Saturday, August 30, 2008

Land Reforms in West Bengal and Public Perceptions

By Jayati Ghosh

Such is the power of the media, that in recent months, the very names of Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal have become synonymous with forcible land acquisition by the state all over India. This is truly remarkable, because in fact no land was ever actually acquired for industrialisation in Nandigram after the violent protests against it. And it is widely acknowledged that the terms of acquisition of the 1000 acres required for the Tata automobile factory in Singur were the most favourable for the peasantry, of any such acquisition across India. Indeed, the Singur model ought to be viewed far more favourably, if only because it is the first time that not just owners of land but also tenant farmers were sought to be given some compensation.In a more rational socio-political environment, the response of the state government would have been appreciated in both these cases. In Nandigram, the government of West Bengal actually changed its plans for creating an industrial hub in that area, and declared that it would not go ahead with any attempt at land acquisition. This is unlike any other state government, and is surely noteworthy in a country in which more than 200,000 hectares of cultivable land has been compulsorily acquired by the state for non-agricultural uses just in the past three years, without heeding local or other protests. (The subsequent year-long turmoil in Nandigram had nothing to do with land acquisition but was the result of forcible eviction of one set of peasants by another, and unlawful blockade of the area.) In Singur the state government provided three times the market price of the land to holders of land titles and extended compensation to recorded tenants – both of which occurred for the first time in any state.Despite this, violent protests have continued in both areas, fuelled not only by the opposition within the state but by interested outside parties that would like to undermine the Left Front government for various reasons, and by a hysterical media that has blatantly misrepresented facts even while ignoring far more serious violations of human rights in many other states where land acquisition has been proceeding apace. The smear campaign of the media has had its effect. It is a major irony of our times that the state government that has done – and continues to do – more than any other to enforce land ceilings and redistribute land to the poor, is the one that faced the most vilification for land acquisition, even when that land has not even been acquired.And in the process, the genuine achievements of the Left Front government in the area of land relations, even in the very recent past and up to the present, have been completely ignored. But in fact, the record of the Government of West Bengal in terms of land distribution remains not only laudable, but also far more impressive than that of any other state government in India. The only states that come close are those that have been or are ruled by other Left Front governments, that is Kerala and Tripura. What should be particularly noted, especially by those elements in the media who now regularly berate the Government of West Bengal for its recent attempts to acquire land for industrialisation, is that its efforts at land distribution continue even today. This has become very clear from data recently collected from the Land and Land Reforms Department of the Government of West Bengal (cited by V. K. Ramachandran, “Land reforms continues in West Bengal”, The Hindu 23 August 2008).Remember that since 1977, West Bengal has distributed more land than any other state and accounts for 22 per cent of all the land distributed in India. And it has provided this to by far the largest number of beneficiaries. In fact, the 29.7 lakh beneficiaries of land reform in West Bengal account for 55 per cent of all the beneficiaries in India!This process of land distribution continued even in the very recent past, precisely the period when the state government was being accused of seeking to deprive peasants of their land because of its industrialisation drive. In the three years between 2005-06 and 2007-08, nearly 30,000 acres was distributed to landless peasant cultivators. This was three times the amount that was acquired by the state government for all purposes, including road building and other development. In 2007-08, the same year when the violent agitation in Nandigram was grabbing national headlines, no one bothered to report that the same state government had distributed nearly 11,000 acres, to more than 25,000 peasants. This experience must be contrasted with most of the rest of India. Not only has hardly any land been distributed in the past three years in most other states, but land has been compulsorily acquired at breakneck speed not only for SEZs, but also for urban expansion and other infrastructure development. Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh stand out in this list. But there is no noise at all in the media about either the terms or the conditions of the land acquisition in these states, which in all cases has been significantly worse for the local peasantry than the compensation received in Singur. Nor have the same activists who regularly still congregate in Singur and Nandigram to spew venom on the Left Front government engage in remotely similar activities in these states. The entire opposition and fury of protestors seems to be reserved for one of the few state governments that is still trying to redistribute land to the peasants.So it is clear that these protests – and the media attention that they receive – are not completely innocent or principled, since they are not directed at other state governments that have been guilty of much worse. The question that lingers, then, is what the real motive behind such continuing and focussed protests against this one particular state government could be.

