Three Pillars and Gaps Galore

RHETORIC APART, the immediate programme of social-demo­cratic reform in post-Naxalbari, post-SiddharthaSiddhartha Shankar Ray, as the Chief Minister of West Bengal during the early and mid-1970s, was responsible for the worst repression let loose on communist revolutionaries and left and democratic forces. Bengal is known to have rested on three main pillars. In this section we discuss these one by one, and then go over to the other gaps and failures.

A. Land Redistribution

OF ALL the ceiling-surplus land vested with the state since 1953 (when the West Bengal Estate Acquisition Act was passed) and the year 2000, as much as 44 per cent (6 lakh acres) was obtained in the five-year period between 1967 and 1972, thanks to the energetic ini­tiatives of the two United Front governments (not to mention the pres­sure mounted by the glorious peasant upsurge of the late 1960s, Naxalbari in particular); another 26% (3.5 lakh acres) had been ac­quired earlier. We lean this from Table - 1, which also tells us that during the LF regime the momentum declined rapidly – so much so that in the last 20 years of its rule only 1.53 lakh acres were acquired, which amounts to almost a quarter of what was achieved during the very short UF regime and almost a half of what was obtained during the 14 years of Congress rule.

How about the actual redistribution of the vested land? Table 2 shows that if one takes 1977 as the median dividing the post-1953 period of land reforms, almost 60% of the actual redistribution (6,26,284 out of a total of 10,38,000 acres) was accomplished before that and the rest 40% afterwards. The yearly rate of redistribution also declined progressively. Comparing the last columns of Tables 1 and 2, we find that 3.7 lakh acres of land vested with the state re­mained undistributed. A Land Reforms Tribunal was set up in 2000 for speedy settlement of legal disputes pending for long years in civil courts, but so far it has cleared only 13,373 acres of land. (Paper, presented by Mishra and Rawal; see below)

Litigations, of course, are not the sole reason for lakhs of acres remaining undistributed. In a report submitted to the WB government at its request in 1993, Nirmal Mukherjee and Debabrata Bandopadhyaya pointed out that at the end of 1981, vested agricul­tural land undisturbed by court cases amounted to 3.5 lakh acres, of which only 94,000 acres were distributed during the next 12 years. Moreover, some 80,000 acres of land had just “vanished”, if official records were to be believed. The surveyors showed that, together with undistributed land, these “vanished acres” were “worth at least Rs.34 crore per annum” and panchayats could not easily avoid “the charge of collusive misappropriation” on these accounts.

Seven years after the publication of the Mukherjee-Bandopadhyaya survey, Manas Ghosh reported in The Statesman (September 25 and 26, 2000) that the CPI(M) peasant wing was “lording it over” some 3 lakh acres of undistributed vested land and extracting 20 to 25 per cent of the production profits, which amounted to over Rs.40 crore even in mono-cropped areas.

Table 1 : Vesting of Celling-Surplus Land (in lakh acre)

1953-76 = 3.5

1967-72 = 6.0

1972-80 = 2.62

upto 2000 = 13.65

Source : Ghosh 1981, Basu 2000

Table 2 : Redistribution of Vested Land

No of Beneficiaries (households):

Upto 1977 -- 984032

1977-83 -- 472443

1983-91 -- 537141

Upto 1991 -- 1993616

Upto 2000 -- .....

Cropped area redistributed (acre):

Upto 1977 -- 628284

1977-83 -- 140417

1983-91 -- 146688

Upto 1991 -- 913389

Upto 2000 -- 1038000

Source : Sengupta and Gazdar, 1997; Basu, 2000

Whether one believes the Statesman report or not,, there is no de­nying that a huge quantity of ceiling-surplus land is still kept hidden with collusive arrangements among landowners, government depart­ments and panchayat officials. Peasant organizations are flatly de­nied access to information on this score, while the statutory “standing committees for land reform” under the block level panchayat bodies function as centers of corruption and favouritism. The powerful land lobby often prevents pattadars (allottees of pattas or title deeds) from actually taking possession of the land. Effective redistribution of such land remains a key item on the agenda of the peasant movement in the state.

