Land Question and Land Struggle in Orissa

(An abridged version of a discussion paper presented by comrade DP Buxi in a workshop held on 9-10 October 2004, at Gunupur, Orissa)

Salient Features of Agrarian Economy in Orissa

1. On the basis of physical features and agro-economic conditions, Orissa can be divided into four zones:

(a) The northern plateau covering districts like old Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar, Sundergarh and parts of Dhenkanal. It constitutes 23% of the state’s total geographical area.

(b) The central river basin comprising districts like Old Bolangir, Sambhalpur and parts of Dhenkanal. This part also accounts for 23% of the state’s territory.

(c) The Eastern Ghat region comprising districts like Old Kalahandi, Phulboni, Ganjam and Koraput. It constitutes 36% of the total geographical area of the state.

(d) The coastal plains, comprising districts like Old Balasore, Cuttack, Puri and part of Ganjam. It accounts for the remaining 18% of the state’s area.

Agriculture is most developed in the coastal plains followed by the central river basin zone. Barring a few pockets, agriculture in the two other zones is very backward. It should be noted that the agrarian economy is interwoven with the economy based on forests, mines and rivers or lakes in different pockets.

Historical Background

The larger part of Orissa came under British control in the late 18th century. However, under colonial rule it was divided into regions governed by other provincial administrations: Bengal (later, Bihar since 1912), Central Province and Madras Presidency. In addition there were 24 princely states, which were controlled by the British through a subsidiary alliance, under which the princes had freedom in their own internal administration so long as they regularly paid tributes to the colonial authority. As a result, different revenue systems and tenancy laws prevailed in different parts of the present-day state of Orissa.

The Bengal revenue system was implemented in districts like Balasore, Cuttack and Puri (vide The Bengal Rent Act, 1859 – it was replaced by The Bengal Tenancy Act, 1885 and then The Orissa Tenancy Act was introduced in 1913 modelled after the Bengal Tenancy Act). As a result, many intermediary forms of tenure developed in Zamindari areas along with the growth of sharecropping.

Madras revenue system was exercised in Koraput, Ganjam and part of Phulboni districts ( The Madras Estate Land Act, 1908, applied both for Zamindari and Rayatwari areas; the rights of Landholders were governed by executive instructions). As in Zamindari area, landholders could freely sublet land to tenants who enjoyed no protection under the Law.

Central Province revenue system (vide Central Province Land Revenue Act 1881/1917 and Tenancy Act, 1898/1920) was prevalent in Sambhalpur and Nawapada. Princely states had separate land settlements and revenue regulations under the Government of India Act, 1935. There was no law to protect the interests of tenants.

Two Major Systems of Land Revenue in Orissa Prior to Independence:

Zamindari (Landlord) Tenure:

Land was held as an independent property owned by an estate or a landlord and revenue was assessed on an individual, or a community, tilling the land. Proprietors were required to deposit land revenue at the district treasury. One Sub-Divisional Officer assisted by one or more Tehsildars was the Incharge of revenue collection. There was no revenue administration below this level and zamindars had organized their own revenue collection agencies, often involving many more layers of intermediaries.

Rayatwari (Peasant Proprietary) Tenure:

Land belonged to the crown and was held by individuals with a right of occupancy (heritable and transferable). Revenue was assessed on individuals who were the actual occupants of smaller holdings. It was collected through a village headman whose office was hereditary. He was paid a commission of 10% and sometimes received some Jagir land as well. In addition to collection of revenue, he was also required to keep the record of rights up-to-date by carrying out mutations.

Orissa became a separate state in 1936 comprising six districts: Balasore, Cuttack, Puri, Sambhalpur, Ganjam and Koraput.

After independence, all the 24 princely states were also merged with Orissa. 7 new districts were thus created: Keonjhar, Dhenkanal, Sundargarh, Bolangir-Patna, Boudh-Khondomol and Kalahandi.

In 1992 four new districts were created: Gajapati, Rayagada, Malkangiri and Nowrangpur. Next year, 10 more districts came into being: Khurda, Nayagarh, Sonepur, Bargarh, Kendrapara, Jagatsinghpur, Jajpur, Nawapara, Angul and Bhadrak. Then again, in 1994, 3 new districts were formed: Jharsuguda, Deogarh and Boudh. Thus finally there are 30 districts in Orissa today.

Integration of Orissa couldn’t eliminate the variations and diversities in terms of region, land relations, forms of exploitation and nature of conflicts in rural society; rather these aspects later assumed more complicated dimensions. In the post-British era, in the face of growing agrarian crisis and unrest Nehru resorted to “Zamindari Abolition” throughout the land. In Orissa too, a number of land legislations were enacted.

Let us now have a look at the essential features of some of these legislations.

