SAM KANG LI
The issue is linked not only to the dip in farm productivity and the agrarian crisis, but also with social justice and livelihoods. As the Maoists project it, the core contradiction is that those who own the land are not the actual tillers and those who till the land are not the owners.
The recognition that land and peace is related is most acutely felt here in the western Tarai. This is where an exploitative jamindari system, landlessness, Maoist land-grab, and their electoral success converge. "Solve land issues and 75 per cent of the conflict will be resolved," says Bhola Mahat of the rights group, INSEC.
But apart from occasional civil society seminars and sporadic op-ed pieces, the land question isn't on the agenda. It is a complex policy challenge, affects a majority of the country's population, and has antagonistic classes pitted against each other.
Do we need land reform? The consensus across the board is yes. Past attempts have only been partial and conflict-exacerbating. Mahendra's land reform of 1964 is seen by many Madhesis and Tharus as an assault on their livelihood, as hill migrants were gifted the land by the state.
Deuba's attempt in 2003 to fix the ceiling at 10 bighas was a step forward, but did not translate into support for the poor landless. It also ignored the cardinal principle that land reform and agrarian reform must go together. The UML's Badal commission recommended a ceiling of 4.5 bighas and other policy measures, but was never implemented.
But what kind of land reform? Given inequitable land distribution, does the answer lie in reducing the ceiling further to extract land from those who have it and redistribute it? But after fragmentation within families and across generations, most farmers in the Tarai have less than 10 bighas. Half a ropani of land in Kathmandu is more valuable than 15-20 bighas in most districts. If there has to be valuation and ceiling, farmers say, it should be on property and not just land.
Will giving small plots away only lead to a further dip in production as it will not be profitable for marginal farmers to invest in modern technology? Even those with five bighas of land just manage modern living standards, so how will a family with half a bigha of land manage? Will he just end up selling it and becoming landless again?
Can all this be a sophisticated rationalisation for not doing anything for the landless? Is it important to target the few remaining big jamindars who have accrued the property illegally over the years? Is it possible to use scattered public land, called 'elani jagga', and take property of the guthis which are monopolised by a few?
But even if you find land without drastically infringing on the right to property, will merely giving it away to select poor help change lives? Isn't the core issue the need for an agrarian revival: irrigation, moderate use of subsidised fertilisers, crop diversification, technical know-how, availability of seeds, better market management and co-operative farming?
And do we not need to start exploring non-farm economy options for employment generation? If the migration is any indicator, people want to escape from the land for better options. Or is that our failure where the poor, who are least equipped for the modern economy, are pushed out of agriculture while others who are professionally skilled continue to profit from land?
Land reform cannot just be about rash redistribution. It has to be a package deal which addresses some of these questions. What this government can do is set up a commission which prepares a white paper on previous land-reform attempts, and conducts a nation-wide survey to come up with baseline data on land ownership and productivity. Balancing individual rights with social justice, and evolving a land and agrarian policy should be key priorities.
Sowing doubts - FROM ISSUE #414 (22 AUG 2008 - 28 AUG 2008)