Apart from the question of vested but undistributed land, there is another, no less important issue: should not the ceiling be lowered further? We think it should. In a state where the number and propor­tion of marginal farmers are on the rise (currently 72% in official reckoning), there is no reason why the old ceiling limits (17.29 acres for irrigated and 24.12 acres for unirrigated land) should be kept as they are. Per acre yields have risen several times in the intervening years, so in order to just maintain the level of egalitarianism, the ceiling limits need to be revised downward. That would touch only a miniscule highest rung of the rural rich and benefit an incomparably large constituency of the underprivileged.Using official figures, Dipankar Basu calculated that “by bringing down the ceiling on landholdings in 1997 to 10 acres, the LFG could have poten­tially made available an amount of land that works out to 98% of all the land that it has managed to redistribute for the past 23 years ... And this would have adversely affected only 1.36% of the rural households! (Basil, 2001) In fact this is precisely what a section of CPI(M) ranks demand even as the government’s loud claims of completion of ‘practicable’ land reforms lead to the opposite demand for liquidating the peasant organisation itself, since it has nothing left to do! (see box) But lowering of the ceiling is too much to expect from the present, dispensation, which is reportedly considering upward revision of ceilings. The upper ceiling has al­ready been abolished for agricultural operations undertaken by agro-based industries and food-processing units, and considerably relaxed for urban areas; these may well be the first steps in the ‘right’ direc­tion!


“It is true that the key slogan of the peasant movement is radical land reforms. But the slogan of radical land reforms can only be a propaganda slogan in the present structural framework. The effec­tive slogan in this context is: land reforms within ceiling limits. ...

... In the changed context of land and production relations shaped through land reforms, the peasnt movement has come to acquire a multifarious and multidimensional character. But this realisation is yet to dawn on our comrades working on the peasant front. We therefore hear from some quarters demands to lower the ceiling limits with a view to rejuvenating the peasant movement. At the same time we also hear a few comrades question the very relevance of the peasant front in the state. ...”

From Documents of the 20th State Conference of the West Bengal unit of the CPI (M).

B. Operation Barga

IT WAS a real operation that started with a big bang. Bureau­cratic red-tapism was brushed aside, and some 8000 “camps” were organized throughout the state, between October 1978 and June 1982, to register as many as 6,75,000 bargadars (sharecroppers). But it took no more than about a decade for the whole thing to end with a whimper. The. 1992 NSS data pointed out that only 30.6% of all bargadars were registered and that there was a distinct class bias, too: of the landless tenants, only 16% were recorded, whereas in the case of big tenants the corresponding figure was as high as 71%! This puts to rest all controversy as to which class, at the end of the day, has benefited most from the great reform!

Several other limitations of the programme are also to be noted. Nowhere in the state is Operation Barga (OB) extended to bodo [boro] cultivation (summer crop of rice), although there is nothing in the law to prevent that. Secondly, the law (West Bengal Land Reform Act 1955, as amended subsequently) stipulates that the lessor would get half share only when he supplies all the inputs, and will get 25% share in all other cases; but the Operation did not attempt to enforce this in any way. In real life we find about half-a-dozen different shar­ing arrangements, almost always advantageous to the lessor.

But the most fundamental question about OB concerns its po­litico-economic orientation.

Elimination of all intermediaries between the state and the actual cultivator (who engages in direct cultivation with own or/and hired labour) — of all rent-collectors other than the state — constitutes a key bourgeois democratic reform. It facilitates the unhindered flow of capital into agriculture, so advanced representatives of the bourgeoi­sie support this reform. Communists also fight for it in the stage of democratic revolution because they wish to abolish the vestiges of feudalism, unfetter the development of productive forces and clear the arena of class struggle, making the battle between capital and labour more direct, more intense. Way back in 1952, the Kumarsha conference of the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha passed a categori­cal resolution saying “it is the aim of the Kisan Sabha to put an end to the sharecropping system and grant ownership right to the bargadar”. The 1973 CPI(M) resolution on Certain Agrarian Issues also held that the “right of the tenant to the ownership of the land he is cultivat­ing is to be guaranteed, except to those who are lease-holders from small owners.”

