Land Reforms

Land Reforms measures taken by the government to change land ownership and production relationships in land. A major step in the direction of land reforms dates back to the formation of a Commission called Bengal Land Reforms Commission in 1940, which had Sir Francis Floud as the chairman. This Commission was a broad-based one, and included a representative of the big zamindars (landlords). The floud commission recommended abolition of zamindaris, which meant abolition of all rent-receiving interests above the tiller of the soil. In other words, the concept of creating new land tenures at the will of zamindars, and all other land tenures subject to intermediaries who had the right to receive rents from subordinate land holdings, resulting in extensive subinfeudation of land holdings, was abandoned. The commission wanted abolishment of all interests existing between the paramount power at the top i.e., the government and the men actually behind the plough i.e, the actual cultivators. Moreover, the commission took away the right to create subordinate interests in the future. Its recommendation did not, however, extend to sharecroppers (bargadars), who did not own the land they cultivated, but were the real tillers of the soil. On the basis of the above recommendations, laws were framed. But before the draft legislation could be passed, the Partition of Bengal took place in 1947.

In 1950, the East Bengal Legislative Assembly passed the east bengal state acquisition and tenancy act, which received the consent of the Governor General in 1951. Prior to this enactment, the Rent Act X of 1859 and the bengal tenancy act of 1885 (amended twice, once in 1928 and again in 1938) contained some measures defining the status and rights of the raiyats (the last in the ladder of the land tenure system) vis-a-vis the landlords at the top, and other tenure-holders or rent receiving interests just above the raiyat or under the raiyat at the bottom. The Floud Commission did not recommend any ceiling of khas land, which could be retained by any individual landholder in his direct possession. But the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act contained a specific provision to the effect that no individual land holder (be he the zamindar or a tenure-holder or a raiyat) could retain in his direct possession any land exceeding 100 standard bighas or 13.5 ha.

The implementation of the scheme of state acquisition as envisaged in East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act involved a time taking process. After the act was passed, steps were initiated for acquiring, in a summary procedure as laid down in Chapter II of the act, the interests of proprietors of big estates on the basis of collection papers available from the concerned zamindars' kacharies (offices). Similar action was taken in respect of the court of wards estates. In this process, 443 big estates with a total annual income of Rs 47,427,207 were acquired straightway. But the interests of subordinate tenure and other rent-receivers under these estates remained unaffected.

The first hurdle in the implementation process came in the shape of several civil suits in the courts of sub-judges by some zamindars challenging the acquisition of their interests under the act. All these cases were, however, decreed in favour of government, both in the lower court and in the high court.

In 1952, the government decided to acquire all rent receiving interests, under Chapter V of the act, in the district of Bakerganj (now barisal) and the sundarbans of khulna, where the record of rights and maps had just been revised. According to the procedure laid out in Chapter V, land acquisition was to follow preparation of compensation assessment rolls. After the state acquisition operation was started, all rent receiving interests except khas land in patuakhali district were acquired with effect from 14 April 1954, in pirojpur district and Sundarbans area, with effect from 15 April 1955, and in most of Bakerganj district with effect from 14 April 1956.

On 12 October 1955, the government, however, finally decided to acquire by 14 April 1956 rent-receiving interests in all the remaining districts of the province by summary procedure under Chapter II of the act. It was a momentous decision. Orders were issued for immediate preparation of preliminary rent rolls on the basis of existing record of rights (to be simultaneously revised in a summary way) and available collection papers within 6 months to provide an immediate basis for collection of rents by the government machinery from the entire body of ground tenants who were paying rents to their respective landlords (superior rent receiving interests) at the bottom, prior to the date of wholesale acquisition.

It was, of course, a Herculean task to prepare the rent-rolls throughout the province before 14 April 1956, the day fixed for taking over all rent-receiving interests. Nevertheless, the settlement officers appointed in different zones for the purpose succeeded in accomplishing the job within the stipulated period and produced a set of preliminary rent-rolls for the province as a whole. This was known as the state acquisition operations.

