoined the Congress in subsequent years.

Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 : Provisions and Implementation

Through this Act the government of Bihar legally abolished the interests (in land as well as in trees, forests, fisheries, bazaars, mines and minerals) of zamindars and tenure-holders and vested these interests in the state.

In the first phase of implementation of the Act (May-September 1952) only 155 zamindars were affected. Then in 1954 the Act was amended to facilitate ‘speedier imple­mentation’. The amendment provided for serving a general notice to all intermediaries as opposed to the provision of individual notification in the original act. Also introduced were provisions of penalty on those intermediaries who failed to relinquish the documents relating to their estates to the appropriate authorities. District collectors were also given more power to deal with erring zamindars who had taken anticipatory action at any time after 1 January 1946 to circumvent the provisions of the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 by transferring or fragmenting their interests as well as by reducing or remitting rents on their holdings. To eliminate loopholes the Act was again amended in 1959. But as far as the zamindars are concerned, the built-in safeguards in the Act were not altered in substance by either of these two amendments of 1954 and 1959.

Sections 5, 6 and 7 specifically provided for the retention by intermediaries of certain interests.

Section 5 entitled an intermediary to retain possession of all homesteads and to hold them as a tenant under the state either free of rent or, if the homesteads happen to be used by the intermediary for purposes of letting out, subject to the payment of a ‘fair and equitable ground-rent’ to be determined by the collector. Here “homestead” means “dwelling house used by the intermediary for the purposes of his own residence or for the purpose of letting out on rent together with any courtyard, compound … and includes any out-buildings used for purposes connected with agricul­ture or horticulture and any tank, library, and place of worship appertaining to such dwelling house”.

Section 6 entitled an intermediary to hold all lands in his Khas possession, used for agricultural or horticultural purposes, as raiyats under the state having occupancy rights in respect of such lands subject to the payment of a ‘fair and equitable rent’ to be determined by the collector. Here, Khas possession refers to land cultivated personally by an intermediary or by his own stock or servants or by hired labour or with hired stock.

Section 7 entitled an intermediary to retain possession of such buildings or structures together with the lands on which they stand as are used as golas, factories or mills, for the purpose of trade, manufacture or commerce or used for storing grains or keeping cattle or implements for the purpose of agriculture, as a tenant under the state subject to the payment of a ‘fair and equitable ground-rent’ to be determined by the collector.

In 1957, the Revenue Department of Bihar estimated that, when the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, was passed, there were at least 2,05,977 revenue-paying, permanently settled estates in Bihar. Later, the Land Reforms Imple­mentation Committee suggested that there were as many as 4,74,000 intermediaries affected by the Act. It reflects the rapid sub-division of estates by intermediaries as a means of adding to the lands they were permitted to hold within the terms of the amended 1950 act. Capitalising on the broad classification of ‘Khas possession’ ex-intermediaries also began to evict their tenants in a big way. And to the extent they had to really forego part of their earlier holdings, they received handsome compensation from the state, particularly the larger and more powerful sections among them. According to figures released by the Bihar government, out of an estimated total of Rs. 60 crore, payable as final com­pensation to 5,22,109 intermediaries throughout the State, till 1970-71 a total of Rs. 20,60,04,000 was either already paid or made ready for payment.

Ceilings on the Size of Agricultural Holdings

It was not until 1955 that a ceiling bill, called the Bihar Agricultural Lands (Ceiling and Management) Bill, was framed and referred to a committee. However, in the face of strong opposition from the landed elite and failure to muster enough support within the Congress Legislature Party itself, the bill was eventually shelved. Subsequently, a new bill, much more diluted and with sufficient loopholes, was framed in the early 60s and in 1961, it was enacted into law as the Bihar Land Reforms
(Fixation of Ceiling Area and Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act.

The 1961 Act stipulated that a “person” would be permitted to retain possession of no more than (a) twenty acres of Class I land (land irrigated by flow irrigation works constructed, maintained, improved or controlled by Central, State or local governmental institutions); (b) thirty acres of Class II land (land irrigated by “lift” irrigation works or tube wells constructed or maintained by Central, State or local governmental institutions); (c) forty acres of Class III land (land used for orchards or for other horticultural purposes); (d) fifty acres of Class IV land (diara land); or (e) sixty acres of Class V land (land considered hilly, sandy or incapable of yielding paddy, ravi or cash crops).

However, there were numerous supplementary provisions in the Act designed to permit a landholder to retain lands much in excess of the ceiling provisions. For example, a landholder could retain, in addition to his ceiling area, lands forming part of his “homestead” not exceeding ten acres in area. He could retain all established structures together with the lands on which they stood, and such other lands as might be considered by the collector necessary for the use and enjoyment of his homestead lands. He could retain any land in consolidated blocks (not exceeding fifteen acres in area) used for growing fodder. Moreover, a landholder with more than four dependents could retain lands in excess of his ceiling area — not exceeding one-fifth of his ceiling area for every dependent exceeding four — so long as he retained no more than twice the area of his ceiling holding, as otherwise specified.