The party’s Bengal leadership, however, proved to be more pru­dent. Harekrishna Konar, renowned peasant leader and a minister in the UF government, announced that sharecropping could not be abol­ished by law so long as the “present social structure” existed. Benoy Chowdhury, a minister in the LFG, wrote in 1985 that occupancy rights could be granted to the sharecroppers only after all the tenants were properly recorded; any attempt to do that now would lead to large-scale evictions. (Chowdhury, 1985)

The question of ownership was thus cleverly shelved, and the CPI(M)’s middle-rich support base kept intact. The direction of the government policy was then put on reverse gear : a quest began for a way in which the tiller of the soil could secure ownership not through movement but by paying, a compensation, i.e., a way in which he could just buy up the land he tills. The idea of a land bank corpora­tion was mooted, which would help such transactions with easy credit. Not surprisingly, the financial institutions did not oblige the state gov­ernment by supporting the scheme, and that was the end of it all. Meanwhile, the landowners themselves devised their own mechanism for civilized eviction — a rural equivalent of golden handshake, as a peasant leader called it — where a small part of the land (or, in a few areas, a paltry sum of money) is given to the sharecropper as a conso­lation for ‘voluntarily’ giving up all right to the land he tills. Al­though such deals are illegal, the CPI(M) was quick to take the cue. Just look at the following excerpts from a paper presented, at a state government-sponsored international seminar held in Kolkata in Janu­ary this year, by Suryakanta Mishra, a front-ranking minister and a new member of the CPI(M) Central Committee, and Vikas Rawal, an expert on agrarian economy in West Bengal:

“On the future of sharecropping in West Bengal:

“IN THE recent years, there is a trend of the landowner and share­cropper entering into a mutual agreement under which ownership right on, say, 25 to 30% of the sharecropped land is given to the sharecrop­per. Peasant organizations have been debating whether this should be accepted ... So far, the stand of Kisan Sabha has been not to enter into or encourage such negotiations because [in that case] all the share­croppers will ultimately get evicted. But with this increased urbani­zation, the cost of land in the vicinity of the urban areas and even in non-municipal urban agglomerations has been increasing very much. So if even the cost of, say, 10-20% of land is given to the sharecrop­per, he will get more return from the interest of the amount than from cultivating the land. It is clear that the non-involvement of the peas­ant organizations weakens the bargaining power of the sharecroppers in this respect.

“In the past there had been demands for making sharecroppers owners of the entire land. It does not seem likely that the existing correlation of class forces will permit that because a good number of landowners who leased out are not [sic! this word seems to be an inadvertent interpolation - AS] small owners themselves. The immediately realizable goal in respect of sharecropping is to allow a fair agreement for dividing the ownership rights between the owner and the sharecropper ... The government has been considering about bring­ing a legislation on this ...

“It is also debatable as to how much share in land should the sharecropper get. The peasant organizations have been demanding that the legislation should provide for fifty-fifty division between the sharecropper and the landlord. While this will be possible in rural areas, it might be untenable for the urban areas.

“... The Kisan Sabha is more or less united to take the line that until the legislative change in this respect is brought about, the Kisan Sabha should take the side of the sharecroppers in entering into such negotiations and help the sharecropper get a fair share in the owner­ship of land.”

So, this is the much-awaited follow-up to OB! The authors admit that in the peasant organizations, including their own, there is much resistance to the proposed legislation. They intervene in the debate on the side of the landlords, asking the peasant organizations to forget the old demand and take up the role of a dalal or intermediary in land deals (whether with a brokerage or not is anybody’s guess). They warn the peasant organizations not even to press for “a fifty-fifty division” in all cases. Making a mockery of Marxism, they reduce a question of principle – of abolition of semi-feudal land relations in favour of the peasants, of the tiller’s right to land — to the logic of the market. Leave farming, forsake your recorded right — they advise the gullible bhagchasi - for you can earn more just from interest income even if you get 10 to 20 per cent of the real worth of the land!

Is this a Marxist leader speaking, or a ‘benevolent’ dealer in real estates?

Mishra and Rawal, however, raise one valid question: does “the existing correlation of class forces ... permit” the transfer of owner­ship of “the entire land” to the sharecropper?

The percentage of tenanted land in total cultivated area in West Bengal declined drastically from 18.70 in 1972 to 12.84 in 1982, at least partly in response to OB, and then marginally to 12 in 1992 (NSS data, various rounds). But land lease operations still remain an important mode of surplus appropriation, with a large section of big landowners leasing out large chunks of their landholdings, usually to poorer categories. Thus in the 1992 rabi season, households owning 5 to 10 acres of land operated only 16.43% of total cropped area in the state, although they owned 22.98 per cent. In the case of house­holds in the above 10-acre category, the corresponding figures are 4.38 per cent and 7.62 per cent respectively. This means that, leaving out intra-size-category contracts, approximately 30 per cent of the area owned was leased out in the former (5-10 acres) category and 43 per cent in the latter (above 10 acres) category. (Basu, 2001).

