Land Rights and Ownership in Orissa

31 Aug 2008
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Summary

The study highlights the situation of land rights and ownership in the state of Orissa, with a special focus on the landless, women and people from the Scheduled Tribes. It also provides recommendations to improve access of the poor to land and ways of arresting processes that promote land alienation.


One of the major problems for the vast majority of the rural population in India is the inadequate or almost non-existent access to fertile land. Rural poverty in India, as we all know, has its roots in the absence of access to land. Secure access rights to land are also an imperative for food security. Without land security, efforts to use natural resources in a sustainable manner may not be fruitful. According to recent statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization, the majority of the world’s hungry – 508 million out of a total of 800 million people – live in Asia, where hunger is virtually synonymous with the small and marginal farmers and landless.


The skewed nature of land distribution in India is reflected in the fact that approximately two percent of landholders own 25 percent of the land whereas 98 percent of the landholders own just 75 percent of the land. Around 43 percent of rural households in the country are landless. In order to bring a balance and bridge the gap between the poor landless and the rich landed peasantry, a number of land reforms legislations were promulgated after Independence. The State of Orissa also initiated a number of legislative reforms to improve access to land.


The Orissa Land Reforms Act 1960, was regarded a watershed in giving land rights to the tenants. It was meant to go beyond the ideological goal of ‘land to the tiller’ and achieve the more pragmatic objective of promoting proper and effective utilization of land in an effort to increase food production in the state - and the country, by extension. Though a number of progressive legislations were promulgated in Orissa after independence, their implementation remains a major concern. The Land Ceiling Act was enacted in 1974 with the intention of bringing economic and social justice amongst the weaker sections of the society. Its objective was to acquire surplus land by the Government and redistribute it among landless to improve the economy and living standards of the weaker sections of society. As per ceiling surplus rules, land up to 0.7 standard acres was allotted to the landless persons for agricultural purpose. The ceiling surplus operation failed to yield the desired result because of lack of actual physical possession by the beneficiary, unavailability of record of rights, and poor land quality making it almost impossible for him/her to cultivate the land and at times even identify it. A number of beneficiaries have pattas for ceiling surplus land allotted to them but the land is still under possession of the previous owners.


The government responded to repeated appeals from tribal and civil society organizations, by coming out with a campaign called Mo Jami Mo Diha (My Land and My Homestead land), launched in 2007 to ensure possession within a stipulated time. It is generally believed, however, that the amount of illegal land transfer is much more than what is reflected in government records and the process of ensuring actual possession in the above cases has not been an unqualified success.


With regard to land availability and number of landless, coastal and tribal Orissa present a very interesting trend. If the coast is facing the problem of increasing landlessness and less land available for distribution with more and more land getting converted to non-agricultural purpose, in tribal Orissa it is the other way around, i.e., less landless and more land for distribution. However, for some reason landlessness still continues in tribal Orissa. Additionally, land that has been received in donation under Bhoodan remains either undistributed or has been reoccupied by the previous owner.


Women’s rights over land is a crucial issue for any developing society as it is directly linked to right to food, work and other human rights. The denial of inheritance of land rights especially in a patriarchal system has contributed to the subordinate status of women. The Government of Orissa has decided to distribute all such land under ceiling surplus to landless people with high priority being given to landless widows and unmarried women up to 30 years of age, as well as to joint patta for the husband and wife. Still, significant gaps exist between women’s land rights and their actual ownership and possession.


The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, provides for recognition and vesting of forest rights to Scheduled Tribes in occupation of forest land prior to December 2005 and to other traditional forest dwellers who have been in occupation of forest land for at least three generations, i.e., 75 years, and up to a maximum of 4 hectares. As per the Act, the Gram Sabha is the competent authority to initiate the process of determining the nature and extent of forest rights of individuals/community. There are many misconceptions with reference to this Act on the part of both the tribals and other forest dwellers and on the part of government officials.


With all elaborate provisions of land entitlement under different schemes and Acts, the threats of land going out of the hands of the farmers, still remains a major concern. The current form and mode of industrialisation with special focus on Special Economic Zone may threaten laws and policies protecting rights within the scheduled areas. There have already been legal initiatives to dilute the stringent land transfer regulations, which may be detrimental to the people. On the one hand, there are set of laws that protect the rights of the people, while on the other hand some new ventures and policies prioritise exploitation of natural resources at the cost of food security.


Orissa is one of the mineral rich states of the country and recently it has signed numerous accords for private investment in the mining and industrial sector. This is expected to cause massive deforestation in the ecologically fragile coastal areas and drought prone western and southwestern Orissa, and resultant loss of farm land influencing both livelihood and food security as well as the micro and macro environment.


The growing popularity of cash crops in Orissa has not resulted in any substantial land use change but the selection of crops and pattern has a serious repercussion on the land ownership and food security situation, especially in the tribal areas. On the land front, large tracts of tribal – both patta and forest land – are being leased out to traders from adjoining states for commercial farming. The land when it comes back to the tribals after the lease period is over is almost barren and hardly cultivable due to excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides. The incessant growing of cash crops is invading the area used for growing traditional varieties of cereals, millets and pulses. Production of these varieties has already gone down leading to a price hike with food scarcity and nutritional imbalance to follow.


Land distribution to the landless and ensuring their physical possession has remained a major area of concern. Besides, land of all categories is under tremendous stress because it is being slowly though consistently acquired for non-food use. This has an adverse impact on the small and marginal farmers because it results in the gradual loss of land. If loss of agricultural land is a matter of concern in coastal Orissa, in the tribal hinterland, it is the diversion of forests that is causing loss of livelihoods and ultimately forced or voluntary eviction. Interestingly, the field is being set through legal and administrative initiatives in the form of changes in the Orissa Land Reforms Act and quicker and smoother forest clearance processes to make such diversions easier. Moreover, the invasion of cash crops in the western and south-western parts of the state is constantly influencing the food security situation - non-edible cash crops take the place of food grains. This trend is likely to create a food crisis if it is not prevented soon.


While there are many suggestions to improve the situation, state Governments can make a start by setting up special Land Tribunals to expeditiously dispose of cases related to land distribution and entitlement within a specified time limit. Monitoring cells may also be set up to watch the disposal of cases involved in litigation. Finally, the state government needs to seriously review issues of land acquisition, transfer and alienation linked with industrialization, mining, development induced displacement and commercial agriculture.


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