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Your land my land.

Nepal, May 7 -- As the country reels under one political crisis after another, a "high-level commission" has claimed to have found the Holy Grail to solve the root cause of all past and possible future conflicts-unequal distribution of land to the poor and marginalised.

There are at least 1.4 million extremely poor families-most of them squatters-who do not have access to land, reveals a report submitted on Thursday by the High Level Scientific Land Reform Commission formed seven months ago by the current government. The report concludes that "if the government successfully implements the proposed scientific land reform, all the landless families could be provided with reasonable access to land to help improve their standard of living."

Thus, in order to provide these 1.4 million landless people with "reasonable access to land", at least 422,000 hectares of land would be required.

The number may seem huge, but the report says it is possible to do so, and in fact, even redistribute more land than necessary. The Commission's members claim that the government can get hold of at least 492,000 hectares of land-most of which are being used unproductively. Thus, this redistribution will not only redress the long drawn-out problem of landlessness, but also minimise future risks of conflict and increase agricultural productivity.

Land reform and politics

Ever since the restoration of democracy in 1990, political parties have been touting land reforms as a major priority in every election but have failed to implement anything on the issue, which, experts say, is the root cause of all conflicts in the past and possible ones in the future.

This new report is the third of its kind since 1990. The earlier two reports failed to materialise due to lack of political consensus. The new one too has doubts, given the Maoist disapproval of the report.

"We've handed the report over to the government," says Dhanendra Basnet, chairman of the 12-member Commission. "It should be implemented as soon as possible. The Maoists should have no problem in supporting a good cause."

However, as the current Commission does not have any representative from the UCPN (Maoist), it would probably fail to impress the main opposition.

A similar commission had been formed under the chairmanship of Haribol Gajurel after the Maoists came to power, but the commission was dissolved by the current government after the Maoists went out of power. The Gajurel Commission claims to have produced a report within the given timeline, but Madhav Kumar Nepal's government "did not accept" it.

The current commission does not even acknowledge that the Gajurel Commission had prepared a report. "The UML-led government dissolved the Commission as it failed to produce any report even in 11 months," claims Basnet.

The new commission members emphasise that if the parties want to establish a new Nepal, they have to implement the commission's recommendations as they will "certainly" address the root cause of conflict and reduce the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. "Implementing the report would fulfil the commitment the parties have made in the Interim Constitution of 2007," Basnet says.

Gajurel counters Basnet's claims by saying the report is a "cut-paste" job from the Keshab Badal Commission, constituted during the nine-month old UML government in 1994. Thus, "it will not be approved by the Maoists," as they have disagreements on the proposal to provide compensation to landlords for acquiring land beyond a "certain" ceiling.

Land reform and Nepal's conflict

Experts say the feudal nature of land ownership in Nepal has been a major source of conflict, and that this nature, if not addressed soon, will continue to create conflicts in the future. A feudal system in land ownership means a small number of landlords own most agricultural land, while the actual tiller does not own any.

"The risks of future conflicts and worsening of ongoing conflict increase in those societies where people's basic rights, such as the right to reasonable access to land, are not realised," says Dr. Shiva Sharma, advisor to the current commission. "This unequal distribution of resources like land was one of the root causes of the Maoist war."

Experts say that the landless and the poor-most of them illiterate-have been misused by different forces time and again with different dreams. "Addressing their rights to land is of pressing importance today if we are to build a new Nepal," Sharma says, "Unless the issue is properly addressed, there will neither be political stability nor stable peace and democracy."

The new report

The Basnet Commission has a number of recommendations based on scientific land reform and claims to be vastly different, more updated, and advanced from earlier ones.

The report is structured on the universally-accepted 'four pillars of land reform': justifiable and equitable access to and ownership of land; productive use of land; professionalising agriculture; and reforming land administration.

Nepal has practised none of these four pillars, as no policy on land reform has been formulated yet. The report has thus suggested a new "national land policy," which explicates how scientific land reform could be enforced.

The policy recommends the government eliminate three major anomalies: "absentee landlordism"; no ceilings on land ownership; and lack of tenancy rights. "These chronic problems have also been the reasons for low productivity," says Dr. Sharma.

The report, for instance, envisions that those who do not use their fertile land will be charged 10 times more tax in the first year, 25 times in the second year, and if the land continues to be unused in the third consecutive year, the government will seize the land.

Enforcing these laws will, however, require local land administrations, which could be integrated to VDCs, according to the report.

To ensure the productive use of land, the report also recommends "zoning" of the lands into categories such as forests, agricultural, and residential. The main purpose of this division will be to discourage the use of agricultural land for residential purposes, as is happening today.

The report also suggests the scrapping of the Guthi system in practice now, and instead registering the land in the name of trusts because the guthis have been hoarding a huge chunk of "productive land unproductively."

Landlessness and labour

The next fundamental reform the report envisions is the redefinition of land-labour relations so that the real tillers are empowered. The reform programme will provide squatters with land for resettlement and families with farming as their main profession with 0.5 hectare (10 kattha) of cultivable land.

"This reform will bring about a new social change. Land ownership will instil confidence in both the erstwhile landless peasants, and the landless people, to speak out for their rights," says Basnet.

Also connecting landlessness and labour is tenancy rights. To this end, the commission suggests that the land tenancy system introduced in 1997 needs to be enforced effectively. According to that law, those who have tilled the land for over 10 years will have the right to claim half the land from the landlord.

Land ceiling and absentee landlordism are the third tool from which the report expects to extract about 125,000 hectares of land for the poor. "But there are issues as to how these ceilings would be justifiable given the sharp differences in the values of land in villages and cities, and in Kathmandu and outside," says Sharma. "We have suggested other means for dealing with issues not related to agricultural land, such as a new progressive tax regime."

It seems the new commission's report is earnest in what it aims to achieve, but it remains to be seen whether its recommendations will gather dust like its predecessors, or will be implemented to bridge the gap of inequalities.

Possible land acquisitions

Unused government land 330,000 hectares

Form enforcing land ceiling 125,000 hectares

Degraded forests 30,000 hectares

River banks and others 4,000 hectares

Guthi (only that govt can capture) 3,000 hectares

Total 492,000 hectares

Total land needed 422,000 hectares

Total families in need of land 1,400,000

Proposed ceilings on land

Tarai/Madhes: 4 bigha

Pahad villages: 55 ropani

Mountainous region: 70 ropani

Kathmandu city area: 10 ropani

Around Kathmandu: 20 ropani

Other district headquarters: 20 ropani

Mid hills: 10 ropani

Residential land (per family): 6 ropani or 9 kattha.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from EKantipur.com. For more information on news feed please contact Sarabjit Jagirdar at htsyndication@hindustantimes.com

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Publication:Kathmandu Post (Kathmandu, Nepal)
Geographic Code:9NEPA
Date:May 7, 2010
Words:1421
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