Revisiting Gopiballavpur

Changing Agrarian Scenario

Santosh Rana

[There is a general consensus among social scientists that Indian agriculture has undergone great changes over the last few decades. This essay is an attempt to study and present the changes that have taken place in a particular area, namely Gopiballavpur area in the district of Midnapur (now West Midnapur). The writer was born and brought up in that area and was intimately associated with the revolutionary peasant movement that took place there in 1969-70. It may well be that the changes in this area differ considerably from those in other areas of the state or in other states. The study made by this writer may, however, be useful for making inter-spatial comparisons.]

Gopiballavpur is situated on the south-western border of West Bengal on the southern bank of river Subranarekha. The villages on both sides of the river, known as the Kulat region, have sandy-loam topsoil formed by the river. The sparsely populated highlands away from the river are known as Bankkand (forest area). This area is inhabited by Adivasis, predominantly Santals and Mundas, along with some Mahalis and Sabars. The Sabars are yet to come out of their hunting-gathering stage.

The society in the Kulat region is composed of various Hindu Castes. There are Utkala Brahmins, a small number of Karans (next in the caste-hierarchy), some middle castes (Teli, Sadgope, Raju, Kkandait, Bania and Bostom), and some artisan castes e.g. Kumbkakars (Potters), Kamars (Blacksmiths), Tantis (weavers), Swarnakars (Goldsmiths) etc. The Bostoms are actually a composite caste formed out of various castes by the people who accepted Vaishnavism as their creed under the influence of Sri Chaitanya's journey through the area. Economic stratification, the rich-poor divide is clear among the Vaishnavas.

Big landlords and usurers lived in the Kulat villages. The largest landowning family, the Mahanta Goswamis, had 5000 acres of land spread over several villages. Some 500 acres of highly fertile alluvial soil were located in the Gopiballavpur mouza and was under the Mahanta's 'own cultivation'. Sharecroppers from Bankhand tilled this land, but were not given any wage. They would get a plate each of prasad from the temple of Govinda, the deity in whose name the land was held. These cultivators, who tilled their Bankhand lands, were under the compulsion to deliver half of the produce of these lands to the Mahanta (the principal worshipper of Govinda), who, after the harvesting was done, would travel in a buffalo cart and collect his share. Thus a combination of serfdom and feudal rent held sway. Yet some sort of cultural domination by the Mahanta—as the worshipper of Govinda, he was regarded as the supreme guru—made it possible for him not to be labelled as an oppressive landlord. There were some other big landlords, who combined sharecropping tenancy with fixed kind-rent tenancy and in one or two cases, with fixed money rent. These landlords had, however, some land under their "own cultivation", where wage labour was employed on annual basis and these labourers were called Muliyas. The annual wage varied from 20 to 26 maunds (one maund=31 kgs) of paddy. Besides, the labourer got one dhoti, one ganji and one gamchha, besides being entitled to fifteen days' leave in addition to four or five days of festive holidays. The length of the working day, usually 10 hours, could go up to 12 or more hours during the harvesting season. The wife of a Muliya worked as Kamin (maid-servant-cum-labourer), while their children worked as Bagals (cow-boys). Most of these labourers were from the low castes, e.g. Bagdis, Mals and Doms, and Adivasis like Santals and Mundas, while the employer was either a Brahmin or a middle-caste person. Most of the Muliya families had to incur debts to their employers, and some of the Muliyas, originally poor peasants, became annual contract labourers, having lost their tiny plots of land through this indebtedness. Some landowners were at the same time mahajans (usurers) lending cash or paddy. Some of the usurers had more than one thousand clients each. Money was lent against tangible securities like ornaments, utensils etc, while paddy was lent in the beginning of the sowing season, to be repaid in the last month of the winter. The obligation of debt-repayment usually made the borrowers depend on the forest produce like mahua, kend, roots, yams and mushrooms for subsistence for a considerable part of the year. There was some employment of wage labour on daily basis, and the labourers were Adivasis and low-caste Hindus. The length of the working day was usually eight hours. The daily wage was 1.5—2 kgs of paddy for men and 1-1.5 kgs of paddy for women. In addition, a labourer would get 200 grams of muri (parched rice) and some tobacco leaves. In 1977, after the Left Front had come to power, there was a wage struggle with the general call '3 kg of paddy as wage for both men and women.' The landowners considered this wage too high and there were even violent clashes in some villages in order to achieve it.

