The limits of voluntarism and moral pressure, especially when it comes to donating personal assets, are definitely the major lesson behind the limited impact of the famous Bhoodan (land-gift) movement led by Vinoba Bhave shortly after Indian independence. After some initial success the movement lost steam and from the stand point of making land available to the landless, had only marginal success. However, Bhoodan need not be talked about only in past tense and need not jostle for space just in history books. There are many unfinished tasks from the movement that still need to be carried out. The spirit of the movement still needs to be kept alive. And lessons learned from the ‘gentle persuasion’ of Bhoodan - which also later got legal backing - need to be driven home.

The Lost Momentum

Vinoba and his followers began a Padayatra from village to village persuading larger land owners to donate at least one sixth of the land for distribution among the landless, the ambitious national target being to get as donation fifty million acres, one sixth of the cultivable land in India. Having received the first donation in Andhra Pradesh in 1951, the movement later spread to the North, particularly Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. However, by the second half of the 1950s itself the movement lost momentum and by 1961 only about 872 thousand acres of land had been distributed. The dream of bringing about a ‘peaceful revolution’ was ending.

Vinoba had resolved to remain in Bihar until the land problem in the state was completely resolved and he estimated that to do so he and his followers would need to collect 3,200,000 acres of land. However by 31st March 1966 the Bhoodan Yagna Committee had to admit officially that its total acreage of land collections had not increased; instead, it had decreased in ten years from 2,147,842 acres in 1956 to 2,137,787 acres in 1966; of this at least 500,000 acres, mainly contributed by the Raja of Ramgarh, was either forest land or legally contested lands. Even amongst the remaining large parts were waste lands and at least in one case “there was a land at the bottom of a river.” (for more details and references see Arvind N Das, Agrarian Unrest and Socio-economic change 1900-1980, Manohar Publications). There were sufficient pointers to the fact that the substantial part of the land donated was unfit for cultivation or under litigation, and thus could not be distributed.

Interface with the Legal System

The authorities in Bihar have reduced the whole package of land reform measures to a sour joke. This has emboldened the land owning class to treat the entire issue of agrarian reform with utter contempt.
The fact that many of the donated lands were under litigation was not the only interface of Bhoodan with the law and legal system. For the collection of the land that was donated and for distribution among eligible categories of persons, the movement had to get legislative sanction and approval of the State. Most of the States therefore enacted legislation and framed necessary rules to facilitate the land gift movement. For these purposes all the Acts created the Boodan Yagna Board “ to administer all lands vested in it for the benefit of the Boodan Yagna in accordance with the provisions” laid down in these Acts. The Bihar Boodan Yagna Act 1954 and the rules and regulations made under it including the Bihar Boodan Yagna Rules 1955 and Bihar Bodan Yagna Regularion 1960 were examples of such enabling legislation in Bihar.

How seriously these laws were taken is today an important question. For example, by an Order in 1960 of the Revenue Department (Land Reform) in Bihar a separate register showing details of Bhoodan Land was required to be maintained by the Anchal Adhikaries to facilitate Administration of Boodan Yagna Act by the Government. As late as in Nov. 2000 the Audit Report (Revenue Receipts for the year ending 31st March 2000) found that “neither a separate register for Bhoodan land was maintained by the Anchal Adhikari nor the District Administration sent the verification report of work performed by the Boodan Yagna Committee to the Government”. In the absence of separate register for Bhoodan lands, the government could not detect incorrect distribution of land.

The failure to send verification reports was again an open violation of the instructions of Revenue department issued in 1989 to all the Collectors and the Deputy Commissioners, to send a verification report conducted by the District Administration showing the work done by the Bhoodan Yagna Committee by the 15th of every month. Besides the Audit also found that lands given to the Sarvodaya Cooperative Society organized at the instance of Bhoodan Yagna Committee for a minimum of ten and maximum of fifty members of landless families were also much in excess of the limit prescribed (300 acres) for the Cooperative Society.

It is such disregard of legislative measures that must have prompted the Working Group on Land Reform of the National Commission on Agriculture in 1973 to comment tellingly: “By their abysmal failure to implement the laws, the authorities in Bihar have reduced the whole package of land reform measures to a sour joke. This has emboldened the land owning class to treat the entire issue of agrarian reform with utter contempt”. The moral call to large landowners to donate parts of their productive land has this inescapable context. Note that the Working Group above also commented that “land owners ….are organized and aggressive..with an obliging administration on their side, they are definitely not going to give up an iota of their rights, privileges and economic dominance without a stiff fight…” (as quoted in Arvind N Das cited above). The odds against the gentle moral persuasion of Bhoodan movement were enormous.

The Present Context

Unfortunately Bhoodan today can make news only for wrong reasons. Early last month the Minister of Land Reforms in Bihar said that Bhoodan Board had become a white elephant since it had failed to perform its assigned role. He confirmed that the State had no record of Bhoodan land for a long time. Against this backdrop, he said that the Bhoodan Board “should be disbanded and its employees adjusted in other work”.

The Bihar Bhoodan Yagna Committee has a different take on the issue. According to the Committee out of the 2,117,756 acres of land that was received under the Bhoodan Movement in the State close to 1,000,000 acres were unfit for distribution. Out of the remaining 1,119,590 acres the committee had distributed 722,580 acres of land. This leaves about 390,010 acres of land with the Committee, which has not been distributed to the landless persons only because the state government failed to give the technical approval required under the State Bhoodan Act. (The author thanks Ekta Parishad for providing information in this regard.) Thus while the State Government has announced that CBI will probe the colossal public land scam in Bihar involving thousands of hectares of gairmazarua (Government) land along with Bhoodan land, the Bhoodan Yagna Committee squarely puts the blame on the State Government for failing to distribute even the land available with it.

This last aspect is absolutely shocking. There are nearly four hundred thousand acres of land available with the Boodan Yagna Committee that have not been distributed for the sole reason that the State has not given its approval yet. Note here that the State Act requires that the Committee may distribute the land with the landless persons only with the approval of the State Government. Similar provisions are included in all the other State Bhoodan Acts all across the country as well. These enabling laws provided an elaborate procedure whereby the Boodan Yagna Committee could ensure that the title of the land donated was not defective, that there were no encumbrances on the land and that the donor was competent to make the gift. With all this in place, it is unclear why there is a need further to take the approval of the state as well. Besides the Bhoodan Yagna Committee itself is for all purposes an arm of the State government! The requirement, thus, simply ensures that accountability for failure cannot be squarely placed with the Committee nor with the Government but somewhere between the two - effectively nowhere!

However, the fact that the State Government can keep pending for decades, a request for approval from Bhoodan Committee for distribution of land for years, is itself totally inexplicable. Land to a landless person is not merely one more productive asset with him. Invariably it is his only reliable source of livelihood - a fundamental right of every person in the country. This is not a case where a mere CBI enquiry into a land scam would be enough. The land locked with the Bhoodan Yagna Committee needs to be released urgently. The higher judiciary, by now regularly stepping in to fill several voids in governance, should encourage this step.