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Agrarian Transition in West Bengal
Arrested by the Half-Measure

Interest about West Bengal land reforms probably would never subside. If they      generated lots of attention in the academic world in the late '70s due to the flurry activities on this front by the Left Front government, they have occasioned a fresh look these days because of the prolonged stagnation on the agrarian front for more than a decade despite the much touted reforms. A comprehensive stagnation in basic agrarian transition which is not reflected in the relatively comfortable agricultural growth figures in recent years. By contrast, the Left Front appears to be considering land reforms a closed agenda or they themselves do not know how to go about it further. The book by Sankar Kumar Bhaumik is a welcome addition to the literature on the subject because it is one of the latest - published in 1993 - offering a reasonably good account of the pre- and post-Operation Barga (OB) rural realities of Bengal including the impact of the reforms on land ownership and tenurial relations and its implications for growth and productivity.

From the standpoint of a fair-minded academic, Mr.Bhaumik is all praise for LF in general when he compares the performance of this government with the earlier land reforms attempts in the State or with the record of other governments in other States. One cannot fault him for this. Obviously, this cannot be the point of departure for revolutionary Marxism however. But his academic enquiry leads the author to several findings and conclusions which question the entire framework of land reforms of the LF government. Most of these conclusions only reinforce the critique of the CPI(M) by Marxist-Leninists on the issue of land reforms.

In as much as the book makes a contribution to highlighting the limitations of the OB and setting a new agenda on land reforms for Bengal, even its 'disinterested' academic enquiry would be reckoned a positive contribution outweighing the well-intentioned praise the author has for the LF government.

The Marxist Approach to Tenancy Reforms

For revolutionary Marxists, tenancy reforms can never be an end in itself. It can at best be a stop-gap measure before taking a more comprehensive step of 'land to the tiller'. Land to the tiller is no pie-in-the-sky objective but only a logical next step after tenancy reforms for any sincere government aiming to usher in genuine bourgeois-democratic agrarian reforms because such a transition is called for by the very transitional nature of sharecropping itself. As the author, in his customary review of the literature on the subject at the beginning of the book, refers to the Marxist academician R. Pearce, "...sharecropping is a particular method of surplus appropriation by which surplus labour is transferred to the landlord in the form of surplus product. ...sharecropping actually represents a transitional mode of surplus appropriation 'between forms of agrestic servitude and the full commoditization of rural labour itself'. ...It may persist in the early stages of capitalist development when accumulation and technical changes are slow in creating developed wage-labour market, but 'there will be a tendency for such contract to be superseded by others more appropriate to high rates of accumulation in agriculture'". Nineteen years is much too long a period, since 1977 when OB was first introduced, for the CPI(M) to sit idle, after legally institutionalising the sharecropping system, and pretend there is nothing more to be done - or, could be done - in the direction of furthering the land reforms. Strange indeed is this Marxist despotism which presides, on the eve of 21st century, over this vast sea of small-scale farming in Bengal, a very large segment of which is subsistence or near-subsistence farming!

But the institutionalised stagnation in the Bengal rural life and unjustifiable inertia of the CPI(M) notwithstanding, changes, albeit snail-paced, do take place there, including in tenancy farming. It is an inevitable march of history despite the attempt of the party in power to arrest it. As revolutionary Marxists we can only sharpen our eyes to such changes, analyse their import and accordingly adjust our tactics. As Lenin says, "...general phrases about subsistence and capitalist renting can do nothing to clear up questions relating to our peasant farming; a study must be made of the concrete facts regarding the development of feudal features in the renting of land, and regarding the formation of capitalist relations within this very renting of land" (CW, Vol.15., p.101). It is important to pose the questions: How far Operation Barga, and the earlier land ceiling, cleared up feudal features? Why that most retrograde relic of semi-feudal agriculture, labour service, is reportedly persisting, especially among unrecorded tenants, in some parts of Bengal known for its glorious history of anti-feudal struggles? How widely prevalent is the usury that makes sharecroppers dependent on the landowners for consumption and investment loans which makes a mockery of the tenancy registration that is supposed to undercut the relations of dependence? Is the subsistence or near-subsistence renting solely due to meagre flow of state assistance to other inputs? Or, does it call for more radical changes in the tenurial and landownership relations as a precondition for a speedy development of capitalist relations? Why the spread of Green Revolution is so poor in a land of supposedly radical agrarian reforms compared to other regions of the country which claim no such credit? And, above all, how does a bargadar compare with an agricultural labourer? Or in other words, why the wage levels of the agricultural labourers do not go up to a point to make wage labour a better option for the small bargadars who are a numerically large category? The findings from the field study of the author and the data he has summarised give us glimpses relating to most of these things and are quite useful to draw Marxist conclusions.