Some labourers, during the sowing and harvesting seasons, would go to low lands (Nabal) and come back with some cash with which they bought clothes or utensils, or repaid some old debts. The society was stratified and the low castes lived in separate paras (clusters) and even did not have the right to collect drinking water from the same well as the middle-castes. However, they had entry into the latter's houses for doing household jobs. They were also denied entry into some temples but in many villages, they set up their own places of worship where the priests were their caste-brethen.

The middle-caste Varna-Hindus often accused the lower castes of stealing their crops or letting their cattle and goats go to destroy the standing crops. The traditional (not official) panchayets dominated by these Varna-Hindus often imposed fines on the accused, whatever the merits of the case. Sometimes, poor Varna-Hindus were also penalised unjustifiably.

In the Adivasi-dominated villages, the Adivasis, although under severe exploitation, enjoyed some sort of freedom in social life through their traditional and highly democratic Majhi-Pargana system, which allowed free debates and discussions till a consensus was reached.

The scheduled castes and tribes, and other low castes like Tanti, Kumbhakar, Kamar, Bagdi and Kudmi Mahatos constituted 85% of the population. The overwhelming majority of them were poor and landless peasants and literacy was very low.

The level of nutrition too was naturally low, but even the poorest could get some protein at the time of monsoon, since fish, mollusks and crabs were abundant in paddy fields, rivers and canals, and mushrooms were found in plenty in the forests. Besides, Adivasis could hunt rabbits and birds. The output per acre of paddy was low. It was better when the cultivation was done by a well-to-do owner peasant, but was deplorably poor even in good land owned by the Mahanta Goswami family because such land was cultivated by unpaid serf labour. Some pulses and sugarcane, and some vegetables were also grown.

The mode of surplus extraction in the 1960s and 1970s was predominantly extra-economic. It would have been impossible to extract this surplus without the political power of the upper and middle castes, which was traditionally handed down to them from time immemorial and later on reinforced by the colonial state. The state in the post-colonial period continued with the colonial legacy and semi-feudal relations. Though there was some wage labour, the labour was not free. The Muliyas were actually bonded labourers. The surplus extracted from them as well as from the bhagchasis (sharecroppers) and sanjhachasis (tenants paying fixed kind rent) was precapitalist in nature. The migrant labourers going to Nabal were to some extent free to sell their labour power, but the overall situation of caste relations, indebtedness and coercive political structure kept them in a semi-bonded condition.

When, after Naxalbari, the CPI(M-L) was formed, it characterized the Indian society and state as semi-colonial and semi-feudal and put forward the task of new democratic revolution with agrarian revolution as its axis. Quite a few young activists, inspired by the Naxalbari peasant uprising, went to Gopiballavpur and propagated the message of Naxalbari and the Chinese Revolution. When the peasants asked them what sort of changes they wanted to bring about, they replied that all lands of landlords would be distributed among poor peasants, the mahajans would be driven away and all the debts would be cancelled. The peasants would decide what to produce, how to produce and how the product was to be distributed etc. It was the summer of 1969. There was rebellion in the air. The people wanted change and in such a situation, the peasantry grasped the slogan 'land to the tiller'. One or two small attacks on landlords and mahajans served as detonators and the whole of the peasantry was surcharged. Then the peasants turned the harvesting season of November-December 1969 into a festival. Standing crops were harvested, the guns of landlords snatched and some landlords/mahajans were fined. None was killed during the uprising, in which nearly thirty thousand peasants participated, smashing the authority and power of the landlords. The youths of the Bagdi, Mal, Santal, Munda and other low castes became heroes. The snatching of guns was a symbolic act, because bows, arrows and tangis (battle axes with long wooden handles) were the main weapons. This was the democratic revolution India had been waiting for.

Forty-five years have passed since then. Gopiballavpur was under the rule of the Left Front for thirty-four years of these forty-five. What are the changes that have taken place over this long period? What has happened to land ownership? What is the mode of surplus extraction? What is the role of extra-economic coercion? Is the caste structure intact, or there are signs of change?

In the village Dharampur—it is a typical village, suitable for study—situated on the bank of Subarnarekha, there are at present nearly 350 households. In the voter list of 2014, there are 1231 voters, nearly 75% of whom are Telis. In the late sixties, there were four families who had five ploughs (with five pairs of bullocks and five Muliyas) each. It may be estimated that each one of them had 50 acres or more of land. Then, there were 10-12 families with two ploughs each and some forty families with one plough each. Some small peasants had one bullock, which they shared with others having one bullock. All the families having two or more ploughs belonged to the Teli caste. One family having five ploughs was at the same time a usurer, lending paddy to some 200 clients.