The government was obliged to pay compensation for acquiring all rent-receiving interests and excess land. The settlement officers were entrusted with the job of revising record-of-rights without large-scale correction of existing village maps and preparing compensation assessment rolls. The operation already in progress in Bakerganj district was integrated with the wholesale acquisition operations, while the major settlement operation, already in progress, for the first time, in sylhet district was switched over to this operation. The object of the operation was not only to prepare compensation assessment rolls, but also to provide a sound basis for future collection of rent and cess by the government.

On 13 April 1956, eighty-three petitions were moved against the government in Dhaka High Court for Writ of Mandamus, mainly on the ground that the notification issued earlier by the government in regard to wholesale acquisition were ultra vires of the Constitution. Fourteen petitions were in respect to estates claiming to be waqf and four were in respect to estates claiming to be debottar. The government took over possession of all rent-receiving interests and non-retainable excess lands included in the notification except those covered by the writ petitions. On 7 August 1956, the High Court dismissed all the petitions.

Appeals were immediately filed before the Supreme Court. On 17 June 1957, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment, dismissing all appeals with respect to acquisition of all secular rent-receiving interests. The cases regarding the acquisition of rent-receiving interests of waqf and debottar estates were suspended. The government, however, took possession of subordinate tenures below these estates on the ground that they had been covered by the general notification of wholesale acquisition of 2 April 1956. An ordinance was promulgated permitting the mutwallis of waqf and shebaits of debottar properties acquired but not taken possession of by the government to continue to manage such properties as agents of government.

The ongoing state acquisition operations prepared the final compensation assessment rolls by the end of 1962. The rolls of major parts of Bakerganj district and Khulna Sundarbans had, however, been completed earlier, and were given effect from 14 April 1958.

The financial aspect of land reforms showed a spectacular result. There was an immediate increase in the revenue demand of the province to the tune of nearly Rs 90 million, in addition to another Rs 5 million in salami paid to government at the time of the settlement of khas lands. Non-retainable excess khas lands measuring about 343,000 acres were vested in the government. It was not possible to compute the correct money value of these assets, but a conservative estimate evaluated it as not less than Rs 150 million at the market rate. Prior to wholesale acquisition, the land revenue demand of East Pakistan stood at Rs 17.6 million.

However, the total amount of compensation assessed in respect of all rent-receiving rights acquired and khas lands vested stood at Rs 363.4 million. Of this, the government was able to pay Rs 199.86 million in a five-year disbursement programme. This was in addition to an amount of Rs 99.32 million assessed in favour of non-residents, who were to be paid in bonds through blocked accounts.

The main effects of land reforms in East Pakistan can be summarised as follows: (a) the actual cultivator at the bottom got direct ownership of land from the government; (b) the improved status and security enjoyed by him after the abolition of zamindari system created more incentives to increase production; (c) as all excess khas lands of ex-rent receivers were vested in the government, there was an increased scope for equitable distribution of khas lands at its disposal among the landless or marginal agriculturists and other deserving persons; (d) the operation of a land ceiling eliminated concentration of landed wealth in few hands; as the tenants came directly under the governments control, they were freed from all illegal exaction and oppression from former zamindars and their men; and (e) by putting a stop to subletting in the future, sub-infeudation of holdings were to eliminated.

To tackle the problem of fragmentation of land, however, the government took up a pilot project to consolidate holdings in two thanas of dinajpur district in 1960. A total area of 75 sq miles spread over 182 villages and having 297,683 plots and 66,088 khatiyans (record of right) was taken up in the project. The work started in the second week of June 1961 and was completed on 30 June 1962. There was serious opposition from some locals, including bargadars (sharecroppers) the project failed totally. Ultimately, the government nullified the consolidation work already completed by a special law enacted for the purpose. The Land Revenue Administrative Inquiry Committee, East Pakistan, analysed the situation in 1962 and observed that any scheme for compulsory consolidation of holding would be unacceptable to tenants in East Pakistan. In view of the very small area of land held by the majority of tenants, 75% of whom held less than three acres of land each, and of the law of inheritance which led to extensive subdivision of holdings after each generation, it was doubtful if the consolidation of holdings would be of any advantage to tenants.

