On August 4, the Uttar Pradesh Pradesh Assembly passed an amendment bill to allow non-Scheduled Caste members of society to purchase land of SCs. Till now, under section 157-A of the Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Unmulan Evum Bhumi Vyavastha Act, 1950, SCs have not been allowed to sell, mortgage or transfer through tenancy deed their land to any non-SC without the permission of the district collector. The act states that the collector will not permit such sale, mortgage or transfer of land if the applicant SC person’s total landholding is less than 1.26 hectare or will become so, after the sale, mortgage or transfer.
The assembly has effectively done away with this provision. How this amendment bill will impact the Dalits can be understood by the fact that despite numerous provisions in the act for the protection of landholder Dalits, at least half of the Dalit population of the state is still struggling to get their land back from musclemen and is facing violent reprisals. Successive governments have failed to ensure that the lands belonging to Dalits are returned so that they are able to till it or use it to build their houses.
The amendment bill will push back the SCs of the state, divided into 66 castes and sub-castes, into the situation they were in centuries ago. Dalits form roughly one-fourth of the state’s population. Most of the Dalits live in rural areas. The rural areas have their own power structure, marked by exploitation, oppression, inequality, discrimination and rampant use of strong-arm tactics. The amendment of the act will create circumstances that will make it impossible for the Dalits to even hope for their betterment. Only Dalits know the pain and misery that landlessness entails in the rural areas. In villages, one who doesn’t have land virtually does not exist.
Historically, Dalits in Uttar Pradesh have been landless. But today, around 23 per cent of them own farmland. That is primarily because of the Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Unmulan Evum Bhumi Vyavastha Act, 1950 and some progressive laws that were subsequently promulgated. Land ownership rights were conferred on Dalits by the government. Dalits became landowners courtesy of some other provisions as well. For instance, a Dalit who was in possession of a piece of land for a substantial period was declared its owner. The Uttar Pradesh Bhudaan Yagyna Act, 1952 provided for half of the arable land to be distributed among SCs and STs. (The provision was never implemented in full measure.) The long and short of is that most of the Dalits landowners have got their land from the government. There is an additional problem. Most of the land allotted to Dalits is mired in litigation and their owners keep on doing the rounds of courts.
No one knows how much land was donated under Vinoba Bhave’s Bhudaan Andolan – how much of it was distributed and what happened to the remaining land. Decades-old cases pertaining to land disputes are pending in courts. Mutts, temples and other religious bodies own thousands of acres of land, which is lying unused, but the government lacks the political will to free it and distribute it among the genuine farmers.
Government’s flawed arguments
The government argues that the provision will enable the Dalits to get higher prices for their land! It seems that all Dalits are out to sell their land and the government is helping them by amending the law. If the government is so worried about the rights of the Dalits and their development, why is it not serious about implementing the Land Ceiling Act so that the landless can be allotted land? Estimates suggest that at least 70 per cent of the Dalits in the state are landless and 50 per cent do not even have the land for a house.
The amendment bill was cleared by the Uttar Pradesh Assembly but it could not get the nod of the Legislative Council as the ruling Samajwadi Party does not have a majority there. Currently, the bill is awaiting approval of the Select Committee. There is a possibility that the ruling party may get a majority in the Upper House after the Panchayat elections in January next year.
A large number of Dalits do not even have enough land to build their homes and the government has failed to come to their aid. This amendment may result in the few landholder Dalits again becoming landless. Most of the Dalit women work their fields. If their land is lost, they will be the worst sufferers. Dalits are forced to hunt for the land of others even to relieve themselves.
The demand was that land be made available to anyone who is landless. Instead, by tinkering with land laws, the Uttar Pradesh government is pushing crores of marginalized Dalits farther into the margins.