Land to landless is more political than a socioeconomic issueYet another commission formed, 14th since 1990, but the landless people’s problems persist, as governments have failed to find a permanent solution.
The Sher Bahadur Deuba government this week formed a new Landless Squatters and Problem Resolution Commission, a month and a half after dissolving the Commission on Resolving Land Related Problems, which was formed by the erstwhile KP Sharma Oli government.
Dissolving the commission formed by the Oli government was one of the first decisions taken by Deuba since he came to power on July 13, replacing Oli. The Deuba government’s argument was that the commission formed by Oli had become a recruitment centre for those close to the CPN-UML.
The Oli government had appointed Devi Prasad Gyawali, a UML leader who lost the mayoral race in Bharatpur Metropolitan City to Renu Dahal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) in the 2017 elections, as the chair of the commission. When the Deuba government scrapped the Gyawali-led commission, it was in the final leg of executing its plan of distributing land to the landless.
Now after constituting a new commission, the Deuba government has done exactly the same for which it had criticised the Oli government. It has appointed Keshab Niraula, a former chair of the Nepali Congress-affiliated Nepal Teachers’ Union and retired government primary school teacher, as its chairman.
The Deuba government has constituted the new commission even as its decision to scrap the earlier commission is sub judice in court.
Gyawali challenged the Deuba government's decision to dissolve the commission at the Supreme Court on August 6.
Those who advocate the welfare of landless and squatters and rights activists say successive governments in Nepal have made land distribution an issue to serve their own political interests. Such commissions have historically served political parties as centres to appoint their cadres, according to them.
“This has become a political issue,” Nirajan Thapaliya, executive director at Amnesty International, Nepal, told the Post. “No serious attempts have actually been made to find a permanent solution to the problem.”
Thapaliya was involved in preparing a situation report on the landless peasants in the country conducted by the Amnesty International.
The latest commission is the 14th formed since the restoration of democracy to distribute land to the landess. But only six of them have actually distributed land plots to thousands of families in the last three decades.
The Krishna Prasad Bhattarai government in 1990 had first formed a mechanism to address the problems faced by the landless people in the country.
But even before the commission could start its work, a new government was formed. The Girija Prasad Koirala-led government dissolved the previous commission and formed a new one led by Shailaja Acharya, a Nepali Congress leader. The Acharya-led commission was the first mechanism to start the work of land distribution in earnest. Thereafter, Rishi Ram Lumsali, Buddhiman Tamang, Tarini Datta Chatuat, Mohmmad Aftab Alam and Gopal Mani Gautam led various commissions and distributed land to the landless at different times.
The Lumsali Commission was formed during the nine-month government led by the UML in 1995. It gets the credit for distributing the largest chunk of land to the landless so far—21,900 bighas of land (14,673 hectares) among 58,340 families.
The Alam-led commission in 2001 distributed 9,500 bighas (6,365 hectares) to over 15,000 families, the second highest after the Lumsali Commission.
Records at the Land Management Ministry show that around 46,000 bighas of land (30,820 hectares) have been distributed to some 150,000 families in the last three decades. However, tens of thousands of families are still landless.
In its a year and a half of formation, the Gyawali-led commission had received applications from 1,180,761 families grouped in two categories as landless squatters and unplanned dwellers. Of the total applications, 247,940 were squatters and 932,801 fell in the category of “unplanned dwellers”.
The situation report in which Thapaliya was involved says 26.1 percent of agricultural households in Nepal do not have land to farm on. Landlessness among Dalits is very high—36.7 percent among the hill populations and 41.4 percent among Madhesi Dalits—and those who do hold land have very small landholdings.
The report also suggests that 5 percent of the population controls 37 percent of the country’s arable land.
Jagat Deuja, a land rights activist, says the previous distribution process had problems as there was no proper homework, nor was a proper database maintained to identify who had received land. According to Deuja, genuine landless people were left out every time a commission distributed land.
“The land distribution process has always been politically motivated,” Deuja told the Post.
The Gyawali-led commission was the first to be formed based on the Land Act, 1964. The Oli government in August 2019 had reviewed the Act, and formed the commission seven months later in March 2020. The commission had the mandate to distribute land to squatters. It also had the mandate to provide land to the people who have been residing at one place for decades, even if they own land in other parts of the country, after charging a certain amount to them.
In order to address the landless issues in big cities like Kathmandu, the commission had the mandate to construct multi-storied apartments for squatters instead of providing them land plots.
Now the Deuba government too has constituted the new commission based on the same Act.
Officials at the Ministry of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation say all the commissions in the past were formed through Cabinet decisions.
According to Janak Raj Joshi, spokesperson for the ministry, the mandate of the Niraula-led commission is largely the same as the previous one, except that its terms of reference include prioritising the landless Dalits.
“There was nothing specifically mentioned regarding the landless Dalits for the previous commission,” said Joshi.
According to Thapaliya, no other commissions had carried out a detailed study like the Gyawali-led commission did.
It has developed a dedicated software to track if a person has applied for land despite possessing land in any other parts of the country.
Deuja, who worked as an expert for the Gyawali-led commission, said that the previous commission had at least made an attempt to start the land distribution process in an organised manner.
“I would suggest that the new commission verify the applicants and distribute land in close coordination with local governments,” Deuja told the Post. “There should be strong provisions to ensure that those who have already received the land don’t get to sell again.”
In its report, Amnesty has suggested fixing ceilings on landholdings based on scientific grounds such as value of land, where fertility, urban and rural dynamics, agricultural and non-agricultural purposes should be taken into consideration.
Deuja said that the new commission will have a tough time and there will be wastage of resources if it ignores the study carried out by the Gyawali commission.
“I agree that the Gyawali commission has done a thorough study,” said Joshi, the spokesperson for the Land Management Ministry. “The order to constitute the new commission explicitly says it must take the study by the previous commission as a reference to carry out its work.”