Land Tenure Since 1950

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LAND TENURE SINCE 1950 British rule established in India a system of intermediaries—called "landlords" by the British—who were to collect rent from the cultivators on behalf of the state and who would in turn receive a share of the revenue collected. Those intermediaries had largely controlled the land tenure system during India's pre-independence period, though the role of intermediaries varied across the country. The land tenure system of pre-independence India was broadly divided into three categories: the zamindari system, the mahalwari system, and the ryotwari system. In the first two categories, the intermediaries—zamindars and village headmen, respectively—were responsible for the collection of rent from the cultivators; in the third category, there were no intermediaries, and cultivators paid the rent directly to the state. The control of intermediaries over land ownership and the tenure system led to exploitation of cultivators. In order to eliminate intermediaries and to pass on ownership rights to the actual cultivators, the process of land reforms was initiated after independence. The objective of land reforms was to abolish intermediaries and to bring changes in the revenue system that would be favorable to cultivators. Tenancy reforms were considered the most important component of land reforms, and many changes were effected in India's land tenure and revenue system.

Legislation of Land Tenure

First Five-Year Plan

Efforts to abolish the landlord system were actually enacted in the early 1950s with the Zamindari Abolition Act. India's Planning Commission introduced its national policy on tenancy regulation in its Five-Year Plans. The first proposition of the National Policy on tenancy reforms, as presented in the First Plan, recommended that large landowners be allowed to evict their tenants and to bring under personal cultivation land up to a ceiling limit to be prescribed by each state. It was further suggested that tenants of nonresumable land be given occupancy rights on payment of a price to be fixed as a multiple of the rental value of the land. The term "personal cultivation" was defined as cultivation by the owner or by other members of the family.

Though precise definitions were not provided for small and middle owner-cultivators, a distinction was made to consider "owners of land not exceeding a family holding as small owners." Land belonging to small and middle owners was divided into two categories: land under personal cultivation, and land leased to tenants at will. However, limited protection was envisaged for such tenants of landowners possessing land below the ceiling restriction. It was suggested that tenancy should be for five to ten years and should be renewable, and that the maximum rent payable should not exceed 20 to 25 percent of the gross produce.

Second Five-Year Plan

To provide effective protection for tenants and to bring a degree of uniformity across the states, the definition of "personal cultivation" was amended with three elements: risk of cultivation, personal supervision, and personal labor. It was suggested that the produce rent should be converted into cash rent and the maximum rent should be fixed as a multiple of land revenue. The Second Plan also suggested that tenants of nonresumable areas should be enabled to acquire ownership rights on purchase at a reasonable price. Further, the payment should be allowed in installments that might be fixed in such a way that the burden on the tenant did not exceed 20 to 25 percent of the gross produce.

Third and Fourth Five-Year Plans

Based on a review of the steps taken in the First and Second Plan periods, the Third Plan stated that the impact of tenancy legislation on the welfare of tenants had been less than expected. Hence, the Third Plan reiterated that the final goal should be to confer rights of ownership to as many tenants as possible. Though it was considered appropriate to confer the rights of ownership to tenants of nonresumable land of small holders, the Third Plan did not make any recommendation in this direction, but suggested that the states should study the problem and determine the suitable action in light of prevailing conditions. However, the condition of tenants did not improve, and remained precarious even after the Third Plan period. With a view to ensuring the security of tenure to tenants and subtenants, the Fourth Plan recommended measures such as "to declare all tenancies non-resumable and permanent except in the case of landowners working in defence services or with any disability." In the exceptional cases, the tenancy should be for a period of three years and subjected to renewal. Provisions were made for complete security of tenure in homestead lands where cultivators, agricultural laborers, and artisans had constructed their houses.

Fifth Five-Year Plan

The Fifth Plan contained the recommendations of a special task force for appraising the progress of problems of land reforms. Subsequently, the National Commission on Agriculture (NCA) in its report gave the following recommendations:

  • In view of the prevailing land-man ratio, tenancy could not be banned completely until a large-scale transfer of the population from agricultural to non-agricultural sectors occurred.
  • The NCA reiterated the provision of ownership rights for all tenants of land except the landowner of marginal holding and special cases. It further recommended that the price should be lower than the market price and the tenant should be provided with credit either by the state government or by financial institutions.
  • The sharecroppers should also be recognized and recorded as tenants and should be bestowed with all due protection.