Orissa Estate Abolition Act, 1952

It aimed at abolition of intermediaries and vesting of all land rights in the state while allowing agrarian land of less than 33 acres to remain with intermediaries for personal cultivation.

Orissa Land Reform Act, 1960 (Amended in 1965, ’70, ’73, ’74, ’76, ’90, ’91and ’92)

The main purposes were: granting permanent, heritable and transferable rights in land for tillers; ban on leasing land except under special conditions; title to land in continuous cultivation for 12 years or more by a person other than the owner to pass on to the cultivator; rent not to exceed one fourth of grass produce; ceiling on individual holding reduced to 20 acres in ’65 and 10 acres in ’72.

Orissa Consolidation of Holding and Prevention of Fragmentation of Land Act, 1972

Main purpose: Prevention of fragmentation of land and exchange of equitable land for bigger farming.

Orissa Prevention of Land Encroachment Act, 1972 (Amended in ‘82)

Main purpose: prohibiting unauthorized encroachment of government land and settlement of 2 acres of unobjectionable land (government wasteland) with eligible (landless) beneficiaries.

Prevention of Tribals’ Land Alienation

The Constitution of India empowers state government to make regulations for checking alienation of land owned by Scheduled Tribes in Scheduled Areas (under the 5th Schedule). In Orissa, Regulation 2 of1956 provides that land held by a person belonging to ST cannot, without permission from the appropriate authority, be transferred to a person not belonging to ST. This law also allows for a suo moto action by the collector for restitution of alienated tribal lands. Section 22/23 of the Orissa Land Reform Act forbids land alienation by tribals in non-scheduled areas.

How far were the purposes of so many legislations achieved?

Abolition of intermediaries was not at all thoroughgoing; rather, large-scale eviction of tenants took place.

Owing to the absence of the reliable records abolition of intermediaries could not be addressed properly.

By banning tenancy, the law has swept the problem under the carpet. No provision was made to record concealed tenancies.

The Orissa Survey and Settlement Act did not care for recording the rights of tenants during Settlement operations.

Fragmentation of land could not be arrested at all. Selling of land to adjacent farmer rarely took place in real life. Farmers in western and southern parts of Orissa due to uneven terrain neglected consolidation of landholding.

Widespread encroachment on both government and common land could not be prevented. Most often encroachers are powerful socio-political groups.

The provision of settlement of government land to the landless is not at all a “pro-active” provision. Even “eligible” encroachers cannot “apply” to be regularised as an act of encroachment is considered illegal in the first place. Moreover, there is ample scope for manipulation and corruption on the part of revenue officials regarding the settlement.

Regarding identification and vesting of ceiling surplus land, many loopholes are witnessed. Big landholders not only avoid ceiling in the name of distribution of land among family members (real or fake, even in the name of pet animals), in forced conditions they offer their waste or banjar lands as surplus land. Even the distribution of declared and vested ceiling surplus land among the landless has been very slow.

In real life, transfer of tribal land to non-tribals in tribal pseudonym is very common. Tribal people have turned into bonded labourers to moneylenders or underpaid agrarian labourers on their own lands. They often have to “illegally” lease out their lands, particularly for commercial crops, because they do not have the requisite capital.

What do we learn from all this?

Enactment of relatively progressive or democratic legislation by a bourgeois government is a necessary step to prolong bourgeois rule. But the method of implementing any ‘progressive’ legislation through bureaucracy is bound to create all sorts of distortions and betray the very purpose of reform. As in other places, in Orissa too the bureaucracy was dominated by strong feudal influence in the initial days after independence and in the later period it developed an unholy alliance with new power groups in rural society (the nexus of neo-landlords-contractors-mafia and corrupt politicians). Naturally the bureaucracy never cared for any meaningful implementation of land legislations particularly in the absence of a powerful democratic movement centering militant and consistent struggle of the rural poor. As a result, Orissa emerged as one of most backward state in our country with a very poor performance in terms of “Land Reform” and other pro-poor reforms.

Distribution of Operational Holdings in Orissa during 1995-96

Marginal holdings (below 1 hectares) represent 54% of the total number and covers 21% of the total area.

Small holdings (1-2 hectares) represent 28% of the total number and covers 29% of the total area.

Semi-Medium holdings (2-4 hectares) represent 14% of the total number and covers 28% of the total area.

Medium holdings (4-10 hectares) represent 3.6% of the total number and covers 17% of the total area.

Large holdings (10 hectares and above) represent 0.4% of the total number and covers 5% of the total area.

The average size of holdings in the state is 1.30 hectares.

The average size of marginal holdings is 0.50 hectares.

The average size of small holdings is 1.38 hectares.

The average size of semi-medium holdings is 2.67 hectares.

The average size of medium holdings is 5.54 hectares.

The average size of large holdings is 15.96 hectares.

