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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > December 23, 2006 > Madhubani Revisited

VOL XLV No 01

Madhubani Revisited

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by D. Bandyopadhyay

As the Chairman of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission, I had the opportunity to revisit Madhubani on November 14-15, 2006. The time gap between the first and the second visit was over three decades. A piece on the first trip to Madhubani was published in Mainstream sometime in 1973. The present one is a ‘Post Script’.

Infrastructure-wise Madhubani remains as backward as before. The road distance between Patna and Madhubani is 160 km. The road conditions are so bad that it takes over seven hours to cover this distance by car. Cars invariably breakdown no matter how sturdy and well maintained they are. From a couple of tyre punctures to snapping of spring leaf of rear wheels to jamming of the hydraulic shock absorbers, one has to brave them all with the serenity of a meditating monk. Through the benevolence of the State Government we covered the distance in 35 minutes by a State plane. But one member of our team, who could not be accommodated in the plane, made the road journey whose experience is narrated above.

Three decades ago one could feel the heat of the simmering discontent of the bataidars (sharecroppers). A strong movement was going on there guided by the CPI, particularly under the charismatic leadership of Bhogendra Jha who was returned for five consecutive terms as an MP from Madhubani. Today he is an icon. There is no movement of bataidars. There are isolated flash-points but no coordinated mass movement.

At the presentation made in the Collectorate at Madhubani it was pointed out that since the insertion of Section 48 E in the BT Act the total number of applications for the recognition of under-raiyats (bataidars) was 672. Out of these 524 cases were disposed of leaving a balance of 148. To a query it was pointed out that the system of bataidari was very widely prevalent in the district. This was also the common perception. But the fIgures indicated that almost everything was honky-dory and there was no problem and no social tension. When these fIgures were given to important leaders of the CPI who called on the Commission, their immediate reaction was that the figures were not correct. But when the Collector who was present in the meeting insisted that these were all collated from the records available with the Revenue Offices, their reply was that most of the bataidars felt disinclined to prefer their claims before the revenue officials because of the hassle involved and because they felt secured through their organisational strength. That might have been the case when the movement was strong and vibrant but it would not explain the position when there was hardly any movement on the ground. The bataidari arrangement being entirely oral with the bataidar not having any scrap of paper to support their claim, they knew that they would not be able to establish their claim before the revenue courts. In all probability these facts dissuaded them from preferring their claims as they knew that they would lose in the revenue court and in the bargain incur the wrath of the landlord and get evicted. The present law was not bataidar- friendly. That coupled with the mindset of the bureaucracy could explain the enormous gap between the ground reality and figures presented by the Collector.

A “Jan Sunwai” (public hearing) was organised at village Rampatty eight km away from Madhubani. A large number of poor peasants gathered there. What was remarkable was the presence of a large number of women. They were articulate and presented their viewpoints with confidence. One could see a notable change in their attitude and behaviour as compared to what was found three decades ago. Though the literacy rate continued be low at around 27 per cent (female), their participation in the Panchayat electoral process with 50 per cent reservation for women might have resulted in this visible empowerment. The points that were raised were mostly of individual nature. Some cases of forcible eviction from land by strong landlord or the Mahant of a “Mutt” nearby came up. Cases of non-regularisation of possession on Gair Masarua land were also mentioned. It basically indicated that if the ground level revenue machinery could be more responsive much of the accumulated grievances could be easily settled. It reconfirms the famous statement of Philip Woodruff that he who could settle the land disputes promptly sitting under a Peepal tree would rule India.

Another “Jan Sunwai” was organised in village Selibeli on November 15 morning. This village has a long history of struggle by bataidars to assert their right of cultivation. Huge areas of agricultural lands in this and other neighbouring villages were owned by a religious Trust whose “Mahant” was the undisputed “Raja” of the area. Temporal possession of large areas and his spiritual position as the head of the religious “Mutt” made him a formidable personality whose word of mouth was the “ law” in the area. Under the guidance of the CPI led by the redoubtable peasant leader, Bhogendra Jha, bataidars organised themselves from 1971 onwards. On November 30, 1972 when the bataidars started harvesting the crop sown by them goons employed by the Mahant murdered seven bataidars for their truculence. The simmering situation boiled over. The Mahant himself was murdered not by revengeful bataidars but due to internal feud for the control of the “Mutt” property. Selibeli became the symbol of the bataidars’ non-violent resistance to violent methods of oppression by landowning classes. The CPI, which led the bataidar movement in Madhubani district, lost 54 of their cadres and party sympathisers in course of the struggle. The latest victim was Soman Sahay of village Akaur in 2006. It was to revive that history and to carry forward the task of recognition of bataidari rights that the “Jan Sunwai” was held there.

