Nepal is a land-locked central Himalayan country in South Asia located between China and India. The country is divided into seven provinces. It has about 25.2% population living below the poverty line as per the 2011 estimates.
Land reforms had started in Nepal in 1951. An official policy issued in 1952 declared, “Unless the land tenure system is improved, the economic condition of the peasantry and agricultural production will not improve. Land ownership is passing from the hands of peasants to those of money-lenders and rich people but the actual cultivators do not have security of tenure. This has reduced agricultural production and increased the number of landless peasants.”
After 76 years, which included the rule of a Marxist government, the condition of the peasantry remains unchanged. The 1957 Lands Act granted the security of tenure to the tenants or sharecroppers but the measure was largely ineffective because of the lack of implementation at the local level and due to the lack of tenancy records. However, a major push to land reform measures was given in 1961 and 1964. In 1961, the panchayat system was introduced as local democratic administrative machinery, which apart from assisting in implementation of land reforms, was to supplement the supply of credit, fertilisers, and irrigation facilities, and facilitate the development of cooperatives. In 1964, a thrust on the twin objectives of land reforms, i.e., ceiling on landholdings and distribution of government surplus land among the landless was given.
Implementation of ceiling on landholdings
The 1964 Lands Act prescribed a ceiling of 25 bighas of agricultural land for each family in Nepal. Land in excess of the prescribed ceiling was to be acquired by the government on payment of compensation which was fixed at ten times the land tax for agricultural lands. Nepal was divided in three regions namely Tarai and inner Tarai regions, Kathmandu Valley and Hill regions. By July 1972, the government of Nepal had acquired approximately 50,000 hectares of surplus land under this programme. This amounted to only 3% of the cultivated area. However, this performance was further cut down as only 22,000 hectares had been actually redistributed to around 10,000 families. This land could be distributed among many more families. This is one of the reasons why one finds so many Nepali workers in India and other countries. They neither have the land to work on nor the industries to be employed in.
The tourism industry has limitations and a villager can hardly be expected to be absorbed in it. The solution to this lies in completing land surveys and in swift implementation of land reforms. Grants are available from the Word Bank and other UN agencies for land survey and for updating land records. On the other hand, many sophisticated technologies have been developed to simplify surveys in hilly and inaccessible terrain. The Nepal government’s priority must be on distributing surplus land.
Security of tenure to sharecroppers
As defined in the 1964 Lands Act, a tenant or a sharecropper is “a peasant who obtains land from a landowner on any condition and cultivates it through his personal labour or the labour of his family.” In other words, actual cultivators were recognised as tenants or sharecroppers and intermediaries or Jimidars were abolished like the Zamindars in India. In 1961, it was estimated that 27.64% land was under tenancy. Out of the above, 35.01% land was irrigated and 16.85% was non-irrigated. This shows high incidence of sharecropping in Nepal. Tenancy is higher in Kathmandu Valley and Tarai regions than in the Hill region. In case of such lands known as the Raikar lands, 50% share of the produce was fixed to be given to the landlord and it grew as a custom. However sometimes, landowners even got two thirds of the gross produce of the main crop as share in hill districts including the Kathmandu Valley. It varied from two-thirds in the eastern Tarai to one third in the sparsely populated areas of the far western Tarai. In 1972, provisions related to sharecropping were applied to Raj Guthi lands. Tenants and sharecroppers were allowed to take bank credit for crop cultivation.
Eviction was permissible in the event of non-cultivation and non-payment of share or rent. The tenant cultivators were permitted to voluntarily relinquish their lands. But this provision was misused by landowners. Rana legislation correctly appreciated the problem of tenant cultivators and permitted tenant cultivators to redeem alienation of lands made in favour of others. It even provided to take preventive measure if the relinquishment was under compulsion of any kind. Thus, there is a clear spirit underlying the laws of Nepal to ensure security of tenure to the cultivator-tenants and sharecroppers. But in practice, due security of tenure is not available to the sharecroppers as the landlords are also moneylenders and the sharecroppers have to borrow money from them for cultivation.
Religious sentiments in Nepal point to the fact that the cultivator should be allowed 50% share of crops as the cultivator owes more allegiance to God. There is a need to revisit the limit of ceiling on landholdings as remnants of the Jagir system still exist. The Panchayats should be made more effective so that they can indirectly play a role in aiding community farming or cooperative farming.
Growth in the non-agricultural sector cannot be accelerated unless the primary sector of the economy which is agriculture is not restructured in Nepal. Benami land needs to be streamlined. A strong political will is required for this in addition to upgrading the revenue machinery.
— The writer is an expert in land reforms.