Why this Maharashtra village is fighting for the long forgotten Gramdan Act?

By ShagunonMay. 24, 2023in Environment and Ecology

In a society that is moving towards hyper-individualism, the community here takes a collective approach

If Gramdan is implemented, our land will be protected from any old or new land acquisition laws, says Devaji Tofa. Photo: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

Down To Earth travelled to 10 Gramdan villages in Maharashtra and Rajasthan to study the relevance the Gramdan Act.

In December 2022, Mendha (Lekha), a village deep inside the forest area of Gadchiroli district in Maharashtra, moved the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court for implementing Gramdan, a historic act born out of a movement by Vinoba Bhave in the 1960s but has now been long forgotten.

The act gives wide powers and responsibilities to the gram-mandal (Gram Sabha) for the administration, development and welfare of the village.

The bench had issued notices and sought replies from principal secretaries of forest and rural development departments, divisional commissioner and district collector, all of whom have been made respondents in the case, and a hearing is awaited. 

What’s Gramdan

Gramdan is an expansion of Bhoodan movement started in 1951 by Gandhian Vinoba Bhave. While Bhoodan meant redistribution of land from bigger landowners to the landless, under Gramdan, the entire village will put its land under a common trust.

This way, the land will not be sold outside the village or to one who has not joined Gramdan in the village. But the landowners can continue to cultivate it and reap the benefits.

The movement’s history dates back to 1951 when Bhave visited the area and had a dialogue with the landless and the landlords.

Bhave, whom Mahatma Gandhi chose to be his first Satyagrahi when he launched the Quit India Movement in 1942 against British rule, was disturbed by the growing violence linked to the issue of unequal land ownership in the country, particularly in the Telangana region.

In the village of Pochampalli, 40 kilometres from Hyderabad, he saw a gesture by Ramachandra Reddy, the young son of a landlord, who offered to donate part of his land to the landless people in his village. It was then that Bhave decided that he would make it his mission to persuade landowners all across India to voluntarily give part of their land for redistribution to the landless. This became the ‘Bhoodan’ movement.

After the first few years, while continuing on his Bhoodan padayatra, Bhave expanded the concept to the entire village putting its land under a common trust and everybody donating not just a small part of the land for the landless but also 1/40th of their income for the welfare of the poorest and village development. This concept was called Gramdan.

It paved the way for the protection of natural resources by giving everyone in the community equal rights and responsibilities towards them and empowering the communities to move towards self-governance.

Today, seven states in India have 3,660 Gramdan villages, the highest being in Odisha (1309). The states are Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

In September 2022, the Assam government repealed the Assam Gramdan Act, 1961 and Assam Bhoodan Act, 1965, bypassing The Assam Land and Revenue Regulation (Amendment) Bill, 2022. This, it said, was done to counter encroachment on donated lands in the state. Till that time, Assam had 312 Gramdan villages. 

Different states have their own acts, but some of the basic salient features of the Gramdan Act are:

  • At least 75 per cent of the landowners in the village should surrender land ownership to the village community. Such land should at least be 60 per cent of the village land.
  • Five per cent of the surrendered land is distributed to the landless in the village for cultivation. Recipients of such land cannot transfer the same without the permission of the community. The rest remains with the donors; they and their descendants can work on it and reap the benefits. But they cannot sell it outside the village or to one in the village who has not joined Gramdan. 
  • All the cultivators who have joined Gramdan should contribute 2.5 per cent of their income to the community. 

Down To Earth travelled to 10 Gramdan villages in Maharashtra and Rajasthan and found that the act has lost much of its relevance today. There are problems galore for the Gramdan villages, mainly due to poor implementation of the law.

In some villages, the descendants of those who had given their land under Gramdan are frustrated that they cannot sell their land outside the village and call the act ‘anti-development’.

In Maharashtra, the Maharashtra Gramdan Act came into force in 1964, with 21 villages (including Mendha) adopting it.

The villages are spread over 10 districts — Akola (three villages), Gadchiroli (one), Thane (two), Washim (one), Gondi (one), Gondiya (one), Bhandara (two), Palghar (seven), Raigadh (one) and Kohlapur (one).

While 20 of the villages got the Gramdan status, Mendha has not got that distinction yet, despite fulfilling all the conditions required in the act almost a decade ago. 

But why does Mendha (Lekha) want to implement an age-old act that gives privately owned land in the collective legal ownership of the village at a time when the significance of individual property ownership has been rising?

“We have our government in Delhi and Mumbai, but in our village, we ourselves are the government,” an unmissable large board welcomes visitors to the village. The anthem best captures the village’s movement of self-rule and sovereignty for forest and land conservation.

Photo: Vikas Choudhary/CSE

The village, comprising around 500 Gond tribals, has fought for its forests for years. It is popular as the first in the country to secure community forest rights (CFR) following the passing of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. Some 80 per cent of the area in the village is covered with dense forest.

