Land Struggle in Andhra Pradesh 

–D.P Bakshi

The firing on peasants agitating for land reform at Mudigonda (Khammam) in Andhra Pradesh is an indication of the scale, militancy and revolutionary potential of the land issue in Andhra Pradesh.

Successive Governments have tried to declare the question of land reform to be dead – but the unfinished and betrayed promise of land reform is a spectre which keeps haunting those in power. Andhra Pradesh in particular has been witness to vigorous land struggles at different junctures. Land reform was a major electoral plank of the Congress and land had a prominent place in the early talks of the Y S Rajasekhar Reddy Government with the Maoists. Sensing that the land question was gradually capturing the central stage of AP politics, CPI(ML) Liberation had intensified its mobilisation on the issue, and held conventions at Hyderabad, Rajamundry, Vijaywada, and many other rural centres in the coastal districts on the question of ‘land and democracy’. Land struggles at the grassroots began to intensify.

CPI(M) had been in an alliance with the ruling Congress, but in the panchayat polls in June-July 2006, had chosen to ally with the TDP instead, after the Congress refused to allot zila parishad posts in Khammam and Nalgonda districts to the CPI(M). In April 2007 CPI(M) launched their state-wide Bhoomiporatam (land struggle) – initially in the big cities and towns for house sites for the urban poor and then in the rural areas. CPI also joined the campaign later.

This struggle was widespread and received an enthusiastic response. However, it centred mostly on house sites in urban areas and Government, forest, and assigned land in rural areas (avoiding any confrontation with feudal forces or kulaks). When the red flag was hoisted or huts were built on captured land, there were clashes with police. In the course of this movement more than 10000 people were arrested and 1100 cases registered.

Against this repression, a protest campaign was organized in mandal and district head quarters. A relay hunger strike ensued, followed by an indefinite hunger strike by CPI-CPI(M) leaders from 21st July onwards in Indirapark at Hyderabad, demanding the release of land struggle activists, withdrawal of all cases and speedy implementation of land distribution. In support of this hunger strike, picketing was organized throughout the state at mandals and districts. CPI(ML) Liberation as well as other ML forces also offered their solidarity. There were brutal lathicharges by the police at the picketers at many places, and the hunger strikers were threatened with force feeding.

The hunger strike site was attacked by police and forcibly dismantled. Against this attack, an AP bandh call for 28 July was issued by the joint Left forces including CPI(ML) Liberation and other ML groups.

It was during this bandh that the police indulged in unprovoked firing on the struggling masses at Mudigonda (Khammam), in which 7 land struggle activists and one bystander were killed. Against this heinous killing, all the Left forces including the ML groups launched state-wide protests in the form of demonstrations, effigy burning of YSR, and continuous road blockades for 3-4 days.

CPI(ML) Liberation demanded the resignation of Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, the suspension of the DM and SP of Khammam district, withdrawal of all cases of activists of land struggle, and the setting up of an autonomous Land Reform Commission.

The firing at Mudigonda has once again brought home the lesson that the struggle for land, liberty and democracy cannot be separated. In this era of reversal of land reform, the ruling class in states like AP, Bihar and Tamilnadu are talking of land reform as part of its overall political strategy to cope with growing agrarian struggles. The challenge for revolutionary and Left forces is to turn the tables on the ruling class by intensifying land struggles of the rural poor beyond any populist and token reforms. This will be the best tribute to the martyrs of Mudigonda.

The Ranga Rao Land Committee Report

The land question has been crucial in Andhra Pradesh right from the beginning, and militant land struggles by the revolutionary wing of the communist movement have forced different state governments to enact several land legislations allowing for distribution of different categories of land among the landless poor. Some of the legislations include the AP (Telengana area) Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act,1950, the AP (Andhra area) Tenancy Act 1956, the AP (Telengana area) Abolition of Inams Act 1955, the AP Land Reforms (Ceiling on Agricultural Holdings) Act 1973, the AP Assigned Land (Prohibition of Transfer) Act 1977, the AP Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act 1982, the AP Rights in Land and Pattadar Passbook Act 1971, and the AP Occupants of Homesteads (Conferment of Ownership) Act 1976. 

But such legislations themselves could not ensure distribution of land among poor and establish their control over the land. Rather, illegal occupation of land meant for poor by feudal forces has become the order of the day.