Holdings owned by Scheduled Castes number 5.46 lakh (14% of the total holdings) and cover 4.89 lakh hectares. Average size of Scheduled Caste holding is 0.9 hectares.

Marginal and small holding held by SC households constitute 68% and 22% of the total households respectively, covering 34% and 33% respectively of the total area.

Holdings owned by Scheduled Tribes number 11.78 lakh (29% of the total holdings) and cover 16.29 lakh hectares.

Marginal and small holdings held by SC households [please check with original and delete if not clear] constitute 49% and 30% of the total households respectively, covering 49% and 29% respectively of the total area.

Total number of operational holdings held by women number 0.53 lakh (1.34% of the total holdings), accounting for 0.64 lakh hectares of land (1.24% of the total area).

Marginal holdings held by women number 0.31 lakh (59% of the women cultivators) covering 0.15 lakh hectares (23% of the total land held by women).

Small holdings held by women number 0.13 lakh (24.5% of the women cultivators) covering 0.18 lakh hectares (28.2% of the total land held by women).

Semi-medium, medium and large holdings held by women constitute respectively 12.5%, 3% and 0.5% of the women cultivators.

Total number of individual holdings number 39.49 lakh, covering 50.85 lakh hectares.

Total number of joint family holdings number 0.13 lakh, covering 0.28 lakh hectares.

Total number of institutional holdings number 0.03 lakh, covering 0.31 lakh hectares.

Changes in Numbers and Areas of Operational Holdings (from 1970-71 to 1995-96)

Total number of holdings increased from 34.07 lakh to 39.66 lakh.

Total land area covered by these holdings [not clear, check and delete] declined from 64.49 lakh to 51.44 lakh hectares.

Number of marginal holdings increased from 14.75 lakh to 21.45 lakh and the area covered by them increased from 7.7 lakh hectares to 10.64 lakh hectares.

Number of small holdings marginally decreased from 11.21 lakh to 11.06 lakh and the area covered by them decreased from 17.14 lakh hectares to 15.22 lakh hectares.

Number of semi-medium holdings increased from 4.52 lakh to 5.44 lakh and the area covered by them increased from 13.63 lakh hectares to 14.51 lakh hectares.

Number of medium holdings substantially increased from 3.10 lakh to 17.55 lakh and the area covered by them increased from 1.56 lakh hectares to 8.64 lakh hectares.

Number of large holdings decreased from 0.49 lakh to 0.15 lakh and the area covered by them decreased from 8.07 lakh hectares to 2.43 lakh hectares.

Data for SC/ST Holdings (From 1980-81 to 1995-96)

Total number of holdings possessed by SC increased from 4.05 lakh to 5.46 lakh and the area covered by them increased from 4.15 lakh hectares to 4.89 lakh hectares.

Total number of holdings possessed by ST increased from 9.18 lakh to 11.78 lakh and the area covered by them increased from 15.79 lakh hectares to 16.29 lakh hectares.

Average size of holdings for SC holders has decreased from 1.02 hectares to 0.90 hectares.

Average size of holdings for ST holders has decreased from 1.72 hectares to 1.38 hectares.

The average size of total holdings has declined from 1.9 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.30 hectares in 1995-96.

Use of Fertilizers and Pesticides

In Orissa, 43.70% of the total cropped area is treated with chemical fertilizers (26.18 lakh out of 59.9 lakh hectares). It includes 81.08% of the irrigated area and 34.6% of the non-irrigated area. Only 13.5% of the total cropped area is treated with pesticides (8.09 lakh out of 59.9 lakh hectares). It includes 55.79% of the irrigated area and 44.21% of the non-irrigated area.

Use of Agricultural Implements

Number of ploughs used per 100 operational holdings is 163 for all sizes. This includes 145 wooden ploughs and only 18 steel ploughs.

Number of bullock carts owned per 100 operational holdings is 24. Total number of carts in the state is estimated at 10.57 lakh.

Total number of pump-sets (diesel and electric) used per 100 operational holdings is 2 for all sizes taken together.

Number of tractors used per 100 operational holdings is 1 only.

Institutional Credit

Only 8.28% of total operational holdings (3.16 lakh out of 38.65 lakh) availed institutional credit from PAC, PLDB, CBB, RRB, etc. Percentage of marginal, small, semi-medium, medium and large holders who availed such credit are 6.36%, 9.34%, 11.22%, 12.3% and 14.14% respectively.

Scheduled Area of Orissa under 5th Schedule of Constitution

The total scheduled area in the state is 44.7% covering four districts (Sundergarh, Mayurbhanj, Koraput and Rayagada); five subdivisions (Keonjhar Sadar, Champua, Phulboni, Balliguda and Kuchinda); one tehsil (Udaigiri and part of Suruda tehsil) and five blocks (Nilagiri, Thuamul, Lanjigarh, Gumma and Kashipur).