After large landowners, small and medium absentee landowners together with rural people engaged in service, trade, independent pro­fessions etc. constitute another big chunk of lessors. From his field survey in 12 villages in four blocks of Medinipur district, SK Bhowmik found that lessors whose primary occupation was non-agricultural, comprised 43.92 per cent and 58.60 per cent in advanced and back­ward regions respectively. (Bhowmik, 1994)

As regards lessees, most of them are poor and marginal. Accord­ing to estimates of the statistical cell of the Board of Revenue, Gov­ernment of West Bengal, the average size of landholdings under tenurial contracts is 0.97 acre. (Khasnabis, 1994) The actual condition of the sharecropper is portrayed fairly accurately in a grassroots report, adopted at the Bainchi-Tinna local conference (Hooghly district) of the CPI(M), December 2001:

“... Recording of bargadars did take place on an extensive scale after the LFG came to power. But subsequently many of them took recourse to distress sale, even of recorded land ... Sharecropping is no longer remunerative. Increased cost of cultivation and non-remunera­tive prices of the produce are pushing the bargadar into a tight corner. As a result, the inclination towards giving up barga rights is increasing ...”

Well, would not many of these sharecroppers find some respite, may be, a way out of the extreme crisis, if they are allowed to keep the entire produce, that is to say, if they are granted ownership rights?

The overall picture on both sides of tenancy relations thus leaves us in no doubt that there is a strong case for granting ownership rights to the overwhelming majority of bargadars (estimated at a total of around 25 lakhs), may be with some compensation in some cases. For instance, a lessor who depends solely on rent for subsistence – e.g., aged/disabled persons, single mothers/widows and so on – may be provided with appropriate compensation or some other special arrangement. On the other hand, cases of reverse tenancy (more about that later on) are obviously to be exempted (hence our slogan: owner­ship to the small bargadars). Some other special cases will also be there, for the current class configuration in rural Bengal does not warrant a simplistic implementation of the “land to the tiller” slogan.

These are but questions of detail, which can and must be sorted out through democratic consultations among peasant organizations and concerned intellectuals, once the basic principle of tiller’s right to land is firmly upheld. But the CPI(M)’s perpetual fear of losing the support of the so-called “middles” kept the whole issue in limbo for some 35 years since 1967, and now with the proposed legislation, the half-measure codenamed OB is all set to be given a formal — and not so decent – burial. Pending that, the party’s 20th state conference has endorsed the Mishra-Rawal position, quoted above, on what we have called civilised eviction, and has taken the side of landowners — in­cluding absentee landowners — to launch a scathing attack on tenants. (see box) Readers would get an idea of what the party means by “multidimensional” peasant movement when they see that fighting against “opportunism” of sharecroppers is now regarded as a “key task” of this movement.


“... some sharecroppers tend to confuse their cultivation rights with ownership rights and thus they refuse to hand over the due share of crops to the owners. This is an opportunist tendency, which is harmful for the peasant movement and detrimental to the cause of broad peasant unity. Fighting out this opportunism is a key task of the movement. This tendency is witnessed particularly in those areas where the landowners do not reside in the concerned villages and activists of the peasant movement remain oblivious of their respon­sibilities in this regard. We must wage a sustained struggle against this trend. ...

From Documents-of the 20th State Conference of the West Bengal unit of the CPI (M).

C. Panchayati Raj :

PROBABLY THE most acclaimed part of the LFG reform pack­age is the party-based panchayati raj (PR). In terms of its pioneering role, stability and regular elections, the Bengal model no doubt ranks first in the country. Now let us briefly take stock of the progress it has achieved so far in two key areas : (a) poverty alleviation (under the combined impact of PR and “land reforms”) and (b) devolution of administrative authority, and empowerment of the weaker sections of society.

A stubborn statistical duel has been going on for quite some time now in respect to agricultural growth rates and poverty levels in West Bengal vis-a-vis other states in India. It is not possible here to go into details and conclude the debate but we should at least set the record straight.

