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Farmer of the future

Bipin Adhikari
The Kathmandu Post, 4 December, 2004
Source: The Kathmandu Post

"Merely giving away land does not further land reform's core value: social justice"

Does land reform mean killing the economy and hurting the poor? This is precisely what has happened in many developing countries which implemented ambitious land reform programmes without considering their effects in economic terms.

Any initiative toward land reform should achieve two main objectives: significantly improve farmers' welfare and significantly improve agricultural productivity. Failing to realize either one of these will render the programme a failure, regardless of the thousands of hectares of farmland the government distributes to landless farmer beneficiaries nationwide. Merely giving away land does not further land reform's core value: social justice.

On Nov. 29, Nepal's Maoist-led government pledged to form a high-level land reform commission within 15 days. The promise came in response to a sit-in protest held at the open-air theatre in Kathmandu by 144 landless people from 42 districts. The protestors ended their demonstration after Minister for Information and Communications Krishna Bahadur Mahara signed a four-point agreement with the National Land Rights Forum (NLRF), the organisation which spearheaded the protest programme.

According to the four-point agreement, the commission, once constituted, will identify the tillers, sharecroppers and landless squatters and provide them agricultural land required for their livelihood. It will also have the authority to recommend a ceiling on landownership and distribute landholdings above it to the peasants working on them. It is also supposed to recommend ways of comprehensive land redistribution, agricultural assistance and reforms in the country's land administration.

The government has also assured them that it would abrogate the existing Land Reform Act and enact a new people-oriented law addressing issues related to land. Abolition of Kamlari, Balighare, Haruwa Charua, Birta, Khali, Doli, Bethbegari and Ukhada-like feudal practices and rehabilitation of the emancipated people, including ex-Kamaiyas, will also come under the purview of the said commission.

A day before the government made the declaration, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) had also recommended to the government to form such a commission in order to resolve the demands of landless citizens. It also suggested creation of new legal infrastructure and measures to establish landownership rights at the earliest.

According to statistics released in 2001, there are 1,037,000 people in Nepal with less than 0.02 hectares of land. The NLRF has said that there are around 217,000 landless people in the country. The NHRC is obviously aware that the high-level commission on land reform is one of the several commissions yet to be formed as per past agreements between the political parties.

Besides, Article 33(f) of the Interim Constitution requires the state "to pursue a policy of adopting scientific land reform programmes by gradually ending feudalistic landownership". It also says that the state has a responsibility to adopt a policy of ensuring socio-economic security and provide land to economically backward classes, including the landless, bonded labourers, tillers, farm workers and shepherds.

While the government's move looks good, the question of whether (and how) to grant constitutional status to the right to property, and how the courts should interpret such a provision, raises core issues in contemporary constitutionalism and political economic development. Another issue is the nature and institutional requirements of socioeconomic justice and the proper relationship between citizen autonomy and the state in a liberal democratic constitutional order. The government has not so far revealed how it is going to deal with the issue of compensation for the land that will be seized.

Given the Maoists' track record, one has to be cautious of the move. The government's responsibility does not end with land distribution. It will have to respond to the requirements of improving farm capital, capacity and productivity. And, in many cases, poor farmers lack both business savvy and capital to improve their lot. What will be the point in continuously giving land to the landless if they are unable to sustain their ownership?

Dispersed landownership, particularly for landless farmers, should not be the endgame. Improving their lives and farm productivity are most important. At the most basic level, this means that they will have to find prosperity with crops that demand a great deal of attention, and that will capture market prices and allow them to compensate their workers accordingly. Air pollution, soil degraded by poor irrigation practices and limited or poor infrastructure still hamper the industry.

At the same time, consumer demand for higher value farm products means that for most farmers their real opportunities lie with crops they are not used to. With some exceptions, the country's successful farmer of the future will be a small or medium-sized agribusiness focusing on high-value cash crops or horticulture (flowers and foliage).

So when one talks about rural capital, one has to think beyond cash. Nepal's farmers also need equipment to address environmental and infrastructural challenges besides know-how to get the most out of whatever sized plots of land they can cobble together under land reform.

Apparently, these beneficiary communities need help from commercial farmers, particularly in acquiring business skills that will help them bring their produce to market. When strategic partnerships are established, it is essential that a relationship of trust is fostered between the community and its mentors.

Critical to the success of a land reform programme are a number of factors: an understanding of the limitations of agriculture, an early community income, cohesion among community members, capable community leadership and willingness to enter into joint venture partnerships with established businesses.

Whether the commission promised by the government is formed or not, the Constituent Assembly has a splendid opportunity to reflect on the rights of the poorest of the poor and provide for proper arrangements in the new constitution. In this context, land reform is needed for sure; but if there is no respect for the rule of law and no support for the training of farmers, their productivity and ownership rights, then the land will merely support subsistence agriculture as usual.

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