Anindito Mukherjee / Reuters A worker carries a bundle of sugarcane on his head at a farmland near Modinagar in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, India, March 4, 2016.

India's Land for Rent

The Future of Indian Land Reform

India is among the world’s top producers of many things: milk, rice, sugarcane, and, as it happens, land reform legislation. Since India’s independence in 1947, volumes of laws and reforms have been aimed at addressing a stubborn reality in rural India: at least 18 million families are completely landless and tens of millions more have insecure or weak rights over their land. Such land insecurity breeds generational poverty, malnutrition, and conflict, and it slows agricultural growth.

India has been right to try to legislate itself out of the problem. Unfortunately, many of its legal attempts have been riddled with loopholes, not fully implemented, or had devastating unintended consequences.

Last week, India’s NITI Aayog—a policy body composed of both central and state government leaders—unveiled yet another land reform effort. This one has the potential to help more than 20 million of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable farmers, help ensure that India’s urbanization process actually benefits the rural poor, and correct some of the most problematic earlier land reforms that have outlived their purpose and brought about widespread and significant negative unintended consequences.

The new draft act has its roots in the 1950s, when 30 to 40 percent of India’s farmland was worked by tenant farmers. At this time, agricultural tenancy in India (as in many parts of the developing world) was viewed as exploitative and was charged with dragging down farm productivity as well as the dreams of tenant farmers. Indeed, in the feudalistic setting of agrarian pre- and post-Independence India, powerful landlords reigned over overwhelming numbers of poor tenant farmers, who had little bargaining power. Many landlords exploited their monopoly on land and power to abuse tenants.

In response, virtually all Indian states moved to ban or heavily restrict tenancy in the decades after Independence. Land is largely administered by individual states in India, so the extent and nature of the earlier tenancy laws varied, but fall into four general categories.

The first set consisted of virtual

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