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The Results of  Land Reforms in West Bengal
- A Field Survey Report

Kartick Pal

An investigation based on an elaborate questionnaire was carried out during August-September 1996, in 3,381 rural households (covering about 17,000 people) in West Bengal which was planned and executed by the state committee of CPI(ML). The investigation was aimed at keeping abreast with the changes in the contemporary socio-economic profile of different classes in rural society compared to that in 1977 with a special emphasis on tracing the evolution of propertied (landed) sections through 19 years of left rule. Initially it was planned to conduct the investigation in 39 villages spread over 9 gram panchayat (GP) areas of Nadia and Bardhawan districts. But it could be conducted exhaustively only in 18 villages of 8 GPs. In the matter of selection of villages, the most backward ones were taken up and in each village all the families were surveyed (in 17 out of the 18 villages).

Before we go into the analysis of the survey data, a few words, as a prelude, may be useful. Agriculture in West Bengal, despite a certain degree of development is facing a critical saturation. CPI(M) people look pretty complacent with their leaders projecting a limited growth as a unique success story. The leap in productivity, they say, is mainly contributed by the 14,67,000 recorded bargadars (share croppers) and 22,70,000 vested land recipients, i.e., the beneficiaries of the land reforms of the Left Front carried out mainly through the bureaucracy. The leaders basically bank on the rate of increase in productivity in which they supposedly occupy the number one slot in India. But this kind of statistics conceal more than what they reveal, for, West Bengal, a late entrant in the race of green revolution, started improving its farming only in the 80s when the main green revolution states had already registered considerable increase in productivity. As a matter of fact, in terms of quantum of production per acre/hectare, West Bengal lags far behind Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu, and this is what the CPI(M) leaders want to conceal in the shadow of their sieved out statistics.

The slogan "land to the tiller" is propagated by the leftists not as a matter of egalitarianism alone, it is categorically aimed at increasing productivity and that way, the 22,70,000 strong contingent of the beneficiaries of land distribution may, no doubt, have its contribution in the overall agricultural productivity. But how can the projected two-and-a-half to three fold hike of production in 54,00,000 hectares (total arable land in WB) be attributed to only a minute fraction when one keeps in mind that the total volume of land seized and distributed in last three decades amounts to a meagre 7% of the whole? More so, when more than two thirds of that had been seized or redistributed in the late 60s and the leap in production took place in the 80s?

Besides this, what is more disturbing to everyone, and annoying too, is the present subsistence nature of agriculture in large tracts in the state which at least is a testimony to the gradualist, subsistence politics of the social democrats. And this is perhaps the crux of the crisis in which WB agriculture is gasping for a way out. Which course this would further take? If LF fails to promote any revolutionary democratic course of development, which they cannot do within the ambit of present parliamentary democracy, the only logical possibility is a kulak-led capitalist course, leading to a capitalist concentration of land. CPI(M), it appears is prepared to comply with this as fait accompli and they started taking necessary steps to move with the tide. They have already proposed to the President of India to slacken the Urban Land Ceiling Act, diluting land ceilings in rural areas and have very recently been talking about exempting the rich peasantry from the levy, hitherto used to feed the state granary.

Table I Ownership Pattern

Different classes Relative position of different classes Total land holdings by different class categories (in bighas) Modern Agri-equipments used (a study of 546 families)
  1978 1996 Shift 1978 1996 Shift  
Jotedar (kulak) 52(1.53%) 59(1.74%) 0.21%(+) 2125(19.1%) 2073(17.3%) 1.8%) 7.6%
Rich Peasantry 173(5.11%) 201(5.94%) 0.83%(+) 3120(28.0%) 3549(29.6%) 1.6%(+) 23.3%
Middle Peasantry 484(14.31%) 454(13.42%) 0.89%(-) 3976(35.7%) 3416(31.9%) 3.8%(-) 41%
Poor Peasantry 739(21.85%) 865(25.58%) 3.73%(+) 1555(14.0%) 1904(15.9%) 1.9%(+) 19.6%
Agri-labourers + other toilers 1933(57.17%) 1802(53.28%) 3.89% 351(3.2%) 642(5.3%) 2.1%(+) 8.5%
Total 3381 3381          

A socio-economic survey at such a critical point will readily generate interest among political workers, theorists and academic researchers. The investigation brings out certain observations on changes in ownership pattern of land, the conditions of the rural poor, distribution of institutional loans and resurgence of usury, and participation of different classes in rural self-government (Panchayats), which speak volumes about the transition of CPI(M)'s class and social base. Below we give some of the findings.

