“Land Reforms is the most crucial test which our political system must pass             in order to survive.

                                                            Former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi          

Planning process initiated after India gained freedom was used by our country to bring about economic and social change in the countryside. The measures adopted in this regard were land reforms such as abolition of intermediary rights and giving security of tenures to cultivators. Another feature was administrative and physical reorganisation of the quality of land management for agricultural development. Land reforms should be seem in two ways in the context of planning, firstly, the institutional changes in land ownership structure and  productive use of land for social and economic development and secondly, changes in administrative and technological processes of agrarian economy to enhance social well being of peasants and agricultural workers in villages.

The two measures were inter-related but the institutional aspects of land reforms occupied a position of prominence in this whole process. This itself was a product of the historical forces that were released during the Freedom Movement. This movement, over a period of several decades contributed to the evolution of an agrarian policy and also the policy of rural social and economic development in India. The Indian National Congress both as a political party and as a national movement contributed centrally to the evolution of this policy.

The planning process initiated after Independence took into consideration the agrarian policy evolved over the years by the leadership of the Indian National Congress and also the structural problems of the Indian economy in general. The decline in Indian agriculture no doubt owed much to the growth of intermediary rights in land such as the Zamindari and Jagirdari tenures or its equivalents in the Ryotwari systems. But other structural factors of our society and economy also contributed to the decline in agriculture like the pressure of population of land due to closure of other avenues of employment. This led to adverse land-man ratio and decline in average size of land holdings by fragmentation and sale. The first Agricultural Labour Enquiry (1951) revealed that:

            One fifth of the agricultural families were of landless workers, among families who had land to cultivate, about 38 per cent had holdings of less than 2.5 acres each and clustered on only 6 per cent of the cultivated area. As many as 59 per cent of cultivating families had holdings of less than 5 acres each and operated only 16 per cent of cultivated area.

The fragmentation of holdings also presented a chaotic picture of holdings. The Farm Management Studies of the Government of India reveal that in U.P. and West Bengal the holdings of less than %acres had on an average 3.6 fragments. The situation of larger holdings between 20 and 25 acres was also not good with on an average 17 fragments.

These structural problems of land holding needed attention through land consolidation operations. Other structural problems of agriculture were related to issues of modernization through rational land use and cropping patterns, facilities of assured irrigation, fertilizers and protection of land from physical deterioration. These modernization issues were organically related to the institutional aspect of land reforms.

The Planning Commission, the Central Government and the State Governments soon after Independence launched a comprehensive programme of land reforms. It included structural and institutional changes in the ownership pattern, land tenure system, modernization of agricultural operations and changes in the supportive institutions at the level of the village community. These programmes were launched during the 1950s soon after the process of planned development began. The programme of land reforms comprised of three important factors. First, abolition of intermediaries; second, tenancy reforms and; third, ceiling on land holdings for land acquisition.

These measures were intended to release the Indian peasantry from the shackles of parasitical rentier class of intermediaries such as the Zamindars and Jagirdars etc and give them security of tenure for prolonged investment towards agricultural modernization.

Abolition of Intermediaries

A major step in land reforms was the abolition of the intermediaries. This category of people as we have mentioned already collected exorbitant rent from their tenants without making any investment for the improvement of land and they often collected additional taxes to meet their conspicuous style of life, such as for purchases of horses, elephants, for ceremonial rituals in their families such as birth, marriage and festivities. Sometimes taxes were imposed to meet whimsical needs of the Zamindars or Jagirdars. The collection of rent and tax was done through Zamindar’s employees in a ruthless, often brutal manner and for non-payment or delay, eviction of tenant from land was common. Most tenancy rights of peasants were that of “tenant at-will” through which eviction was a matter of the pleasure of the Zamindar or Jagirdar. Only later a category of “occupancy tenant” was recognised in some parts of the country who could be evicted only through a process of law and under certain conditions. But the tenure of the occupancy tenant was also precarious as the Zamindars could easily manipulate eviction.

Ceiling on Land Holdings

An important aspect of land reforms was to bring about an equitable social order in rural society. This was in harmony with the ideology of the Indian National Congress and other political parties which led the freedom movement. That there should be no iniquitous concentration of wealth and power in any particular section of people in our society has been laid down in our Constitution. Hence, the emphasis on socialism through democratic path of development in our society. For rural society, this objective was enunciated by the Planning Commission through its policy on ceiling on land holdings and also on the acquisition of land.