Sixth Five-Year Plan and After

Until the Sixth Plan period, many regulations were passed, but their implementation appeared lacking. In order to fulfill this goal, the Sixth Plan emphasized measures to ensure the effective implementation of the accepted policies. A time-bound schedule was given to the states to implement the measures of land reforms. It further recommended that the states in which legislative provisions for conferment of ownership rights on all tenants did not exist should immediately introduce appropriate legislative measures within one year (by 1981–1982). Even in the Seventh Plan period, the recommendation for appropriation of legislative measures by the states to secure the rights of tenants remained the major issue. Thus, the major legislations on land tenure were created in the first three Plans, and their implementation was given priority in the subsequent period.

Progress in the Implementation of Tenancy and Revenue Reforms

Progress of land reforms can be assessed in terms of three important aspects: regulation of rent, security of tenure, and conferment of ownership rights to tenants.

Regulation of rent

The rent paid by the tenants during the pre-independence period was exorbitant; it varied between 35 and 75 percent of gross produce throughout India. With the enactment of legislation for regulating the rent payable by the cultivators in the early 1950s, fair rent was fixed at 20 to 25 percent of the gross produce level in all the states except Punjab, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, and the Andhra area of Andhra Pradesh. In these states, the rent payable by the tenants varied between 25 percent and 40 percent, depending on the available irrigation facilities. However, the effectiveness of fair rent was observed only for tenants who actually enjoyed security of tenure. As per the 1981 census, about 80 percent of the tenants were insecure. As a result, the majority of tenants could not derive benefit from the legislation on fair rent. Further, field studies conducted in Bihar, Orissa, and West Bengal during 1971 and 1972 indicated that though the Tenancy Act in these states fixed the maximum rent payable at 25 percent, most of the tenants, particularly sharecroppers, were paying 50 percent of gross produce.

On the other hand, the mode of payment was flexible, either by cash or kind or both, depending on the option of the tenant, in almost all states except in West Bengal and the Bombay area of Maharashtra. In the case of West Bengal only kind payment was allowed, while in the Bombay area only cash payment was allowed.

Security of tenure

Providing security of tenure was the second important legislation brought about during the first three Five-Year Plans. Legislation for security of tenure had three essential elements: ejection could not take place except in accordance with the provision of the law; land could be resumed by an owner, but only for personal cultivation; and in the event of resumption, the tenant was assured of a prescribed minimum area.

Tenancy laws were enacted in all states in accordance with the guidelines under this legislation, though their implementation varied widely across the states. Depending on the pattern of tenancy laws enacted, all the states can be broadly grouped into four categories: restricted leasing out to certain special and disabled categories (Andha Pradesh–Telenaga Area, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Himachal Pradesh); no restrictions on leasing out (Andhra Pradesh–Andhra Area, Orissa, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal); leasing permitted but the tenant acquires rights to purchase land (Assam, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Punjab); and prohibition of lease (Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, and Manipur). The NSS (National Sample Survey) reports suggested that despite the tenancy laws, concealed tenancy existed in almost all the states. Further, in the majority of states, sharecroppers were not explicitly recognized as tenants and thus were not protected under tenancy law. However, sharecroppers in West Bengal were provided with heritable rights on the leased land through Operation Bargha in 1971. The term "tenant" was reported to be wide enough to cover sharecroppers but not wide enough to provide tenancy security in the majority of states. In some states, like Punjab and Haryana, sharecroppers were recognized as hired laborers as defined under personal cultivation. Further, a recent study (Haque) on tenant reforms indicated that even after four decades of initiation of tenure reforms, secured tenancy exists only in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal, and the flaws in the definition of personal cultivation have rendered tenancies insecure in all other states. In addition, security of tenure had also faced serious problems from the "voluntary surrender." Taking advantage of this clause, powerful landlords compelled their tenants to give up the tenancies on their own and thus evaded the tenancy laws. An important deficiency identified in this regard has been lack of proper land records in a majority of states. Security of tenancy can be ensured only when there are reliable and accurate records on tenancy.

