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Small Peasant Agriculture and land reform in Nepal: Politics of contestations and contradictions


 Nepal is predominantly an agricultural country and hence the development of this sector in order to promote equity and justice in the country is extremely important. Nepal has a total population of 28 million, 84% are rural, the percentage of GDP generated from agricultural activities was 33% (2009), and per capita GDP was USD 272 (2005 estimate). The agricultural productivity is low, with average cereal crop yield (1999-2001) being, 2089 kg per hectare (world average is 3,096 kg per ha), and average roots and tubers crop yield (1996-1998) being 7,958 kg per ha (world average is 12,958 kg per ha) (Teijun and Kinchi, 2008).


The sector has the major role in country’s economy in the light of providing employment opportunity at the village level, the potential overall food security of the country and the major resource for the potential industrial growth. Agriculture development is the very foundation for the sustainable economic development and the major source of income for the people. This rather insignificant per capita growth in the country's predominant economic sector employing more than 80 percent of the economically active population and contributing about 2/3rd to the gross domestic product (GDP is quite inadequate to absorb the nearly 400 thousand new entrants to the labor force each year, and to meet the country's growing food demand).

Agriculture in Nepal has long been based on subsistence farming. Majority of the peasants derive their living from fragmented plots of land.  Government programs to introduce irrigation facilities and fertilizers have proved inadequate, their delivery hampered by the mountainous terrain. Population increases and environmental degradation have caused that the minimal gains in agricultural production, owing more to the extension of arable land than to improvements in farming practices.  Production of crops has been consistently decreased particularly rice production has been decreased by 11 percent in 2009/10. Once an exporter country of rice, Nepal now has a food deficit.

Most exports consist of primary agricultural produce which goes to India. In general, since the majority of Nepalese farmers are subsistence farmers and do not export surplus; this does not prevent a minority in the fertile southern Tarai region from being able to do so. Most of the country is mountainous, and there are pockets of food-deficit areas. The difficulties of transportation make it far easier to export across the border to India than to transport surplus to remote mountain regions within Nepal. A considerable livestock population of cattle, goats, and poultry exists, but the quality is poor and produces insufficient food for local needs.

 Pattern and trend of small peasant agriculture in Nepal

The ownership of land and the agenda of land reform have been the major issues in relation to agrarian reform in Nepal. According to agriculture census 2001, there are a total of 42,53,222 households in Nepal and out of this 33,64, 100 are farming households. The size of farming families based on the landownership is given in the table 1.

Table 1: Land ownership and distribution in Nepal as of 2001

Size of  holding


Area  (Ha) 



Total % 

Area (Ha) 


Total % 

Landless households 







Land holding households














< 0.1 ha=







0.1-0.2 ha







0.2-0.5 ha







0.5-1.0 ha







1.0-2.0 ha







2.0-3.0 ha







3.0-4.0 ha







4.0-5.0 ha







5.0-10.0 ha=







>10.0 ha







Adapted from the report of High Level Commission on Scientific Land  Reform 2010

The average availability of agriculture land is 0.789 ha. The highest availability is in Teari- 0.944 ha followed by high hills- 0.655 ha and mid hills- 0.633 ha.

The table 1 shows that most rural families do not have enough land to even subsist on. A starling proportion of rural households still do not have enough land to live on (Wily et al 2008).  47.31% holdings are marginal[1], too small to meet even subsistence. Marginal farmers in fact averaged only 0.24 ha or 7 kattha in 2001, certainly not enough to live from. An extraordinary 58.9% of the total population according to NPC are functionally landless in terms of agriculture (less than a 0.4 ha). About 2.3 million people or 481938 households are landless (Wily et al 2008).

Table 2:Categorization of  households based on the size of land ownership

Household category

Total Househols number

Size of land ownwrship (ha)

Landless framers




Marginal farmers





Small farmers



Medium farmers





Large farmers





Extra large farmers




Source: Adapted from the report of High Level Commission on Scientific Land  Reform 2010

Various evidences show that Dalit[2] and minority groups falls under the landless and marginal farmers’ categories. In average, marginal farmers families have food availability only for 6 months. The landless families are deprived from social and political rights just because of not having land ownership. The landlessness also exacerbates the exploitative labor relationship as the landless families are compelled to work on low wages, and receive loan in high interest that put them into indebtedness (Wiley et al 2008).