In comparison to 1978 situation only a marginal change in the ownership pattern is seen in 1996. According to data furnished by the Economic and Statistical Department, Government of West Bengal, despite some amount of trimming of the big holdings, number of owners holding more than 10 acres of land remains the same in the 90s as in the pre-1978 period. Our investigation shows an increase in the number of both jotedars (kulaks, who own 30 bighas of land) and rich peasants (who own from 15-30 bighas) who also use more than 30% of modern agri-machinery. Thus, a continuation of gradual strengthening of the position of the rural rich is seen. As far as the lowest rungs are concerned, we see a slight decline in the landless and other toilers category (who own 0.1-1 bighas). With the poor peasants (who own 1-3 bighas, and are basically toilers too) taken together, the rural poor constitutes the largest cross-section of the rural population and has swelled up in the LF rule. The maximum differentiation and flux has been experienced by the middle peasants about 14.8% of whom, through an upward mobility, have transformed themselves into rich peasants and 1.2% into jotedars, while more a formidable section has slipped into lower categories, 16% to poor peasantry and 4% to the landless. Such tension in this section is shaped by the constraints of production on the one hand and political allegiance on the other. Capital crunch is a constant problem for this section all through which has been further aggravated by the unprecedented rise in fertilizer and fuel prices in recent years.

The section from amongst them eventually gaining an upward mobility has been seen to have the right political connections (i.e. CPI(M) and in some cases, other LF constituents) and links with the administration, drawing the major chunk of the institutional support, which we shall deal separately in this report. And the reverse is true for those going down. The most well-off sections show a fair degree of constancy with a small portion going down the ladder to the middle peasantry, but subsequently being more than compensated by a stronger counter-current. This means, the traditional holdings in the state have been maintained undisturbed in 19 years of left rule.

The investigation shows an expansion of the poor peasantry and a little shrinkage in the volume of agricultural labourers. Well, a small piece of vested land received by an agricultural labourer may turn him into a poor peasant, but immediately he does not cease to be an agricultural labourer in a practical sense, for he has to earn livelihood for more than half the year by selling labour power in others' land. Viewed in this perspective, the actual increase in total member of toiling people in rural society, a resulting shrinkage of jobs and a stagnation of agricultural production after a certain degree of development, unveils the contemporary crisis-ridden picture of West Bengal agriculture.

The Left Front, while being voted to power in 1977 had promised to free the rural society from the yoke of usury and perhaps some changes were effected in that direction through a certain reinvigoration of agricultural co-operatives, which the LF called 'co-operative movement' with a bit of euphemism. But with elements of green revolution creeping in West Bengal countryside, agriculture gradually became extremely demanding of capital. In spite of the state agencies like DRDA and banks, as part of government projects such as JRY, forwarding loans for agriculture, usury is gaining currency in the countryside particularly afflicting the weaker categories of the peasantry. The euphemism of the co-operative movement has by now been rendered almost irrelevant by the dynamics of a late green revolution in a 'red' bastion as the amount disbursed through cooperatives (as can be seen from Table-I) is simply no match to the real demand. In the limited scope of our investigation, it was found that of the total amount of money drawn by the 3,381 families under survey, 8.9% comes from cooperatives, 23.3% from the usurers and 67.8% from the banks.

Corruption, an institutionalised affair in the cooperatives, has led to closure of many. In the running ones, predominance of the richer sections in governing bodies is the prevailing reality. In Table-II, we see that the major share of cooperative loan (63%) is swindled by the jotedar, rich peasant and middle peasant families (21% in all), along with 35% of the total bank loan and 38.4% from usury; whereas poor peasant, agricultural labourers and other toiling families (78.8% in all) have to depend more on usury. They account for 61% of usurious loans, 37% cooperative loans and 65% bank loans. How could things come to such a pass?

Table II Distribution of loans among different classes

Class No of Families Total amount of usury loan (Rs.) Takers of usury loan Averge amount per family (Rs.) Total Co.op. loan (Rs.) Taker of Co. op. loan Average amount per family (Rs.) Total amount of Bank loan (Rs.) Takers of Bank loan Average amount per family (Rs.)
Jotedar 59 10,000 1 10,000 2,91,000 6 48,500 4,38,000 11 39818.18
Rich peasant 201 2,82,100 28 10,075 1,02,900 23 4473.9 5,96,000 23 12,163.26
Middle peasant 454 6,15,200 90 6835.5 1,78,600 57 3133.3 13,93,700 178 7829.77
Poor peasant 865 4,71,000 132 3568.18 1,50,700 85 1772.9 15,94,600 219 7887.32
Agri-labourer 1384 7,11,100 214 33,22,89 1,08,900 65 1675.3 24,10,500 359 6714.48
Other toilers 418 2,77,000 45 6155.55 76,500 10 7650 4,54,000 67 6776.11
Total 3381 23,66,4000 510   9,08,600 246   68,86,8 883  

Cooperatives have never challenged the existing marketing system by building up an alternative cooperative marketing mechanism. It could never succeed in providing real relief to the poor. In the absence of a proper marketing mechanism, the small and poor peasants cannot make enough profit and as a result default in timely repayment and once they default, they are naturally excluded from the ambit of the scheme. In this way the poorer sections are gradually being cast outside the domain of all institutional help and the richer ones are tightening their grip over these institutions. It has been experienced in some cases that influential persons in the cooperative bodies are drawing 'loans' indiscriminately to fund personal usury 'business' which is perhaps the most lucrative one these days. Even bank loans are being utilised this way making a mockery of the 'democratisation of cooperatives'.

