Sincere effort needed to make Right to Homestead a reality

Since 1970, each year on the earth day solemn pledges are made all over the world to protect and preserve the planet. But a sizeable number of people in India, an estimated 350 millions, remain on the periphery of such pledges as they do not own a piece of ‘earth’. As per the draft National Land Reforms Policy, more than 31 per cent of households in India are landless and another 30 per cent own so little (some 215 sq ft) that they better be called ‘landless’. What emerges is a shocking picture wherein 60 per cent population owns only 5 per cent of the country’s land.

Unlike in the urban areas, landlessness is the best predictor of poverty in rural areas because a piece of land supposedly provides both a place of residence as well as a small plot to meet crucial dietary needs. The ground reality is grossly discomforting as dual-purpose plots are in short supply. As a result, not only is there serious housing shortage in rural areas but inadequate livelihood opportunities too. While rural housing shortage has been estimated to be around 55 million, over 340 million people seek wage work in the villages.

Studies show that a rural household can derive multiple benefits like a place of residence, improved nutrition and small income from a typical house-cum-garden plot, called homestead land. It has been assessed that a plot of 0.38 acre can meet 90 per cent grain requirements of a household. In addition, entitlement to land enhances social status and provides access to credit. Such an entitlement had brought dramatic results in Russia where plots allocated to workers, which occupy just about 6 per cent of arable land, yield 50 per cent of agricultural production. 

It is indeed baffling that while both the Central and state governments have been enthusiastic in acquiring land for private investments, little attention has thus far been paid to fastrack land reforms for ensuring dignity to the poor! That the revised Land Acquisition Bill precedes the National Right to Homestead Bill for seeking legislative approval reflects priority of the ruling elite. The only recluse being that the draft policy reinforces the creation of a ‘land bank’ for each family’s right-to-land, with the proposed Homestead Bill being its operational tool.

Since land is a state subject, it is critical how the Centre and the states work between themselves to implement the provisions of the upcoming bill. Interestingly, it must also be stressed that almost all the states already have laws on homestead lands for homeless households with detailed and necessary provisions for implementation. Bihar is perhaps the first state to have enacted such a law, the Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act, 1947, and yet has the highest incidence of both the rural poor and the rural housing shortage.

Catch-22 situation

This has been so because many states, including Bihar, have been regularising homestead land allotment from a traditional ‘housing’ perspective. Though size of homestead land varies from one state to another, a 3 cent land or 1,300 sq.ft, can barely suffice as a rural shelter. No wonder, a majority of such allotments have never actually been put to any use in Bihar. In states like Odisha, where homestead plots have been reported to be bigger in size, land quality at several places have made it almost impossible to put the same to productive use. That’s a real Catch-22.

While common problems related to actual physical possession and regularisation of ownership have yet to be fixed, acquiring suitable land to address the twin objectives of resolving the issue of landlessness and rural poverty remains grossly unaddressed. On paper, the government may not face land crunch but in reality finding 10 cent land that can suit a house-cum-garden hasn’t been easy. Unless the alloted piece of land is large enough (at least 6 cents) for families to build a house and plant a garden, homestead land allotment shall remain an exercise on paper only.  

If accumulated experiences from different states on dealing in homestead land are any indication, for the biggest land distribution programme to succeed in its new avatar it is imperative that common glitches are not allowed to cascade the programme. The disparity in size of homestead land, which currently varies from 3 cents in Bihar to 12 cents in Karnataka, need to be averaged out to accommodate state-specific concerns on land availability. Else, a state like Kerala will run into administrative problems for locating homestead land outside of its boundaries.   

How the Centre and the states cooperate in overcoming the enumerated problems will determine the future of the provisions in the upcoming legislation. For poor allottees’ inter-generational non-transferability of the homestead land has been a contentious issue whereas for the government allotment of homestead land to rural migrants remains a formidable challenge. In addition to such teething problems, the states have to develop a foolproof system such that land prices are not artificially inflated wherever the government gets into the business of acquiring private land.   

Simply allotting homestead land to targeted population may not suffice for fighting landlessness and ensuing poverty. Unless the Centre and the states cooperate in facilitating convergence of various central and state-sponsored welfare programmes at homestead clusters and create common facilities in the vicinity of such clusters, land distribution is unlikely to transform the rural situation of deprivation and poverty.

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