BY Prabhat Patnaik
PUBLISHED IN PEOPLES DEMOCRACY, 20TH MAY, 2001
THE Left Front's success in winning the elections to the West Bengal Assembly for the sixth consecutive time is remarkable by any standards. With the exception, and that too a very questionable one, of the PRI in Mexico, no political formation anywhere in the world has continuously held office through elections for as long as the Left Front would have done at the end of its current tenure. Commentators have naturally been working overtime to provide explanations for this unique phenomenon, but none of their explanations has come to grips with the basic fact that the Left Front's electoral achievement derives from its success in tackling the profound and protracted socio-economic crisis that had engulfed Bengal earlier and assumed critical proportions after the mid-sixties.
The crisis in Bengal of course was not specifically confined to Bengal. It was an integral part of the crisis of the Indian economy. But it appeared in Bengal in a particularly accentuated form, because every "depressor" of the Indian economy had a particularly severe impact upon Bengal.
PROTRACTED AGRARIAN CRISIS
Bengal, to start with, was the earliest "colonised" part of the country, and the impact of colonialism was particularly severe here. Not only was the systematic plunder and "drain" characteristic of colonialism visited upon this region in a more ruthless manner and for a more prolonged period than on any other region of the country, but even during the twentieth century itself, i.e, even after it had experienced a certain degree of industrialisation, it continued to face in the colonial era an agrarian crisis of unparalleled severity. The last half-century of colonial rule saw a decline in per capita food output in "British India" of over 25 percent; but the decline in "Greater Bengal" was far larger, as much as 38 percent between 1911 and 1946! The roots of the terrible famine of 1943 in which more than three million persons perished lay in this secular output decline.
The causes of this decline were shaped by colonialism. The "Permanent Settlement" which prevailed in Bengal prevented any investment in irrigation and other yield-raising measures by the colonial administration (unlike for instance the "Canal Colonies" in Punjab): since their claim on land revenue was fixed, any such investment would have given them a zero rate of return. But while there were no yield-increases, the peasantry had to bear the burden of exploitation by a whole range of intermediary parasites, with the zamindars at the top, and an ascending class of jotedars just below them. (They were yet another product of the colonial system and their ascendancy was drawn attention to in the famous memorandum of the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha to the Floud Commission). And, notwithstanding a certain amount of modern industrialisation, the earlier and ongoing decline of traditional crafts kept up the pressure of population on land.
Independence and the following decades of Congress rule did little to overcome this acute and protracted agrarian crisis (which found poignant expression in literature, e.g., in Manik Bandyopdhyaya's stories). The abolition of zamindari only consummated the process of ascendancy of jotedars but did not alleviate the distress of the peasantry. Investment in irrigation was inadequate. (An erroneous belief inherited from the colonial times, and expressed for instance in the Report of the Royal Commission on Agriculture, namely that the problem with Bengal agriculture was not too little water but too much of it, might have contributed to this). West Bengal's agricultural growth, though much higher than under colonialism, continued to be lacklustre.
The mainsprings of even this growth, which consisted to a significant extent of an expansion in gross sown area, dried up in the sixties, as in the rest of the country. The underlying acute agrarian crisis was once again exposed. The mid-sixties saw an acute food crisis all over the country, but the Eastern region was particularly hard-hit. Bihar saw famine conditions. And West Bengal, also badly affected, saw the famous food movement. While the so-called "Green Revolution" that came as a sequel to this crisis raised yields quite significantly in certain parts of the country, Eastern India including West Bengal remained largely untouched by it. In its case the old agricultural crisis, marked by stagnant output, a peasantry under immense squeeze, and severe food shortage, continued.
STRUGGLES & REPRESSION
This agrarian crisis was compounded by an industrial crisis. Indeed the industrial economy of the region suffered both from colonialism and from the end of colonialism. It suffered from colonialism because of the pervasive and persistent deindustrialisation that it was subjected to. It suffered from the end of colonialism because the new industries that had developed, e.g., tea and jute, reflected the colonial pattern of international division of labour; they would have dwindled anyway but the end of colonialism hastened the process. What is more, the engineering industry that had come up just prior to independence and grown subsequently, received a big jolt from the industrial recession that set in after the mid-sixties, thanks to a curtailment in public investment (including, in particular railway investment). And the "freight-equalisation" scheme contributed to a shift of industry away from the region.
The mid-sixties therefore saw the region's economy engulfed in an acute crisis, which was a reproduction in an accentuated form of the crisis of the overall national economy. As the peoples' struggles against the crisis grew, they were met by repression which eventually culminated in the semi-fascist terror of the early seventies that claimed the lives of as many as 1200 comrades. This savage repression both pre-dated and anticipated the infamous Emergency imposed on the country as a whole in 1975. Here again West Bengal was experiencing in a particularly accentuated form the repression that the country as a whole was to experience later.