In deviation of traditional thinking on land reforms, which mainly dealt with tenancy reform and fixation of ceilings on land holdings, a study was undertaken in 1980 at the instance of the Planning Commission to determine the problems of land reforms with a view to increasing agriculture productivity through modernisation. The study team visited West Bengal (India) with the object of not only seeing land reform measures, legal and administrative, undertaken there, but also to know the problems encountered in the process of implementation of the same. It found that the West Bengal government considered bargadars, comprising mainly the actual tillers of the soil, to be the target group for all land reform measures. Since they formed the poorest and most neglected sector of the rural population. After ensuring that individual persons belonging to this group were properly recorded in relevant official land records, the government took measures to ensure that their tenure as sharecroppers would not lie at the whim of landowners. It was stipulated in the law that landowners would not have the option to terminate cultivation of their land by recorded bargadars, except in the execution of an order of the competent authority. The government also took steps to make sure that recorded bargadars were given seasonal bank loans on the basis of barga certificates issued to them. The concerned local government institution was given an important role to play, in the process; this guaranteed that no collateral was needed for getting the loan and that not more than 30 days were required for sanction of such loans. The law also provided that lands of which the total value (at market rate) did not exceed Indian Rs 50,000 could be exempted from land revenue payable to the government, and lands valued at over Rs 50,000 would be subject to payment of revenue at a graduated scale.

In addition to modern technological means, viz. improved seeds, fertiliser, irrigation, etc., an important factor for good crop yield is the security of the tenure of bargardars which was ensured in West Bengal by some measures taken by government. The experience gathered by the study team was made available to the government of Bangladesh.

The land ceiling raised during the martial law regime of ayub khan was brought down to the original ceiling of 100 bighas per person or family after independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Another restriction to retainable land ceiling was introduced by a subsequent legislation, the Land Reform Ordinance 1984, under which families owning lands up to 60 bighas at a given time were to be barred from acquiring further land by purchase, inheritance, or otherwise. A family or person inheriting lands in excess of 60 bighas would have to surrender the 'surplus' land, for which due compensation was to be paid. Another feature of this Ordinance is a bar on the eviction from rural homestead, even in the process of law, for non-payment of rent or tax. The same law also gives some protection to sharecroppers. It provides for a 'barga-contract'for 5 years and ensures two-thirds share for the bargadar in the crop produced by his own labour, plough, seeds, irrigation water, and fertiliser. If, however, seeds and fertiliser were to be supplied by the landowner, he would share the crop to the extent of two-thirds. However, full implementation of this law is yet to be practised.

In 1989, two other acts were passed in Bangladesh: Land Appeal Board Act and Land Reforms Board Act. Efforts were made to streamline the land administration in the entire country. This was done in line with the workings of former board of revenue. Although subletting is now forbidden, the problems of bargadars, who have no legal right in the land they cultivate, still remain unmitigated and, further, the land owner-bargadar relationship is yet to be rationally spelt out. The East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act did not solve all the problems of ubiquitous share-cropping, widespread sub-marginal holdings, acute sub-division and fragmentation of holdings, dubious land-records prepared under the traditional system, and peculiar problems associated with the management of government khas or char (accretion) lands. Efforts in land reforms cover the regulation of tenancy rights, including those of sharecroppers and measures to tackle subdivision and fragmentation of land holdings. But they remain ineffective largely because they do not include measures to improve land management and to ensure improvement of crop yields through providing necessary inputs, organisation of credit and marketing facilities of the farm produces. [T Hussain]