Long overdue

A ‘long march’ by around 60,000 landless labourers has forced the Central government to sign an agreement promising a draft National Land Reform Policy within the next four to six months. While this is a step in the right direction, it has evoked more cynicism than celebration.

This is because there are serious doubts whether the government will act to fulfil its promise. Besides, even if the Centre ushers in the promised land reform policy, will state governments implement it? India’s record on this does not bode well. Only three states - West Bengal, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir – have acted to usher in land reform. One wonders how deeply committed the Centre itself is to the promises it has made. Only a fortnight ago when the landless labourers launched their jan satyagraha, the government rather brusquely rejected their demands on land reform.

Has there been a change of heart at all on the part of the government or is the agreement just a fire fighting measure aimed at preventing thousands of landless poor marching into the national capital? Is the agreement a tactical move to disperse the marchers? Once the marchers have gone home, will the government put its promise to draft a National Land Reform Policy on the backburner? It may be recalled that in 2007, in response to another ‘long march’ by landless labourers the government set up a National Land Reforms Council. Five years on this body has done nothing. In fact it never met. How many more ‘long marches’ will India’s poor have to go on before they see radical land reform?

The government’s approach to addressing poverty has been to tackle its consequences rather than the causes. Thus dozens of schemes have been introduced to tackle hunger and malnutrition or guaranteeing work. If these have failed to make a dent on the rural situation, this is because we have refused to reform ownership of land. Landlessness lies at the heart of rural poverty.

With the government not acting, thousands of rural poor are looking to the Maoists to bring change in land ownership. Land reform is not an issue that we can put on the backburner any longer. The agrarian situation is so serious that a veritable humanitarian crisis is unfolding in rural India. India has turned a deaf ear to the pleas of its poorest. The Centre has signalled a first step towards land reform but it must persist on this path.

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