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Land rights and wrongs in Bihar

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The Ekta Parishad, an organisation that upholds the principles of Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan, organises a month-long padayatra in some districts of Bihar to mobilise support for the cause of the landless and deprived people.

ON October 7, the grounds of the Parvati Ucchatar Madhyamik Vidyalaya in Bikram block, some 50 km from Patna, became the venue of a special meeting on women and land rights. The meeting, attended by a large number of Dalits and other landless people, marked the end of a padayatra (march) organised by the Ekta Parishad, an organisation committed to the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan. Although the meeting was convened to highlight the issue of land rights, including basic homestead land, people aired their views on other forms of deprivation and exploitation as well.

For almost a month, the Ekta Parishad padayatra had been passing through select districts of Bihar, and it was on its last lap when it arrived in Patna. Starting on September 11 at Jamui on the border with Jharkhand, the padayatra, led by the Ekta Parishad's national convener P.V. Rajagopal, had covered Nawada, Nalanda, Gaya and Jehanabad districts.

Although the struggle for land reforms and land rights is not new in the State, with the Left parties and their class and mass organisations having taken the lead, the Ekta Parishad's entry into the scene has given a shot in the arm to the movement. Equally significant, its entry came about at a time when the Rabri Devi-led Rashtriya Janata Dal-Congress(I) coalition government has decided to introduce some land reforms in the State, though the move has created tensions in the countryside (Frontline, October 12).

Set up in 1989, the Ekta Parishad has been active in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa and is committed to fighting all forms of exploitation. At the padayatra taken out in the course of the campaign in Bihar, slogans were raised about co-existence and peace and about the new threat posed by multinational companies in the agricultural sector. The Parishad called for amity between the landless and the landed and exhorted the latter to donate part of their land keeping in mind the ultimate objective of retaining land with the agriculturist. Simultaneously, the organisation is putting pressure on the State government to verify and distribute Bhoodan and surplus lands to the landless. Given the highly emotive nature of the issue of land, in the long run the Ekta Parishad plans to seek state intervention in order to achieve its aim.

The ground realities in Bihar had the potential to enable mobilisation of popular discontent over the years. However, resistance from the landed sections and from successive State governments, whether overt or covert, prevented the implementation of any substantial land reform measures. Organisations such as the All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) have raised the issue of plugging loopholes in the land ceiling legislation and the distribution of surplus land, including land caught in litigation, following the models of West Bengal and Kerala. The AIAWU had also been demanding the distribution of waste, Bhoodan, evacuee and fallow lands to the landless free of cost. In fact, the organised struggle for land rights goes back as far as 1929, when the Bihar Pradesh Kisan Sabha was founded under the leadership of Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Swami Sahajanand Saraswati. "Land to the tiller" was a popular slogan of the Kisan Sabha, which forged strong ties with middle-level peasants and some upper-caste groups as well.

Bihar was the first State in Independent India to legislate on land reforms, but it never proceeded to any meaningful implementation of the measures mainly because of the lack of political will and resistance from the landed sections. That the Bihar Abolition of Zamindari Act, 1948, was challenged in court and later replaced by the Bihar Land Reforms Bill, 1949, showed the extent of the resistance. Moreover, the genesis of the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, was itself fraught with several legal obstacles because it challenged the interests of the zamindars. A study conducted by the Partnership Council of India, an organisation supporting the Ekta Parishad, stated that although it was implicit in the 1950 Act that the state was the ultimate landlord with exclusive proprietary interest, the issue of ultimate ownership of land remained controversial.

Similarly, the Bihar Land Ceiling Act, 1961, could not be implemented, owing to loopholes that subverted its spirit and purpose. The Council's study also quotes a Planning Commission report of 1964 which says that had the law been implemented properly, one or one and a half lakh acres of spare land could have been acquired. The ceiling process accumulated 3,85,013 acres of spare land, of which 2,77,491 acres was distributed among 3,52,703 families as of January 2001. In 2000-2001, 449.73 acres was distributed among 844 families. However, the extent of land distributed to each family works out to about 0.53 acres, which is too small an area for profitable cultivation. Besides, it was not specified what kind of land was distributed, giving rise to speculation that most of it was non-cultivable land.

One of the focal points of the Ekta Parishad's agitation for land rights has been the restoration of Bhoodan land to its rightful owners - the landless people. Inspired by the success, though limited, of Acharya Vinoba Bhave, the founder of the Bhoodan movement in the 1950s, the Ekta Parishad feels that it too can, through non-confrontationist means, help the landless people get back the Bhoodan land. Bihar itself accounted for more than 50 per cent of the land (a total of 21,17,756 acres) gifted during the movement in the country. Like Vinoba Bhave, who stayed in Bihar from 1952 to 1956, Rajagopal plans to spend three years in the State, carrying forward what was left unfinished by the Bhoodan movement. However, this time around the objective is to restore illegally occupied Bhoodan land to the landless.

Some of the Bhoodan land could not be distributed because of its location; some was received without proper authorisation papers from the donors; and some land was involved in litigation. The latest situation is that some 3,97,010 acres remains to be distributed. A total of 5,78,899 people received land, of whom the majority belonged to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The average area of land distributed to members of the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the OBC groups was about 1.2, 1.85 and 0.89 acres respectively. There were some 49,960 "other recipients" too, who received about 1.55 acres each. They apparently did not belong to any of the depressed categories. About 5.6 lakh acres of land was distributed without proper record of ownership.

