Agrarian Transition in West Bengal
Arrested by the Half-Measure

(This is the second part of the article reviewing the above-mentioned book. The first part appeared in our September '96 issue)

Seasonal Character of Tenancy -
Boro Crop Tenancy

In his book, Mr.Sankar Kumar Bhaumik has some interesting observations to make on the newly emerging phenomenon of seasonal character of tenancy in Bengal, especially the changes in the tenancy pattern during the Boro crop. It is widely acknowledged that much of the growth in agricultural output in recent years in West Bengal is accounted for by the increasing output of the Boro crop. Contrary to the claims of the CPI(M) which attributes this to its land reform measures including Operation Barga, the underlying secret, as revealed by Bhaumik's study, behind this increased Boro season output in the state is a strange combination of capitalist farming by big farmers resorting to capitalist renting in of land and semi-feudal metayage or labour service by poor peasantry. The author refers to a study by Nripen Bandyopadhyaya of a region at the Hoogly-Burdwan border in West Bengal "where large `enterprising' farmers leased in huge land during Boro season to do cultivation on commercial basis". He contrasts this with an opposite scenario in the region of his own field study where, "a section of the unrecorded tenants of lower size groups, particularly those belonging to less than 1.00 acre and 1.00-2.49 acres categories, leased in more land during the Boro season..." "This apart, there is also a general tendency among landowners to enter the lease market preferably during the Boro season in order to evade the provision of the tenancy act which allows the tenant to record in his name the tenanted portion of the land". "There has been a general tendency among landowners to prefer, even for seasonal arrangements, those tenants who earlier proved their trustworthiness by not recording their names against the land leased in during the past from other landowners", says the author who also offers an additional explanation in a footnote: "During our field survey, we discovered that there was complete unanimity among the sample tenants that none of them would go in for recording if the land was leased in for Boro season only. This means that these contracts are purely seasonal and the tenants voluntarily give back their leased-in plots to the landlords at the end of the season".

In the absence of a consistent policy of land to the tiller and supply-side assistance in favour of small peasants on the part of the state, the poor peasants' hunger for land, the skewed land relations and backward relations of production constantly reproduce semi-feudal forms of tenancy, even if just for a single agricultural season. The bankruptcy of the Operation Barga is best brought out by this indifference of the poor peasant to go in for recording. Under prevailing circumstances, if the need for optimal utilisation of their family labour warrants renting in of land even on such seasonal basis, and if the registration of their names, even by a few, despite earning them security of tenure, is going to deprive such opportunities for their collective lot, then in their collective consciousness they see through the ineffectivity of such half-baked reforms to fully serve their interests, hence reject them, and reconcile to the existing realities.

A thoroughgoing land reform measure should ideally put an end to tenant farming once and for all, or at least prevent any new emergence of sharecropping as a significant category. But under the half-measure of OB, almost a decade after this so-called reform, most of the newly emerging sharecroppers remain unrecorded tenants. According to the author's survey, nearly 42% of the unrecorded tenants in the surveyed area entered the land-lease market only during the past two to five years. In sharp contrast, in the case of recorded tenants, nearly 96% of them have been in the land-lease market for as many as fifteen years.

Labour Service

There is yet another obnoxious semi-feudal feature associated with such Boro season leases. According to the author, "In some cases, such leases are obtained as part of interlocked contracts, particularly between land-lease and labour. From the viewpoint of the landowner, by leasing out a part of his cultivable land during the Boro season, not only does he earn an assured rent but, more importantly, it assures him a degree of labour supply through his tenant(s) for crucial field crop operations (such as, sowing and harvesting) in the cultivation of his self-operated land". He finds 30 out of 121 unrecorded tenants have rendered labour service to their landowners. The author denies that this has got anything to do with semi-feudal exploitation on the grounds that they have received wages at prevailing market rates for the services rendered. But looked at from another angle this metayage system itself may be one of the important reasons why real wages of agricultural labourers are not going up adequately in Bengal as in some other states.

