Power to the people

Print edition : February 12, 2010

THE CHALLENGE BEFORE the Left Front in West Bengal now is that the acquisition of land for industry is not entirely avoidable, and it is here that Basu's emphasis on people's participation in decision-making acquires great significance. Above, farmhands harvesting jute in Singur, Hooghly district.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

AN aspect of the media coverage of the passing away of one of the tallest statesmen of India, Jyoti Basu, was the tendency in some quarters to focus on the personal qualities of Jyoti Basu that made him acceptable across the political spectrum. Leaving aside the inane references to the gentleman communist, which represented a not-very-subtle attempt at suggesting that communist convictions were necessarily at odds with gentlemanly conduct, the focus on Jyoti Basus admirable personal qualities tended to obscure his exceptionally important practical contribution to what is easily the most important challenge facing our country and people, namely the achievement of a pro-poor rural transformation. Land reforms and the process of advance of rural democracy through the empowerment of elected local bodies will rank among the most enduring legacies of Jyoti Basu as an outstanding leader.

Jyoti Basu, as a member of the original navaratna Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), was intimately involved in the process of arriving at the partys political programme. A key feature that distinguishes the CPI(M)s programme from the strategic political perspective of all other mainstream parties in India is that it regards the agrarian question as the foremost issue of Indian society and its radical transformation. It was thus no surprise that under the leadership of Jyoti Basu and the other legendary figure of the communist movement in West Bengal, Pramode Dasgupta, also a member of the original Polit Bureau, the CPI(M) in West Bengal led a series of militant peasant struggles in the 1960s. These struggles played a key role in enabling the party to form, with other coalition partners, two short-lived non-Congress united front governments in the late 1960s. The CPI(M)s historic victory in the Assembly elections of 1977 gave Jyoti Basu and his colleagues in the party an opportunity to bring about agrarian changes along the lines of the CPI(M)s perspective, within the limited constitutional powers of a State government. Among the first acts of the first Left Front government of West Bengal was the implementation of significant land reforms.1

There were two important elements in the Left Front governments land reforms.2 One was to provide legal protection from eviction to sharecroppers, ensuring their rights of secure tenure. Known as Operation Barga, this took the form, not merely of legislation, but of a mass movement of the peasantry, leading to the registration of the rights of sharecroppers. The achievements of Operation Barga have been impressive, to say the least. The total number of recorded sharecroppers crossed one million by the early 1980s and now exceeds 15 lakh. Registered sharecroppers constitute more than 20 per cent of the agricultural households in the State. The area covered by such registration amounts to more than 11 lakh acres of land. Further, Dalits and Adivasis comprise over 41 per cent of the registered sharecroppers.3

The second extremely important element of the land reforms of the Left Front government under Jyoti Basus leadership was the identification and taking over of ceiling-surplus land and the distribution of such land to landless and poor peasants. This, too, was not seen merely as an administrative exercise, but was achieved through popular mobilisation of the peasantry as well. As of February 2008, a total of 11,22,116 acres had been distributed to 29,71,853 people in West Bengal by way of redistribution of ceiling-surplus land taken over by the government. To put this in some perspective, the total land distributed in India as a whole was only 49,64,995 acres and the number of recipients of land was only 54,57,522. What this means is that West Bengal, which accounts for only 3.5 per cent of agricultural land in the country, accounts for 22.6 per cent of ceiling-surplus lands distributed in the entire country. It also means that the State accounts for 54.5 per cent of all recipients of ceiling-surplus lands in the country.4 The proportion of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the population of West Bengal is a little less than 30 per cent, but they account for 55 per cent of all beneficiaries of land redistribution.

A significant consequence of land reforms carried out by the Left Front government is the decline in the degree of concentration of land ownership as well as of operated land in rural West Bengal. Data from the National Sample Survey for 1971 and 2003 show that West Bengal not only had the lowest degree of concentration of land ownership in the country but that the degree of concentration had actually declined in the State over these three decades. As a result of these land reforms, 84 per cent of land in West Bengal is owned by small (owning 2.5 acres to 5 acres of land) and marginal farmers (owning less than 2.5 acres) today, while the corresponding all-India figure is only 43 per cent.5 Further, NSS data show that West Bengal ranks second, next to Tripura, in the ratio of the proportion of agricultural land owned by Dalits to their proportion in the rural population. The picture is similar with respect to the distribution of operational holdings.6

In a tribute to Jyoti Basu, the eminent agricultural scientist Professor M.S. Swaminathan had drawn attention to the fact that when he apprised Jyoti Basu of a proposed programme of intervention in the Sunderbans, the latter immediately responded that whatever was being done must be done in consultation with and the participation of the people of that region.

A key plank of the first Left Front government led by Jyoti Basu and the succeeding ones has been the commitment to decentralised, grass-roots democracy. A good 15 years before the 93rd Amendment to the Indian Constitution ushering in elected local bodies as the so-called third tier of government, the Left government in West Bengal had gone ahead with the devolution of funds and functions to elected local bodies. Panchayats played a key role in advancing rural democracy in West Bengal. They were also involved in the implementation of land reforms at every stage, from the identification of ceiling-surplus lands, their takeover and the process of redistribution. In turn, land reforms, by empowering the rural poor, enabled them to contest and win positions of leadership in the panchayats. This synergistic relationship between panchayats and land reforms has been a unique feature of West Bengal under the Left Front, and one in which Jyoti Basu played a key role.