“Jan Sunwais” had developed a pattern of their own. In this public hearing Shri Bhogendra Jha came in spite of his failing health. The local CPI MLA, Sri R.S. Pandey, took the lead in organising it. There was noticeable presence of poor men and women. They spoke about their problems fearlessly and assertively. That was a good sign. They could not be easily cowed down. Unfortunately because of the not-so-friendly revenue laws and revenue officials there is no recognised bataidar. In fact, one small peasant put the problem succinctly. He said that by paying 24 times of pittance of rent someone was trying to take over his raiyati land. He was angry. In a sense it is also unfair. This issue has to be tackled properly in the proposed change of law; otherwise the entire move for legal recognition of right to cultivation of bataidars would result in internecine fight. The landowner should be assured that his title over his own land will not be anyway disturbed. The bataidar should also feel assured that he cannot be evicted at will by the landowner. It is then that he will try to augment production and productivity. There were cases of non-regularisation of occupation of Gair Mazarua land. Cases were handed over to the revenue officials.

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There was a serious complaint about the activities of the “Mutt” and its present “Mahant”. In the first place it was alleged he was not a regular “Mahant”. He was a college teacher with family who somehow usurped the “guddy” of the Mahant. There was a demand to oust him under the appropriate law. Secondly, and more seriously, it was alleged that he had taken advance of money from some poor peasants on the assurance that when the land ceiling case(s) against the “Mutt” would be over, he would sell lands to them from lands within the ceiling. It was reported that ceiling cases were over and the “Mutt” did not get as many units as it had prayed for. The Revenue Officials had distributed excess lands to different sets of persons. Thus those who alleged to have paid advance to the Mahant stood cheated. If it were true, it was a criminal matter. The Collector who was present assured the peasants there that he would have the matter looked into.
The “Mahant” episode is a pointer to another issue. A fresh look has to be given to the legal aspects of lands held by religious trusts of different religious groups. A deity under the Hindu system is a perpetual minor whose natural guardian is the District Judge. A minor’s demand is likely to be much less than that of an adult. So why should any Mutt have enormous areas whose usufruct would only be enjoyed by human being, particularly, by the Mahant, in the name of the deity? This is unfair to the deity.

In course of the discussion a point arose regarding the prevailing rates of wages for the agricultural workers. Harvesting of paddy had started. Workers were getting employment. Wage rates were around Rs 30 in cash and four kgs of wet paddy per day’s work for 10 hours with frugal meal provided by the landowners. We were told that depending on the type of paddy four kgs of wet paddy would give two to 2.25 kgs of clean rice. The prevailing price of rice in the area varied from Rs 8 to 11 per kg. Assuming the price of clean rice to be Rs 10 per kg, 2.25 kg of clean rice in monetary terms would mean Rs 22.50. Adding this to the cash component of Rs 30 total wage in monetary terms would come to Rs. 52.50 per day. It is difficult to calculate the monetary value of the frugal meal. In any case it was not a “Chhappan bhog” meal. Its price could hardly be Rs 5 to 6 per head. Assuming it to be Rs 6 the total would come Rs 58.50 (Rs 52.50 plus Rs 6) as against the minimum wages of Rs 68 per day for eight hours work fixed by the government. Such depressed wages even during the harvesting season clearly indicated a high degree of landlessness and concealed unemployment in the region. On a query the Commission was told that the National Employment Guarantee programme had not yet started. Perhaps, during the employment season there was no need for it. But had it been in operation it might have had some pull effect on the prevailing wage rates for agricultural workers.

The conclusions arrived at by the visiting team of the National Agriculture Commission headed by Dr Z.A. Ahmed M.P. in 1973 were as follows:
By their abysmal failure to implement the laws the authorities in Bihar have reduced the whole package of land reforms measures to a sour joke. That has emboldened the landowning class to treat the entire issue of agrarian reform with utter contempt. Elsewhere in the country the law evaders have a sneaking respect for the law enforcing authority. Their approach is furtive—their method clandestine. In Bihar the landowners do not care a tuppence for the administration. They take it for granted. Their approach is defiant—their modus operandi open and insolent. Violence has been ruthlessly suppressed at Musahari and elsewhere. But the problems remain unresolved.

That was in April 1973. In November 2006, things did not seem to be any significantly better. Rural unrest had moved away from North Bihar to elsewhere. But one could discern the smouldering amber of discontent and injustice in many rural areas.

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