Land Reforms in Bengal

Anirban Biswas

The *Book under review provides a fairly detailed discussion of the process of land reforms in West Bengal during the period of Left Front rule. The merit of the book is that it has dealt not only with the subject of seizure of ceiling surplus lands and their redistribution, but with related issues like operation barga, sharecropping arrangements, minimum wages, the functioning of panchayets etc. Certainly there is no point in saying that there was no land reform work worth the name in West Bengal during the period of Left Front rule. But the question is how far the official claim in this respect was correct and what could be done to follow up the initial work so as to raise it to a higher level. The author has not subscribed to the official claim, which he considers exaggerated. He has also dealt with the various problems that grew up during the implementation of the operation barga and other agrarian programmes.

The author's approach is analytical, and is based on a reasonably sound grasp of facts On operation barga, he has wisely analysed its limitations. Operation barga, it may be pointed out, was given the shape of a law during the Congress rule when Siddhartha Ray, who acquired enough notoriety as a champion of hooligan raj, was the chief minister. In this sense, the operation barga was the response of the state to the agrarian struggles of the late sixties and early seventies, including struggles at Naxalbari, Gopiballabhpur and other places. But it was practically implemented nowhere, because the social base of the ruling Congress party was averse to its implementation. The overwhelming majority of bargadars were unrecorded, and whenever a bargadar tried to have his name recorded, he was invariably evicted by the landowner, and the police and administration, in most cases, sided with the latter. There was no movement to check it, and bargadars could not ordinarily afford to go to courts.

When the CPM-led Left front assumed power, it went about the task of barga recording with some vigour. But the process was plagued with problems of various sorts, e.g. conflicting claims about the right of recording, non-cultivating owners' resistance, fictitious bargadars, violation of barga rules by non-cultivating owners under various pretexts and in some cases, by using their proximity to the dominant party in power etc. Cases were not altogether uncommon when disabled old men or women were deprived even of their due share for failing to remain in the good grace of the ruling party. On the other hand, being a functionary of the ruling party almost always enabled a non-cultivating to escape the net of operation barga. The author has attempted to present a broad picture of the phenomena. Yet it cannot be gainsaid that at its initial stage the implementation of the operation barga gave some benefits to the tillers of land who mostly belonged to the lower castes. This reviewer, on several occasions, heard bhadraloks say in the eighties, "The Left Front Government has raised the scheduled castes to the skies by measures like operation barga". Intriguingly enough, the gains gradually evaporated over time as far as the empowerment of the lower castes were concerned, and a new class of upper caste and middle caste bhadraloks, rural contractors and traders came to dominate the panchayets in the absence of a strong movement from below. Dissents were suppressed forcibly, and this trend continues in a cruder form under the new regime.

It is not that the situation has improved in recent years. A new type of political chieftains has emerged who are seemingly more competent in promoting corruption and distributing looted money among their musclemen and hooligans. A large number of them have ratted from the CPI(M) and other 'left' parties.

Regarding the process of acquisition and redistribution of vested (khas) land, the author has not discussed much. Here two points should be noted. One is that the total amount of land redistributed is less than the amount of redistribution over the pre-Left Front period as a whole. The second point is that the redistributed plots of land could and should have brought under different forms of cooperative farming by organising poor peasants. This was necessary not only from the point of view of social transformation but also from considerations of enhancing labour productivity. The ruling government did not at all consider this possibility.

The chapter, 'Towards Capitalist Development' is very much well-written and exposes the hollowness of the moves and arguments of the West Bengal CPI(M) in the name of industrialisation. Here the reviewer wishes to add two points. One is that before trying to seize farmland, the government did not consult local panchayets, even the CPI(M)-dominated panchayets. Secondly, the government did not undertake any social cost-benefit analysis of the projects in Singur and Nandigram in terms of new employment creation and loss of employment. The liberal doses of freebies granted to the Tatas on the occasion of the Singur project, only symbolised a pro-corporate attitude towards development. That there is no Alternative slogan is also a flawed one. There does exist an alternative capable of democratising the process of development. Professor Amit Bhaduri, in his well-known monograph 'Development with Dignity' and several other articles, has discussed persuasively various aspects of this alternative path. Even a state government can at least partially try to implement this path. It does not, however, seem that the currently ruling government will do so.

There is little doubt that this book will be immensely useful to all those interested in the subject, simply because the author has tried to be as objective as possible in his judgement, and pressed into service a great deal of information.

*Land Reforms in Left Regime: A Probe into West Bengal's Socio-Economic Perspective
by Manas Bakshi

Allied Publishers Pvt Ltd, Kolkata, Pages X+150, Price Rs 195

Vol. 50, No.49, June 10 - 16, 2018