The box 1 below is adapted from Teijun and Kimchi 2008 that gives the overall status of agricultural land ownership in Nepal.

Box 1: Land holding size and agriculture production

Arable land in Nepal is only 21% of the land area in Nepal, concentrated in the southern terai (plain) region. Despite rich water resources in Nepal with over 6,000 big and small rivers, irrigation facilities are minimal, and the investment of modern means of production on the land is only 1%; 99% of investments are on the land, human power, animal husbandry and primitive tools. The land distribution is uneven: In 2001/02, 0.76% households had more than 5 ha land, and occupied 7.31% of the land area; top 5% of land-owning households owned more than 37% of land, while 47% of land-owning households owned only 15% of land. Only 10% women owned some land, on average less than 0.1 ha. (Adhikari 2006: 4)  Inequality in land distribution as measured by Gini Coefficient was 0.544 in 2001.[3] 51% of households holding 1 ha land faced food insufficiency.[4] Furthermore, across the country there were over 1.2 million landless peasants, amounting to over one-third of all peasants.[5] Some of them are tenants; statistics vary as to the number of tenants. According to one survey in 2003-04, about 7% peasants work just as tenants, and about 31% of peasants (about 1 million) work as tenants as well as have their own land for cultivation.[6] The land cultivated by tenants amounted to 9-12% of the land.[7] It must also be noted that despite the shortage of arable land, the amount of land lying fallow (especially land owned by absentee landowners) was quite substantial. It was reported that about 25% of arable land was lying fallow.[8]

Source: Tiejun and Kinchi 2008: Land Reforms and National Development in Nepal


Issues on agriculture development in Nepal

  1. i. Ownership and access over productive resources

The major issue of Nepal’s conflict including the People’s War launched by the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (NCP-Maoist) has been the skewed access to natural resources particularly the distribution of land. Landlordism has been considered as the major feudal characteristic of society where majority of the people remain without access to resources particularly lack of the land ownership (Teijun and Kinchi 2008).

Since land is the principal economic resource for all categories of people, the major and inherent conflict since long back in Nepali society remains with the ownership of land. Land has been the major property to grab and accumulate that resulted into the peasant with the small holding become more and more vulnerable become landless as they could not retained the land that they own. The political elites and the land owning classes[9] continue to control the land.  A significant area of arable land until recently was controlled by the members of the Royal family and the Rana Family, who have been the rulers of Nepal since the formation of modern Nepali state. This became evident when the Ministry of Land Reform and Management issued a statement about the land registered in the name of Royal family (4 August 2006, Kantipur Daily).  These classes have been the absentee landlords, who usually do not live in the villages where their lands are situated. They only extract the income from the land. Most of the cultivators, on the other hand, have been land- and propertyless.  Although the labour relation in Nepal is rapidly changing, in case of tenants’ agriculture, it is mostly exploitative as most of the labour working low wages.

  1. ii. Political economy of food scarcity/deficit and agriculture policy

People have been deprived of the enough food and resulted into poor health, no education, poor shelter and lack of social dignity. The food deficit in remote and rural areas has been reported everyday in the media. The causes of food deficit is not only because of draught, floods, and any other natural causes, it is mainly because of polices of state in relation to agriculture production, distribution and consumption. It is the issues of inequitable distribution of resources and social injustice.

Let us take the example of food deficit in Karnali[10] region. Karnali region was perceived as food deficit about 30 years ago and the Nepali state introduced a policy of food particularly supplying rice to the districts of Karnali region by air lifting. The rice grains from around the worlds have been imported for Karnali and international agencies also joined hands to support the supply of rice. With the rice grains supplied in the Karnali region, the food habit of the people has also been changed. Slowly, the cultivation of indigenous crops has not been come under the priority of local people and the production of other cereal crops has drastically been decreased. Dependency for food of local people has been increased to the rice grain supplied by government and other agencies in the region. The political economy of supplying the imported rice grain is that it is a kind of business to be engaged for suppliers such as the owner of airlines, commissions for the people who deal from the government, job and other interests for international agencies, commissions for food corporations and food related companies. Government subscribes all these interests in one or other ways with the influence of the stakeholders who engage with the food economy.