The sole objective of any bourgeois-democratic land reforms is the unfettering of the productive forces. It is very much pertinent to look into the implications of Operation Barga for agricultural growth and productivity, especially its impact on productivity in sharecropping farms. If the productivity differentials between the pre- and post-OB settings are not so markedly different and the productivity in the registered farm is not appreciably high over the unregistered farm, then there must be some vital gap. Did registration, which passed for a radical reform, and regulation of rent, instead of creating conditions that would leave adequate surplus in the hands of the small peasant to reinvest and improve productivity in his rented land only served to legally institutionalise surplus extraction by the landowner and created a secure basis for the rich peasant to rent in the land of the poor peasant and develop capitalist agriculture? As we shall see later the author has some interesting findings in this regard.

The analysis of the size-classwise data on ownership and operational holdings as well as renting-in and renting-out by different classes of the peasantry and his reporting on the fieldwork also point to an unmistakable tendency of capitalist farming by a narrow but not-so-insignificant layer of rich peasants. Again, as Lenin said in reference to the Russian village communes, "...entrepreneur renting of land among the peasantry is no isolated phenomenon, but is general and universal. Everywhere there emerge in the village communes well-to-do households, which always constitute an insignificant minority and always organise capitalist farming with the aid of entrepreneur renting of land" (ibid). Similar scenario is true for Bengal countryside also, and the OB regime is no exception. This however is also a very slow, distorted, painful and complicated process associated more closely with the changing class character of CPI(M) itself and depending upon the nexus of these rich peasants with the administration, panchayats and the party apparatus of CPI(M) and their cornering of the resources provided by the state. As its flip side, among the small and middle peasants, who are to fend for themselves, growth of capitalist farming, either through group farming methods or through cooperatives, is either virtually absent or grossly underdeveloped. Let us then take up the findings of this book for a more detailed review to unravel the mystery behind the most acclaimed land reforms exercise in independent India ending up in a startling saga of stagnation.

Operation Barga within the Broad Picture

The author gives some relevant information for an assessment of Operation Barga in the context of overall agrarian reforms in Bengal, especially changes in the landownership pattern, in the distribution of operational holdings in different size classes before and after OB as well as the changes in the tenancy pattern. He bases himself on different rounds of NSS data he compiles data for three years - 1953-54, 1971-72 and 1982 - to indicate the state of affairs in three different periods viz. before LF took office, before its launching of OB and in the post-OB setting. For a size-class data analysis he uses his own categorisation of different landholding groups: landless (less than 0.01 acre); marginal (0.01 - 2.49 acres); small (2.50 - 4.99 acres); medium (5.00 - 9.99 acres); big (10.00 - 14.99 acres) and large (15.00 acres and above). Some important points do emerge from this analysis.

Skewed Landownership

First, the changes in the landownership pattern. In spite of all the tall claims by CPI(M) about record redistribution of ceiling-surplus land and protection to bargadars from eviction, there has been a drastic increase in landlessness in Bengal, especially during the so-called reform years of LF regime. About a fifth of the rural households were recorded as 'landless' in West Bengal in 1953-54. This declined significantly to less than a tenth in 1971-72. However, the figure for 1982 shows a fairly sharp rise in the percentage of the 'landless' (17.21%). According to the author, "This is quite baffling considering the fact that West Bengal is considered one of the front-ranking states where land reform measures such as distribution of vested land to the landless proceeded at a fast rate."
Secondly, there has been a steady increase in the parcellisation of land and 'marginalisation' of the peasantry carrying out unviable farming. If households in the 'landless' and 'marginal' categories are put together, a continuous increase in the percentage of households under these categories is observed in West Bengal. These two categories together constituted nearly 73%, 77% and 82% of all households respectively in 1953-54, 1971-72 and 1982.