First, it is to be noted that a serious problem was involved in the changes in methodology for collection and preparation of crop output data. Until the 1980s the Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics (BAES) conducted independent sample surveys for acreage estima­tion and crop cuts for yield estimation. The subjective estimates of the Directorate of Agriculture, the state agency charged with imple­menting policies to boost agricultural production, could be checked against the BAES figures, and the BAES data were generally used as the basis of official state government estimates. In the early 1980s the DoA unilaterally began to ‘adjust’ some BAES estimates. In the mid-1980s the integrity of the data was further compromised as BAES sample surveys for acreage estimation were abandoned altogether, and official yield figures were converted to a simple average of the often quite divergent BAES and DoA estimates. Such flaws in meth­ods naturally cast doubts on the official estimates and inferences. (Rogaly et al, 1999).

Secondly, even if the production figures supplied by the state goveminent are taken to be fully reliable, much depends on the choice of the base year. A growth rate of 6.9% per annum in foodgrains can be, indeed has been, reported between 1981-82 and 1991-92. Now, in 1981-82 as well as in 1982-83, the harvests were unusually low. If 1983-84 is chosen as the base year, the same data would show an annual growth rate of 4.3% per annum up to 1991-92. (Sengupta and Gazdar, 1997).

Thirdly, agricultural growth in West Bengal is not as unique as it is sometimes made out to be: ‘it forms part of a general turnaround in eastern India — notably in West Bengal, Bihar and Orissa — in the 1980s. The belated spread of green revolution to rice-growing areas seems to be the main proximate cause of this general upturn. After 1991-92, however, there has been a plateauing of foodgrains produc­tion in West Bengal in the 1990s : coming down from 12.7 million tonnes next year, rising slightly to 12.9 and 13.1 million tonnes in 1993-94 and 1994-95 respectively. (Rogaly et al, 1999) The latest state government policy paper (see section III for details) conceded that the growth rate of production and productivity of foodgrains “has either remained stagnant or tended to decelerate during the last one decade”, foodgrains production in 1999-2000 being in the order of 148.46 tonnes against an estimated requirement of 155.76 tonnes.


“... Suryakanta Mishra and Vikas Rawal have mentioned in a re­cent article that agricultural wages as well as the days of employ­ment available to rural labourers tended to stagnate in the 1990s, with a decline in real wages after the mid-90s. Many factors are likely to have contributed to this ... (e.g.,) that agricultural growth in this decade was low, resulting in increasing pressure on the peasantry against the growth of wages. (Mishra and Rawal, Agrarian Relations in Contemporary West Bengal and Tasks for the Left; Agrarian Studies, 2002)”

Anil Biswas in People’s Democracy, June 9, 2002.

Table 3

Table 4 : Daily per Capita Net Foodgrains Production (gram)

1951 : West Bengal = 381; India = 334; Difference = + 47 // 1956 : West Bengal = 353; India = 423; Difference = - 70

1961 : West Bengal = 407; India = 451; Difference = - 44 // 1966 : West Bengal = 332; India = 355; Difference = - 23

1971 : West Bengal = 406; India = 480; Difference = - 74 // 1976 : West Bengal = 419; India = 479; Difference = - 60

1981 : West Bengal = 364; India = 462; Difference = - 98 // 1986 : West Bengal = 359; India = 484; Difference = 125

1991 : West Bengal = 397; India = 509; Difference = - 112 // 1996 : West Bengal = 418; India = 468; Difference = - 50

2000 : West Bengal = 451; India = 501; Difference = - 50

Source : Ajit Narayan Basu; Aneek, Special West Bengal number, 2001

Another cause of concern, as the Mishra-Rawal paper cited above points out, is an “increasing... shift from production of foodgrains to other crops” and to plantations, fisheries etc., which “can threaten food security for the poor households”. The paper admits that the LFG is yet to come up with any action plan on this score. Having said all this, one must accept that agricultural growth in West Bengal un­der the LFG has been impressive. The point is, has that, coupled with other measures including “land reforms”, translated into any drastic reduction in rural poverty? The government says yes and cites in support figures from the World Bank Report (2000), which are in turn contested by others. The controversy took an unexpected twist in mid-March this year, when it came to be known that the Asian Devel­opment Bank (ADB) has offered to finance and coordinate a fresh, detailed “participatory poverty assessment” project in West Bengal because the state, along with a few others, stands below the national average in terms of poverty ratio. The ADB is currently the LFG’s closest partner in development projects, and the government is fa­vourably considering the proposal. In the mean time, let us cast a quick glance over a few recent estimates of rural poverty in West Bengal compared to other states and the national average.