Priority on the production of local crops, support services and access to local natural resources including land have not been come under the government policies and programmes for the last 30 years. Had the government seriously strengthen the local production and distribution system, the Karnail region would not have experiences the food deficit.

The supply of rice grain has also cultural impact at large in the region. The rice grains have been popularized to the extent that those who consume rice are considered to be civilized and prestigious people and family in the society. Other staple crops perceive to be low grade and those who use them as main food considered to be poor and with low prestige in the society. This cultural perception to some extent has caused for not cultivating and consuming the local crops as food.

Also the supply of rice grains has altered the food habit of local people. Rice appears to be smooth and tasty in eating as compared to other local food grains. Rice considered being the main course of food. Local people think that if they do not have rice, they do not have the full course of the food they need.

In fact, what we experiences now in the form of food deficit in the region, in real term, it is not deficit of food, it is policy deficit and rights deficit. It is policy deficit in a sense that the state or government promotes the supply of rice grain rather than promotion of local food production, distribution and consumption system. It is deficit of rights in a sense that local people do not have access to productive resources, support services, and markets.

  1. iii. Counterproductive education: Agriculture is the hated occupation

The education system seems to be counterproductive for agricultural development in Nepal which has alienated the rural youth from agriculture. Agriculture has been perceived as lowest grade occupation as the youth mostly want to be dissociated from agriculture activities. Majority of the rural youth migrate to urban areas or abroad for a labor work even to work in a more risky environment. The government policy in agriculture development remains to be the major factor for alienation of the youth from agriculture.

  1. iv. Lack of support system (inputs and services)

Nepali framers often face a crisis of agriculture inputs and other services in the period of crops planting and lack of market in the period when the farmers collect farm produce to sell. These have been routine phenomenon for last many years. Most of the small farms are rain fed and the agriculture production depends on the availability of the rainfall in the particular year. Government’s subsidies and other incentive in agriculture remain to be almost nil.

The agriculture market in Nepal is largely influenced by the market in India. As India has a much larger economy relative to that of Nepal, and it is also the principal buyer of Nepal’s farm products. The price of the agricultural inputs in Indian market largely influence the availability of agricultural inputs particularly fertilizers and seeds.

Inadequacy of agricultural credit facilities is generally reported. The problem is more pronounced for the smaller and marginal farmers. As a result, the farmers have to depend on the local moneylenders who charge high interest rates. Those farmers who received bank loan also expressed their dissatisfaction over the lengthy procedure and the need for repeated visits to the bank before loan approval.

  1. v. Migration and Feminization of agriculture

As indicated above, the agricultural support system in Nepal is very primitive and feudal in characteristics. The low productivity is because of the lack of comprehensive policies for agrarian reform. Agriculture has not been perceived as not prestigious work and the major trend in rural Nepal is that youth leaves their villages for the labour work to urban areas. While the majority of agricultural lands are small (even not sufficient for subsistence of the family), the trend of the agricultural lands remaining fallow[11] is increasing. The recent phenomena are being the feminization of agriculture. Since the agriculture has not created opportunities for rural people, most of the youth have migrated to city centres and outside of country for labour works. This has created a shortage of labour force leaving only senior citizens, women and children in the villages. This has created two problems at rural Nepal: i) reduction of agricultural production ii) added the burden to women and children.

Most of the rural families live with meagre resources in villages and lack income and employment and hence households encourage their members to go to city centres and/or to foreign countries to seek work. Also family members migrate to city centres during the time of the year when there is no farm work or other employment opportunities in the village—in order to cope with the food lean season. Many households in rural Nepal these days would have at least one of their family members living elsewhere. The extreme poor families and well to do families tend to participate less in this process—each with their own status or economic-class specific reasons. As reported by Seddon et al (2001), migration to foreign lands has continued to increase. Foreign job has been considered as alternative employment strategy, especially for the economically and socially disadvantaged groups. However, this option has produced mixed results for the families in the study sites. For a number of families, their migrant members have not been able to send back remittances even to repay the loans taken to meet the costs of their migration. Migration—whether it be long term or seasonal—seems to be a common economic strategy adopted by many poor families in rural Nepal today.

