Last October, the Ministry of Rural Development promised thousands of landless Jan Satyagraha agitators that it would draft a new land reforms policy, correct the inequitable distribution of land and safeguard the rights of traditional forest dwellers. To its credit, the Ministry kept its word and recently published a draft policy for public comments. The proposed framework has done well to protect the existing land of the marginalised sections, but falls short in improving the condition of the landless. Despite laws such as the Forest Rights Act which are meant to protect their rights, tribal communities remain the most exploited and worst affected. About 40 per cent of the total land acquired so far belongs to them. To set this right, the proposed policy has directed all States to delineate tribal habitation areas within a year, and statutorily protect them. It reaffirms the importance of the gram sabha and assigns it the role of a competent authority. No project is to be undertaken or land acquired without its consent. In the event that mining is taken up after getting consent, the sabha would retain ownership of the land and receive 50 per cent of royalty or revenues. The policy also proposes to create funds to help the vulnerable poor who tend to sell land when in distress.
The land rights of women have been another vexatious issue. Despite 75 per cent of India’s working women being involved in agriculture, the state has invariably ignored them and allotted land to the male head of a family. This has made it difficult for women to free themselves from violent relationships and claim relief. The draft policy has done the right thing by recommending future allotments in their name. To make this change more effective, related reforms such as joint holding of land by women groups that would help them access financial assistance should also be implemented. The proposed policy fails to exhibit similar creativity when it comes to distributing surplus lands to the needy. About 30 per cent of rural households remain landless, while the wealthiest 10 per cent holds 55 per cent of the land. About 8 million rural households are yet to get even the promised minimum — 1/10th of an acre. It is naïve to assume that advances in surveying techniques would improve the situation when the core problem is a reluctance to enforce reforms. The Minister of Rural Development has proposed well-meaning changes, but contradictory positions taken by other ministers, including the Prime Minister in recent months on infrastructure projects and mining in tribal areas, have raised serious doubts about the future of the proposed policy. If the government is serious about equitable development, it has to implement an improved land reform policy without delay.