Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Left Front & Land Reforms in West Bengal

In an article in The Hindu (“Red Star Fading Over Bengal,” April 15), Suvojit Bagchi cites a book by D. Bandyopadhyay to argue that the electoral loss of the Left Front in the assembly elections in West Bengal was because the CPI (M) gave up its commitment for land reforms. He states that, “if the CPI (M) had continued distributing land to farmers and giving them legal rights over land (patta), thereby making them eligible for financial assistance from banks through creation of cooperatives, then the party could have continued to rule the State. But by incorporating the ‘middle-peasant,’ the process of land reform stopped.”

The entire argument of the article is based on a factually incorrect premise, a shallow understanding of what land reforms mean, and a complete ignorance about agrarian conditions in rural West Bengal.

First, the statistics demonstrate that the Left Front government continued its land reform policies through its tenure. Economists affiliated with the Foundation for Agrarian Studies – notably V. K. Ramachandran – show that in West Bengal the Left Front government redistributed land in the last three years of its rule – 8136 acres (2005-06), 10,848 acres (2006-07) and 10,953 acres (2007-08). Ramachandran argues that the land distributed to agriculturalists was much greater than the land acquired by the state for industrial and infrastructural purposes. “Even in 2006-07, when acquisitions peaked, the extent acquired was 4,135 acres, and the extent distributed under land reform was 10,848 acres; in other words, in that year, the extent of agricultural land distributed under the land reform programme was no less than 2.62 times the extent acquired for industry and infrastructure.”

Second, Bagchi and Bandyopadhyay suggest that land redistribution should forever continue at an undiminished pace. The pace at which the Left Front distributed land in the 1970s and 1980s could not be sustained. Over the course of its thirty years in power, the Left Front distributed 1.1 million acres of land to 3 million households. More than half of the beneficiaries come from Dalit and Adivasi families. In addition, 1.4 million sharecroppers secured heritable tenancy rights over about 1.1 million acres. Dalits (thirty per cent) and Adivasis (twelve per cent) benefitted from this policy. The government turned over homestead land to 5 lakh households who worked in agriculture, fishing and artisanal production.

Is it possible that, after so much redistribution, further redistribution could have continued at the same pace? Anyone who is familiar with the land structure in contemporary rural West Bengal knows that here, unlike almost everywhere else in the country, there are no landowners with very large holdings. In such a situation, any further redistribution would have meant taking land away from medium and small landowners for redistribution to the landless.

Further, the numbers above need to be seen in the correct perspective. Land redistributed in West Bengal accounts for about 23 per cent of all land redistributed in India and beneficiaries of land redistribution in West Bengal account for about 55 per cent of all beneficiaries of land redistribution in India. This is not only by far the biggest land reform programme in the country but is in fact the biggest land reform programme anywhere in the world that has taken place in our lifetimes. In Mozambique, for instance, after fifteen years of work to secure land titles to local communities, the government has been able to only get about 8000 titles issued.

Land reform is a political task, not simply a bureaucratic scheme that has to be implemented. This is what D. Bandyopadhyay does not acknowledge in his work. He suggests that land reform is a technocratic task – streamlining land records to identify surplus land and distribution of pattas. Land reform, however, as a policy is about breaking the back of landlordism. The CPI (M) worked hard over decades to identify surplus land of landlords, to acquire this land and to redistribute it. This was a political struggle – and it had to be fought valiantly by the Left. D. Bandyopadhyay is  a member of the Trinamool Congress, and an obvious opponent of the Left in West Bengal. His party has been actively involved in rolling back land reforms in the state as well as in terrifying landless and small peasant households so as to allow the landlords to recapture their land. The TMC has reversed the political tide in the state. This is not acknowledged by Suvojit Bagchi in his use of the work of D. Bandyopadhyay.

Central Funds.

It would also be appropriate to point out that particularly during last ten years of Left Front's rule, rural West Bengal faced multiple forms of discrimination in the policies of the Central government.

Banks starved peasants of formal-sector credit. Credit deposit ratio of rural branches of scheduled commercial banks in rural West Bengal fell to about 20 per cent in the last decade of Left Front Government; corresponding figure for India as a whole was above 40 per cent. While RBI norms stipulate that at least 18 per cent of net bank credit should be given to agriculture, this proportion in West Bengal was about 6 per cent in mid-1990s and remained at about 8 per cent from late 1990s onwards. Although the Left Front government did a lot to strengthen credit cooperative societies, NABARD and commercial banks thwarted all efforts by starving cooperative societies of funds.

The worst discrimination against peasants of West Bengal was through depriving them of price support. In 2008-09, peasants of West Bengal, the largest rice producing state of the country, produced about 15 per cent of the total rice production of India. In contrast, less than 5 per cent of rice procured by the government was procured from peasants in West Bengal. In other years, level of procurement was even lower. And no wheat procurement was done in West Bengal at all.

Peasants of West Bengal, who wrote the agricultural success story of India through the 1980s until the mid-1990s, were starved of investment, credit and price support because of neoliberal policies and direct discrimination by the Central government.

This, and not the reversal of CPI(M)'s commitment to land redistribution, is what defined the agrarian problems in West Bengal towards the end of the Left Front government.

It takes little to understand that undermining the gains of the agrarian reform programme of the Left Front government was in the political interests of the anti-Left forces in West Bengal. Electoral losses of the Left came to the rescue of reactionary elements in rural West Bengal, which include erstwhile landlords as well as some sections of the neo-rich. Since 2011, aided by the muscle of these erstwhile landlords and rural rich, Trinamool Congress, of which D. Bandyopadhyay is now a Rajya Sabha MP, has presided over a reversal of land reforms through murderous attacks on the beneficiaries of land reforms. With a substantial amount of surplus land still under litigation and a large number of pattas yet to be legalised, these erstwhile landlords have used the opportunity to forcibly evict sharecroppers and pattadars across the state. Over the last three years, scores of CPI(M) and other left activists have been attacked in the battle to defend poor peasants and workers in rural West Bengal.

Vikas Rawal

Vikas Rawal is a professor at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is currently a Consultant at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. Views expressed in this article are personal.

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