Changes in land relations in Tamil Nadu


back to issue

DESPITE Tamil Nadu having emerged as a model state in recent years, it has often been criticized for its poor implementation of land reforms. One might, therefore, naturally presume that landlordism would have survived in its earlier form with high levels of tenancy and exorbitant rents, particularly in areas like the Cauvery delta region noted for its high incidence of tenancy. However, landlordism has declined in the delta in general and tenancy conditions have enormously eased. The power relations between the landlord and tenant have been completely reversed with the tenant enjoying certain powers to negotiate compensation for giving up the right to cultivate.

We argue that mobilizations by both the Communist Party and the Dravidian movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam in particular, have been critical to the creation of a culture of collective action and resistance to landlord power. Further, the coming to power of the Dravidian parties in 1967 created appropriate conditions for consolidating the power of lower caste tenants who benefited both from a set of state initiatives launched by the DMK soon after its coming to power and a culture of collective action against Brahmin landlords. It is a long history and a synoptic view informs us about the complex interplay of caste and class struggles.

The Cauvery delta had evolved elaborate agrarian relations over a long period of time as it is one of the world’s oldest deltas. Land tenure systems involved both fixed rent (kuthagai) and share cropping (varam) arrangements. Kathleen Gough found in 1952 that the tenant could get only 7-10% of the produce as his net share after meeting all expenses in a village in the western delta.1

In response to such unequal distribution and exploitative land relations, the Communist Party of India, in 1943, formed an Agricultural Association in the district. Following a decision to abandon militant struggles of the previous years, the party embarked on a long period of parliamentary democracy and peaceful trade union struggles. A less recognized aspect of mobilization in the region was one undertaken by the Dravidar Kazhagam.


Even before the Communist Party found a base in East Thanjavur, the caste oppression of the Parayars and Pallars by the Brahminical order was challenged by E.V. Ramasamy Periyar. The Dravidar Kazhagam formed the Dravidar Vivasaya Thozilalar Sangam (DVTS), Dravidian Agricultural Workers Union, in 1952. The union was stronger in the eastern delta and particularly in Kilvelur region with more than 50,000 members. The DVTS struggled for the rights of Dalit workers and was, therefore, in direct conflict with landlords. The DVTS of Nagappatinam later merged with the Communist Party. The ascendance of DMK to power decisively tilted the struggle in favour of tenants, both through a series of legislations and a further consolidation of political power among the lower castes.

Though several legislations had been passed during the Congress period as well, but the real protection for the tenant came when the DMK passed the Tamil Nadu Cultivating Tenants (Special Provisions) Act, 1968, that allowed for payment of rental arrears in easy instalments and thus eased the process of paying rent. The earlier tenancy protection acts were not as effective since there was no registration of tenants. The DMK government introduced a law to rectify this lacuna in the existing tenancy protection laws. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural Lands (Record of Tenancy Rights) Act, 1969, provided for the registration of tenants with ease. Nearly about five lakh tenants and about seven lakh acres of land are registered against their name in Thanjavur district under this law. Amendments to the Tenancy Act in 1979 further reduced rents to 25% and protected them against eviction even if they failed to pay rent during natural calamities.

Another important move that gave an enormous foothold to the tenants and agricultural labourers was the Conferment of Ownership of Homestead Act, 1971. This important legislation freed the landless from the control of the landlords. Next year, in 1972, the government of Tamil Nadu passed another legislation that waived off all the rental arrears of tenants. Thus, the ascendency of the DMK to power led to refinements and innovations in laws which empowered tenants and agricultural labourers in important ways. Registration of tenancy, remission of rent, an increase in the number of revenue courts, and provisions to buy leased in land and conferment of ownership title over the homestead, increased the negotiating position of the tenants manifold.


The dominance of two Dravidian parties coincided with the growing power of the backward castes. The Kallars, a dominant backward caste in the western delta, have been office bearers in both parties, the AIADMK and the DMK, in the district for the past fifty years. They have also been ministers representing the district, except in one or two instances. More importantly, the state bureaucracy and the police are at their command. Consequently, they have a huge presence in the dispute settlement mechanism. As a result, Brahmins found it impossible to control tenants and agricultural labour through caste superiority.

The most prominent feature of tenancy in the delta today as compared to the past is the complete decline of Brahmin dominance in most of the villages. Brahmins have lost their land either through sale or appropriation by lower caste tenants. Landlordism is a relic of the past thanks to the successful struggles by the Communist and Dravidian parties. While the landlords have lost considerable power due to the law, politics and social changes, temples and mutts too, though they may not have lost land, are as powerless as landlords.


Since temple and mutt land leases are registered, the tenant has enormous protection against eviction and the legal rent payable is paltry. Eviction of a tenant from temple land is almost impossible given many legal provisions to protect a tenant and plenty of opportunities provided by law. Even if temples do manage to get a favourable court verdict, the eviction of a tenant and finding another tenant is extremely difficult. The reason is that there is an all pervasive social consensus about the cultivating right of the tenant. Apart from formal rules that may be flouted on the ground, there are informal conventions fostered by collective mobilization in the region that sustains the power of tenants.

The law protects the tenant from eviction under normal circumstances. However, throughout the delta a convention has evolved whereby a tenant has the right to cultivate unconditionally. If the tenant has to give up that right, then compensation is due to him. The minimum compensation is one-third of the land that the tenant had been cultivating. Once the landlord settles one-third of the land or its money value on the tenant, the tenant gives up the right over the rest of the lands.

