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Land first to fight poverty
The latest figure shows that about 38% of the people are living in absolute poverty. Their income is not sufficient to meet even the basic necessities of life. The government’s main aim is to increase economic growth with the assumption that the wealth generated through this will trickle down to the poor, including the landless people.
Most of the poor are also landless. Access to land is essential for the food security of the family in a situation where state has not been able to provide food security to people. Land is also essential for generating self-employment. Relying on the market alone for employment generation in Nepal is not viable as markets are imperfect, and, due to various reasons, there are fluctuations in creation of employment opportunities. The economic recession is particularly difficult for the poor and landless people.

Therefore, in a country where employment is not guaranteed and where state social security does not exist at all, access to land is important for the livelihood of the landless and poor households. Addressing the issue of landlessness is more important as this is disproportionately borne by the marginalised Dalit communities. Among the absolutely landless, 22% are Dalits although they are only 13% in the national population.

Unequal distribution

According to the National Planning Commission (1998), over 70% of peasants own less than one hectare of arable land in Nepal. Likewise, the Human Development Report 1998 mentions that the bottom 40% of the population own only 9% of the arable land whereas the top 6% own around 33%.

According to census 2001, 25% of the households (1,037,785 HH out of 4,253,220 HH) own no land or less than two ropanies of land. They are considered agricultural landless. The prevalence of landlessness is higher in Terai districts than in the hill ones.

A large section of the farming population is also denied the basic tenancy rights. The Badal High Commission for Land Reform 1995 states that even after four decades of promulgation of the Land Act 2021, more than 450,000 tenant households are not registered. Even the registered ones have not been able to avail of their rights as tenants. In 2000/01, the Department of Land Reform and Management compiled data in 35 districts (2000/01) which revealed that there are 2,66,261 registered tenants as eligible claimant of tenancy rights but they have not been able to do so yet. It is estimated that around 1 million poor household (majority of them are Dalits) have been deprived of their legitimate rights over land resources.

Guthi land forms about 6% of the total arable land and 20% of this always remains fallow. This type of land has been historically under the ownership of temples and some charitable and social welfare organisations. The government set up a Guthi Corporation in 1976 to bring the management of different Guthi lands under one institutional umbrella. Unregistered tenants cultivate most of the Guthi land. Moreover, the output from this land is appropriated by a very limited number of people who control the institutions and temples.

Human rights

The 1990 Constitution (Part 4, Article 25.2) describes the Directive Principle of the State. This article states that “the fundamental economic objective of the State shall be to transform the national economy into an independent and self-reliance system by preventing the available resources and means of the country from being concentrated within a limited section of society, by making arrangements for the equitable distribution of such provisions as it will prevent economic exploitation of any class or individual, and by giving preferential treatment and encouragement to national enterprises, both private and public”. Similarly, the Article 26.1 articulates that “the State shall pursue a policy of raising the standard of living of the general public through… equitably distributing investment of economic resource …”

There is a clear mismatch between the directive principles of the state and the existing inequality in land distribution. This is against the spirit of welfare state. It is also a violation of rights of the people to have access to and control over those productive national resources for securing livelihood and asserting other forms of rights gradually. Moreover, people cannot get citizenship certificate and access basic services, such as water, electricity, bank loans, school admission and birth registration, without having evidence of land ownership. This has created frustration among poor people, as they have not been able to feel that there is government in the country. This type of exclusion badly affects the peaceful environment in the country.

Government role

State needs to realise the structural causes as serious bottlenecks to development. It also has to demonstrate its commitment to bringing structural changes in favour of the poor. Fundamental for this is ensuring poor and landless farmers access to and control over land. The policy should aim at distributing land to the landless, implementing the land ceilings, registering the land of the landless settlers in their names and ensuring tenancy rights to the present tenant-cultivators. All this can directly bring one million families out of poverty.

The government has to simplify procedures so that it becomes easier for the unregistered tenants to claim their legal rights as tenants. This could go a long way in benefiting over 700,000 tenant families without any additional burden to the state. It is true that the government alone cannot shoulder this responsibility. Civil society can be the best and reliable partners in implementing policies.

We can learn from the initiatives of the tenant-cultivators in Sindhupalchowk district. Through long and sustained efforts, 3,452 tenants have been able to get their tenancy rights in Sindhupalchowk. This has led to improvement in their socio-economic status. They have begun adopting productivity-enhancing agricultural measures in the land. Socially, they are now able to participate actively in decision-making processes in the local institutions such as the school management committees and community forestry.

Donor community

The donor community has been supporting Nepal’s development initiatives for over five decades. Despite that, the situation of poverty has remained almost the same. They have not been able to address the structural causes of poverty.

Donors need to assist state and the people to change the unjust social structure and inequitable distribution of productive resources, including land. Entitlement to land can go a long way in empowering the excluded, marginalised, powerless and voiceless people. As large number of poor farmer’s livelihood depends upon land resources, this could go a long way in improving the overall living situation of the millions of tenants and landless peasants.

In Nepal, entitlement to land is the first step towards strengthening the rights to education, property, and development of deprived community. This issue should come under the national development policy. It should be of prime concern for wider discussion at state, donors and civil society levels.

The tenants have been cultivating land for generations but never had any evidence to support this fact. The hard-working tenants had no information of land registration and could not register within stipulated time. The survey teams also manipulated the survey benefiting the landlords due to which tenants were deprived of their rights. This clearly depicts the legal knowledge of the farmers. Due to lack of legal evidence, tenants are losing their rights.

One of the main sources of conflict in the country is related to land. For example, in a study, which analysed 30, 000 court cases, more than 70% are related to land. Moreover, fighting cases in the court is beyond the means of poor peasants, and most cases are settled in favour of rich peasants.

Equitable distribution of available natural resources is one of the major ways for poverty alleviation. This objective could be achieved through a collaborative action between tenants farmers, civil society, and the government. The state needs to realise that the poor tenants and landless people have become aware of the violation of their rights. The government and donor agencies need to think about this issue seriously and take positive initiatives immediately to avoid any unwanted circumstances.

(Source: The Kathmandu Post)