In this backdrop CPI(ML) liberation intensified the agrarian struggle in East Godavari, Krishna, Vizag and other coastal districts as part of a campaign for implementation of existing land laws through people’s initiatives. In this process more than 3000 acres of land had been captured from different illegal occupants and distributed among poor who could retain their control over land through their organized might and bitter struggle. Similarly other ML groups and left forces also organized land struggles in different parts of the states.

After the change of regime in 2004 from the Chandrababu-led TDP to the YSR-led Congress, the question of distribution of land among the landless poor was raised during the sensational ‘peace talks’ with the Maoists. In this context Rajasekhara Reddy constituted a Land Committee under the chairmanship of Konaru Ranga Rao (Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development) in December 2004. This Committee submitted its report to the Government in December 2006 and was made public on 27 May 2007.

Meanwhile it was revealed that CM Rajasekhara Reddy himself as well as his family own and control hundreds of acres of land illegally. Reddy, after initial denials, finally had to accept the charge with a plea that it happened due to his family members’ ignorance of laws. He made a dramatic declaration that he was ready to surrender all excess land to the Administration to distribute among the poor.

Findings of the report

The Ranga Rao Land Committee Report is an exhaustive report of more than hundred pages with 12 chapters and having nearly 100 recommendations of immediate steps to speed up the implementation of land reforms.

What did the Report reveal? We summarise its findings:  
The land issue continues to be the single most emotive issue in rural AP. 75% of the rural population derive their livelihoods wholly or partly from land. Land is still a pivotal asset in terms of both income and employment, around which socioeconomic privileges or deprivations revolve.

Despite efforts of the governments, only a small percentage of the poor are land owners. A host of issues dog the land reforms agenda. To cite a few examples:

In India, around 87% of land holders among SCs and 65% among STs belong to the category of small and marginal farmers (as per the agricultural census of 1991). 64% of SCs and 36% STs are agricultural labourers as against 31% of others. (Census of India 1991)

In between 1961 to 1991 (at an all-India level) about 1 lakh people of SC background lost land ownership. Of the people able to work only 12 % of SC background held land in 1991 (as compared to 23% in 1961). Agrarian labourers from SC background increased from 57% in 1961 to 72 % in 1991. The average holding of SCs decreased from 1.19 hectares in 1975 to 0.83 hectares in 1995. For STs it declined from 2.33 hectares in 1975 to 1.44 hectares in 1995 (as per Agricultural Census Report).

In the context of AP, SCs who represent 16% of the state’s population control only 7.5% of operated area. Government land distributed to SCs was only 22% of the total Government land.

India loses 1.3% of economic growth annually as a result of disputed land titles which inhibits the supply of capital and credit for agriculture (due to faulty and backward land administration).

In many districts, the forest revenue border remains unresolved for years together. Loss of control of tribals over land in scheduled areas is an alarming trend despite the stringent land transfer regulations. In Telengana thousands of acres of Inami lands are still unsettled. 50% of lands in coastal areas are given on lease and almost 100% of lease is informal. Land purchasers of lakhs of acres of patta land through plain paper transactions (75% of whom are poor) are not recognised as legal owner of the lands. Both these phenomena have contributed significantly to the downward curve in agricultural productivity in AP.

Despite the fact that 42 lakh acres of land have been assigned to the landless poor since the 1960s, a significant percentage of the said land is not in possession of the poor. What are the reasons for this state of affairs? The public hearing conducted by the Land Committee revealed evidence of lands which are assignable but not assigned; land assigned on paper but physical position not shown; lands in occupation of the poor for ages but patta not given; and ineffective implementation of Assigned Land (Prohibition of Transfer) Act, 1977. There are huge tracts of lanka land situated in the upper and lower streams of the Godavari and Krishna river basin. These lands are operated through “societies”. Most of the societies are either defunct now or being managed by big landlords. Encroachers are increasing and some societies are even alienating these lands to third party.

Two separate laws govern rural land tenancy in AP, one for the Andhra area and the other for the Telengana area. The Telengana Act is more radical as it prohibits the creation of new tenancy relationship and creates a class of protected tenants who have the right to purchase the land they work.

The purpose of land reforms was the rational use of land resources with equity, based on three key elements – abolition of intermediaries, ceiling on land holdings, and tenancy reforms. The first of these could be implemented with relative success to the extent of doing away with zamindari and inamdari systems, but the lot of poor was not significantly addressed.