Fig 1 & 2Figures 1 and 2 show that rural mean per capita consumption as well as the head count ratio of rural poverty rose and fell in West Bengal more or less in tandem with the rest of the country, showing hardly any sustained special achievement. We have reproduced these figures from Haris Gazdar and Sunil Sengupta (Ben Rogaly et al, 1999). Basing himself on the 50th Round (July 1993 to June 1994) of NSS data, Ranjan Ray made very detailed estimates of rural and urban poverty. In Table 3 we present some of his findings, which show that in terms of all the available indices of rural poverty, West Bengal stood below the national average and fared better than very few states. (Ray, 2000) On the other hand, the LFG's performance in providing subsidised foodgrains to the rural poor is admitted to have been worse than that of state governments run by reactionary parties, such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu And from Table 4, prepared on the basis of yearly economic reviews of the WB and Indian governments and Census Reports, we find that the daily per capita foodgrains production in West Bengal continues to fall short of the national average; in fact the negative difference rose considerably during much of the LF period.

Coming to the question of devolution of power, recent studies — including one by the West Bengal government itself — have found that the onetime frontrunner now lags behind some other states. Early this year, Maitreesh Ghatak and Maitreya Ghatak, after taking note of the “admire[able] ... achievements of West Bengal as-a pioneering model of participatory government,” pointed out: “A recent inter-state study by Jain (1999) covering all the major states put West Bengal not only behind Kerala but Madhya Pradesh and Kamataka on indicators such as the power to prepare local plans, transfer of staff, control over staff, transfer of funds ... Furthermore, a committee set up by the West Bengal government itself has criticised the district level planning proc­ess involving the panchayat system and state bureaucracy for lack of coordination and insufficient participation of the people, or their elected representatives, at the village level. ... The state government bureauc­racy hands out district plans to district officials and lower tiers of panchayats have no say in the allocation of these funds or the implementation of these projects, unless they are requested to lend a help­ing hand. The amount of money spent through this channel is much more than that is directly handled by panchayats. Also, there is little attempt at coordinating between these two sets of plans at the district level [Government of West Bengal, p.6],” (Ghatak and Ghatak, 2002)

Why did the LF in West Bengal lag so much behind the LDF in Kerala? The authors have come up with several explanations. One is that the intense political competition the LDF faces vis-a-vis Congress compelled it to score political points over the rivals by launching the ambitious People’s Plan campaign just after regaining power in the 1996 elections. More generally, “... redistributing power and resources away from the state government, where the hold of the LDF is uncer­tain, to the local government can be viewed as a rational political move. In West Bengal, given the LF's secure tenure at the state government level, the need for such radical reform is much less.” (ibid)

This otherwise valid observation misses out on one important point, in the last few rounds of parliamentary and assembly elections the LF suffered serious jolts in the rural areas too, and that might have pro­vided the compulsion which prompted it to introduce and emphasise mandatory village constituency (gram sansad) meetings, in this meet­ing every villager is entitled, and expected, to participate and monitor the various projects from planning to execution to review stages. But this lofty idea of participatory decentralisation has to operate in a context of growing nexus between the CPI(M) and deep-rooted vested interests, a nexus that is getting strengthened in course of the CPI(M)’s prolonged stay in power.

In fact, this was experienced as early as in 1986, when an ambi­tious pilot project for ensuring people’s participation in developmen­tal planning at the village level was taken up in Medinipur by the district authorities in collaboration with IIT, Kharaghpur. According to those associated with the project, it fizzled out because, “firstly, the elected panchayat representatives felt threatened that their newly acquired status would be eroded by direct empowerment of the peo­ple and their involvement in the planning process. Secondly, a large part of the panchayat members as well as leaders and functionaries of political parties were employers of wage labour and they felt threat­ened by the prospect of the empowerment of the working people.”