Absentee Landlordism

The aim of any bourgeois-democratic land reform is to abolish the ownership right of non-cultivating landowners over the land. This is what a bourgeois politician like Devraj Urs did in Karnataka. The land was transferred to the tenants by paying compensation to the non-cultivating landowners which was recovered from the tenants over a period of 18 years. But Operation Barga was far inferior to even Urs' land reforms since it had no provision to transfer the land from the absentee landowners to the tenants and provided them no option to purchase the land even with similar state assistance. As is evident from the field study, absentee landlordism appears to be quite strong in Bengal. Among the lessors, those whose primary occupation is also cultivation accounted for 43.92% and those in primarily non-agricultural occupations like service or trade accounted for 54.12% in the advanced region and the figures for backward region is 38.22% and 58.60%. Transfer of land from these categories to the tenants, even by giving compensation where necessary, should have been the logical next step after OB. Even after nearly two decades after its introduction such a step is nowhere is in sight.

Underemployment and Underdeveloped Tenancy

Underemployment in agriculture and sluggish employment growth in non-agricultural occupations are important factors in reproducing semi-feudal tenancy relations, especially sharecropping. Studying the relation between the acreage under tenancy and different variables concerning a farming household like owned area, number of farm family workers, value of draught animals and value of implements and machinery etc., the author comes to the conclusion that there exist a strong association between acreage under tenancy and the number of farm family workers available. The availability of underemployed farm family workers provides the greatest motivational force for them to enter into tenancy arrangements. "This only reveals the compulsion exerted on a section of land-constrained tenants to enter the land-lease market in the event of a lack of alternative employment opportunities for their family resources (mostly labour)", concludes the author.

Class Character of OB

Marxists would be unhappy if only size-class categorisation is employed in the analysis to loosely characterise poor, middle and rich peasants. Any Marxist analysis would be based on the more rigorous criteria of selling or employment of labour power for categorisation of different agrarian classes. Departing from his general size-class categorisation, the author gives a classification of tenant households in his field study area based on the criteria of hiring in and selling of labour power according to which there are 14% poor tenants who also sell a part of their labour power, 63% who neither sell nor employ labour power and 23% of rich tenants who employ hired labour. Though this is predominantly a middle peasant region these figures give us a glimpse of the extent of rich peasant farming and supports our contention regarding the class character of Operation Barga.

Sluggish Land Market

Studying the land market in this area, Sankar Kumar Bhaumik says that the quantum of land transfer has not been very sizable over the past decade, and could not, therefore bring about drastic changes in ownership status even for households so affected. However, even if the land concentration is not so marked, his study does point to a slow process of change in the landownership pattern. 33% of the households have reported net purchase of land in the previous decade, 54% have reported no change in their landholdings and 13% have reported net loss of land. Lack of land concentration and absence of dynamism in the land market need not be taken as a sign of stabilisation of egalitarianism in land relations in West Bengal. Seen in the context of unsatiated land hunger of the peasantry and a vibrant land-lease market they rather point to the stagnation in agrarian transformation in Bengal.

Crop Sharing

Examining the crop sharing pattern between different categories of tenants and landowners for different crops, the author finds it striking that in one fourth of the cases, the recorded tenants, in his area of study, maintain their traditional arrangement of equal sharing in the case of Aman paddy even though the recording of their tenanted plots entitle them to three-fourths of the gross produce if the landlords have not participated in the cost of cultivation. In the case of Boro crop too, which is cultivated mostly by unrecorded tenants, 24% of them obtain only 50% of the share without cost sharing by the landowners though this crop involves higher input cost. This means the benefit of OB is not reaching a good one fourth of the recorded tenants when it comes to regulation of crop sharing.


The author's field study shows that institutional credit is available only for 22.32% of the unrecorded tenants while the figure is 43.69% for the recorded tenants. A substantial proportion of tenant households, both recorded and unrecorded, still depend upon the non-institutional sources for their credit requirement. It would have been interesting if the author had contrasted the crop-sharing pattern between those tenant households dependent on their landowners for credit and those who are not. While the interest rate for institutional credit works out to around 11%, it ranges between 75-80% for the loans taken from the Gramin Mahajan (village moneylender). Nearly two decades after LF's coming into power and introducing Operation Barga, the usury has not been tackled - in the surveyed area - even to the extent of half of recorded tenants and four fifths in the case of unrecorded ones. Even those who have access to institutional credit have mostly taken consumption loans, especially for some social purposes and exigencies, and very little money has gone into increasing productivity. But then why should the poor and middle peasants do it taking risk when the fruits are to be shared with the landowners.

