Monday, May 10, 2010

Land: How Much Reform Is Enough Reform?

The High Level Commission for Land Reform, chaired by Ghanendra Basnet has submitted its report to the Prime Minister. It recommends measures that are inadequate, and in fact regressive compared to the failed land reform that was attempted during Sher Bahadur Deuba's first tenure as Prime Minister.

The only "revolutionary" suggestion here is that the government shouldn't provide compensation to landowners for land exceeding the old limit [70 ropanis in the mid-hills] while implementing the new ceiling on the amount of land allowed per household. This reduces the budget required to implement the recommendations--this is obvious. More importantly, it helps in reducing the gap between the rich and the poor. It takes away significant amount of wealth from the already rich, and injects the poor with a significant amount of new wealth.

If a farmer [most likely, though, an absentee landlord] who had 70 ropanis of land will lose 15 ropanis without compensation. That is approximately 21.5% of land value gone without compensation. But this calculation means nothing: the old reform wasn't really implemented at all.

The report says that 125,000 new hectares of land will be freed through the proposed reforms. The amount of land required for the estimated 1,407,100 families of squatters [sukumbasi], marginal farmers [owning parcels too small for meaningful farming] and non-landowning [bhumiheen] farmers is at 421, 770 hectares.

Even after the reform, three-quarters of the farmers/squatters who need land will be left without land.

What sort of a reform seeks to leave 3 out of 4 citizens, for whose sake the reform is being implemented, without any reward?

Instead of aiming for a more or less equitable distribution of land, it recommends giving non-landowning farmers a minimum of 10 ropanis in the mid-hills and 5 Kattha in the Terai. Somebody who has been working the land of absentee landowners will likely see the parcels they have been working reduce [to 55 ropanis] with an addition of 10 ropanis to their own land.

Let us assume Annapurna Nepali worked on a 70 ropani parcel for an absentee landowner. She would have been entitled to the produce of 35 of those ropanis. After the reform, her share reduces to 27.5 ropanis, but, with new land she owns now, it goes up to 37.5 ropanis. That is a 7% increase in her income. Good for her. Also, she gains this from a *reduced* amount of effort spent: from 70 ropanis, she is working only 65. That is a reduction of approximately 7% of labor, assuming the size of a land parcel corresponds to effort required. I know this is not scientific at all, and it doesn't hold true for other figures.

If she were working 45 ropanis previously, and got 22.5 ropanis worth of produce, she could work 55 ropanis now, and get 32.5 ropanis worth of produce. That is a 44% gain in income from a 22% *increase* in labor.

If she were working 20 ropanis of land and previously recieved 10 ropanis worth of produce, she could now work 30 ropanis and get 20 ropanis worth. That is a 50% increase in labor that returns a 100% increase in income.

Let us assume Annapurna Nepali worked a 10 ropani parcel of land--much closer to the average size of land owned by mid-hill farmers. She would be entitled to the produce from 5 ropanis, but with the new gains, she will have the produce from 15 ropanis, after working 20 ropanis. Her labor doubles, her gains become three-folds.
Although, if her new possessions approach that of her old landowner, she might no longer want to work the absentee landowner's parcel. Why would she?

Assuming that land costs Rs 30,000/- per ropani in a village in the mid-hills, the absentee landlord stands to lose, in one go,Rs 30,000/- per ropani over the 70 ropani limit, while Annapurna stands to gain Rs 300,000/- worth of new property.

This is no mean gesture. It will empower the poorest, while impressing into the landowning class that the state is capable of enforcing measures aimed at equality.

This can then translate to other spheres of culture: more empowered women means less tolerance of discrimination based on gender. More empowered dalits means less tolerance of discrimination based on castes.
More empowered indigenous farmer in the Terai means less tolerance towards ethnic discrimination by Pahadi zamindars, etcetera.

According to the report, a very large fraction of agricultural land in Nepal is owned by absentee landowners, while a very large fraction of agricultural workers are non-landowning or squatters, or own insignificant parcels of land.

This dissonance between ownership and labor leads to inefficiency of production. Available capital is not put to work at its prime capacity.

Where is the most obvious flaw in this report?

In its apparent lack of assessment of land by its quality.

A family of 5--close to the national average--would need at least 5 ropanis of very good, spring-fed paddy [abbal] to grow enough rice to feed it through the year. If it is non-irrigated land that relies upon rain alone, the family needs more than 10 ropanis for rice alone. Forget about how much land is needed if the family is to survive on maize corn, or millet, or wheat, etc. Each is a different scenario.

I can think of at least one reason this reform might fail: sale of newly acquired land by rural families who see it as an opportunity to move to urban centres. Often times, the single largest purse of money sought by small rural farmers is not to add capital to their farming operations, but to leave the country to go work in the UAE or similar labor purgatory. Out of ambition and necessity, the next generation of children from these families tend to grow up in small urban centres, gaining formal education while losing out on traditional training in farming [almanac] knowledge. If this happens, the parcels of land owned by small farmers might change hands rapidly, aggregating in the hands of a few farmers with the means to purchase easily available land, and agricultural land newly begotten might soon change into residential land once remittance money starts flowing in.

The report has recommendations for zoning laws to regulate and enforce optimal utilization of various grades of land. But that is yet another set of laws to create and enforce.

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