The Bhoodan committees that were set up to ensure fair and equitable distribution gradually lost their momentum and, as a result, not all the land meant for the landless reached them. Today the committees are defunct and are unable to settle disputes or coordinate with the State government. In an article titled "Land Distribution among Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes", which appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly (October 6, 2001), a number of studies have been quoted to prove that the loopholes and ambiguities in the legislative measures, slow proceedings at various levels of the bureaucracy, lack of updated land records, general ignorance and lack of illiteracy among the depressed classes have hindered fair distribution of land. Moreover, the allotment of land is resisted by well-organised militant groups of the upper castes, such as the Ranvir Sena, the Lorik Sena, the Bhumi Sena and the Brahmarsi Sena, which have a record of committing atrocities on Dalits. There have been a number of cases in which Dalits were killed by the men of the Ranvir Sena after land was allotted to them.

In this context, when the Ekta Parishad entered the scene with its peaceful means, its intentions seemed almost utopian. Rajagopal told Frontline that in Madhya Pradesh, various agitational tactics and mobilising measures had forced the government to constitute Special Task Forces at the State and district levels. Surplus grazing land was identified and converted into agricultural land and the process of distributing it among the depressed sections was on. This was achieved at the end of a struggle that continued for several years since 1989. In 1999-2000, a padayatra that covered 3,000 km was conducted from Morena in western Madhya Pradesh to Raigarh in present-day Chattisgarh. When asked about seeking the support of the Left parties as they endorsed his agenda of land reforms, he said that he was open to accepting support from anybody.

RAJAGOPAL wants to organise labour camps and mobilise local youth in agricultural work. He said that he had identified irrigation canals built during British rule in Nawada district, which were choked with sand. "I want to rope in 5,000 young men who could clean up those canals. The attempt is to create a positive atmosphere so that the farming community at all levels gets involved in the process," he said. Rajagopal said that there was a general sense of fatigue among the various caste groups over the internecine clashes. He pointed out that the situation was such that members of the upper castes sent their children out of Bihar to study and were even moving out of their land to other areas.

The Ekta Parishad's task is not an easy one. At two places where the padayatra conducted meetings, the landlords were highly suspicious of it. Shailesh Kumar, a youth belonging to the landowning class, wondered what bhu-adhikar (land right) was all about and also wanted an explanation for the demand for the restoration of patta land (that has a deed). While many among the landless received pattas, they had little idea of where the land was. This situation was exploited by the landed upper-caste people, who constitute some 13 per cent of the population. The Scheduled Castes and the backward castes comprise 64 per cent.

MEANWHILE, the Bihar unit of the All India Kisan Sabha has welcomed the efforts of the Ekta Parishad. Subodh Roy, vice-president of the State unit of the Kisan Sabha, said that it was true that the land distributed by the Bhoodan committees had been taken over by the land mafia and that actual possession could be achieved only in the case of two and a half to three lakh acres of land. Roy said that big landlords even got possession of government land, such as ponds, pasture land and public lands. "These are the common reasons for the tension," he said. Roy referred to the massacre of 21 Dalits in Jehanabad on April 19, 1988 for their having claimed a piece of public land as an instance of violent conflict. He said that he welcomed the Ekta Parishad's movement aimed at bringing about social change without shedding blood but cautioned that there was a slogan in Bihar that said: Dhan Aur Dharti Bat Ke Rahenge; Apna Apna Chod Ke (barring one's own land, the rest of the wealth and land could definitely be distributed). Roy said that the administration was pro-landlord. Exploitation and conflict were rampant in areas such as Purnea, Katihar, North Bhagalpur, Madhepura, Saharsa and Darbhanga, where the landed sections owned vast areas of land. For instance, the royal families in Ramgarh, Hazaribagh, Palamu, Darbhanga, Gaya, Saharsa, Katihar, Purnea and Sitaamgarh hold among themselves thousands of acres of land.

As the landless people in rural Bihar generally perceive little improvement in their lives, they have started to migrate to cities where they constitute the bulk of the working population. On the other hand, the migration process has affected the agrarian scene in the villages, where it was primarily members of the lower castes who tilled, cultivated and harvested the fields. Members of the upper castes whom this correspondent spoke to in two villages of Bikram block said that it had become difficult to get agricultural labourers. They said that their women did not work in the fields and that the migration of agricultural labour had created a shortage of hands. Agricultural prices were not good enough and therefore they were unable to pay agricultural labour properly, they claimed.

At the moment, the rural poor do not know what the padayatra and peaceful coexistence is all about, for they have traditionally been at the receiving end of any violence. At best they hope that something positive might happen as somebody is talking about their rights. For the time being, both the left-wing and the right-wing extremist groups have decided to wait and watch. Whether the Ekta Parishad's agitation will lead to more violence will be known only in the next few years, by which time Rajagopal plans to make some gains. As a political activist in the State commented, the politics of Bihar is based on vote banks. Whether the Ekta Parishad manages to steer clear of this and keep off non-progressive and other forces is something that is being watched closely.

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