The relevance of both land reforms and the promotion of rural democracy through empowering panchayats to the transformation of rural West Bengal is palpable. With panchayats actively involved in implementing development schemes, including those relating to the provision of credit and other inputs to cultivators, and the weaker sections of the rural agrarian population coming into leadership positions in panchayats, agriculture in West Bengal experienced remarkable growth.

The Left Front government attached considerable importance to agricultural growth and invested in rural development through the panchayats. It recognised that providing the rural poor with land alone would not suffice and that modern scientific inputs had to reach them. It saw an important role for public investment. With the policies of promoting agricultural growth through land reforms, panchayat empowerment and rural investments by the state, the share of area irrigated as a proportion of the net sown area has increased from 32 per cent to about 70 per cent over the three decades of Left Front rule.7

West Bengal has the second highest cropping intensity among all States at 1.8. The proportion of paddy area under high-yielding seeds has risen from 28 per cent to 96 per cent over this period. All these initiatives enabled an agricultural breakthrough in a State whose malaise had been identified by one scholar as an agricultural impasse. Between 1949 and 1980, the annual rate of growth of agriculture was a mere 1.74 per cent. But in the decade from 1981 to 1991, foodgrain production in West Bengal grew at a compound annual rate of 6.5 per cent, the highest among all the 17 major States of India at that time. More recently, while agricultural output grew at less than 2 per cent a year in India during the Tenth Plan period (2002-2007), the corresponding figure for West Bengal was in excess of 3.5 per cent. Over the three decades of Left Front rule, the rate of growth of foodgrain output has been over 6 per cent a year.

The land reforms and the rapid growth in agriculture in West Bengal following the land reforms have also helped expand the rural market in West Bengal. One result of this has been the rapid growth of small and tiny industries in rural areas. Rural economic growth has helped the overall growth of the State. Since the early 1990s, in terms of the rate of growth of the State domestic product, West Bengal has been among the top performers.

In recent times, an impression has been sought to be created that the Left Front government has gone back on its land reform policies and has in fact been forcibly acquiring land from the peasants. This is completely contrary to facts. During the 1990s, when many State governments were busy reversing earlier land reforms and raising land ceilings as well as promoting corporatisation of agriculture, the government of West Bengal actually took over an additional 95,000 acres of land under ceiling laws and redistributed practically the same amount of land to the rural poor. During the most recent period, between 2005 and 2008, the government of West Bengal acquired a total of 10,207 acres for non-agricultural uses but redistributed 22,637 acres to the rural poor. It is perhaps not out of place to suggest that sections of the media have been less than diligent in buying some of the falsehoods purveyed by the political opponents of the Left Front on the issues of land reform and land acquisition in West Bengal.

The challenge facing the Left Front in the present context is huge. Further progress in agriculture itself depends on the growth of industry and expansion of non-agricultural employment. Acquisition of land for industrial development will not be entirely avoidable. Given the very limited extent of non-cultivated land in the State, land acquisition will necessarily imply acquisition of agricultural land in some cases. It is here that Jyoti Basus emphasis on the processes of consultation with and participation of the people in development interventions acquires great significance.

If the Left in West Bengal is to build on the enduring legacy of Jyoti Basu by way of land reforms and democratic decentralisation, it will have to ensure participatory decision-making processes at all levels and in all contexts. The track record of Left governments in India in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal has been one of pro-poor land reform policies and empowerment of the institutions of local democracy.8 The pursuit of these policies even under adverse circumstances will be the best bet for building on the indelible legacy of the political Colossus that Jyoti Basu was.

* * *

1. As V.K. Ramachandran has pointed out, "The importance of agrarian issues in the programme of Left governments is illustrated by the speed with which these governments have turned their attention to land reform. The first Communist government in India, led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, was sworn in on April 5, 1957; the governments first Ordinance on land reform was promulgated on April 11, just six days after the government was formed. In West Bengal, too, land reform has been and remains a foundational feature of the power of the Left, and was perhaps the earliest item on the administrative agenda of the Left Front." (The Hindu, August 22, 2008.)

2. In addition to the two elements of Operation Barga and redistribution of ceiling-surplus lands, the Left Front governments of West Bengal have also provided homestead land to more than five lakh landless rural households.

4. V.K.Ramachandran, op. cit. 5. Prasenjit Bose, op. cit.

6. It may be added that Muslims have also benefited significantly from land reforms. Moreover, 5,90,427 joint pattas have been issued to land reform beneficiaries. Pattas held solely by women amount to 1,59,990.

7. Surjya Kanta Mishra, "On Agrarian Transition in West Bengal", The Marxist, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, April-June, 2007.

8. The performance of the Left governments is all the more creditable when one recalls that, as against an estimate of total ceiling-surplus land area of 63 million acres, made in the early 1960s, on the basis of NSS data and an assumed ceiling of 20 acres, the total land taken over as ceiling-surplus in the country is less than 7 million acres. Likewise, when it comes to democratic decentralisation, the three Left-ruled States have devolved funds and functions to elected local bodies to a far greater extent than most other State governments.

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