Recent movements of dalits in Gujarat and Punjab have re-emphasised the need for providing at least some cultivation land to the completely landless dalit and other households, who constitute the weakest section of rural society in India. There is an increasing tendency on the part of the authorities to ignore their very legitimate and justice based aspiration to own at least do bigha zameen or a small piece of cultivation land.
Although the neglect of land reforms had started much before the present NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government assumed power, there was at least some semblance of retaining some aspects of land justice. The UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government was relatively more responsive to people’s movements, and so when the biggest initiative on land reforms in recent years in the form of jan satyagraha was launched in 2012, instead of unleashing any repression, the then government appeared to be quite accommodative, and Jairam Ramesh was sent by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reach an honourable settlement with the thousands of foot marchers before they could enter Delhi.
Unfortunately, the UPA government did not fulfill these promises, and thus lost a great opportunity to reach out to the most deprived sections. Nevertheless, some processes were set in motion, and there was some hope till the last days of the UPA government of something important being done at least to ensure homestead land to all rural households.
Another indication that all was not lost yet on issues of land justice under the UPA government came with the Forest Rights Act, which was enacted to correct the historic injustice suffered by tribal farmers and some forest dwelling communities. Here again, the actual achievements fell far short of expectations in most places, but poor implementation did not entirely take away the credit that at least the government took up this important issue of land justice with some seriousness and sincerity, and at least in some places there were some good results.
Another difference then was that the Planning Commission kept drawing attention to the need for proper implementation of land reforms. The NDA government got rid of the Planning Commission all too soon, and now we have no one in the government to even moderately support the continuation of the largely unfinished agenda of land reforms.
At present we have a particularly adverse situation where the Union government is least bothered about land reforms, and at the same time most state governments have gone back on the even moderate commitment to land reforms seen earlier. On the land question the NDA government has been generally seen to be more eager to facilitate the acquisition of more land for industrial and urban expansion and in this prioritisation, the interests of the most deprived sections have been easily forgotten. When even the land rights of farmers are increasingly insecure, it is not difficult to see that the landless waiting to get some land under the promised land reforms are likely to be completely marginalised and neglected. Perhaps the last time that the dalit landless peasant household got some sympathy from a state government was during the chief ministership of Mayavati in Uttar Pradesh. Her government suffered from too many problems, but visits to villages showed that at least in the earlier phase of her government, dalit landless households were getting justice on several issues including land.
In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh the chances of implementation of land reforms were relatively much better under the two Congress governments led by Digvijaya Singh, compared to the BJP government which followed. In later years, the left front governments in West Bengal and Kerala had lost much of their earlier zeal for land reforms, but nevertheless their ouster has been a loss to the cause of land reforms.