Index of equity

Published : Apr 20, 2007 00:00 IST

Peasants weeding their paddy crop in North Bengal. Policy efforts in West Bengal have been directed to distribute the land to landless and the poor.-PICTURES: V.K. RAMACHANDRAN

Peasants weeding their paddy crop in North Bengal. Policy efforts in West Bengal have been directed to distribute the land to landless and the poor.-PICTURES: V.K. RAMACHANDRAN

A recent study shows that West Bengal is a leader with respect to redistribution of land to Dalit and Adivasi households.

IN the heat of the current debate on land acquisition in West Bengal, and in the aftermath of the violence in Nandigram, some critics have questioned the basic character of development in the State. They have attempted variously to portray the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left Front as organisations of upper-caste elites whose interests, by implication, are distant from those of the socially oppressed, or West Bengal as a State where the plight of the Dalit and Adivasi masses, under globalisation and liberalisation, is no different from their plight elsewhere in the country. Even preliminary research on Dalit and Adivasi households in village economies and their access to land in West Bengal shows that such views have little basis in the reality of the post-land reform West Bengal countryside.

West Bengal is a State where policy efforts have been directed to distribute land to the landless and the poor, and specifically to Dalits, Adivasis and other deprived social groups, and also to issue joint title deeds to men and women. Some of the social-distributive effects of the land reform programme show up in recent village-based research and analyses of secondary data. These show that West Bengal is a leader with respect to the distribution of agricultural and homestead land to Dalit and Adivasi households, and also with respect to the purchase of agricultural land by the rural poor, including Dalit households.

The village-level data come mainly from a series of village surveys conducted by Vikas Rawal and others in 2005 in seven villages in different agro-climatic zones in West Bengal (a study in which this writer participated).

The villages studied were: a predominantly tribal village of West Medinipur district, two villages from the agriculturally prosperous Barddhaman district, two traditional agricultural villages from Malda and Koch Bihar districts, a village in Uttar Dinajpur where tea is grown on individual holdings, and a prawn-cultivating village in the estuarine region of North 24 Parganas.

First, let us consider the redistribution of crop land to the landless and rural poor. In five of the seven villages the redistribution of land was an important component of land reform. For each of them, this writer constructed a simple Index of Access to agricultural land. This Index measures the share of Dalit households (or other social groups) in total land ownership, weighted by their share in total population. Thus, if Dalit households constitute 20 per cent of the total population and they own 20 per cent of the land in the village, the Index of Access is 1. Where the Access Index is less than 1, it represents a situation in which the proportion of Dalit households in the population is greater than the share of total land that they own.

Our data show that in three of these five villages, the Access Indices for Dalit households were 1.49, 1.28 and 1.21; in other words, their share in land ownership was greater than their share in the population. In the predominantly Adivasi village in West Medinipur, more than 60 per cent of Scheduled Tribe households gained agricultural land and almost 75 per cent of households gained agricultural or homestead land through land reform. In the last village (in Malda district), the Access Index was lower, that is 0.5, because the main recipients of land in the village were income-poor households from the Tanti caste, which is classified as an Other Backward Class (OBC).

By way of comparison, according to data from the Land and Livestock Holdings Survey conducted by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the Access Index for Dalits in rural India as a whole was only 0.5. The NSSO data tend to confirm our village results, since they show that the Access Index for Dalit households in West Bengal was 0.8 (unfortunately, the most recent data in this regard are from 1992; more recent results from the 2003-04 survey are yet to be released). This is the highest Access Index for Dalits among the States of India after Tripura (where the proportion of Scheduled Castes in the rural population is smaller than in West Bengal).

Secondly, let us consider the distribution of house-site or homestead land, which is an important component of land reform in West Bengal. Ownership of homestead land means not only a place to live and a changed position in society, but also represents access to a new source of potential nutrition and livelihood support as a result of house-site and kitchen-garden cultivation. In all the seven study villages, we found that the Dalit and Adivasi households were the major beneficiaries of this aspect of land reform. Out of 210 households that gained homestead land, 21 per cent were Dalit, 46 per cent were Adivasi, 24 per cent were Muslim, and 10 per cent belonged to other caste groups. Of the last group, a majority belonged to the OBCs.

Thirdly, let us consider the participation of the poor in land markets. A 2001 study by Vikas Rawal of land markets in two West Bengal villages published in the international journal Economic Development and Cultural Change reported noteworthy results. The study showed that while empirical studies in other States had found that the net buyers of cultivable land were large landowners and the net sellers of agricultural land were small landowners, the trend was quite the opposite in the West Bengal villages that were studied. The major buyers in these two villages of Bankura district were landless households and small landowners. The paper attributed this difference to the increased purchasing power among the poor in West Bengal facilitated by land distribution, tenancy reform, higher wage rates, and access to credit.

The present study confirms and adds a new dimension to this conclusion. Five villages of the seven have significant Dalit populations. In four of them, Dalit and Muslim households were net buyers of land, while caste Hindus were net sellers. The acquisition of ceiling-surplus land by the Government of West Bengal for redistribution was and still remains a major disincentive for large landowners to purchase land.

The recent policy document on land use of the Government of West Bengal says that the State is poised for "advance into a new phase of industrial modernisation... and diversification into different forms of non-agricultural economic activity." If such a policy is indeed to succeed, West Bengal will have been among the few States of India where industrialisation and economic diversification are based on the achievement of a socially broad-based land reform.

Aparajita Bakshi is a Junior Research Fellow at the Indian Statistical Institute working on issues of household incomes in rural West Bengal.

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