Despite specific directions of the Supreme Court for disposal of endowment land (temple land) the auctions are held in secret and sold to private parties for small amounts of money, and the same is the case with endowment land given on lease. In all the Telengana districts, thousands of hectares of inam land under the occupation of poor without titles came to the vested with the Government after the abolition of Inams.

Though the protective land transfer law prevents transfer not only from tribal to non tribal but also among nontribals in the schedule areas, yet thousands of acres of land have illegally passed into the hands of nontribals. The nontribal population holds 48% of the land. Every year more and more lands are passing into the hands of nontribals, and if not checked sharply, very soon the tribals may not have any lands at all.

Within the existing policy framework there is an opportunity to ensure one acre of land for every poor person in AP.

Some Relevant Facts:

On record the government has assigned more than 4 million acres of land to nearly 3 million poor people. But in real life far less is under cultivation in the hands of the poor.

Similarly 1.13 lakh acres of Bhoodan land has been distributed among 43 thousands poor people. But the real life picture is the same as the above.

As on March 31, 2002, the state has distributed 5.2 lakh acres of ceiling surplus land to 5.4 lakh poor people. But in many cases the lands are not in possession of the poor or they are yet to get pattas. In addition, the state has not yet fully implemented its ceiling laws to confiscate surplus land and make it available for distribution.

More than 9 lakh acres of inam land have been settled among 3.41 lakhs of people. But these figures do not reflect the real extent of inam land.

In the context of several anomalies and shortcomings in the process of implementation of land reform in AP and in view of the urgency of speeding up the process, the Land Committee advocated a series of recommendations.

Recommendations of the Land Committee

But how should we look into these recommendations?
The Report has suggested 104 recommendations. 41 recommendations are related only to transfer of tribal land in schedule areas while 15 recommendations are related to land distribution.

The recommendations can be categorised as follows:
Measures of administrative reform or restructuring of the mechanism for implementation.
Speeding up the judicial process to settle land-related disputes.
Amendment of existing laws to plug the holes.
Involving civil society – NGOs, unions, etc.

To cite a few samples of the recommendations:

The government shall design and take up an intensive, continuous and comprehensive training and capacity-building programme for all the revenue officials at various levels to reinforce their pro-poor perspective and deepen their understanding of pro-poor land enactments.

Government shall request the High Court to constitute a special bench for a time-bound disposal of land related cases.

Provision shall be made in the Act to reopen such cases of land ceiling, which have been decided on fraud, and which are at the primary tribunal stage. In cases where the courts have already passed orders, action may be taken to file a review petition.

Assignment proposals in the case of government land should be approved by the Gram Sabha.

Selective Silences

The basic flaw in the jumble of proposed recommendations is the absence of any thrust and focus. At face value it appears as if the recommendations have addressed each and every aspect of the problems of implementation of the land reform drive, but actually not a single step has been suggested which can act address the real issues which have blocked implementation. How did such an exhaustive report miss such a crucial aspect? Because the report, while revealing some important gaps in implementation has also attempted to conceal some other crucial aspects.

For instance, the Report has maintained studied silence on land struggles in AP, on the landless poor involved in this struggle and organizations who are leading this struggle. Further, the report did not make any attempt to identify the forces which act as the major stumbling block in the path of any meaningful land reform. Any recognition of the emerging nexus of feudal forces-neo rich and corrupt officials and politicians in blocking land reform is totally missing in the whole range of recommendations.

The Report overlooks the deep-rooted links of Administration and judiciary with the interests of feudal forces and neo-rich in rural society. In the absence of such a recognition, the proposals of restructuring the administration and giving a proactive role to the judiciary would only further strengthen the vicious cycle rather than ensure land for the landless.

The report totally avoids the question of the active and effective role that is played by people, in particular the rural poor who are the target groups for distribution of land. In the name of people, it mentions just the Gram Sabha and NGOs as representatives of ‘civil society’ and represents the rural poor as helpless and ignorant who deserve the pity    of Government, its administrative structure and its laws.

The YSR Government’s refusal to set up an autonomous Land reform Commission exposes the fact that the Land Committee Report was meant to be populist eyewash. But the rural poor of AP have laid bare the shameful fact that land reform laws enacted in the early years of Independent India and in the wake of the Telengana movement are yet to be implemented on the ground.