An important issue was that of the level at which ceiling on landholdings could be imposed. The land value in terms of productivity varies from region to region and from plot to plot. Hence, a universal principle that could also be rational has to be evolved for defining the exact limit of the ceiling on land holdings. Planning Commission in early 1950s defined it in terms of what it called the ‘family holding’ that yielded an income of Rs. 1200 per annum. It suggested the level of ceiling on land holdings to be the land size that yielded three times the income of a family holding or which yielded the income of Rs. 3600 per annum for a family of five persons. This was to be determined taking into consideration the quality of land, the technique of cultivation and other related factors as existent at that particular time.

The legislation on the Ceiling on land holdings came into existence during the fifties itself but it varied a great deal from state to state. For example, the Telangana region in Andhra Pradesh, the Marathwada in Maharashtra and Karnataka part of Mysore proposed ceiling on a land holding yielding net income of Rs. 3000 per annum which in terms of size worked out between 18 to 27 acres. In Punjab ceiling was imposed at the level of 30 standard acres (with irrigation facilities) and 60 dry acres. For the displaced persons the limit was of 50 irrigated and 100 dry acres. Kerala imposed ceiling at the level ranging between 15 to 30 acres depending upon the quality of land. In Uttar Pradesh the range of ceiling was between 40 to 80 acres once again based on the variety of land. This position of the ceilings during the fifties was further revised and in most states the level was further reduced.

The policy behind imposition of ceiling on land holding was mainly distributive in nature. The surplus land acquired through this measure was to be distributed among the members of weaker sections of the rural society such as the landless and the scheduled castes, etc. But not much land could be acquired through this measure as the big land holders transferred the surplus land with them to their relatives, friends and other acquaintances.

This is known as benami transfer. It is called benami because even though land is transferred to a person, that person is not the actual cultivator. The actual cultivator is the original owner of that land who took recourse to such fictitious transfer in order to avoid the laws of ceiling. This has posed a major problem in agrarian transformation of rural India which remains as yet to be resolved.

In this background, the Bhoodan and Gramdan Movement were started. Bhoodan movement is a Ghandian style land reforms movement led by Vinoba Bhave. In this, the land is donated by the landlords and redistributed among the landless.

The Initial objective of the Bhoodan movement was to secure voluntary donations of land and distribute it to the landless, but the movement soon came out with a demand of 1/6 share of land from all land owners. In 1952, the movement had widened the concept of gramdan (village in gift) and had started advocating commercial ownership of land.

It was not a pre-planned movement. In 1951 Telangana experienced communist violence. In the same year, the third Sarvodaya Sammelan (Sarvodaya Conference is a annual meet of Ghandians to plan constructive works and to spread the idea of truth and non-violence) was held at Shivrampalli in Andhra Pradesh and the great spiritual leader and Ghandian Vinoba Bhave decided to attend it by marching towards Hyderabad from his ashram at Pavnar near Nagpur. While touring across communist infested areas, in a meet at Pochampalli village, he came to know the landless villagers’ need for land and spontaneously a landlord Vedre Ramachandra Reddy came forward to donate his land. This incident became genesis of Bhoodan Movement what Vinoba Bhave thought would solve the land problem of India.

How the Movement spread across India?

With Vinoba Bhave’s initiative in 1951, the Boodan Movement grew into a mass movement. He led the movement with a demand of fifty million acres of land from whole of India by 1957. This movement is a remarkable achievement for Sarvodaya Movement. In meantime it had transformed from land-gift movement to village-gift movement or Gramdan Movement. In Gramdan movement, a major part of the village was to be donated by at least 75% of the villagers and those land was to be redistributed among village’s families with a provision for revision later on. The Gramdan movement was not popular in non-tribal areas. Apart from this some allied programmes were also started. Few of such programmes are, Sampattidan (Wealth-gift), Shramdan (Labour-gift), Jeevadan (Life long commitment to movement by co-workers), Shanti-Sena (Peace army) and Sadhandan (gift of implements for agricultural operations).