“People sitting in Delhi and Mumbai cannot think about the development of Tribals. The village has to decide on its development by itself,” said 66-year-old Devaji Tofa. He is the village’s former president and the petitioner in the court on behalf of the village. 

Mendha is a unique village in the way it functions. The village is completely dependent on subsistence farming and on the forest produce of timber, food, and fodder. The source of income is the sale of bamboo and other non-timber forest produce and also daily wage work.

People here believe that land is not a private property but a collective resource that provides food and livelihood and should be saved and passed on to the next generation.

Tarabhai Atla, an 85-year-old villager, told DTE:

In tribal traditions, the land doesn’t belong to one particular person. Even the houses are for residing purposes. They can be used but cannot be sold.

The Gram Sabha has also created a collective grain cell in which every villager deposits two and a half per cent of their total income on grains. This is supposed to be used during scarcity or in marriage ceremonies.

The villagers also have to give 20 per cent of their total income to meet children’s education or marriage expenses. It is considered here that the children are of the village and not of one particular family.

“After the village attained CFR, there were discussions that more needs to be done to strengthen the Gram Sabha and the village’s idea of self-rule. Then the discussions on Gramdan began,”
said Hiralal.

The principles of collectivism were already there in the village. The existence of a law which matched those principles gave a thrust to the village’s anti-land acquisition agenda.

Tofa told DTE:

There is a strong tide towards acquiring agricultural and forest land. Gramdan will act as a security for jal, jungle, zameen (water, forests, land). If Gramdan is implemented, then our land will be protected from any old or new laws of land acquisition.

He cited an example of a few nearby villages where agricultural land has been recently acquired for a highway connecting Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. “Because of the upcoming highway, private developers have also started to buy land for building restaurants and hotels,” he said.

In Mendha, all the villagers have surrendered their land, which is unique. In all the other villages, only about 75-80 per cent of the landowners had agreed.

Further, all the cultivators who have joined Gramdan should contribute 2.5 per cent of their income to the community. If these conditions are fulfilled, the village is declared a Gramdan village and the Maharashtra Gramdan Act, 1964 becomes applicable to it.

The village notified the district collector about its decision to implement Gramdan in 2013, following which the collector had to visit the village to assess the claims.

All these procedures happened in 2013, following which the village was notified through an official gazette notification on November 28, 2013.

The next step included declaring it as an independent panchayat and separating it from the Lekha panchayat, of which it is currently a part. This was to be done by the state government’s revenue and panchayat departments but it has not happened to date.

Mendha was the last village to announce its Gramdan status. Parag Cholkar, a Gandhian scholar, who has researched and written books on Gramdan, says that the movement started to fizzle out in the late 1970s.

During the British Raj, land became private property, a major reason for the devastation of the peasants and the villages. The Constitution of Independent India put a seal of approval on this, Cholkar wrote in his book, The Earth is the Lord’s, Saga of Bhoodan Gramdan movement. 

“To abolish private property in land was neither possible through legal measures in the democratic structure nor through violence. Bhoodan-Gramdan tried to do this through non-violence,” he added.

And over the years, successive governments started to become unfavourable towards this act because, under it, the land cannot be acquired, said Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, who has aided Mendha Lekha’s Gram Sabha’s functioning for decades.

Hiralal told DTE

The government doesn’t want to recognise this act anymore. We have had meetings with different departments of the state government on this issue but never received a proper response. On some occasions, the village has also been told that the act doesn’t exist anymore. This just shows the lack of knowledge or interest.

A special feature of the village is a study group called ‘adhyanmandal’. It is an informal forum for free-flowing discussions and conversations on different issues in the village. Anybody can be a part of this circle and it helps the Gram Sabha in informed decision-making.

The village works on the principle of consensus and that the village as a whole is a family unit. All the decisions in the village are taken unanimously by the Gram Sabha, which consists of all adult members of the village (a male and a female from each family).

“Here we don’t take a decision till all the members of the village have given their consent. The decision is put on hold and reviewed even if one member disagrees,” said Tofa.

This also explains why it took so long for the village to declare itself as Gramdan. While according to the act, 75 per cent of the landowners should agree to its implementation, in Mendha, it was decided to implement it only if all the residents agree.

The idea of Gramdan was put up for discussion in the study group in the early 1990s, and it took almost 20 years for the village to come to a full consensus in 2012 on implementing the act. But then it was decided even to include minors who are about to turn 18 in the next one or two years and seek their opinion. This went on for another year and finally reached a consensus in 2013.

Tofa vividly remembers the happenings of the day when the collector had come to ascertain if the majority of residents in the village were willing to join Gramdan.

“He was surprised that how come all members in the village have agreed to implement this act. He took a ballot voting also and even then, the result was 100 per cent.”

But the process got stuck there. The village is gearing up for the hearing in court and is still a champion of this act.

First published by Down to Earth on 19 April 2023.

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