At present, the highest landholding of any family is five acres. This change can be accounted for by two factors. Some land has been declared surplus, vested and redistributed. But the major reason is the splitting of families over generations. Right now, there are nearly one hundred families who could keep one plough and a pair of bullocks each. But there is no family that keeps a pair of bullocks for tilling. Only one family has a pair of bullocks, which peasant households hire for specific purpose. The rent is Rs 350 for eight hours, including the wage of the ploughman. This change is due to the use of power tillers and tractors. Some families have their own power tillers and tractors, but most of the villagers hire it. For tractors with rotors the rent is Rs 17 per minute.

The change in the cropping pattern is significant. Paddy is sown during the monsoon season, but groundnuts and vegetables are grown during the Rabi season. In the area as a whole, some ten factories, employing more than 2000 men and women, have been set up for processing groundnut. Their daily earnings are Rs 150 to Rs 200 per day.

In all the Kulat villages, not only in Dharampur, no one now engages a Muliya. In the Birbhum-Burdwan region, there was the kisheni system where the kishen was given a plot of land to till along with an annual wage in kind. This system too no longer exists.

There has been a substantial increase in the wage rate of agricultural labouers. In this season, the piece rate of transplantation was Rs 100 per pan (80 bundles of paddy seedlings). An average worker can transplant two pans in eight hours and thus earn a wage of Rs 200 per day. With 200 rupees, at least 18 kg of paddy can be purchased. This is a large increase compared to the 1960s.

The next most important development is that labour is no longer bonded. Now young labourers of Santal, Munda, Bagdi, Mal and other communities go to distant places like Tamil Nadu, Keral, Karnataka, Delhi and Gujarat in search of jobs. The mobile revolution has made it easier to keep contact with distant places and be informed of the running wages. Another significant development is that a class of workers, no longer agricultural labourers, has evolved. This class consists of van and auto drivers, tractor drivers, machine operators, masons, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, small traders, brick-kiln workers, sand mine workers, vegetable vendors etc. It may be said that agricultural labourers now constitute less than fifty percent of the rural workforce.

In 1969, there was no pucca house in Dharampur, only a few had bicycles, there was no electricity and literacy was very low. It was only in 1958 that someone of that village passed the School Final Examination.There was no toilet-using family. Nobody had any bank account. Right now there are at least 100 pucca houses—some of them are two-storied or three-storied-with bathrooms, toilets and running water. There are more than 100 motor cycles and at least ten four wheelers, some of which are hired on rent. Many boys and girls have passed the School Final or HS examinations but very few have gone for higher education, the reason being that very few educated fellows have got some employment. There are only ten persons employed in some government or semi-government jobs, the prosperity of the village has been due to the cultivation of cash crops, some processing and expansion of business.

In the 1960s, there was so much scarcity in the village that most of the families could somehow manage one meal of rice at noon, and ate some sattu or some other food in the evening. The Bagdi families could not afford even one meal a day.

The present situation is far better in terms of food intake. Possibly there is no family of this village that goes to bed hungry. This is in general true for the overwhelming majority of the villages in the Jangal Mahal region. There are some small hamlets in Jangal Mahal inhabited by Lodha and Sabar communities, who have not yet come out of the stage of hunting-gathering. Amlasole is one such place. Hunger deaths did take place in Amlasole and some other villages. But it is a baseless suggestion that the people of that area lived on ‘ant's egg’. ‘Ant's eggs’ is a delicacy in Jangal Mahal and it sells at Rs 200 per kg at Bankhand markets.

There is no tenancy in the old sense and the bargadars have their names recorded.

In summing up, it can be said that (i) big landholdings have disappeared and there are only small holders of land, (ii) traditional methods of cultivation have largely given way to modern methods and use of machinery, (iii) some of the produce is used for home consumption, but the share of marketed output is increasing, (iv) political power of the upper/middle castes has been curbed, but new bureaucratic classes have come up, (v) the old caste structure continues and marriage is mainly endogamous though some marriages outside caste do take place.

So, can it be said that Indian agriculture is still semi-feudal and the slogan 'land to the tiller' is applicable as it was in the 1960s? If not, what sort of changes are to be incorporated in a programme of revolutionary transformation and can the path of protracted people's war as practiced successfully in China and Vietnam and seriously considered by Indian revolutionaries as the path of Indian revolution is still valid in the changed circumstances?

Vol. 47, No.11-14, Sep 21 - Oct 18 2014