  1. vi. Effect of climate change in agriculture.

Local communities have identified the increasing impact on the agriculture production because of climate change as constant declining in crop and livestock productions have been observed. Nepal’s vulnerable subsistence farming economy facing risk due to changes in the reliability of stream flows, a more intense and potentially erratic monsoon rainfall and the impacts of flooding. Decline in rainfall from November to April adversely affects the winter and spring crops. Rice yields are particularly sensitive to climatic conditions and this could threaten the food security of the marginal and small farmers (Ministry of Environment 2010).

  1. vii. Fragile ecosystem and agriculture: A compulsion for livelihoods

Nepal's main environmental issues are related to the country’s excessive dependence on the already overstretched natural resource base amidst a high rate of population growth, predominance of literally stagnating subsistence agriculture, growing urbanization. From the policy perspective, on the other hand, it is a result of the lack of recognition of: people's proven ingenuity in managing the fragile eco-system, and of the limitations of the public sector’s capacity in directly managing the common resources. Although Government of Nepal (GoN) had diagnosed some of these underlying problems as early as the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, with some isolated and generally fragmentary efforts to address them, an earnest realization of the urgency of some of the environmental issues facing the country had to wait until the beginning of the Fifth Plan period (1975-80).

The failure in achieving a reasonable and sustained growth rate in the agricultural sector means that farmers and the landless labourers in the rural areas have to continuously expand cultivation in the economically less productive and environmentally fragile lands which otherwise would remain under some kind of permanent vegetation. It also means that farm sizes have continuously been fragmented, and there is less food available per household which has adversely affected their food security.

Expansion of cultivation on ecologically sensitive uplands has led to accelerated erosion of productive soils, undermining the productivity of farm land, and increased sedimentation in downstream areas.

Although much of the Tarai region and valley bottoms in the hills have high potential for increased food production, this has not been realized due to a variety of reasons. These reasons include the failure in the past to adopt a clear and consistent policy in favor of transformation of the agricultural sector, and to direct the limited physical, financial, institutional and trained manpower resources to a well-defined priority package of actions and interventions.

Around 84% of the population reside in the rural areas whose primary occupation is agriculture and related activities, and practically no growth is occurring in those areas. It is hence not surprising that the problem of growing poverty and worsening environmental health of the country have become mutually reinforcing.

Contestation and contradictions in relation to land ownership, agriculture and agrarian reform

  1. Political economy of land reform

Nepal, since its formation, has been in contestation and contradiction in relation to land ownership and agrarian reform as the country’s political economy is based on the agricultural or land economy (Regmi, 1999). The history of Nepal’s agriculture began with the land owned by one class and cultivated another class. This feudal system deliberately precluded ordinary people from owning land.  Non-farmer elites began to accumulate considerable land holdings as a form of security and status which precipitated the well-established class structure of landlordism today; a dismal system whereby those who work the land have little ownership over it (Basnet, 2010). Land has become as important as without the possession of a land certificate, people are denied access to many government services such as banking, electricity, telephone and potable water. As more and more people become landless; there will be more and more violation of citizen rights.

Nepal’s land governance remained subject of political contentions since 1950s. A number of efforts in terms of land reforms since then have been made as the political regimes keep changing; they have not been put into practice and become only as rituals and political slogans. The 1964 Land Act remains at the centre of Nepal’s land reform legislation even today. In fact, land reform policies in Nepal have failed to significantly redistribute land, improve agricultural productivity or realign socio-economic power imbalances.

Even for Nepal’s peace accord, the power sharing negotiation between Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and other parties, the land issues have been the major issues to be settled as a part of the peace process. The Comprehensive Peace Accord (November 2006), clauses include about the  returning seized land and properties to leaders of political parties, activists and civilians and about the policy to implement scientific land reform programme to be adopted. Nevertheless, the progress towards the land issues have not been positively move forward, as it remains to be one of the most contested issue in Nepal’s peace process and constitution building process.