The same set of circumstances have put paid to the subsequent gram sansad facelift too. In the bourgeois administrative framework of decentralisation and devolution, the problem is best summed up in the following words, “... the early success of the panchayat reforms in West Bengal has generated some political forces that stand in the way of further, more radical, reform ... A coalition of white-collar em­ployees (School teachers, government employees) and middle peas­ants, the so-called rural middle strata, have emerged as an important power base in the party and resist further devolution of power that a true people’s plan would entail.”

The masses of the downtrodden, however, are wise enough to un­derstand that any measure of democratisation can only be achieved in course of struggles against organs of power, not excluding the panchayats. They are engaged in continuous skirmishes with the panchayat representatives of rich and upwardly mobile middle peas­ants, who rule rural Bengal in league with the police and the state bureaucracy, over a host of issues including land and wages, relief and development, favouritism and corruption, and so on. From avowed centres of mass mobilisation, PR institutions have decomposed, over the years, mainly into targets of mass movements. The battle for peo­ple’s supervision on panchayat bodies and for greater devolution of power to the gram panchayats from the upper tiers and from the state bureaucracy has to be intensified simultaneously, both from within and without the panchayati raj institutions.

D. Potholes on the Reform Road

LET US hear, once again, from Suryakanta Mishra and Prakash Rawal: “As the land reforms could not be combined with a large-scale provision of formal credit and non-land inputs, the small and marginal fanners who had obtained land under the programme were again exposed to the sections of rural society that controls other forms of capital ... Although the old types of moneylending have declined ... their place has been taken up by new types of moneylend­ers. It is basically a pre-capitalist relation, though of a new type.

“... pre-capitalist relations continue to persist in the agrarian rela­tions and production processes in various forms. Sharecropping is widely prevalent ... informal moneylending is rampant.

“... There was a transformation from semi-feudal landlords in the direction of capitalist landowners ... most typically they are neither feudal nor capitalist... While the land base of this class has weak­ened, it is difficult to say what has happened to the overall levels of economic disparities, say in terms of their share in ... value of all as­sets and capital, and in value of production. It is likely that the overall levels of disparity have not declined very much ...”

Now, have a glimpse of what the party’s lower-level cadres feel about the burning problems: "The cost of cultivation has risen sev­eral times, so marginal and small farmers are being forced to take loans from mahajans (moneylenders) or, alternatively, to lease out their lands to rich farmers on seasonal basis. Distress sale of land is also witnessed. Capitalist concentration of land is taking place.” (from the Report adopted at the CPI(M)’s Sixth Pandua Zonal Conference, Hooghly District, December 2001)

Well, such observations in the ruling party’s official papers and documents reveal no more than the tip of the iceberg. We shall dis­cuss these issues in the light of our own experience and investigation, but before that a few words on one major gap left untouched by the reforms.

Lack of what Mishra and Rawal call “adequate state intervention in agricultural marketing” is a problem the ruling CPI(M) complains about all the time, but does nothing to solve (to whatever extent pos­sible for a state government). To insistent demands of state procure­ment of at least the major crops and of crop insurance and subsidised inputs, the state government continues to turn a deaf ear, proving thereby its utter incapacity to support the farming community in this era of liberalisation and globalisation. As we write these lines, paddy is selling at Rs. 320-350 per quintal throughout the state – which is well below the cost of production – as against the minimum price of Rs. 530 recommended by the state government. The grossly non-re­munerative prices for the second year in a row — and that in a situa­tion of declining on stagnanting production — clearly indicate underconsumption resulting from declining purchasing power of the masses. The Chief Minister, of course, lacks the courage to admit this and tries to explain away the whole thing as a result of overpro­duction, reduction in smuggling to Bangladesh, and so on.

To return to our discussion of the LF reform regime, it has left unscathed the old agrarian marketing chains and practices, where traders and warehouse-owners routinely discriminate against small producers. The latter was promised help by the cooperative ‘move­ment’, but that was as much a non-starter in this sector as in others. On the contrary, a proliferation of trading intermediaries has taken place under — and in no way challenging — the old monopolistic con­trol over local wholesale trade. The nexus between the regulatory state authorities and the “urban” commercial elite, which had devel­oped during the Congress regime has only been strengthened. For details on the buckling of the LFG to trading interests, readers may consult Ross Mallik (1993), and a paper by Barbara Harriss-White in Ben Rogaly et al (1999).