Land Reform: Lacking Holistic Approach

Published On: July 28, 2021 07:20 AM NPT By: Bhairab Raj Kaini

Sustainable land management is a complex process which calls for a holistic approach. An interdisciplinary and inter-institutional coordination mechanism is a must but is lacking and/or ineffective at present. In order to reverse land degradation processes, we require appropriate incentives and actions to change the behavior of the land users.

Agriculture is fundamentally a land-based activity and is, therefore, heavily dependent on land reform. Its effect on agricultural productivity should, generally, be positive but in Nepal it has either affected productivity negatively or there is no effect. In fact, productivity is decreasing due to negligence in soil management and division of cultivable land into small pieces. Similarly, unplanned settlement is also responsible for the decreasing production. Furthermore, soil erosion is exceedingly high in the hilly and mountainous areas. Topsoil loss has been reported as high as 87 tons per hectare per year on sloping terraces. When the topsoil is lost, the land is degraded. The heavy grazing pressure in the mountain areas has also speeded up soil erosion. So far, efforts on land reform are focused on land administration, which means collecting revenue and redistributing the land to the so-called landless. Soil management aspects are totally neglected.

Past efforts in land reform

Land reforms in Nepal started after 1950. Up to 1950, land was categorized into five groups on the basis of land tenure as: Raikar, Birta, Guthi, Kipat and others. Raikar land denoted an individual’s private property for which he/she pays tax to the government and has a full right in terms of selling, using, inheriting, transferring, dividing and leasing. Birta means land granted to individuals to enable them to make a living. Birta land had no absolute ownership rights. Birta land was converted into Raikar in 1959 through the implementation of Birta Abolition Act 1959. Kipat was a type of community ownership on the land, under which certain group (s) used to control it jointly, and the state had no authority over that land. Land assigned for charitable, religious or philanthropic institutions came under Guthi tenure.

Only about one third of the agricultural and forest land of the nation was granted to private individuals by 1950 and the remaining belonged to the rulers themselves. At present, the predominant form of land tenure is Raikar, followed by Guthi.

According to the Land (survey and measurement) Act 1963, classification of land was as Abbal, Doyam, Sim, and Chahar. Furthermore,the eighth amendment to the Land Act 1963 in 2001 and Land (survey and measurement) Rules 2002 has improved this grading system of lands as: (a) Agricultural land (b) Commercial and (c) Residential Areas

But the implementation of land management related policy and these acts has always remained very weak. A National Action Plan (NAP) 2002 was prepared for a number of activities to be performed to combat land degradation through soil conservation and agroforestry. Despite the fact that land degradation was prioritized as one of the most urgent issues needing immediate program implementation, this action plan could not be implemented effectively due to various reasons.

Recently, the Government of Nepal issued a Land Use Policy 2072 outlining land use classification. Land use classification should be carried out on the basis of the land use act and so the Land Use Act, 2076 has come into force. As per the act, land has been classified into 10 categories: agricultural; residential; commercial; industrial; mining and mineral; forest; river, stream, pond and wetland; public use; cultural and archaeological; and others. As per the act, three tiers of the government should constitute councils to bring provisions of the act into implementation. But these councils are not yet formed.

Calls for a holistic approach

When we relate land reform to agricultural productivity, two aspects are very important. They are soil fertility and land use. Regarding soil fertility, land reform in Nepal from the very beginning to date has totally ignored it. But in the present context of increasing population, utilization and sustainable management of the land is a very crucial factor for increasing agricultural productivity. The problem of declining productivity and deterioration of soil fertility is particularly serious in rain-fed areas where marginal farming and extended fallow period are widespread.

Sustainable land management is a complex process which calls for a holistic approach. An interdisciplinary and inter-institutional coordination mechanism is a must but is lacking and/or ineffective at present. In order to reverse land degradation processes, we require appropriate incentives and actions to change the behavior of the land users. In the Nepali context, the principal land users are the small farmers who are very traditional. Majority of them derive their living from fragmented plots of land. 

The other land related factor responsible for a negative impact on agricultural production is the pattern of land use. A proper land use system is required for increasing agricultural production, environmental sustainability and biodiversity conservation. Until the recent past, there were no strict norms regarding the land use system which led to the haphazard location of settlements and industries on fertile land where food production was very feasible.

Nepal is a land scarce country in terms of availability of cultivable land where per household land availability is about 0.6 ha. This land holding of a household is also fragmented into 3.3 pieces. A large area of land (86 % of the land holding and 83 percent of land area) is owned by individuals and is owner-cultivated. According to FAO, the population doubles every 30 years and so land availability per capita is also declining more or less at the same rate as there is less scope to move to the non-farm sector.

There is no sole agency that deals with land use study and planning. In agriculture and forestry, there are programs to improve the land use on a sectoral basis. Realizing the fact that land use planning is important, the government has implemented a National Land Use Project since 2000. This project is preparing the required digital database and land use zoning maps for implementation.

However, a decentralized system of land use planning is lacking. So, the provincial and local governments should give priority to developing land use plans in consultation with the stakeholders. But the recently-presented budgets of all provinces have overlooked this issue, which may result in low production and productivity of agriculture in the years to come. Although land reform has been a priority area of the government in white paper, land use planning has always remained under the shadow of revenue collection and land distribution. Land development for farming is lacking. Because of this, land productivity in both small as well as large holdings is declining.

Degradation of farmland and erosion are occurring due to both bio-geological factors and human causes. River cutting farmland is another problem, especially in Tarai and low-hills. In recent days, mid-hills and mountains are badly affected by landslides.

Therefore effective implementation of land use policy in a coordinated way is essential. There should be consensus among major political parties on its modality of implementation. Measures should be taken immediately to discourage keeping farmland fallow and use of agricultural land for other purposes. Emphasis should be given on growing tree crops, particularly fruit crops, in the hills and mountains. 

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