It is abundantly clear that the best approaches to land reform are those that integrate security of ownership, livelihood, resource management, agriculture input and community empowerment and mobilisation. Land reform must include the restructure in land distribution accompanied by a support structure to sustain productivity.

ii. Current constitutional debate in Nepal related to land distribution

The land reform issue in Nepal is being highly debated in the process of constitution writing. The constitution assembly thematic committee on Natural Resources, Economic Rights and Revenue

Distribution has prepared draft report amid the disagreement among the members of the committee. The members representing different parties have taken different positions.  Some have opted for revolutionary land reform and some have gone for scientific land reform with their specific interpretation and mechanisms related to land ceiling and land distribution. Particularly, the regional parties have take position that the issues of land reform should leave to the authority of the state or province to be developed through state restructuring. The debate of the land reform also revolves around without and with compensations to be provided to the landlords who will have the land above the criteria of upper ceiling, although criteria are yet to be developed. Specifically, the UCPN (Maoist) have taken the position for not paying the compensations, while others are in favour of paying compensation to the landlords who possess the land above the ceiling.  Because of these conflicting interests of political parties, the new draft report of the thematic committee on NRM has also failed to clearly define the rights of local people as commons on common property resources such as land, forest, water, grazing land, minerals etc. Access of the small peasants and landless to natural resources, particularly land is vital for a democracy to be realized at local level.  



Basnet, J. (July 8, 2010), Land Rights in Nepal, Katmandu Post (Daily English Vernacular)

Chapagain, D.P., 2001. Status Review and Dialogue: Land and Agriculture. Kathmandu: World Conservation Union Nepal.

High Level Commission on Scientific Land Reform (2010), Reports on Suggestions to Government of Nepal, Kathmandu: HLCSLR.

Ministry of Environment (2010), National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to Climate Change, Kathmandu: Government of Nepal.

Ministry of Finance (2010) Economic Survey 2020, Government of Nepal.

Regmi, Mahesh C., 1999. Landownership in Nepal. Delhi: Adroit.

Seddon, D., Adhikari, J. and Gurung, G. (2001), The New Lahures: Foreign Employment and Remittance Economy of Nepal. Kathmandu: Nepal Institute of Development Studies.

Teijun, W. and Kinchi, L. (2008), Land Reform and National Development in Nepal (Study Report)

Wily, L. A; Chapagain D. and Sharma, S. (2008) Land Reform in Nepal: Where is it coming from and where is it going? Kathmandu: Nepal.

[1] Marginal farmers are defined by the Agriculture Census Survey (NSAC) 2001 as a holding under half a hectare  (0.5 ha, or 15 Kattha or 0.75 bigha)

[2] Dalit is schedule caste and considered to be untouchable and have very low social status (around 15 population comprise from Dalit groups in Nepal)

[3] UNDP Human Development Report, 2004, p.43, 164.

[4] Nepal Agricultural Census 2001, quoted in Adhikari 2006: 9-10.

[5] According to Agricultural Census 2001, of the 4.235 million households in the whole country, 3.3 m were rural, and 1.2 m landless.

[6] The Second Nepal Living Standard Survey 2003-04 (NLSS-II), quoted in Adhikari 2006: 14.

[7] The 1994 figure presented by the Badal Commission was 12%, and the 2001 figure given by the Agricultural Census 2001 was 9%; quoted in Adhikari 2006: 14.

[8] According to CSRC 2004, 2,968,017 ha land is cultivated, while 986,898 ha remains fallow; quoted in Adhikari 2006: 15.

[9] These classes include politicians, high ranking bureaucrats, as well as members of the army and the police.

[10] Karnali is mountainous area of mid west region with difficult terrain with most food deficit area in Nepal

[11] Teijun and Kin Chi, 2008 have also reported that a significant area of land remain fallow while the availability of land to the small farmers is very limited. One of the reasons for the land to remain fallow these days is the migration of people from rural area to urban area, particularly the small holders peasants.

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