Farmers’ Rights to Land: A Crucial Dimension on ‘Livelihood Security’
Posting Date: 22 Nov 04
Author(s): Jagannath Adhikari
In an agrarian society, land is considered as the principal means of production. In such societies, land is not only the main source of wealth and livelihood, but also a source of social security, status and identity. Therefore, rural people are attached to their land.
In order to increase agricultural production and maintain livelihoods of people dependent on land, it is essential that these land-dependent people should have rights over the land on which they work as cultivators or laborers. Unless these people own land, their economic position remains bleak and they always are bonded to other people who own land. In such societies, the whole social life and identity, land-owning class controls freedom and independence of these dependent people. They always remain subservient to the landowners. This is clearly seen in the case of bonded la-borers in Nepal. The Kamaiyas, Halia, Charuwa, and the like, have always remain dependent on ‘land owners’ for their livelihoods which also curtailed their freedom, identity, social and family life. From one generation to generation, they always remain bonded. They were not able to do any thing without the permission from their landowners, who also own them. Landlords were able to buy and sell laborers like any physical commodities.
Even for the development of agricultural sector and to increase production, it was considered essential that the land cultivators and workers should have rights to the land on which they work. In the 195OS to 197Os, ‘land reform guaranteeing the rights of ownership to land on which farmers/laborers work, was considered pre-condition for modernization of agricultural sector through green revolution technology. In Nepal’s case also, for example, Agricultural Prospective Plan, which is a 20-year plan for the development of agricultural sector and reduction of poverty, has considered that ‘land reform’ is a precondition for the success of the plan. Here ‘land reform’ does not only mean the rights of farmers and workers to land which they cultivate, but also other measures of improvements like reduction of land fragmentation, land consolidation, access to irrigation, credit and inputs. But rights to land to the tillers are the basic motto of ‘land reform ‘.
It is because of the above reasons that land reform has been implemented in most of the countries. But only in few cases it has been successful. In many countries land reform pro-grams were considered failures mainly because of the nexus between land ownership, political power and education. Most of the land owning class controlled the political power and bureaucracy because of their education and wealth. As a result, even though, land reform policy has been implemented, it did not bring about the desired outcomes, and land reforms were largely failures.
Even though ‘land’ is considered as a type of ‘capital’, it should be noted that it is also nature’s gift to mankind. In this sense, it is also considered as a different kind of property on which those who work on it should have rights to use it on a sustainable basis. Land being a nature’s free gift, it should be used in a way that it is not destroyed for its use by the posterity. The coming generation of people also have equal right to this nature’ gift. ‘Destroying it in the name of private property would also mean that it is a ‘inter-generational injustice’. Therefore, from the perspective of natural law that those who cultivate the land have the right to its ownership until they cultivate it for their use. This is especially so the land that is being used for the basic needs or for the subsistence. The people who depend on natural resources for subsistence should not be alienated from these resources whether it is land, forest or other resources.
From the principle of human rights also ‘land to the tillers’ guarantees the socio-economic-cultural rights of the people. The socio-economic-cultural rights of people mean that they have the rights to survival and means of livelihoods. As a matter of fact it is the state’s responsibility to guarantee this rights of every citizens. Nepali constitution formulated in 1991 also clearly states this in its directives to the government.
The scale of the problem in Nepal
For most Nepalese, land is the principal asset for livelihood. Of the 86% of the population who live in rural areas, access to land is vital for their survival. But about a million families in Nepal (of the total 4.2 million families in total) do not have land at all. Of these landless families, about 45 % have been cultivating other’s land with the aim that they will get rights to cultivation of that land under ‘tenancy rights’. Landlessness is particularly a problem in the Tarai, even though land availability is relatively scarce in the hills. There are 3% absolute landless households in the hills and 18% in Tarai. If Nepal is to embark on a serious poverty reduction work, solving the problem of landlessness and providing the rights of tenancy to tenant-cultivators should be the first priority.
Nepal has given priority to poverty reduction in the ninth (1997-2OO2) and tenth five-year (2OO2-2OO7) plans, but has not firmly taken the issue of landlessness in the country. The government’s main aim is to increase economic growth rate with the assumption that it will lead to benefits to the poor, including the land-less people. About 38% of the population of the country is reported to live under absolute poverty conditions. Their income is not sufficient to meet even the most basic necessities of life. Most of these poor people are landless people. This shows that landlessness is directly linked with the poverty. Access to some land is also essential for the food security of the family in a situation where state has not been able to do anything to provide food security to people. Landless and poor people are left to the market for employment. But markets in countries like Nepal are imperfect and there are also fluctuations in creation of employment opportunities. The bust phase of the economy is particularly difficult for the poor and land less people to secure their food security. Therefore, in a country where employment is not guaranteed and where state social security does not exist at all, access to land is important for the livelihood security of the landless and poor households.
Nepal’s social structure is also interlinked with the problem of landlessness and tenancy. Nepal is a caste-based society, and the so called ‘low caste’ households are the ones, which face the disproportionately high incidence of landlessness in Nepal. About 22 % of the absolutely landless people are from Dalit (low caste) households, even though they are only 13 % in the national population. More over, a large majority of Dalit households are functionally landless, i.e., they have some land, but only a small piece for the house lot. These people were dependent on higher caste households for the livelihoods in the past. This dependency relationship means that they were denied from the land ownership. They may in a way also considered as a bonded labor, but somewhat different and liberal than the ones we see in the Tarai, Kamaiyas, Haruwa, Charuwa, Haliya and the like.
Nepal has from time to time implemented land reform programs. Under these programs, provisions were also made to provide some lands to landless people and to protect tenancy rights. For example, Land Act in 1964 and ‘land reform program announced in 2OO1’ aimed to distribute some land by the state, but these programs were not successful in doing that. Similarly, most of the tenants were not provided with their rights to own some land they cultivate. Many procedural problems were kept for the tenants to pursue their rights. Moreover, most tenants being illiterate, they were not able to assert their rights. As a result, there are a great number of them who still have to remain as tenants, but without any hopes of getting a share on the land, which they cultivate. Unless their rights are not protected, poverty and destitution will remain, and agricultural sector will not be able to develop. Farming cannot prosper in a condition when absentee landlords, who have no interest in farming, control land.