Conferment of ownership rights to tenants

The third important component of tenancy legislation was the conferment of ownership rights to tenants. Despite repeated emphasis in the plan documents, only a few states, like West Bengal and Kerala, have passed legislation to confer rights of ownership to tenants. No estimate is available at a nationwide level, but some state-level evaluation studies have estimated the number of tenants and the extent of land entitled for conferment of ownership rights. A committee set up by the government of Maharashtra in 1968 for the evaluation of land reforms reported that only 375,000 of a total of 2,600,000 entitled tenants acquired ownership rights until the mid-1960s. The number was reported to have reached 1,118,000 during the 1980s. In the case of West Bengal, the inception of Operation Bargha in 1977 led to conferment of ownership rights to 1,500,000 sharecroppers covering about 2,700,000 acres (about 1,100,000 hectares) up to December 1998. In Karnataka, about 489,000 tenants have been conferred rights for nearly 4,500,000 acres (1,850,000 hectares) of land up to 31 July 2000. Further, in Gujarat, about 462,000 tenants were benefited from 2,400,000 acres (970,000 hectares) of land, and in Rajasthan, 199,000 tenants were benefited from 940,000 acres (382,000 hectares).

The Impact of Tenancy and Revenue Reforms Agricultural productivity and growth

As the implementation of tenancy reforms coincided with a technological revolution, isolation of the specific impact of tenancy reforms on agricultural productivity and agricultural growth became a difficult task, particularly after the 1970s. However, some studies attempted to separate all the other effects and concluded that there was correlation between the growth in production and the progress of tenancy (Banerjee and Ghatak). Studies also indicated that it was the consolidation of management around tube well command areas that triggered the growth in West Bengal agriculture (Webster). It was also reported that Operation Bargha in West Bengal had led to changes such as greater social equity and self-confidence among the poor (Gazdar and Sengupta). Contrary to this, there were also arguments that Operation Bargha had not been successful in augmenting production and productivity on the sharecropped land due to the poor resource base (Pal). On the other hand, Haque opined that Operation Bargha and other land reform measures might not be solely responsible for rapid growth in agriculture in West Bengal but had led to indirect effects in the form of a changing rural power structure, accessibility to irrigation, and modern inputs.

Size of the farm

Apart from agricultural productivity, major changes in the pattern of owned and operated holdings, as per the latest agricultural census (1995–96) and NSS rounds, indicated that the proportion of landless agricultural households in the rural area had stabilized at around 11 to 12 percent. About 80 percent of the cultivators were reported as marginal (less than 2.5 acres, or 1 hectare) and small (2.5–5 acres, or 1–2 hectares), and their land holdings accounted for 36 percent of the total cultivated area in 1995–1996. Nearly 18 percent of cultivators owned semi-medium (5–10 acres, or 2–4 hectares) and medium (10–25 acres, or 4–10 hectares) holdings, which accounted for 49 percent of the total cultivated area in 1995–1996. However, the number and the area under large holdings (25 acres, or 10 hectares, and above) have been declining consistently.

The steady increase in the area under the marginal and small holdings group could be attributed to the legislative measures supplemented by market processes, but an increase in their number might be the result of an increase in population and lack of alternative employment opportunities in the rural areas.


There are no systematic studies to arrive at specific conclusions on changes in the pattern of employment induced by tenancy reforms over a period of time. The census data indicated a steady increase in agricultural laborers (from 21.8 percent in 1961 to 33.2 percent in 2001) as well as an increase in other workers (from 12.9 percent in 1961 to 22.9 percent in 2001).

The liberalization of tenancy has become the latest issue of debate, and many recent seminars have supported and recommended the same. According to a proposal of the Ministry of Rural Areas and Employment, the liberalization of tenancy, particularly in the less developed areas, would help in improving the access of the poor to land through the legalization of leasing. However, thus far no steps have been taken in this direction.

With the initiation of economic reforms and liberalization, agriculture has been moving toward commercialization. As a part of this trend, the practice of contract farming has been initiated by multinational companies, such as Pepsi Company and Hindustan Level Limited in Punjab. So far contract farming has been mostly informal and has taken place without any written agreement. However, an institutional mechanism is expected to help the small and marginal farmers to access the benefits of contract farming without compromising their ownership rights.

L. Thulasamma

See alsoAgricultural Labor and Wages since 1950 ; Contract Farming


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Banerjee, A. V., and M. Ghatak. "Empowerment and Efficiency: The Economics of Tenancy Reform." Working paper, Harvard University, 1995.

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