Orissa has 21 Integrated Tribal Development Projects covering more than 125 blocks.

In view of the above, we may now lay down our basic policy outline.

Policy Outline for Land struggle at Present Stage

1. Immediate targets of land struggle:

(a) Ceiling surplus lands, particularly those controlled by landlords and vested interests.

(b) Government lands (whether cultivable or wasteland, including banjar land), particularly those that have been illegally occupied by landlords and other power groups.

(c) Land illegally transferred from tribal to non-tribal people, particularly to landlords, moneylenders or other power groups.

(d) Land mortgaged by poor people – which is now under effective control of landlords or moneylenders.

(e) To assert ownership right of tenants over the land of landlords which the tenants have been cultivating for a considerably long period of time.

(f) To protect traditional rights of tribal and other poor people over cultivable forest land without causing any harm to the forest.

(g) To establish control over land of absentee landlords by the poor, including the attached tenants.

(h) Undeclared ceiling surplus land of landlords.

(i) Temple land controlled and utilized by landlords and other power groups.

2. Class Line in ongoing land struggle:

(a) Land illegally occupied by landlords or the neo-rich, be it of any category, must be seized.

(b) Land captured illegally by reactionary sections of rich peasants can also be seized. In case of other rich peasants, method of persuasion and negotiation can be applied.

(c) Generally land under the control of middle peasants must not be targeted. In case of illegal occupation by upper middle peasants, land not being cultivated by their own labour can be seized after due consultation with Party leadership.

3. Subjective preparations:

(a) For initiating a planned land struggle we must fulfil conditions like a primary Party structure and a minimum membership of Khet Mazdoor Sabha/Kisan Sabha.

(b) We must organize a group of militant young men and women.

(c) In course of the land struggle we must develop a “people’s land committee” as an embryo of people’s authority and their alliance at the grassroots.

(d) A “legal cell” must be developed for organized conduct of the legal battle – an important component of the present phase of land struggle.

4. Land Distribution Policy:

(a) First priority would be to distribute land among landless rural poor and agrarian labourers on individual basis, but an element of “cooperation” must be introduced in the course of cultivation process from the very beginning.

Distribution of Area under Principal Crops
Cereals 78.25%
Pulses 15.15%
Vegetables 1.36%
Other food crops 0.27%
Total 95.03%
Total non-food crops 4.97%

(b) In case land is not viable for individual distribution, it must be controlled collectively, by “people’s committees”, and at least 75% share of the produce must be distributed among poor cultivators.

(c) For homestead sites, priority must be accorded to the homeless poor.

(d) In case additional land is available, a portion of land can be distributed among lower middle peasants.

(e) After distribution of land, struggle for acquiring “patta” (title deed) of the land must be intensified as a right of the poor people. Instead of individual initiatives, this must be achieved through an organized move via “people’s committees”.

Distribution of Area Leased (In hectares)
1995-96 1990-91
On fixed money 9,406 (3.26%) 5,264 (9.79%)
On fixed produce 12,733 (4.42%) 5,306 (9.87%)
On share of
produce 2,35,413 (81.65%) 37,800(70.29%)
On usufructory
produce 15,431 (5.35%) 986 (1.83 %)
On other terms 15,329 (5.32%) 4,423 (8.22%)
Total 2,88,312 (100%) 2,35,413 (100%)

5. For carrying on cultivation on the seized land:

(a) Campaign must be intensified for cheaper agricultural inputs and soft institutional loans for the poor.

(b) Demand must be raised for irrigation facilities with emphasis on short-term steps.

(c) Diversification of commercial crops, particularly in wasteland, must be encouraged and the government must be pressured for economic and other assistance in this regard .

Irrigation Status
In Orissa, share of irrigated land in 1995-96 was 23% (11.29 lakh out of total 49.29 lakh hectares). The ratio was 21% in 1990-91.
Irrigation by
Canals 7,65,086 hectares
Tanks 87,413 hectares
Tube-wells 63,084 hectares
Other means 1,60,142 hectares

6. Land struggle must be combined with other forms of agrarian struggle, e.g., for employment and wage, right on forest and its products, fighting against corruption in rural development work, etc.

7. On planning:

In addition to expanding land struggle at panchayat and village level we must concentrate on developing some selective or qualitative land struggle at district or block level.

To conclude, broad democratic opinion must be developed in favour of the ongoing land struggle. The agenda of land reform must find its due place in the state politics of Orissa. As tribal people and dalits constitute

more than 22% and 16% respectively of the population of the state, land struggle in Orissa can not only build the foundation of a political awakening of the rural poor and agrarian labourers, it also has the potential to assimilate typical issues like growing alienation of tribal land and landlessness of dalits and their social dignity.