Agricultural Tenancy in Contemporary India

09 May, 2018, Vaishali Bansal, Yoshifumi Usami and Vikas Rawal

The problem of tenancy — informal, insecure, exploitative, and often unfree and interlocked contracts for leasing land that have been both growth-retarding and unjust — has been central to the agrarian question in India. Along with an uneven and distorted penetration of capitalist relations in the Indian countryside, there have been significant changes in the extent of use of tenancy, in the class configuration of tenants and lessors, and in the form of tenancy contracts over the last few decades. With the state unwilling to effectively implement land reforms in most parts of India, tenancy relations have continued to be informal, exploitative and embedded in socio-economic power relations.

Over the last three decades, the Indian state has become increasingly hostile to the idea of using land reforms as a tool for bringing about progressive agrarian change. Under a neoliberal regime, not only has the state discarded the agenda of redistributive land reforms and tenancy regulation, the focus of state policy has shifted to ensuring free and unrestricted functioning of land markets.

In the neoclassical tradition, contemporary positions on tenancy range from considering tenancy (and thus, tenancy reforms) as a marginal aspect of land relations to treating state-led tenancy reforms as a cause of prevalence of insecure tenancy. Recently, the Haque Committee has recommended that tenancy markets be freed from any state regulation (Haque Committee, 2016). The committee argued that restrictions on leasing of land have resulted in inefficient utilisation of land, and have worked against the interests of small landowners. It has proposed that liberalising tenancy markets would allow owners of small, uneconomic holdings to lease out their lands to large landowners, and move to other occupations. Creating a way for small and marginal farmers to leave agriculture, through promotion of reverse tenancy, and thus aiming to reduce the size of agricultural workforce, is also a centrepiece of the present government’s strategy to double farmers’ income (Dalwai Committee, 2018).

The objective of this paper is not to contribute to the debate on the importance of state-led tenancy reforms or to critique the neoliberal prescriptions for freeing tenancy markets. Based on an understanding that the problem of tenancy is an important part of the agrarian question in India, this paper is written with a limited objective of presenting a careful and comprehensive analysis of trends and regional variations in incidence of agricultural tenancy over the last two decades. The paper also attempts to provide an assessment of class and caste position of tenants in different parts of India, and throw some light on the changes in the relative importance of different types of tenancy contracts. The paper uses detailed unit-level data from the 48 th (1991–92), 59 th (2002–03) and 70 th (2012–13) rounds of the NSS Land and Livestock Surveys. While secondary data on tenancy are very problematic, and leave much to be desired, of what is available, NSS Surveys of Land and Livestock Holdings (NSSO-SLLH) are the most detailed. This paper is an outcome of two years of work that involved an assessment of the NSSO-SLLH data, correcting unit-level NSSO-SLLH data to remove a large number of inconsistencies, and a detailed analysis of the data.

The paper is organised as follows. Section 2 discusses the data and their limitations. It describes the nature of inconsistencies in data and how we corrected them. In Section 3, we present a discussion of trends and patterns of variation of incidence of tenancy in different parts of India. We then go on to discuss the class and caste (Section 5) position of tenants in different States, and to throw some light on relative position of tenants and lessors. And finally, we discuss the changes in the types of tenancy contract in different parts of India (Section 6).

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