In the case of 'big' and 'large' categories, the rate of decline in the percentage of owned area in the period 1971-72 to 1982 has been lower than the rate of decline in the percentage of households. Though there has been a tendency of decline in the share of households in these categories, there is also the parallel tendency of fresh land concentration among the existing households in these categories. Likewise the increase in the percentage of owned area despite fall in the percentage of households in the 'middle' category clearly indicates increased concentration of land with them in Bengal in recent years.

The skewed land distribution still prevailing after all the land reform measures is clear from the fact that the big and large categories together comprised 1.37% of households but they accounted for 13.67% of owned area in 1982. Some other states under bourgeois-landlord rule could claim greater egalitarianism than the Left-led West Bengal in terms of land ownership.

In the words of the author, "although the `marginal' and `small' owners consolidated their positions to some extent in terms of area owned, it is the `middle' categories of owners who have benefited the most in terms of area-shift in the recent years. Nevertheless, quite a substantial proportion of area in West Bengal is still occupied by the `big' and `large' categories of owners. These developments along with the increase in landlessness explain the high degree of inequality in the distribution of ownership holdings in 1982 compared with 1971-72". This in itself speaks for how thoroughgoing the land reforms have been in Bengal and what their class character was. But there is much more on this in this book.

Secondly, the changing pattern of operational holdings also reveals similar features. According to the author, "The largest section of the rural households in West Bengal belonged to the category of `marginal' farmers and the extent of `marginalisation' increased over time. While 61.20% of operational holdings belonged to this category in 1971-72, they increased to 74.32% in 1982....Distribution of operational holdings is also far from equal. Even in 1982, while about 90% of holdings at the bottom (marginal and small categories) operated about 58% of area, only 1.77% of holdings at the top (`big' and `large' categories) accounted for 13.71% of area operated. Moreover, 8.07% of households in the middle range control 28.25% of operated area in Bengal today".

What is the extent of tenancy and how many tenants have been covered under Operation Barga? The author disagrees with the criticism of Ashok Rudra that many bargadars are indifferent to OB by simply not coming forward to register their names and says the exact number of bargadars in the state has long been a matter of wide guess. While the LF government presently claims nearly 2 million registrations (1.4 million by the end of 1992) out of an estimated 2 to 2.5 million bargadars in the state, the author's own field study shows that in the area under study there are 121 unregistered tenants to 103 registered tenants.

Decline in Tenant Cultivation

The author has also outlined the changes in the tenancy structure. What strikes one at the first instance is the decline in tenant cultivation in Bengal. While in 1971-72, the leased-in land constituted about 18.7% of the total operated area, in 1982, only 12.84% of operated area in the state was under tenant cultivation. "The decline in tenanted area is also accompanied by a decline in the percentage of the entirely leased in holdings (that is landless peasant holdings entirely depending on leased in land for cultivation). This means many of the erstwhile pure tenants have been evicted and possibly pushed into the army of agricultural labourers", says the author.

There is a continuous decline in the percentage of holdings reporting area leased in as well as the percentage of operated area leased in by all categories of operators in the state. For, the state as a whole, while 41.49% of holdings reported area leased in in 1953-54, the corresponding figure for 1971-72 was 34.15% which got reduced to 22.15% in 1982. Moreover, the percentage of operated area leased in declined from 24.45% in 1953-54 to 18.73% in 1971-72 and 12.34% in 1982. This clearly indicates tenancy cultivation has been on the decline in West Bengal.

Leasing out operation by various ownership categories has also rapidly come down during the phase of LF government's reforms. While 10.41% of all owners leased out their land in 1953-54, and 9.48% in 1971-72, the figure in 1982 is sharply reduced to a mere 3.71%.

Thus, during the period of much-trumpeted reforms including the OB whose main hallmark was supposed to be the protection of tenants from eviction by the landowners, about one third of the operated area under tenant cultivation before OB has gone out of the hands of tenants, about half the number of tenants themselves have ceased to be tenants and more than half the number of landowners leasing out their lands have taken their lands back. While the propagandists of the LF government went on claiming tremendous success for their Operation Barga in terms of increasing numbers of tenants registering their names, their actual numbers were decreasing due to eviction in reality. Though the author partly attributes this decline to redistribution of ceiling-surplus land among tenants he himself admits that "...a large part of this decline may be attributed to landowners' fear of tenancy laws".

