Tension in the air

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

Bihar, already riven by deep social and economic divisions, watches with concern a government move to introduce land reforms.

THE lack of land reforms has been blamed for many of the ills of Bihar. However, by a curious irony, it is now feared that the likely introduction of land reforms by the Rabri Devi government will trigger the bloodiest round of violence in the State's history.

Driven by political considerations, particularly the outcome of the panchayat elections, which were held in June after a gap of 24 years, the Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress(I) coalition government has reportedly prepared a set of land reform measures to distribute land to sharecroppers and tillers of the land. The package, according to informed sources in the government, includes "very radical" reforms that were drafted by the Congress(I) government led by Bindeswari Dubey (1985-89) and passed by the legislature. But, the sources say, the measures have been substantially modified by the present government to "suit its own political and caste equations".

According to a senior official, the package contains a provision that seeks to make a sharecropper the legal owner of the land he works on if he pays 15 years' land tax to the government. At current rates, the tax amount would be a pittance. There is also a provision that would enable sharecroppers to have their names registered in government records.

Measures like these are certain to stir a hornet's nest. The more cautious among the landowners have started taking pre-emptive steps. Says Puranjit Sinha, a retired engineer who owns about 20 acres of land in his village in Champaran district: "I have already taken possession of my land because of the imminent trouble. But who knows, even now someone may claim my land."

Puranjit Sinha echoed the sentiments of a large number of people in rural Bihar, including a big section that belongs to the backward classes. Pappu Yadav, an independent Member of Parliament, who has a following among Yadavs, who belong to the Other Backward Classes (OBC), has warned of dire consequences if there is "any attempt to redistribute rural land". Pappu Yadav, who is now undergoing trial in connection with the murder of Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Ajit Sarkar, hails from the Saharsa-Madhepura area where Yadavs have traditionally been landlords.

The situation is not different in Nalanda, Patna and Jehanabad districts of the violence-prone central Bihar. Landowners belonging to the Kurmi and Yadav communities are in no mood to share their land with sharecroppers. Said a rickshawpuller, a Muslim, from Motihari: "I was a sharecropper for the last 20-25 years but the landowner forced me to hand over the land as he did not want to take chances. The result is that now at my age I have to pull a rickshaw."

There is also the fear of lumpen elements taking advantage of the situation and farmers themselves using them to settle scores with their rivals. Statements by people like Pappu Yadav make it clear that in the matter of land the interests of the upper castes and the advanced sections among the backward classes such as Kurmis and Yadavs converge. This, people fear, may lead to a spate of violence.

There are indications that naxalite groups such as the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War (P.W.) fear that the proposed land reforms will check the growth of their support base among the landless poor. Predictably, they have described the package an eyewash. They may not be averse to inciting violence in order to sabotage the proposals, it is feared. The MCC has entrenched itself in some central Bihar districts where, according to intelligence officials, land revenue collection has fallen substantially.

Making matters worse is the hostilities between the MCC and the P.W. on the one side and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liber- ation, another naxalite group, on the other. With its base having shrunk to parts of Patna and Jehanabad districts, the Liberation group is on the defensive. Informed sources say that the group is likely to assert its presence through violence.

A formal announcement of the land reforms package is delayed because Laloo Prasad Yadav, RJD supremo and former Chief Minister, is wary about its ramifications. However, political compulsions may ensure that it is not delayed any further. Non-performance has been a charge levelled against the RJD government in the past 10 years. Laloo Prasad is desperate to get rid of this image and restore the people's confidence in the government. He has threatened to launch an agitation against the Centre which, according to him, is responsible for Bihar's backwardness. Laloo Prasad told Frontline that the Centre's economic policy had caused serious damage to Bihar. "The Centre enjoys control over the forest and mineral resources of Bihar but refuses to extend any support for its development. The Centre has not revised the royalty for Bihar ever since 1966. Had it been revised, the State would have got Rs.4,000 crores more, which would have helped improve its economy," he said.

A delegation of leaders from Bihar, led by Rabri Devi, met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on September 2 and demanded a special aid of Rs.3,262 crores for the State, which is ravaged by drought and floods. According to Laloo Prasad, Bihar, after it lost its mineral and forest resources to the newly created Jharkhand, is a fit case for being accorded special status. "There will be no option left to us other than taking to the streets if the Centre fails to accord special status to the State," he said.

Laloo Prasad's frustration in this regard, which is shared by many people in Bihar, is understandable. Of all the States, Bihar has benefited the least from developmental activities since Independence. Even since the Third Five-Year Plan, it has been getting the lowest per capita outlay. Today it has the dubious distinction of being the State with the lowest per capita income. The treasury is depleted and the State government has no substantive resources to replenish it. It is in this context that Bihar feels aggrieved that the Centre transfers the State's mineral wealth to other parts of the country without adequate compensation.

Laloo Prasad pointed out that Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had announced a Rs.5,000-crore development plan for Bihar just before the Lok Sabha elections of 1989. The package included an allocation of Rs.1,500 crores for the Nabinagar Super Thermal Power Station and Rs.1,100 crores for a mini steel plant. Laloo Prasad said that the State had not received any funds for these projects and that projects planned for Bihar had been shifted to other States. For instance, the project to build an integral coach factory at Jamalpur had been shifted to a site in Punjab.

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