Ever since the industrial revolution, the institution of private property has been increasingly criticized. Socialist trends have gained strength the entire world over, and complete socialization of the means of production and distribution and abolition of private property, has been urged. India, too, has consistently followed a socialistic policy. Ceilings on landholdings in rural areas have been imposed, and there is also of ceiling on urban property. While, on the one hand, such measures have failed to satisfy the extreme socialists who would like all private property to be nationalized, on the other hand there are others, who are more conservative and who not suffer any limitation of the right to own property. Let us first consider, if the institution of property has any good in itself, and then determine whether the right to property should be curtailed or not.
Property carries with it many advantages, and that is why man has always liked to enjoy it. Through the ages man has built up property as a means of self-preservation, as a protection against want for himself and his family, as a means of security against unemployment and the vagaries of weather. Property provides man with leisure for the pursuit of cultural activities. Many cultural activities are maintained by the patronage of the most affluent sections of the society and, if the right to property is abolished, these activities would suffer, property constitutes an incentive to hard work. It is generally the love of property which makes men work hard. The right to property has helped in the formation of capital without which modern large scale production would not have been possible. Without the prospect of an investor becoming rich, the economy would have stagnated.
The advantages of property are many, but thinkers and philosophers in all ages and countries have opposed unlimited concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Those with a moral religious basis, condemned wealth and property on the ground that it results in corruption and luxurious living and deadens the feeling of piety and sympathy. It makes men lazy and callous.
In modern times, socialists have recommended state-control over private property on a number of grounds. They have pointed out that concentration of wealth creates monopolies and gives a few undue powers over the lives and destinies of the masses. Big capitals exploit the weaker section of society, and control the market by cornering the stocks of essential commodities. It leads to such anti-social activities as black-marketing, profiteering and hoarding. Extremes of wealth and poverty existing side by side are in compatible with a society wedded to democracy. For all those reasons it is argued that the institutions of private property should be ended and all property should be owned by the state.
Such are the extreme views expressed on the vexed question of private property versus state control. Harold J. Laski, the noted scholar of political science, advocated the golden mean, that there is nothing wrong with the right to property, provided the property is not inherited but has been acquired by personal effort, and provided further that it is not so large as to give the property owner the power to control the destinies of others. In other words, the right to property may be limited, but is must not be abolished. Most social thinkers and economist are now agreed that some limitations and curbs on the right to property are desirable, but that the right cannot be done away with so long as the state is unable to provide for complete security against want, sickness and old age, as well as full employment to its people.
It is this moderate approach which was adopted by the farmers of the Indian constitution. Article 31 of the constitution lays down that, “no person shall be acquired or requisitioned save for public purpose and save by the authority of law which provides for compensation for the property, so acquired”. This protects a citizen against arbitrary seizure of property. A person cannot be deprived of his property only for a public purpose after giving compensation.
In other words, our constitution does not recognize any absolute right to property. It provides reasonable restrictions on the right to property in the public interest and for the acquisition of property for a public purpose that is for the benefit of society as a whole. Further, it calls upon the state to direct and maintain a social order in which justice would be the basis of all the institutions of national life. The state is to ensure that the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production in the hands of a few, to the prejudice of the common good.
Thus, it becomes quite clear that the Indian constitution does not allow unrestricted right to property. It lays down that concentration of wealth is to be prevented and a just distribution of national wealth is to be brought about. The government has been consistently following such a policy. Landlordism and the princely purses and privileges have already been abolished. Means of production and distribution have been increasingly nationalized. Nationalization of banks and the state trading in food grains are all in accordance with this principle. The large numbers of public sector industries are also intended to prevent concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.
A number of measures have been introduced in order to ensure equitable distribution of national wealth and prevent concentration of wealth. Ceiling on landholdings and the ceiling on urban property are also to be viewed in the light. Ceiling on land in rural areas has been imposed, so that surplus land may be distributed among the landless farmers. Ceiling on vacant land in urban areas has also been imposed. Ceiling on urban property is the natural corollary to the ceiling on landholdings. Nobody should be allowed to hold property beyond a fixed limit, say Fifty Lakhs, and the excess property so acquired should be given to those who do not have any shelter over their heads.
In this way, it is hoped that disparities of wealth and poverty would be reduced and a more just social order would be established. The people would still continue to enjoy the right to property, but it would be limited in such a way that it would cease to be a social evil. However, the question of the imposition of ceiling is a thorny one and due care must be taken to see that no injustice is done to those whose right to property is thus limited.