The impact of the Movement was that, even though this movement could not change the thinking of the people, it has transformed life of the co-workers. Jayaprakash Narayan a renowned Marxist and a  Socialist intimately associated with this movement and committed his life for building Sarvodaya society. This movement had attracted many thinkers outside India. Chester Bowles, the American Ambassador to India, observed in his Book that Boodhan Movement offers a revolutionary alternative to communism, as it is founded on human dignity. Even some foreigners turned themselves into Sarvodaya co-worker like American Kaithan.

Achievements and failures

In the initial years the movement achieved success to some extent especially in northern areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. By 1956, the movement had received about 4.5 million acres of land as donation. It also popularized the belief that land is a gift of nature and it belongs to all and it also promoted Ghandian idea of trusteeship. The communist leader EMS Namboodiripad had commented that this movement had stimulated political and other activity by peasant masses for redistribution of the land and also for the agricultural producers’ cooperatives.

However, though the movement had received 4.5 million acres by 1956, only about 6.5 lakh acres were actually redistributed. Some donors even took back their land from movement. Few land allotting authorities of the movement took bribe from the poor to recommend their name which led to allotment of land to undeserving villagers. Some people applied multiple times to get more land and some landlords donated disputed land and land that is unfit for farming. Over the time the movement was politicized and lost credibility in result land donations declined. Overall the movement could not achieve its aim of land reform completely.

Contribution of Bhoodan movement on laws in India

The movement had influence on the legislations. The Gift Tax Act, 1958 was amended to exclude donated land from gift tax. Bhoodan Board was constituted under Tamil Nadu Bhoodan Yagna Act, 1958 to regulate lands received by the movement. Likewise, many state governments including Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar, Madya Pradesh, Gujrat, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh had passed laws to facilitate Bhoodan and Gramdan. In view of protecting the intention of the movement, few states banned transactions on Bhoodan lands to make it compulsory for the beneficiary to hold the land.

Similar movements like Bhoodan

There were many movements related to land redistribution like Bhoodan movement. Those are,

Pardi Satyagraha in Gujarat during 1953 to 1967. It is started by socialist workers like Ishwarbhai Desai, Ashok Mehta and Kisan Panchayat and also Tribals. Big landlord left their land for grasses to grow without doing agriculture. And they sold the grass in fodder market. This left the landless laborers without work for most of the year. The movement started against this. Though it has gained political support initially, movement had declined due to the death of the leaders.

Great land struggle during 1970s. It is a militant mass movement started by Bhartiya Khet Mazdoor Union, All India Kisan Sabha and Communist Party of India to highlight the fact that land is concentrated in few hands. The agricultural workers, poor peasants, tribals, trade unions, youth and women’s organizations took part in this. The movement conducted by occupying government land and big landlords’ land and cultivate on them. Due to this, actual land redistribution started by giving pattas to landless and the government appointed Central Land Reform Committee to address agrarian inequalities in the country.

Land for tillers’ freedom started by Krishnammal and Jagannathan in Tamil Nadu during 1981. Since the landlords kept hold on their land using loopholes in land ceiling act, LAFTI planned to transfer 500 acres per year to landless families. It started LAFTI Land Bank scheme involving 10000 landless families and they pooled Re. 1 per day for five years and it also sought support from government in form of stamp duty and registration fee exemption.

Land Satyagraha started in Chattisgarh during late 1980s. Though landless poor had got pattas of land via government schemes, the landlords did not allow them to physically occupy the land and the land ceiling act also was not implemented properly. Against this the movement was started.

Bhu-Adhikar Abiyan movement started in Madya Pradesh in 1996 against illegal selling of land which was alloted to tribes and also to give pattas to occupant cultivator.

Janadesh movement started in 2007 demanding National Land Rights Act, Land Reform Council and fast track courts for land reforms. Jan Satyagraha started in 2012 as a foot march from Gwalior to Delhi. It had put comprehensive demands relating to Land Reforms, Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996 and Forest Rights Act 2006. And the government agreed to the demands such as creating National Land Reform Policy, quick implementation of Forest Rights Act ..etc.


Some more questions:

  1. What is Bhoodan? What are its characteristics? Did it succeed or fail?
  2. What was Vinoba’s contribution to Bhoodan Movement?
  3. What made Vinoba to start Bhoodan movement? Did he really fail in his mission?
  4. What are the causes attributed for the failure? Is those causes acceptable? Is there any new cause that we don’t know still?
  5. Did land reform succeeded in India? Did Bhoodan fail? Compare.