Land reforms continues in West Bengal

By V K Ramchandran

New data show that, even over the last three years, the extent of land acquired by the State government for industrial and infrastructural purposes was a fraction of the agricultural land distributed under land reform.

The primary point of distinction between Left-led and all other State governments in India is that, on coming to power, every Left-led government has confronted the agrarian question directly. Land reform has been integral to the policy of the Left in government from the outset.
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 government’s 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.

New data presented by the Minister for Land Reforms in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly indicate how significant a contribution West Bengal has made to India’s aggregate land reform effort.

Net area sown in West Bengal as a proportion of net area sown in India was, according to the Union Ministry of Agriculture, 3.9 per cent in 2003-04. At the same time, as Table 1 shows, the extent of agricultural land distributed under land reform in West Bengal as a proportion of land distributed in the country as a whole is 22.6 per cent. Of the total number of gainers from land distribution programmes in the country, more than half — a full 54.5 per cent — are from West Bengal.

The absolute numbers give us an idea of the sweep of land reform. As a rough measure, the aggregate, as on February 15, 2008, of the total number of recipients of agricultural land under land reform (2,971,857), the number of recorded bargadars (1,510,657) and the number of recipients of homestead land (557,151), is 5,039,665 beneficiaries. (As an indicator of the obstacles to land reform, it is worth noting that 179,878 acres cannot be distributed because they are under legal injunction.)

The current data (that is, as on March 15, 2008) show that, among the recipients of agricultural land under land reform, the proportion of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe recipients (55 per cent) was significantly higher than the proportion of Scheduled Castes and Tribes in West Bengal’s population (which was 28.1 per cent).

Another interesting feature of the data is that, as on February 15, 2008, the number of new joint pattadars (that is, persons who had received new joint title deeds to agricultural land under land reform) was 581,000, and the number of new women pattadars was 159,400. Assuming that half the new joint patta holders were women, a total of 449,900, or about 4 lakh and a half, women received title deeds to agricultural land under land reform. I have no comparative data for other States on this matter, but the number indicates a noteworthy response to a long-standing demand of the women’s movement (although it still falls far short of creating conditions of equality in this regard).

A myth of “reversal”

Despite this achievement, there has been recent criticism, particularly since late 2006, that the Left Front government, in pursuit of its policy of industrialisation and industrial modernisation, has actually reversed its land reform programme. On the face of it, this allegation seems somewhat implausible: what could be the motive for a government to be so obviously self-destructive (or, in Jyoti Basu’s blunt formulation, “We are not out of our mind that we would destroy our agriculture…”)?

Current data show the allegation also to be untrue.

Table 2 shows that, in each of the last three years, the extent of land acquired by the State government for industrial and infrastructural purposes was a fraction of the agricultural land distributed under land reform (and this does not even include the extent of homestead land distributed). Even in 2006-07, when acquisitions peaked, the extent acquired was 4,135 acres, and the extent distributed under land reform was 10,848 acres; in other words, in that year, the extent of agricultural land distributed under the land reform programme was no less than 2.62 times the extent acquired for industry and infrastructure.

Although it is true that more land was distributed in the first two decades of Left Front rule than at present, the fact remains that even today, with a narrower base of land available for redistribution, the extent distributed is much greater than the extent acquired.

The freedom of the government to implement land reform in West Bengal has been hemmed in historically by the constraints imposed by the Constitution and obstructed by counter-land-reform action and endless litigation. Nevertheless, the data show unequivocally not only that land reform swept the countryside in the late 1970s and 1980s, but also that the process of land distribution continues in rural West Bengal today.

The Hindu,
Friday, Aug 22, 2008