The right of the residents

Omar Abdullah while addressing local leaders in Drass on Friday. Photo Source: Twitter/@OmarAbdullah

Very few had imagined that the so-called integration of J&K, post-August 5, 2019 after the scrapping of Articles 370 & 35 A of the Constitution would mean losing land by the people of Jammu & Kashmir. Before we go into the intention of the amendment brought into the land laws in J &K on October 27, it is pertinent to mention and to understand as to who will buy land in the erstwhile state of J & K. In Kashmir where even the Kashmiri Pandits, a majority of whom have moved out and have not been able to go back; in such a situation allowing the land sale restrictions/sanctions in J & K means what? In Jammu region there is more resentment than the Kashmir valley as the protection given to the people in this region is now gone and they become more vulnerable to lose their land than the people residing in the valley. There will be few to venture in the Kashmir valley to buy land, but the Jammu region will be more exposed to such land sales.

The ‘Gupkar alliance’ comprising major political parties of the region (non-BJP), have condemned this decision of the government and have termed it – “J & K for sale.” They have expressed the apprehension that the government intends to change the demography of the J & K, especially of Kashmir valley. But the moot point is who will buy land there? It is believed that in the given situation some of the ex-servicemen will be made to live in localities within the valley which will be adequately facilitated by the government, when and how, we will have to wait and see!

Let us understand what does this amendment mean? In simple terms, it means that any citizen of India not necessarily a permanent resident of J & K can now purchase land in the region and settle down there. So, what is the problem, asks the BJP’s bandwagon cells running IT campaigns, with the argument that when land can be bought in any other part of the country then why not in J&K. It sounds quite democratic, but actually, it is against the democratic process which led to the creation of such laws not just in J & K but in several other states.

Not just in J&K but Himachal is another shining example

Going back to the annals of history, it was in 1927 and 1932 that two notifications were brought out by the then Maharaja Hari Singh on the incessant pressure from the Dogras (Rajputs) and the Kashmiri Pandits-KPs (both were more exposed and aware of the land use value) to protect their land and identity of the J&K people, including jobs. “Kashmir for the Kashmiris”, was the slogan of the KPs and the Dogras and the then sovereign ruler, Hari Singh promulgated these two notifications to protect land & other rights of the people of the region (Kashmir in conflict, by Victoria Schofield). The king got a statutory order passed defining “hereditary a State subject’s” and recognised the ‘hereditary State Subjects’ exclusive rights of appointment in the government departments and the purchase and sale of land. Hence, the land right to the natives accrued even before we got independence.

Not to allow non-residents of a particular state to purchase land in respective states is not restricted to the special status of J & K, rather it also evolved through the movement of the peasants with the foremost slogan of “land to the tiller”. Sheikh Abdulla, former chief minister and father of Farooq Abdullah was instrumental in unleashing land reforms in J&K and empowering the peasants with entitlement to land. It was the Constituent Assembly of J & K, that passed the abolition of Big Land Estates Abolition Act 1950 that fulfilled the slogan of ‘land to the tiller’. It was in this process that slogans emerged that the land once handed over to the peasant must also be secured from ‘land sharks’ who will otherwise once again create a newer form of land relation, instead of landlord-peasants to landless agricultural workers and land sharks; either real estate giants or rich and capitalist landlords.

This did not restrict to J & K, Himachal Pradesh is another vibrant example and continues to protect the land secured by the peasants either through the land reforms and tenancy acts or through the land distribution done by providing ‘new land’(nau taur) by the government in the 1970s to all landless peasants. A majority of beneficiaries were Scheduled Castes and other backward sections of the peasantry. Unlike in J&K, where a permanent resident in the previous law was empowered to purchase land in the state, in Himachal Pradesh even if someone is residing in the state (permanently) for the last 100 years, i.e., the family residing for such a long period was still not entitled to purchase land in the state and the law remains the same, under the Land Reform and Tenancy Act of Himachal Pradesh.

To purchase land in the state of Himachal Pradesh one must be an agriculturist and just the time period of stay does not qualify one to be able to buy land. Now there are arguments and counter-arguments to it. But the fact of the matter remains that when the state was conceived by the visionary, Dr Y S Parmar, the first chief minister of Himachal, during various debates in the Vidhan Sabha, he gave reasons for protecting land entitlement to the peasants. The foremost one being that if the state has to sustain, then the basic asset, i.e., the land must be with the peasants.

Hence in both J&K and Himachal Pradesh effective land reforms were undertaken and implemented. Take for example another neighbouring state, Uttrakhand. A few years ago, the state has promulgated laws to restrict land sale to non-state domiciles, but before that, it was a free ride for everyone. The resultant, according to Professor Tolia the former chief secretary of the state, more than 50 per cent of the assets in the form of land is with the non-state subjects.

But this also speaks about the overall development indices of both the J & K and Himachal Pradesh. I remember during my student days when the state of Uttrakhand was carved out and I frequently used to visit the state, for a majority of the state leaders of invariably all political parties, the model of development for this predominantly hilly state was that of Himachal Pradesh. In this model, securing the land right to the people and not allowing the non-agriculturists to buy land as in HP or the non- resident in J&K has played a major role.

The protection of land does not just limit there, within the state, in Himachal Pradesh, in two districts, Lahaul & Spiti and Kinnaur even an agriculturist of Himachal is not entitled to purchase land. So, there was and it continues to exist, protection of land laws in the interests of the peasantry by large. What is going to happen in Leh, we do not know? The residents of the Ladhak region are demanding the protection of land rights and still, the ambiguity exists whether they will fall under the sixth schedule or not? One of the driving forces to allow easy sale purchase of land in Ladhak region is the huge potential it has for the generation of photovoltaic energy and with large giants like Adani’s in the fray, not a big surprise that land laws will be amended even in this region!

One of the arguments forwarded by well-meaning people is that by depressing such sales of land and not allowing it to be sold, actually the peasants of the state are being robbed of their legitimate gains, which otherwise would have flowed to them had there been an open sale of land. But the fact remains that in a capitalist form of developmental model, the land sharks are the ones who have amassed massive wealth and the peasants, who later become landless, are the worst sufferers.

The road map of such a development model with land to the tiller speaks volumes of the changes brought in the lifestyle of the peasantry. The J&K peasants are known to earn well from the harvest of saffron and apples. In Himachal, the apple economy is more than Rs 5,000 crore annually and the offseason vegetables add another two thousand crores to that.

The amendments in the land laws may as of now seem to be of no value, but as climate change and pollution in the large cities make lives of the people miserable and hell, a large investment is bound to take place in these three states, J&K, Himachal and Uttrakhand. By allowing the large land sharks to play their game it will be a ruin of the gains and advancement made by the peasantry and their children who now are part of the larger middle class in small towns.

The alternative must be to ensure that there is a priority set to equitable development of the state and its people. The important asset, if that is lost then the people are going to suffer the most and the states will also lose their gains made in the past.

The writer is former deputy mayor of Shimla.