This forms the basis of all mediation in the dispute between a landlord and tenant. If the landlord is powerful, then he can reclaim two-thirds of the land by giving up his ownership right over one-third of the land. The share of the tenant is inversely related to the power of the landlord. At the other extreme, the tenant will not give up even a cent of land if the landlord is a non-resident and does not have any caste power within the village. Thus, the caste and power of the tenant and the landlord respectively defines the outcome of the negotiation. Registered tenants rarely give up without compensation. Unregistered tenants too have by convention an equal right and this convention is quite pervasive. Thus, while the law provides protection only against the eviction of tenants, convention has additionally bestowed a compensation for the tenant.


The political power enjoyed by the backward castes and the new assertion by the Dalits have all combined to stabilize the de facto right of the tenants. As a result, the rent has fallen steeply over time. Non-payment of rent over a long period of time too, in most cases, cannot be penalized. An inability to enforce court directives, which are difficult to get, has further emboldened tenants. It is, therefore, not surprising when K. Balakrishnan, leader of the CPI(M) state unit, opined that tenancy is a dead issue in the delta.

Thus a combination of historical, political and social factors has led to the decline of landlordism in the delta and tenancy has become a non-issue. For a micro-level study, we selected VP (name changed), a village in the western delta dominated by Brahmin landlords. They were living in an exclusive habitation of two streets. The Kallars, an OBC caste, were their tenants and farm servants and lived on a separate street. The Parayars and Pallars, both SCs, were the permanent farm servants of the landlords. There were a few carpenters and blacksmiths serving the village, apart from other service castes.

Taking to formal education early, many Brahmins emigrated in search of urban employment all over the country. They leased out their lands on a fixed rent which they either collected in person or entrusted the task to their relatives. Some of them leased their lands to the Pannaiyals (permanent servants from SC) or their kariakarans (managers from the Kallar caste). Apart from migrant landowners, local Brahmin landowners had also rented out their land. However, there were a few families who cultivated their lands directly with permanent farm servants. Importantly, Brahmins of this village did not migrate en masse as has happened in many other Brahmin villages in the delta; some large landowners have stayed back.


A fixed rent system (kuthagai) was widely adopted in VP given assured irrigation. Crop failures were rare and yield was also better in VP compared to most parts of the delta. The tenants were regular in paying rent to the landlords. Over time, backed by political mobilization and the coming to power of the DMK, the tenants started to demand compensation for vacating the land. Brahmins were barely able to reclaim their lands and many sold to the tenant or to anybody whom the tenant suggested. However, a substantial part of the money went to the tenant. Many Brahmins sold their houses and quit VP for good. The erstwhile tenants, the Kallars and Pallars, thus gained land from the Brahmins.

In 2016, Kallars operated about 62% of the land in VP followed by SCs (22%). Brahmins who in the past owned all the lands, now barely operate about 10%. The land transfer register has 786 entries on sale and settlement for tenancy in VP between 1967 and 2016. Altogether, 570.99 acres of land have changed hands between these two time points.

In terms of area, Brahmins have sold 197 acres of land more than what they have purchased. In sharp contrast, the net gain for Kallars was 140 acres and the net gain for SCs during this period was 53 acres. 70% of transactions were market based ones. The remaining 30% were transactions between the landlords and tenants. 45% of transactions executed by Brahmins was between the landlords and their tenants. They could manage only 55% transactions under market conditions. However, among the Kallars and SCs, the market transaction was much higher at 91 and 83% respectively.


Nearly half of the land sold by Brahmins was on market terms; the other half was sold to their tenants. However, for the Kallars and SCs, market transactions predominate. Nearly 85% of the land sold by Kallars was on market terms and the rest on tenancy terms. The incidence of tenancy related transactions was higher (at 29%) among SCs. Other castes have 64% of their transactions under market conditions and 36% under tenancy terms. The overall picture for all the castes together indicates that more than one-third of the land sold was under tenancy terms. The change in land ownership is concentrated during the time between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s.

The Record of Tenancy Rights (RTR) for VP had 131 tenants and the total area registered was 157.41 acres in 1971. Three-fourths of the land leased out belonged to Brahmins. Temples were the second largest lessor of land, accounting for the remaining one-fourth of the land leased out. The Kallars were the largest number of tenants (60%) followed by SC (30%). Kallars were tenants for 57% of the land rented out. The scheduled caste tenants accounted for one-fourth of the total land rented out, followed by Brahmin (10%) with the remaining land leased in by other caste tenants. By 2016, all the registered leased lands were owned by former tenants except for temple lands.

The laws enacted by the state, organized struggles by the tenants and workers, anti-Brahmin movement followed by emigration of Brahmins, the resultant change in power relation in the villages, ascendency of Dravidian parties to power and new crop practices have all contributed to this transformation. The laws introduced by the state per se may be ineffective; but to expect law alone to lead the transformation would be highly problematic. This framework excludes the role of social and political movements that emanate from below and transform the system. When such movements and the law work in tandem, it results in a more widely accepted and easily implemented de facto social norm to evolve. More importantly, such a norm is more likely to find universal acceptance in the delta region. Added to that is the competing politics between the political formations. While one formation agitates for rights, the other formation uses its power to legislate laws that would help them to poach from the base of the agitating formation.

Such a transformation may not have benefited the Dalits as much as it has the non-Dalits. When negotiations take place in an environment of changed power relations, the character of the dominant power tends to set the tone for the process as well as its outcome. While the Dravidian parties have empowered both the Kallars and Dalits in challenging the dominance of the Brahmin landlords, the political assertion of Dalits keeps the dominance of Kallars at bay though the latter may have garnered more land by their sheer antecedents. Thus, what a de jure provision could not do has been achieved by evolving de facto norms through a social and political process.



1. Kathleen Gough, Rural Society in Southeast India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981.