Lower Productivity in the Sharecropped Plots

The most important finding of the author relates to a comparative analysis of inputs use and productivity in the owned plot and rented-in plot of the same tenant, in plot under sharecropping and in plot under fixed-rent tenancy, and in purely owned and purely rented in plots. All categories of tenants use higher doses of inputs and have the benefit of higher productivity levels from their owned plots compared to their sharecropped plots in the case of not only the traditional Aman paddy but for the summer crop of Boro paddy as well. This is true for both recorded and unrecorded tenants. Contrary to the case with crop-sharing contracts, the performance of the households under fixed rent plots does not differ significantly from that on the owned plots. There is no difference between purely rented plots under fixed rent tenancy and purely owned plots either.

Such productivity differentials between owner cultivation and sharecropping give the lie to the CPI(M)'s claim that Operation Barga has, through rent regulation, eliminated feudal features in the renting of land and at the same time also curbed emergence of normal capitalist ground rent. Productivity growth, through the unfettering of productive forces, more than any egalitarianism, is the objective behind any radical land reforms. If Operation Barga had been purely a registration exercise aimed at preventing eviction to be subsequently followed by the transfer of the land to the tenant it would have been a different thing. Even originally it was not conceived like that. The rent regulation has given stagnation in sharecropping a long-term and permanent character. While the small peasant farming in the rented plots suffers stagnation in productivity growth, the rich peasant, renting in land from the poor peasants, benefits significantly due to the regulation. The poor peasants renting out their lands will be not able to get capitalist ground rent as determined by average farm profitability. That is why OB has led to a vast sea of small-scale farming suffering decay and putrefaction coexisting with vibrant islands of rich peasant farming.

Liberal Prescriptions

Summarising his conclusions, the author writes, "...a stage has perhaps come when, apart from pursuing the policies of institutional reform which help the perpetuation of small farming sector, it would now require a far greater degree of government intervention to make available a suitably devised package of technology along with adequate institutional finance to raise the performance of the small farming regime typical of West Bengal. This is not to say that the course of institutional reform is complete in a state like West Bengal. With a section of the tenants yet to be mobilised to record their names, the distribution of land-holdings still being far from equal and with the percentage of the landless households showing an increasing trend, not only does the case for pursuing the ongoing scheme for institutional reform remain important, but there is also the need for a fresh review of the provisions and implementation of the existing reform legislations, particularly relating to the ceiling on land. However, we wish to emphasise that these should now follow concomitantly with more active government intervention for technological diffusion. The two most important areas where the government could assign priorities are the expansion of the irrigation network and the supply of institutional finance. Nearly three-fourths of the households operate less than 2.50 acres of land in West Bengal. The majority of them are unable to make adequate irrigation arrangements of their own and the lack of irrigation alone could, sooner or later, whittle down further the growth of its petty/small peasant dominated agriculture. There is also a lot to be achieved in the sphere of expansion of institutional finance even for the group of recorded sharecroppers who were to receive priority in this regard in recent years. We cannot lose sight of the fact that even now a fairly big percentage of tenants, recorded as well as unrecorded, do fall back upon non-institutional lenders and, consequently, suffer usurious extortions". Thus while he considers further structural reforms in West Bengal merely residual measures he harbours a fresh hope: "Perhaps the steady expansion of the irrigation base, coupled with the provision of institutional finance, could bring about a dramatic transformation of small peasant dominated agrarian Bengal". Perhaps true. But only it would no longer remain small-peasant-dominated agrarian Bengal. Rather, it would be a rich peasant or kulak-dominated Bengal. And this transition would, of course, not be lacking in drama.

West Bengal Agrarian Scene Now

Nearly two decades of implementation of Operation Barga has proved that there is no getting away with any half-measure. The unresolved question will come back to stare at CPI(M) in the form of stagnation of small peasant farming. CPI(M) appears to have been caught in the complacency of relatively impressive growth figures in agricultural output in West Bengal in recent years. Different states under different bourgeois-landlord governments have witnessed during different periods such temporary spurts of growth due to different reasons. The present high output growth in WB would prove to be unsustainable sooner rather than later. Even as per the official vision of agrarian transition, the spread of green revolution in the state is rather poor. A comparison with other states shows WB falling behind, in many respects, than even some other naturally less-endowed states. Be it extension of irrigation and pumpsets, fertiliser use or marketing facilities. The share of marketable surplus in WB is quite low though the state leads in rice production and productivity. Despite the LF enjoying a strong rural base no exceptional priority is to be seen in the case of West Bengal in plan allocations to the agricultural sector. Except for a relatively better performance in cooperatives and agricultural financing the Left-ruled state cannot boast of any qualitatively different experimentation in these areas. Moreover, the rise in real wages of agricultural labourers is much less compared to many other states like Punjab and Kerala. No wonder, two decades of high-profile propaganda on Operation Barga already sounds less and less convincing.