He also says that an important reason towards decline in tenancy in recent years could also be the spread of new technology in agriculture which made cultivation with hired labour more attractive to many landowners but forgets to add that despite Operation Barga protecting tenants from eviction and from arbitrary extraction of rent many small and marginal tenants find it unable to continue sustainable farming and have surrendered their rented in land.

Operation Barga, as its very name indicates, primarily addresses itself to sharecroppers and it was publicised as an innovative land reform measure of greater value than the routine measures like redistribution of ceiling-surplus land. Protection of sharecroppers interests continued to occupy central thrust in the 90s also as half-hearted legislative attempts made by the LF government in 1986 and 1990 through amendments to the West Bengal Land Reforms Act to plug the loopholes in the earlier land reform measures were stranded in the courts. That mere tinkering with the tenurial conditions through legislative and bureaucratic means is hardly sufficient to basically alter the tenurial relations is clear from the actual outcome of sharp decline in sharecropping itself. In 1971-72, 92.58% of total leased in area was under share tenancy. Only about 56% of leased in area could still be found under share tenancy in 1982. This decline is associated with an increase in the percentage of leased in area under fixed rent tenancy. This is one way in which the effect of OB is being nullified by the richer sections of the peasantry. As part of the explanation for this trend the author says, "This is understandable for, with the penetration of new technology in agriculture, higher categories of lessees are not possibly willing to share the benefits of improved cultivation with lessors."

Reverse Tenancy

One reason why Operation Barga did not meet with any bloody opposition from the landowning classes as any state-sponsored thoroughgoing land reform measure would normally meet with was that this Operation Barga had a strong class collaborationist content. It was not that the rich propertied classes in Bengal countryside were only possessed with a 'fear of tenancy laws' as repeatedly pointed out by the author. Rather they were haunted, in the wake of Naxalbari and the upsurge in revolutionary peasant struggles in the late 60s and early 70s, by the fear of losing their lands entirely to the militant landless and poor peasantry and many of them did lose. In that historical juncture, CPI(M)'s Operation Barga, in contrast to CPI(ML)'s land seizure movements in the immediately preceding phase, assured them that they would somehow retain the ownership of their lands, despite reduction in the rent and restrictions on eviction. Similar to the tenancy regulation reforms in the colonial days, OB also had the effect of pouring cold water over the objectively ongoing struggles and served only to moderate the exploitation through rent extraction but succeeded in channelising the peasant upsurge into achieving this half-measure of class collaboration.

Another reason why OB did not meet with stiff opposition from propertied classes and did not snowball into a political threat to LF rule - similar to what was witnessed in Kerala against land reform measures in 50s and 60s - was that it partly benefited a section of them directly. Apart from the now not-so-apparent side of class collaboration mentioned earlier, the operation Barga, in its very class nature, is a mixed bag. It is no land reform measure aimed at only poor tenantry. Rich peasants benefit as much out of it as the poor, or perhaps even more. This is clear from what Mr.Bhaumik says: "...the majority of the lessors in West Bengal actually come from the lower categories. Not only that the share of `marginal' holdings in the distribution of all households leasing out has been the highest at each point of time, but their share actually increased over the years. (1953-54 42.03%, 1971-72 55.36% and 1982 62.35%). "...the shares of `medium', `big' and `large' categories in the distribution of households leasing out declined in 1982 compared with 1953-54 (as well as 1971-72) and those of `marginal' increased between 1971-72 and 1982 and both `marginal' and `small' increased in 1982 compared with 1953-54". "While 59.78% of all households leasing out belonged to `marginal' and `small' categories in 1953-54, the corresponding figures were 77.98 in 1971-72 and 82.16% in 1982.

The figures for leasing in by different size-classes are also quite revealing. In 1982, while 22.58% of 'marginal' operators reported area leased in, the figures for 'small' and 'medium' categories have been 24.04% and 25.56% respectively. The proportion of households reporting area leased in by the big and large categories have not been insignificant either. While in 1971-72, 27.40% of the households belonging to these categories had leased in land, in 1982 the figure was 27.45%. In 1971-72, these categories had leased in 12.53% of the total leased in land and in 1982 the figure was 9.85%. While in 1972, 32.57% of the marginal households had leased in land, in 1982, 22.58 had done so. In 1971-72 this category had leased in 25.82% of the total leased in land while in 1982 it drastically came down to 13.25%.

