The historical incidence and the persistence of tenancy have widely been noticed in the state of Assam with the emergence of new land legislation that were enacted during the period of British administration.
To provide fixity of tenure, restricting the freedom of landowners to eject tenants and fixing the maximum rate of rent, the first legislation enacted in Assam was Goalpara Tenancy Act in 1929.
This Act marked an important milestone in the history of land reforms in Assam followed by Sylhet Tenancy Act, 1936 and the Assam Temporarily Settled Tenancy Act, 1936 and the Assam Temporarily Settled District Tenancy Act, 1935.
The Goalpara Tenancy Act dealt with relations between the landlord and tenant in the permanently settled areas of the erstwhile Goalpara district. This Act conferred occupancy rights to the sub-tenants and under tenants. Under this Act Protection was accorded to the tenants against illegal eviction and rack-renting.
After India’s Independence remarkable land reforms were introduced by enacting laws that were for the benefit of landless tenant. Tenancy, thus, being an important aspect of agrarian economy received considerable attention from both the Union and state governments.
In the Assam plains, sharecropping in the form of half share of the produce was the principal form of tenancy. This system is known as ‘Adhi’ and the share croppers are known as the ‘Adhiars’ .
The first land reform act enacted in Assam came early after Independence in the form of the Assam Adhiar Protection Act in 1948. Though the Act was passed in 1948, after incorporating many amendments it was implemented only after 1957. The Act providedone-fourth shares to the land owner when the owner supplies plough, cattle and other assistance and one-fifth when the owner supplies nothing to the sharecroppers.
This act was successfully implemented only in those areas where intensified movements were organized by different Left political parties. But, there were competitions among tenants for leasing-in land on sharecropping basis and 50 per cent share of the produce still persists in spite of the legal provision.
The first comprehensive step towards tenancy reform in Assam was the enactment of the Assam (Temporarily Settled Area) Tenancy Act, 1971. This Act, which is still in operation, repealed the three Tenancy Acts mentioned above and also the Assam Adhiar Protection and Regulation Act 1948.
The Assam (Temporarily Settled Area) Tenancy Act, 1971 has been considered as a progressive landmark as it has provided opportunities to the tenant for acquiring land rights as well as empowered a poor tenant with statutory safeguards to pay the rent in cash or crop.
Under the provision of section 28 of the Act, the maximum rate of rent payable by an occupancy or non-occupancy tenant shall be as follows- (a) in case of cash rent, not exceeding 3 times of the land revenue payable for such land; and (b) in case of crop-rent, a rate of rent not exceeding one-fifth of the produce of the principal crop grown in each agricultural year.
The first proviso of this section also has mentioned that where the crop fails due to natural calamities and/or payment of the crop share is not possible due to circumstances beyond the control of the tenant, a sum equal to double of annual land revenue payable by his immediate landlord for such holding shall be fair rent.
It has provided further that a tenant desiring to pay his rent in cash in lieu of crop-rent may, after giving a written notice of not less than 30 days to the landlord, pay the money value of the crop deliverable by him to his landlord, computed on the basis of the market value of the principal crop prevailing at the time of harvesting at the locality concerned.
The section 29 of Act also stipulates the grounds of enhancement of rent whereby it says that subject to the maximum limits laid down in Section 28 of this Act, the rent of a tenant shall be liable to enhancement on one or more of the following grounds, namely- (i) that the productive powers of the land held by the tenant have been increased by fluvial action; or (ii) that the productive powers of the land held by the tenant have been increased by any improvement effected by or at the expense of the landlord; or (iii) that the area of the tenant’s holding has been increased by alluvion or otherwise; or (iv) that the revenue rate payable by the landlord to the State Government in respect of the holding of the tenant has increased.
This act has specifically mentioned the procedure by which the rent of a tenant can be enhanced. Under the provision of Section 30 a landlord of any holding desiring an enhancement of rent on any ground mentioned in Section 29 may apply to the deputy commissioner stating the specific ground on which the claim for enhancement applies.
The deputy commissioner shall thereupon make the necessary inquiry, and may for that purpose cause an inspection of the land by a revenue officer, and shall thereafter pass such orders as deemed fit subject always to the maximum rate of rent laid down in Section 28 of the Act.
The proviso of this section has categorically has said that where an enhancement is claimed under Section 29 (i), the deputy commissioner shall not take into account any increase in productive powers due to fluvial action, which is merely temporary or casual.
Moreover where the enhancement is claimed under Section 29 (ii), the Deputy Commissioner shall have regard to actual increase in productive powers caused by the improvement, the cost of improvement, and also the increase or decrease, if any, in the cost of cultivation for utilising the improvement.
It is unfortunate that in spite of having such pro-tenancy legislation, the successive government has been failed to provide appropriate mechanism, particularly in acquiring ownership rights by the tenants and restricting the landlord from discriminatory sharecropping practices.
For understanding the existing sharecropping malpractices this author has recently visited a few villages in Baska and Nalbari district. To know the landholding patterns and share cropping practices, we conducted Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) in those villages with the help of Gramya Vikash Manch (GVM) a non –governmental organization of Nalbari.
Apart from the landholding patterns and share cropping, the study has also concentrated to find out the outcome of the decadal land settlement policies of the state with specific reference to BTAD areas and the contemporary status of landlessness in the above mentioned two districts. The emphasis was also given to highlight the geo-political dimensions related to land rights issues
As regards the forms of tenancy census data reveals five different types of tenancy contract-i.e. fixed money, fixed produce, share produce, usufructuaries mortgage and others. In Assam, there are other forms of tenancy in certain parts where fixed quantity of the produce is to be paid to the land owner.
This is also known ‘thika’ meaning contract, in most of the areas in lower Assam. Proportion of rent becomes almost equal to half of the produce and usually such contract is done in paddy. The contracts for sharecropping are executed verbally and the tenant has to pay cash or in kinds even he or she lost the production due to flood, drought or for any other reasons. Further, land-owners use to change tenants frequently to frustrate the provisions of laws.
The villages come under the territorial jurisdiction of BTAD and in Nalbari district two practices of share cropping are now in operation. The first one is the Adhi as mentioned above where even after having statutory acts most of the tenants verbally makes contracts with the landowner and agrees to shares 50 per cent of the produce to the land owner when the owner supplies plough, cattle and other assistance.
If people get trouble to find out suitable land nearby then many landowners imposed some restrictions in such contract and forced the tenant for 50 per cent share of the final outcome though they do not provide any assistance and support to the tenant.
The second system of share cropping which is known as Thika reflects the prevailing feudal practice, where the landowner autocratically compels the tenant to provide a fixed amount of produce or money even the tenant could not produce anything from the field due to natural calamities or for other reasons.
Both these existing sharecropping practices have been negating the spirit of those acts which were once enacted for the benefit and welfare of landless tenant.
Now the question is –who will take the responsibility of a failed Tenancy act that promised equity and land rights to the landless poor tenants?
Before making any vague electoral promises in regards of agriculture and peasantry, those political parties who have enjoyed power both in Centre and in the state, should tender apology before the tenant community of the state for their historical failure in implementing the said Act.
Kishor Kumar Kalita is a commentator based in Guwahati and can be reached at [email protected]