How is it that there have been relatively more thoroughgoing land reforms in Kerala even when there is no political stability for CPI(M) but despite a stable government for nineteen years why it has stopped with an half-measure in Bengal? Why this juxtaposed divorce between land and 'power'? If one deeply probes these questions one can understand that it is precisely because the land reforms in West Bengal have been very shallow that the LF government there is more 'stable'. The CPI(M)'s slogan of 'broad peasant unity' gives expression to the cross-class balancing of CPI(M).

Through Operation Barga, the CPI(M) is holding the eviction-fearing small peasants politically hostage while keeping the rich peasants in good humour. Otherwise, why should the party give exemption to West Bengal from separately organising agricultural labourers and keep its All-India Agricultural Labourers Union away from agricultural workers in the state who comprise one fifth of the rural population. CPI(M)'s brand of social democracy on the peasant question is evident from the very premise of their land reforms as set forth in a West Bengal government report: "...within the bounds of the constitution of a bourgeois-landlord state, a constituent State Government cannot abolish the system of Zamindari, nor is it a feasible proposition. The State Government can only ameliorate the sufferings of the people to some extent, can rouse the village poor to mobilise and can enthuse them to strengthen their organising capacity. Through this process only, class enemy in the rural areas can be identified and cornered, thereby opening up new horizons for rural poor". (Land Reforms in West Bengal, 1980, Statistical Report IV, Statistical Cell, Board of Revenue). As far back as in 1983, the Third Congress of CPI(ML)-Liberation, in its agrarian programme, came up with an incisive analysis of the Operation Barga which has been fully corroborated by the more systematic academic findings of Bhaumik's study.

Earlier, CPI(M) used to come up with the lame pretext of difficulty in obtaining Presidential assent or blame the courts for holding up its two amendment acts which sought to reduce ceiling. Presently, when CPI(M) itself is part of the UF which is running the government at the centre there has been no fresh initiative from CPI(M) on this score. The only thing it has done is to come up with the West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill, 1996, introduced in the state assembly on June 27, according to which 'a person, firm, company, institution or an association or body of individuals intending to establish a tea garden, mill, factory, workshop, livestock or poultry farms, dairy or township may be permitted on certain conditions to acquire and hold land in excess of the ceiling area'. Now the courts in Bengal are threatening to reverse even individual cases of land redistribution and snatch away the land from the allottee and restore it to the former owners and the CPI(M) is quite powerless. The CPI(M) had long been vocal on the question of including the land reform legislations under the purview of the relevant schedule of the constitution so as to keep them away from meddling by the gentry-dominated courts. Now this doesn't find mention in the Common Minimum Programme. On its own the LF government has set up neither special courts nor tribunals to rescue the peasantry from the tangle of litigations.

Just as Operation Barga did not eliminate the superfluous stratum but institutionalised it, it made the party apparatchik the middleman. The changing class character of CPI(M) local leadership in rural areas and rich peasant domination in the panchayats only bears testimony to the emergence of a bureaucratized stratum of rich peasants and kulaks who exercise their stranglehold over the rural life in Bengal. The total betrayal of all the struggles of the past combined with class collaborationist 'land reform' programmes has step by step paved way for this. Now ditching the agricultural sector itself - probably much to the disappointment of Sankar Kumar Bhaumiks - in the face of stagnation, it has developed this craze for MNC-led industrial revival. The characterisation 'white Calcutta in the midst of red rural Bengal' misses the crux of this process of change. Like its slogan of 'broad peasant unity', the CPI(M)'s equally dubious electoral victory in the rural areas only represents opportunistic class collaboration and marks the height of its parliamentary cretinism. But by the very logic of the slow changes under way, this 'broad peasant unity' is bound to crack up. The growing alienation of agricultural labourers and poor peasants in some parts of rural Bengal, and the Karandas and Kalnas, only point to the new opportunities to the revolutionary left. What is needed are fresh studies at the grassroots and new articulation of their interests.