Table III Class-wise composition of Panchayat members
Classes 1978 1996
Jotedar 7.0% 10.2%
Rich peasant 14.4% 16.0%
Middle peasant 28.3% 26.4%
Other middle classes 20% 24.4%
Poor peasant 17.4% 13.2%
Agri-labourer 8.4% 5.9%
Other toilers 4.5% 3.9%

Panchayats in West Bengal were supposed to be the most democratic of all self-governments in India. Yet, particularly in such grassroots institutions holding regular elections cannot be the only or the major yardstick of democracy. Marxists would judge the thing against a different yardstick which is based on an analysis of class composition. A survey of 201 panchayat members in 9 gram panchayats was conducted. (see Table-III)

Table-III gives us a sad picture belying all LF claims of proletarianisation of West Bengal panchayats. We find in our reports that 68.7% of the members were jotedars, rich peasants, middle peasants and other rural middle class families (including school teachers who are among the most well off sections in the countryside nowadays) while 31.3% came from lower middle class, poor peasant and agricultural labourer families in 1978. The corresponding figures in 1996 stand at 77% and 23% respectively. Further, an increase of 3.2% and 1.6% of jotedars and rich peasants has been registered at the expense of poor peasants and agri-labourers whose numbers have reduced by 4.2% and 2.5%. The picture tells us that in spite of the fact that panchayat movement did have a good deal of mass involvement in its early days, the initial gains have, after 19 years, petered out and the rich people have strengthened their position in these institutions of self-governance. The State Panchayat Institute (an organisation of the state government), in a survey after the 1993 panchayat elections, had pointed out the predominance of rich peasants and businessmen in panchayat samitis and zilla parishads (the upper two tiers of the three tier system). The lowest body i.e. the gram panchayats, according to them were controlled by the poorer sections. Our investigation, on the contrary, portrays a different scenario, one of increase in number of rich people at all three levels.

It is however true that in some villages, panchayats had effectively curbed the power and clout of some rank reactionary jotedars who used to dominate village society. But the LF has nothing much to claim as to whether these initial steps were extended deep enough to overhaul the traditional class domination.

As far as developmental activity is concerned, the panchayats operate exclusively within the limits of central-government-sponsored projects of which they are mere implementing agencies. Such projects, aimed at an 'all-are-in' development of the countryside, have naturally no 'class-bias' and include construction/repair of roads, small bridges and school buildings, housing for SCs & STs, setting up tubewells, rural electrification etc. Going by the experiences of yesteryear it can be said that road construction was given the primary attention resulting in a betterment of rural communication network, leaving out all other agendas unattended and the outcome 'eventually' came in handy for the rural neo-rich businessmen and rich peasants who are in a position to exploit the system the best.

Complaints of corruption have of late been a commonplace affair in villages and panchayats today are no exception. How much of it is institutionalised in local self-government may be gauged from the fact that in a mass meeting about one and a half years back at Bardhawan, an irate Mr. Benoy Chowdhury (the then land and land reforms minister) openly took a dig at the reign of contractors which he said had overwhelmed rural Bengal. And remarkably, he didn't stop there, rather pursues his indictment, even at the cost of his ministerial berth. Quite evidently his target was the unholy nexus between the panchayat leaders and contractors in executing developmental programmes. According to an estimate a meagre Rs. 7 lakh is allotted for each GP and if contractors are allowed to carve out a percentage as profits, and another percentage goes to the corrupt leaders as 'commission' as a matter of rule, its not hard to visualise the real picture of development!

To sum up, let us put together all the observations we collected so far. We find in it more or less a continuation of the same ownership pattern as in 1978 with minor changes. As far as loans and modern agricultural implements are concerned, a concentration of the same is seen in the hands of the creamy layers. The only hope for the downtrodden, the agricultural co-operatives have been rendered sick and ineffective partly by the market forces and partly by the overt corrupt practices of the influential people who hold the sway over the panchayat at different levels. Contrary to the LF claim of domination of the poor peasantry and the landless in the panchayats, our investigation reveals a tightening grip of the rich over the panchayats at the expense of the poor. The hike of production in the state is attributed by CPI(M) to the beneficiaries of the land reform, i.e. the landless and the poor peasants. But it is a common experience that these sections are already thrown to the margins of production with agriculture becoming capital intensive and usurers fastening their noose around the rural poor. Hamstrung by umpteen fragmentations of land and a capital crunch, the basic concern for these sections is subsistence and not furtherance of production. The LF leaders instead of patting their own back would do better to implement the minimum wages act in West Bengal countryside which they have not done so far and that would be the good revelation of the real class nature of the 'uniquely' prolonged left rule in a province under the overall bourgeois hegemonic structure.

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