The first popularly elected government led by B P Koirala enacted the Birta Abolition Act in 1959, that required zamindars formerly granted land by the state to pay full tax. Feudal landlords opposed the move, and it became one of the reasons why King Mahendra ousted Koirala in a coup d’etat on 12 December 1960.
B P believed that only genuine land reform would ensure that all Nepalis prospered together, and also deflect the Communism tide. But in justifying his coup, Mahendra declared that Nepal’s first democratically elected government had to be overthrown because it had “failed to work in the interest of the poor”.
Today, more than six decades later, BP’s Nepali Congress that espoused social democracy is leading a governing coalition. Sher Bahadur Deuba, who once led the party’s student union, is prime minister for the fifth time.
Yet, 1.5 million families representing a quarter of Nepal’s households, are still landless or have land issues. Some 53% of Nepal’s farmers own only 18% of the total cultivable land.
After ousting B P, King Mahendra continued the भुमी सुधार land reform to retain international support and quell domestic discontent. But the effort was half-hearted: the landed kept their land. Mahendra and his son Birendra ruled through a partyless Panchayat system for the next 30 years.
Ironically, unequal land ownership (the very reason that pushed Mahendra to stage his coup) became one of the factors that led to the People’s Movement and the downfall of the Panchayat in 1990.
But even after the multi-party system was restored, there was only tokenism for land rights. In 1991, a commission set up to resolve the issue was dissolved even before it could complete its work. In the past three decades, 18 more land reform commissions have been formed by democratic governments, only to fizzle out.
Land ownership and rights have been weaponised time and again at election time since 1990 to win votes, but there has been no real change on the ground. The Nepali Congress, UML and Maoists are all guilty of making false promises to the landless.
The Maoists made land to the tiller and just land distribution a major point in their 40-point demand to Deuba in 1996 during his first tenure as prime minister. Their main slogan to recruit young men and women to take up arms was to promise land.
After all this, the landless have stopped trusting politicians who promise land. Disputes over land make up one-third of all cases in Nepal’s courts.
Various factors have changed the dynamics of land today. While educated Nepalis do not want to farm and migration is leaving arable land fallow, remittances fuel the market in real estate, the price of which has risen exponentially.
This unorganised and uncontrolled buying and selling of land has once again concentrated ownership in the hands of richer Nepalis, who have grown pheonmenally richer as property values escalate. There is a whole class of new-rich who have made their fortune through real estate speculation.
This is why we have the farce of the Baluwatar real estate scandal that involves the mightiest in the land, even while a quarter of the country’s population is landless.
The Gorkha empire’s expansion in the 18th century was financed by land, generals and soldiers were granted ownership of portions of the land they conquered. During the Shah reign, the royalty and courtiers could take what they wanted. During the Rana period, at least one-third of the total cultivable land in Nepal was distributed among those close to them. The Birta system may have been repealed six decades ago, but it is still intact in other forms through landlords, traders and brokers owning most property.
Real estate today is booming business, and a major source of revenue for the state from taxes. Urban land value appreciation has made it possible for some Nepalis to become fabulously rich overnight.
It is not productive when real estate speculation becomes a mainstay of the economy. It does not create jobs, and it exacerbates inequality. Private property rights effectively legitimise past injustices that parcelled out large swathes of the country to the privileged. It perpetuates discrimination and inequality, laying the seeds for future conflict.
To be sure, distributing land to the landless alone does not solve their problem, nor does it erase historical discrimination. Self-respect comes from belonging to the land, giving them a sense of purpose and responsibility. It is a start. But it should be without any condition, it cannot be a publicity stunt, or ploy to pad up vote banks.
If we are to safeguard the gains of the 2017 Constitution and build the pillars of the federal democratic republic from the ground up, we must pick up where B P Koirala left off 61 years ago.
Translated from an Editorial in the January-February 2022 issue of Himal Khabarpatrika dedicated to the issue of land.