States that have implemented land reforms have higher rates of landlessness than the national average, according to data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC).
Of the country’s total 17.92 crore rural households, 10.08 crore or 56 per cent do not own any agricultural land. What is surprising, though, is that the incidence of landlessness is higher in Kerala (72 per cent) and West Bengal (70 per cent).
The percentage of rural households with no land in the two states — both known to have undertaken radical land reforms under Left-ruled governments in the past — is higher than even for the likes of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra or Odisha that have no record of carrying out any sustained land redistribution programme.
One reason for this seeming discrepancy could be that the SECC data looks only at agricultural land and not homestead land, said Abhijit Sen, former member of the Planning Commission. Kerala, for one, has seen significant reduction in land under cultivation. Quite a bit of farmlands redistributed to erstwhile tenant-cultivators after imposition of land ceilings would, over time, have got converted to pure homesteads. Many agricultural households would have exited farming altogether.
This is partly also borne out by the SECC data on sources of household income. While “cultivation” formed the main source of income for 30.1 per cent of all rural households in India, the figure for Kerala was as low as 10.25 per cent.
However, K P Kannan, former director of the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies, felt that the 72 per cent landlessness figure “needs further confirmation”. While the gross cropped area in Kerala has fallen, it “has not dipped to the extent the SECC data would suggest”.
In West Bengal, the high landlessness is seen to be related to the fact that land reforms in the state were focused more on providing sharecroppers legal security of tenure and protection against eviction — through the Left Front government’s Operation Barga during the 1980s — than conferring ownership per se.
In West Bengal, too, the proportion of rural households mainly dependent on cultivation as a source of revenue is comparatively low at 18.87 per cent.
The states with the lowest rates of landlessness — defined by agricultural land — are Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.