Other provisions of the Act permitted a landholder to transfer (within one year following the commencement of the Act) any lands held by him as a raiyat to any person or persons who might have inherited the land or have been entitled to a share of it at his death. In other words, a landholder with lands in excess of the ceiling could transfer his excess lands to sons, daughters, children of his sons or daughters, or others within the terms and conditions of the act — the only limitation being that the aggregate of lands held by the recipients do not exceed, in each instance, the ceiling area specified by the Act.

Moreover, the Act was not applicable to (a) lands previously donated to the Bhoodan movement, (b) lands held by educational institutions, (c) the plantations, and (d) properly licensed sugarcane farms.

The Act of 1961 contained provisions that permitted landholders to resume for “personal cultivation” lands within their ceiling areas being cultivated at the commence ment of the Act by tenants or under-raiyats who were unable to establish that they were entitled to permanent occupancy of the lands they tilled. By “personal cultivation” was meant “cultivation by a raiyat himself or by members of his family or by servants or hired labourers on fixed wages payable in cash or kind but not in crop-share under his personal supervision or the supervision of any member of his family”.

The Act also permitted a landholder, under specified conditions, to sublet any land within his ceiling area for a period not to exceed seven years on any one occasion. The amount of rent in kind payable by the tenant to the land­holder or raiyat was limited to no more than one-fourth of the produce and the landholder was denied any share in the straw or bhoosa (jute sticks after the jute has been extracted or maize stocks following the harvesting of maize) that might exist as a by-product of agricultural production on the leased lands. The Act also made explicit provision for the ejectment of the sublessee by a landholder (a) for failure to pay an arrear of rent, (b) for using the land in a manner that rendered it unfit for the purposes of the tenancy; or (c) on the ground that the term of a lease had expired.

The Act stipulated that every person whose lands in excess of the ceiling were acquired by the state would receive compensation, and regarding the distribution and management of the surplus land it held that (a) such surplus lands as were occupied by under-raiyats might be settled permanently with the under-raiyats on payment of a prescribed amount to the state, and that (b) the management of the remaining surplus land was to be left to village councils or Gram Panchayats who would also attempt to assure the actual cultivation of the land by means of co-operative farming societies of landless labourers. If they were unable to establish such co-operative farming societies within twelve months, the representative of the State government was empowered to settle the land either with individual house­holds of landless agricultural labourers or with other persons of the village or of a neighbouring village.

In December 1971 by an ordinance the quantum of ceiling with respect to each category of land was halved and the exemptions were also made more rigid. By an amendment in June 1973, the ceiling was further reduced to 15, 18, 25, 30, 37.5 and 45 acres for land belonging to Classes I, II, III, IV, V and VI respectively, with family (a couple with three minor children) as the unit, and the exemptions were also drastically curtailed. The jurisdiction of the civil court was barred in respect of action taken under the Ceiling Act.

As regards implementation of the Act, whether in its original or amended version, one can get an idea from the following pieces of official information. The Ceiling Act had come into force on April 19, 1962, but it was only in 1970 that notices began to be served to persons owning lands in excess of the ceiling and that too, only one hundred and twenty-five landholders were notified.

In 1964 the Planning Commission had estimated that with the enforcement of the ceiling all over the State, between 1,00,000 and 1,50,000 acres would become available as “surplus” land. The reality was that between 1961-62 and 1974-75, no more than 9,700 acres were collected by the state. Even during the Emergency, when the government claimed to have acquired no less than 50,000 acres of surplus land, no more than 10,000 acres were distributed, to quote once again from the government’s own sources.

Agrarian Legislation : ‘A Sour Joke’

Apart from these two major acts, many other agrarian laws have been legislated over all these years : the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Bihar Bhoodan Yagna Act, 1954; the Bihar Consolidation of Holdings and Prevention of Fragmentation Act, 1956 and (Amendment) Bill, 1970; the Bihar Tenancy (Amendment) Act, 1970; the Bihar Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill, 1970; the Bihar Public Land Encroachment (Amendment) Ordinance, 1970; the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy (Amendment) Bill, 1970; the Bihar SC, ST, Backward Classes and Denotified Tribes Debt Relief Act, 1974 ; the Bihar Moneylenders Act, 1974; and the list is still lengthening. But given the loop­hole-ridden content of these laws, such procedural bottle­necks as inadequacy of land records and rent rolls, and above all, the naked nexus between the landed rich, government officials and the police, nobody dares expect these laws to have any significant influence on the agrarian reality of Bihar. And to be sure, this widespread suspicion is corroborated all the more by the findings of the scholars and at times, even by various committees and commissions appointed by the government itself. As the Working Group on Land Reforms (under the National Commission on Agriculture) put it,

    By their abysmal failure to implement the laws, the authorities in Bihar have reduced the whole package of land reform measures to a sour joke. This has emboldened the landowning class to treat the entire issue of agrarian reform with utter contempt. Elsewhere in the country, the law evaders have a sneaking respect for the law enforcing authority. Their approach is furtive— their method clandestine. In Bihar, the landowners do not care a tuppence for the administration. They take it for granted. Their approach is defiant — their modus operandi open and insolent.

(A Field Study: Agrarian Relations in Two Bihar Districts, Mainstream, Vol. 11, No 40, 2 June).