The Left Front government came into being against the backdrop of this situation of acute crisis, savage repression and a pervasive feeling of hopelessness. The achievement of the Left Front consists in transcending this conjuncture, in overcoming the protracted agrarian crisis and in giving West Bengal's economy an immensely forward thrust which would have appeared almost unbelievable at the time of its birth. It restored and protected democracy in political life. It preserved social cohesiveness and communal harmony in the face of severe challenges. And it brought about a sea-change in the countryside which not only ended the social dominance of the jotedars, but gave West Bengal the highest agricultural growth rate during the 1980s among all the states.
LEFT FRONT STRATEGY
There were at least four elements in the strategy that ended what has been called the "agrarian impasse in Bengal". The most significant was land reforms towards which the earlier UF governments had taken major steps. By registering unrecorded tenants, by ensuring that whoever cultivated the land had the right to reap the harvest, by enforcing a recording of rent payment, and above all by mobilising peasants on these issues, the government provided security of tenure, protection against rack-renting, and an incentive to the peasantry to undertake productive investment. Such information as is available from sample surveys in West Bengal suggests that in at least 80 percent of the cases the rent paid is within the legal limit, which is a proportion far in excess of what prevails elsewhere.
In addition to these measures, the government distributed ceiling-surplus land among the landless. The magnitude of such land distributed in West Bengal alone was larger than what has occurred in (united) Bihar, UP, Punjab and Orissa put together. In fact, West Bengal and Kerala are the only two states where according to the NSS landholding data the proportion of the landless (i.e., non-land-owning) among the total rural households has declined substantially between 1982 and 1992 (the latest year for which data are available). Even the degree of inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) in the distribution of operational holdings has declined in these two states during this period (such declines however are also visible in Orissa, Assam and AP: see People’s Democracy May 6, 2001).
The second element was a substantial increase in investment in irrigation which in turn was part of a general increase in plan outlays. This made possible, in the context of the change in land relations, the utilisation of the third element, namely the availability of a technology package in the form of a three-crop cycle, the third crop being either potatoes or bodo rice. This three crop package had been introduced earlier in selected regions of the state (districts like Burdwan and Birbhum for example), but with the spread of irrigation it became possible to extend it elsewhere. And with the improvement in the status of the poorer sections of the peasantry, its adoption became pervasive, not confined only to relatively better-off peasants.
These measures were combined with the fourth element, namely the vitalisation of the panchayat system. There are important differences in the role and functioning of the panchayat system between Kerala (after the Peoples' Plan Campaign) and West Bengal, but the role which panchayats occupy in both these states is very different from elsewhere. In West Bengal the panchayats played a vital role in empowering the peasantry to utilise the opportunities made available to it for improving the productive forces in agriculture.
To be sure, the panchayats had an impact far larger than this, but our purpose here is not to go into the totality of their role, just as we do not intend to detail all the achievements of the Left Front government. Our aim is to provide analytical focus to one basic fact, namely the overcoming under the Left Front of the protracted crisis which had afflicted West Bengal's economy and which had got aggravated after the mid-sixties.
IMPROVEMENT IN LIVING CONDITIONS
These measures produced an upsurge in agricultural growth in West Bengal during the 1980s, which carried it to the very top of the growth-rate table among states. Of course during the 1990s there has been a slowing down of agricultural growth everywhere in the country, including West Bengal, as a result inter alia of the adoption of "structural adjustment" by the Union government. Even during the 1990s however the agricultural growth rate of West Bengal has been well above the national average.
The improvement in the living standard of the population as a consequence, among other things, of overcoming the agrarian crisis, is attested to by the National Sample Survey itself. West Bengal and Kerala are the only two states in the entire country which saw an increase in the per capita cereal consumption both in urban and rural areas between the seventies and the nineties. Likewise they are the only two states where the per capita calorie intake increased in the rural areas over this same period. Is it any surprise then that the people of the state have given their mandate to the Left Front on six consecutive occasions?
To be sure, the Left Front, while deriving satisfaction from the fact of having carried the state forward beyond the conjuncture of the 1960s, has to look ahead, to overcome the new set of problems that confront the state. The state still awaits a significant industrial revival. While the conditions for such a revival, by way of providing infrastructural support (e.g.power supply), have been created, the actual revival has still to occur.
What is more, imperialist onslaught is creating a whole new set of problems for the country which would affect, and are already affecting, West Bengal as well. Such problems include industrial closures and recession, and falling crop prices, owing to WTO-imposed trade liberalisation, and fiscal constraints owing to Fund-Bank-imposed budgetary and financial measures. Overcoming these problems poses a serious challenge. The Left Front has to cope with this challenge by mobilising the people, not only in the state but in the country as a whole.