Considering the distribution of holdings leasing in into various categories, a majority of such holdings fall into the marginal category. The share of this category in total holdings reporting area leased in increased from 57.68% in 1971-72 to 73.05% in 1982. The share of this category in total households reporting area leased out increased from 55.36% to 62.35% in the same period. If the marginal category households account for the largest share in both leasing in and leasing out then it shows the highly unstable nature of farming by this category. In other words, it best captures the dilemma of this category between compulsions of subsistence and the inability to carry on subsistence farming.

Says the author, "This means that some households in the higher categories too involve themselves in leasing in land signifying the presence of `reverse tenancy', though not as intensively as in some green revolution areas of India". About one third of rich peasant households accounting for one-tenth of rented-in land in the state may not appear `intensive' for the author but the fact that one third of the poor tenants have ceased to be tenants and have lost almost one half of the land that they previously held unmistakably points to the tendency of resumed owner cultivation by rich peasants and land alienation among poor tenants after Operation Barga. Seen in this backdrop the development of capitalist farming by rich peasants at the cost of poor peasants in Bengal would appear `intensive' enough - and it is only a matter of time that this rich peasant-led capitalist farming wrecks havoc with the vast sea of small-scale subsistence farming, through market forces and otherwise, and makes the contradiction between the professed intention and the outcome of Operation Barga ever more glaring - and this would also explain the `intensive' transition in the class character of CPI(M) in WB countryside best manifested in the about turn change in the nature of activities of the CPI(M)-led Kisan Sabha and in the profiles of its new generation leaders etc.

Thus, while OB, in the absence of any follow-up measures to confer ownership rights on the tenants and eliminate the ownership rights of well-to-do and non-cultivating sections over the land and for enabling the small and middle peasant to develop more intensive capitalist farming, has only frozen semi-feudal tenancy to gradually decay over time and disintegrate and at the same time created an institutionalised regime for the rich peasants to rent in land and develop capitalist farming at the expense of small landowners and cultivators. It may be noted here that Operation Barga was not accompanied by any other measure that would enable the small peasant proprietor who had rented out his land to retrieve his land and resume self-cultivation, with state assistance - one of the measures which can distinguish a Marxist government from any other bourgeois-landlord government in carrying out tenancy reforms. The author quotes Khasnabis in a non-committed way: "OB which tries to record the rights of tenants approved the intermediary rights of the landowners too. Thus the rent earning authority of non-cultivators, condemned by the bourgeois-democratic revolution, gets a communist sanction. This is the fundamental weakness of the policies adopted by the LF Govt...." Well, there can be no dispute with Khasnabis.

While the general summary of data compiled by the author helps us to arrive at some important conclusions, the more important part of the book is the findings of the case study by him which concretely confirms these conclusions and offers some fresh insights. The author has surveyed twelve villages in four blocks in the district of Midnapore and has demarcated out of them an 'advanced' region and a relatively 'backward' region, demarcated mainly on the basis of availability of water from the public irrigation system.

The most important distinction that the author finds between the two regions is that "the possibility of some tenants being drawn from higher ownership categories is slightly greater in agriculturally developed region compared to that in the backward region....while about 23% of the unrecorded tenants and 21% of the recorded tenants in Region I (advanced) belong to the higher ownership size groups of above 2.50 acres, the corresponding figures for the two groups of tenants in Region II (backward) are 12% and 9% respectively. This provides some support to the view often put forward that with the advancement of agriculture even the owners of higher categories might enter the land-lease market so as to augment their scale of cultivation further and reap fuller the benefits of improved agricultural technology". The percentage of recorded tenants cultivating more than 2.50 acres of land is nearly 29% in Region I but a mere 11% in Region II. This bears testimony to the seemingly paradoxical situation in Bengal where - due to the underlying class structure and a peculiar outcome of the Operation Barga - agricultural `development' means further deterioration in the conditions of poor peasantry. More the `development' greater will be the land alienation for the poor. Hence general slogans of agricultural development would not do and this slogan as raised often - of course, hedged with federalist limitations! - by the CPI(M)-led government has a distinct pro-rich peasant bias.


(To be concluded)

From October 1996 issue

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.


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