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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 33, August 1, 2009

Bihar: Implement Bandyopadhyay Commission’s Recommendations for Land Reforms

Wednesday 5 August 2009


One of the key promises made by Nitish Kumar after becoming the Chief Minister of Bihar was to carry out land reforms. Indeed, the deepest source of Bihar’s backwardness lies in the near-total absence of land reforms, and the setting up of a Land Reforms Commission (LRC) under the chairmanship of D. Bandyopadhyay, credited as a key architect of land reforms in West Bengal, was therefore widely welcomed by all well-wishers of the cause of development of Bihar. The Commission was initially granted a period of one year which was subsequently extended to two years and that expired in June 2007. The full report of the Commission was eventually submitted to the Chief Minister in April 2008. The Bihar Government is, however, yet to take even the first minimum step of making the report public.

Fifteen months later, when the landless rural poor and deprived sharecroppers and tenant cultivators have started demanding immediate implementation of the Commission’s recommen-dations, the Government of Bihar has woken up only to set up another committee to study the recommendations of the Commission, a much- too-familiar bureaucratic technique for delaying and diluting any real step. To understand how the government would like to mutilate and murder the Commission’s report, let us look at this one example. The Commission has recommended “assignment of at least 10 decimals of land to shelter less household of 5.84 lakh non-farm rural workers each who are in the state of semi-bondedness as they live on the land of other landowners”, but the State’s SC/ST Welfare Minister recently told the Bihar Assembly that the government was contem-plating giving only three decimal plots to shelter-less people belonging to Mahadalit castes. Like all its predecessors, the Nitish Government too thus seems all set to give the agenda of land reform a quiet burial.

Land reforms are central to any real battle against Bihar’s backwardness. With 90 per cent of the State’s population living in villages and 74 per cent workforce employed in agriculture, Bihar is still predominantly rural or agrarian. Yet agriculture accounts for only 33 per cent of the State’s domestic product and the land-holding pattern remains absolutely skewed. Marginal and small farmers constituting roughly 96.5 per cent of total landowners own about 66 per cent of the total land while medium and large farmers constituting only 3.5 per cent of the landowning community own roughly 33 per cent of the total land. Citing NSSO figures, the LRC report points to a reverse trend of land concentration: between 1992 and 2003, the proportion of large landowners has gone down from 0.2 per cent to 0.1 per cent, yet their share in total land area has increased from 4.44 per cent to 4.63 per cent over the same period!

The proportion of the landless or the near landless among the rural poor is steadily increasing—from 67 per cent in 1993-94 to 75 per cent by the turn of the century. Between 1991 and 2001, outmigration from Bihar increased by over 200 per cent, whereas the average increase for all the Indian States stood at just 21.5 per cent. Landlessness aggravates poverty and forces people to migrate out of the State; landlessness also retards the development of agriculture. Between 1991-92 and 1995-96, agriculture in Bihar grew at the negative rate of (-)2 per cent annum, followed by a very sluggish 0.8 per cent of annual recovery for the next six years (when nationally agriculture grew at three per cent per annum). If despite having “perhaps the most fertile soil in the world and copious water resources” agricultural growth remains so sluggish in Bihar, the LRC finds it “evident that there is a structural bottleneck in Bihar agriculture due to a very queer pattern of land ownership and very extortionate system of tenancy at will which are causing great impediment to accelerated rate of agricultural growth”.

The LRC sees land reforms as the key to reforming the relations of agricultural pro-duction and releasing “the forces of production dormant in the economy, which would propel the development of the State”. “As a predominantly agricultural State, Bihar would have no option but to take to effective land reforms to burst asunder the fetters and shackles which had been preventing its many splendoured advancement,” urges the LRC report.

The key recommendations of the LRC are threefold: (i) to do away with the present system of classification of land into six categories with ceilings varying from 15 acres for all kinds of land; (ii) to allot between one acre and 0.66 acre of ceiling surplus land to the lowest quintile of agricultural labourers consisting of 16.68 lakh households each and assignment of at least 10 decimals of land to shelter-less households of 5.48 lakh non-farm rural workers each; (iii) to enact a Bataidari Act to ensure secure and heritable right of cultivation to all tenants/sharecroppers with 60 per cent share of the produce (if the landowner bears the cost of production) or 70 to 75 per cent of the produce (if the bataidar bears the cost of production).

The LRC is aware of the legal loopholes and the administrative apathy that have till date made a mockery of every land reform legislation in Bihar. And such a state of affairs could continue because of an utter lack of political will on the part of the ruling forces not only within Bihar but also at the Centre. The reason is not difficult to understand. The absence of land reforms facilitates not only the continued feudal domination within Biha, but also the assured and continuing supply of cheap labour from Bihar without which the Green Revolution of Punjab or the economic growth miracle of Maharashtra and Gujarat could hardly have been possible.

Bandyopadhyay believes that his report is modest enough to be implemented. But land reforms, however modest, remain a dreaded anathema to Nitish Kumar’s neo-feudal order of ‘good governance’. It is instructive to remember that even before the Bandyopadhyay Commission could really embark on its work, Nitish Kumar had explicitly assured the big landowners of Bihar that their interests would not be allowed to be affected! Bihar needs nothing short of a powerful upsurge of the landless poor and tenants to thwart this politics of feudal subversion and translate the recommendations of the Land Reforms Commission into reality.

[Courtesy: ML Update, a CPI-ML (Liberation) weekly news magazine]

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