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Shinzani Jain

February 15th, 2023

From ‘land to the tiller’ to land to the highest bidder: Land grabs in Jammu and Kashmir

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Shinzani Jain

February 15th, 2023

From ‘land to the tiller’ to land to the highest bidder: Land grabs in Jammu and Kashmir

0 comments | 21 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

The push and pulls of the ‘market imperative’ along with hostilities from the Indian government since August 2019 means that land in Jammu and Kashmir which was preserved for the tiller in the second half of the twentieth century has now been completely opened up for grabs to the highest bidder. PhD candidate in the Department of International Development Shinzani Jain unpacks this process of transformation below.

On August 5, 2019, in a sudden and unilateral move, the Indian government scrapped the autonomous status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and reconstituted it into a Union Territory. While an international audience saw this as a blow to the political autonomy of the erstwhile state, the people of J&K recognised that this was a direct attack, not only on their political autonomy but also on their land sovereignty. Their land, which had hitherto been protected by an intricate framework of state laws, was now up for grabs.

Historical context: Political autonomy and land reforms in J&K

Historically, J&K has been a developmental success story. Through Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, autonomous status was accorded to J&K, a region located to the north of India, east of Pakistan, and south-west of China. In August 1947, British India was partitioned into the sovereign states of India and Pakistan. In October that year, the princely state of J&K acceded to India on the condition of a future plebiscite, while retaining autonomy over all matters except defence, communication, and foreign affairs under Article 370. Through Article 35A, state land was protected from being transferred to non-permanent residents of the state.

J&K was also the state that saw the implementation of the most far-reaching land reforms in the Indian subcontinent. Turning the slogan of ‘land to the tiller’ into reality, in July 1950, the government of J&K passed the Big Landed Estates Abolition Act (BLEAA) under which the ceiling on land was reduced to 22.75 acres. This was further reduced to 12.50 acres in 1976 during the second phase of land reforms. Immediately after the BLEAA came into force, ceiling surplus land was expropriated by the state and redistributed to actual tillers of the land.

J&K was the only state in the subcontinent that decided against paying any compensation to the former proprietors of the land. It was argued that neither the state nor the landless peasantry had benefitted from the parasitic and exploitative landholding structure before the reforms.

Agrarian transformation and human development post reforms

As a result, the state’s agrarian structure witnessed rapid development in the following decades. The success of land reform in J&K can be gauged from the fact that out of the total 0.95 million acresie0.95 million acres of land distributed throughout India till 1970, about half (ie, 0.45 million acres) was distributed in J&K alone (in the 1950s).

The redistribution of land led to an increase in food grain produce by 7,464,000 kg in one year. The rate of poverty, indebtedness, and homelessness declined significantly. The incidence of indebtedness in J&K is at the second lowest as compared with Indian states and households living below the poverty line at 10% against the all-India average of 22%. Owing to these developments, despite seven decades of turmoil and unstable governance, J&K has one of the highest levels of Human Development Indicators (HDI) in comparison with any state in India. The overall HDI of J&K in 2011 stood at 0.53 as compared with the national average of 0.47.

India’s intervention: Dismantling land reforms 

In August 2019, in one fell swoop, the Indian government completely dismantled the structure that had paved the way for egalitarian economic and human development in the state of J&K. The framework of land laws that protected the transfer of land to non-permanent residents and conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes was abolished. Land and plentiful natural resources in J&K are now up for grabs by the highest bidder.

Over the last two years, thousands of acres of land have been earmarked for development and industrial projects. New policies have been introduced to liberalise land and its utilisation. However, the fear of land grabs is neither recent nor new in J&K, where land has been widely allocated to and occupied by Indian armed forces. In early 2018, former Chief Minister of J&K, Mehbooba Mufti informed the Legislative Assembly that 51,116 kanals (6389.5 acres) of State land in Jammu and 379,817 kanals (47,477 acres) of land in Kashmir was under the unauthorised occupation of the India armed forces.

The neoliberal paradigm: Towards commercialisation of agriculture

Finally, there has been a latent but equally alarming process of land liberalisation ongoing in the region within the last two decades – the conversion of land use from the cultivation of food grains to horticulture and other non-agricultural purposes.The neoliberal paradigm promotes a shift from cultivation of food grains to cultivation of commercial crops under the guise of ‘diversification of agricultural activity’. In large parts of South Asia, local conditions leading up to stagnation and international pressures to liberalise under the market imperative have pushed the farming community to shift land use to commercial agriculture. The same has been the case in J&K.

Large-scale cultivation of hybrid varieties of apple is envisioned to be the remedy for declining remuneration from the cultivation of food grains. In recent years, in absence of structural support from the state, this shift has meant that the farmers in the region have faced severe losses owing to intense pressure in the international market and a lack of infrastructural support from the government.


The agricultural crisis in this part of the world, largely owing to falling remuneration and the increasing cost of cultivation is resulting in the increasing immiseration and indebtedness of farmers. This holds true even for the farming community in J&K. The push and pulls of the ‘market imperative’ along with hostilities from the Indian government means that land in J&K which was preserved for the tiller in the second half of the twentieth century has now been completely opened up for grabs by the highest bidder.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Main image credit: Sandeep Achetan via Flickr.

About the author

Shinzani Jain

Shinzani Jain is currently pursuing her PhD in International Development at LSE. Before joining LSE, she worked as a Researcher and Journalist in India for ten years. She has co-authored two books, The Thin Dividing Line and The Black Hole, that focus on the impact of black economy and illicit financial flows on governance and inequality in India. She can be reached on Twitter @ShinzaniJain.

Posted In: Political Economy of Development | Topical and Comment

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