India’s Land Reforms: Exemplifying the gap between principle and realisation

Author: Arpita Victor
Editor: Riya Singh Rathore



Land rights are often touted as a means to empower the economically backward classes. The early completion of effective land reforms was key to the economic growth and development of many (now developed) countries. While the importance of land reforms was emphasised in newly independent India 75 years later, but one finds that land reforms have singularly failed. This is despite the significance land holds in the country’s political discourse with its centrality in peasant strife since colonial times. To understand whether redistributive land reforms hold any value in today’s context, marked as it is by increasing economic inequalities and disparities, this paper attempts to dissect the class dynamics that contributed to the failure of land reforms in India and analyses the changing rhetoric over redistributive land reforms since independence. The fact remains that there is inequality in 21st century India post the structural reforms in spite, or even because, of increasing economic growth. While inequality is starker with regard to
livelihoods, gender, health, and environment, this trend is not unique to India. 

Keywords: Land reforms, Land redistribution, Property, Agrarian class relations, Farming



Domestic governments across the world, especially in the mid-twentieth century, undertook significant reforms to decrease inequalities in land ownership. However, India’s case could not be any farther from satisfactory. The post-independence state failed to bring reforms, despite popular support and demand from the masses for structural reforms in agrarian land relations. Its Five Year Plans and numerous reports continually emphasise the need for redistributive land reforms. Land reforms mostly took on the form of the redistribution of privately owned land that exceeded a certain limit. This excess land was called “ceiling surplus land”, and this limit varied from state to state as land is a state subject. Though redistribution of ceiling surplus land has failed, it is worthwhile looking into the reasons, both at the national and grassroots level, to understand the reality of land redistribution since the problem at hand is far more complex than just the poor implementation of the reforms.