Rights of Farmers, Agricultural Labourers and Forest Workers in India Community Resource

16, Mar 2018 | CJP Team

India has always been a predominantly agrarian economy give the abundance of rivers and fertile soil across the country. From the golden fields of wheat in Punjab, to maize, millet and pulses thriving in the alluvial rich vast agricultural expanse of the flood plains of the Ganga and its tributaries, to the lush paddy fields of Chhattisgarh to the tea plantations of Darjeeling, the cotton and sugarcane of Maharashtra and the near divine coffee of Chikkamagaluru… Indian farmers produce everything in abundance for a growing population in a developing country.

But what have we done to protect the rights of farmers. Have we walked the talk in terms of legislations or have we left them to their own devices to battle poverty, apathy and isolation till the point they choose the noose?

Traditional Indian Farming: A Historical Perspective

Unlike the largely mechanised farming of the American Mid-West, Indian farming has always been labour intensive. Traditionally Indian farmers have relied on a host of draught animals, organic fertilizers and pesticides, as well as seeds whose quality has been improved using natural selection methods as opposed to genetic manipulation. The GM Seeds and Food Debate is a complex issue that also needs addressing, separately.

Feudalism in India: The Zamindari System

Feudal systems like Zamindari took land rights away from the tiller and giving it to Zamindars who in turn collected exorbitant taxes. These Zamindars, filled up their own coffers and gave a portion to the British colonists who patronised them for their loyalty and the role Zamindars played in helping the colonists increase their wealth by plundering India. This also lead to massive polarisation in rural India with Land Lords and rich farmers on one side and small, marginal farmers, tenants and agricultural labourers on the other. The gap between the haves and have not grew and continues to grow to this day.

Post 1947, some efforts were made to ensure that there is some re-distribution of land. This was not universal and did not always go down to the agricultural labourer (those who actually till the land, or the poorest of the poor). Operation Barga is held up as one such political experiment (CPI-M in Bengal). But the issue of re-distribution of land has been half-baked. The defense of the large farmer has been that fragmentation of land is not viable, economic. However a more people-friendly solution could be cooperative farming which has, of late been the articulated demand of farmers protest movements.

Other Land Ownership and Taxation Systems and the Debt Trap

The Ryotwari System introduced by Sir Thomas Munroe and Captain Alexander Reed in 1820, tried to change the dynamics by giving the tiller called Ryot rights to the land they cultivated. The Ryots paid taxes directly to the British colonists, but needed to take large loans from private money lenders who charged them exorbitant interest rates often calculated using a method that ensured that even though the principal would get paid in full, some amount of interest would always linger and in turn attract interest upon the unpaid interest.

Another system that evolved around this time was the Mahalwari system, where the village headman collected taxes and paid to the British colonists. The land ownership rested with the tiller and each person’s share of taxes was in proportion to their land holdings. But this did not help the tillers much either as they could not escape the money lenders who charged exorbitant interest rates forcing farmers deeper into indebtedness.

A farmer in his dried up cotton field in Nalgonda. Image by Noah Seelam AFP/Getty Images

It is this mounting debt that forces farmers to take extreme measures like suicide. It doesn’t matter if it is a private money lender or a bank, one bad crop, drought or unseasonal rain or hailstorms, or simple things like wedding and medical expenditure, can wreak havoc on the financial health of farmers.

British Era Indian Forest Acts

The British sneakily made all forest land government property by enacting these laws, first in 1878 and then again in 1927. Their objective was to regulate and profit from the timber trade and sale of other forest produce in which India was abundant. This took away ownership of forest land from Adivasis and other forest dwelling communities who depended on forest produce for their livelihood. You can read the Indian Forest Act, 1927 here.  This draconian law empowered an unholy nexus between the Forest department (Van Vibhaag) and mafia who were involved in sale and smuggling of rich Indian timber.

The Forest Rights Act of 2006 overrides the provisions of the exploitative Indian Forest Act of 1927. It allows forest dwelling communities to apply for the rights to the land on which they have been living for generations. However, the provisions of this act have not been implemented in letter and spirit so far, prompting many Adivasis to join the Kisan Long March from Nashik to Mumbai between March 6 and 12, 2018.

Moreover, the new 2018 Afforestation Rules pushed through by the Ministry for Environment and Forests appear geared to snatch away the rights and entitlements guaranteed to the forest dweller and Adivasi under FRA, 2006. CJP stands in solidarity with Indian farmers and forest workers. We are working closely with the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) to quash false cases leveled against Adivasis and forest workers by state authorities who are trying to bully them into giving up rights to their land.

Land to the Tiller

This has been the battle cry for agrarian communities the world over against feudal and exploitative ownership and taxation systems. Indeed, India’s founding fathers understood the importance of farmers leading Lal Bahadur Shastri to proclaim Jai Jawaan Jai Kisaan as the slogan for new India in 1965. Indeed a variety of land reforms were enacted to ensure equitable distribution of land post-independence.

Articles 23, 38 and 39 of the Indian Constitution gave the states to enact their own Abolition of Zamindari Acts as well as abolish bonded labour practices. The states could also redistribute land and community resources such as ponds, lakes etc. in the greater interest of people. For example, you can read the UP Abolition of Zamindari Act, 1963 here.

Land Ceiling Acts were enacted by different states to put a limit on the amount of land an individual can own in order to prevent land hoarding and ensure a more equitable distribution of land resources. The surplus land was to be redistributed to landless and marginal farmers. You can read the Maharashtra Agricultural Land Ceiling Act, 1961 here.

The original Land Aquisition Act was enacted by the British in 1894. However, it had many deficiencies such as:

Unilateral acquisitions – Under the 1894 act, once the authority develops the intention of acquiring a particular part of land, it could carry the acquisition irrespective of the affect that would have on the person whose land was being acquired.

No safeguards: There was no scope for an efficient appeal mechanism according to the 1894 act. A hearing (under section 5A) was prescribed, but the views are not required to be taken on board by the officers conducting the hearing.

No measures to rehabilitate: There are absolutely no provisions in the 1894 law relating to the resettlement and rehabilitation of those displaced by the acquisition.

What constitutes as urgent: This is one of the most criticized sections of the act. The act does not clarify as to what constitutes as an urgent need to acquire, leaving a lot of discretion in the hands of the acquiring authority. This results to the majority of acquisitions falling under the urgent acquisitions category with literally no scope of challenge.

Low rates of compensation: The rates paid for the land acquired are the prevailing circle rates in the area which are notorious for being outdated and hence not even remotely indicative of the actual rates prevailing in the area.

The primary purpose of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 as the title suggested was ‘Land Acquisition ‘and its expedition. However, the 2013 act is titled as ‘Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013‘ which expands the ambit of the act to fair compensation, thorough resettlement and rehabilitation of those affected, adequate safeguards for their well-being and complete transparency in the process of land acquisition.

A critical evaluation of both Land Ceiling Acts may be read here.


*** Feature Image by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Women farmers at work in their vegetable plots near Kullu town, Himachal Pradesh.


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