IN SECTION I we have considered the consequences of agrarian reform (and the lack of it). But these do not fully describe the goings on in rural Bengal. Closely related but basically autonomous trends in political economy also contribute, in more fundamental ways, to the reshaping of class relations and contours of class struggle. In this section we propose to consider some of these broad, largely pan-In­dian, trends in the typical context of Left-ruled Bengal.

A. Merchants Capital: Spreading Tentacles

TO BE fair to the LFG, it did try to extend institutional credit cover to the rural poor when it first came to power. But the success was limited and short-lived. In 1979-80, about 6% of a total of 22 lakh bargadars and pattadars received bank loans (Ghosh, 1981). Even this could not be maintained because the cooperative credit struc­ture soon fell into a state of limbo, thanks to corruption and misman­agement, while commercial banks stopped whatever meagre advances they had extended to the poor peasants once the latter became defaulters. The 1980s saw the moneylenders on a comeback trail, and the situation steadily worsened ever since.

According to the latest round of rural investigationThe survey area covered 4,464 families spread over 7 districts — Nadia, Bardhaman, North 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Murshidabad, Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri — with the first two accounting for the majority of villages and families. conducted by the CPI(ML)’s West Bengal State Committee, mahajani loans (loans taken from village moneylenders) constituted 28.51% of the total rural credit while credit from cooperative societies accounted for only 7.06%. The rest 64.43% were provided by commercial banks, but as much as 62.19% of this loan was cornered by the above-3 bigha house­holds which constitute only about 28% of rural households. The below-3 bigha households, i.e., 72 per cent, had to be content with less than 38% of bank credit. This group, however, took more than 56% of mahajani loans. Generally speaking, the trend is for the poorer families to depend perforce on such loans, often used up on mere subsistence or exigencies like marriage, shradhha (last rites) etc. The more interesting finding is that a large number of middle peasants take recourse to mahajani loans because what they get from the for­mal credit market does not suffice for modern cultivation. Thus we see that families owning 7 to 10 bighas of land constitute only 5.22% of total households in the survey area, but they take 16.5% of mahajani, 15.76% of cooperative and 10.87% of bank loans. Usuri­ous capital thus remains the main source of credit not only for the poor but for the lower-middle peasants too. The picture changes rap­idly as one moves up the size-class scale. In our survey area, there are 39 households (1.43% of the total) in the 20 to 30 bigha category. Of these, only 2 families took loans from moneylenders amounting to Rs.52,000 (1.59% of all credit from this source), 3 took loans from cooperative bodies (Rs. 1,32,000 or 16.32% of the total) and 11 fami­lies borrowed from banks (Rs.9,27,000 or 12.57% of all bank credit). 

The operation of usurious and mercantile capital takes very many forms. The age-old system of dadan (taking a loan by mortgaging the crop to be grown) is a growing phenomenon in many areas, particu­larly in the case of vegetables and commercial crops, which need high investment. The harvest is tied, and the price pre-fixed by the creditor (often a trader) is well below the expected market price, this differ­ence implying interest at an exorbitant rate. The most widespread practice these days is for the trader in fertilisers, pesticides etc. to sell these on credit and charge, say, 20% extra over the normal price when repayment is made after harvesting, usually in cash but sometimes in crop. The imputed rate of interest in these cases ranges from 6 to 10 per cent per month, more or less comparable to money advances re­payable after harvesting. Such exorbitant rates are sought to be justi­fied on the ground of high risks involved: no legal document, no col­lateral in real life, however, default rate is very low because the lend­ers wield direct social power over the poor borrowers; moreover, the latter sincerely try their level best not to lose this very last resort.

The current trend of decline in interest rates in the organised credit market does not seem to have any bearing on the informal rural credit market because the latter operates in virtual isolation from the former – in areas where formal credit institutions do not tread. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, panchayat employees and other salaried people also play a not very insignificant role in this market. Recycling of loans — borrowing in the formal market and lending in the informal — is often resorted to by propertied people having “proper connections”.

The small and middle peasants’ dependence on merchant capital extends further to marketing and warehousing, and takes many forms. To cite one, buyers and sellers meet and transact at the aratdar’s (stockist) shop, using his weighing balance, and the latter charges around 7% (on the sale proceeds) for this small service; in some cases he also helps the prospective buyer and seller to come into contact with each other. The loss a small cultivator incurs on distress sale, the ‘extra’ which the small producer of, say, potato, has to pay for a space in the cold storage – these are only some of the more common means by which merchant’s capital sucks out a good part of the pro­ducer’s surplus, and in many cases even of the necessary product.

The renewed and extended domination of merchant’s capital is an unmistakable feature of semi-feudalism — of retarded transition from feudal to capitalist mode of production, that is — and the West Bengal experience is a striking illustration of the “law that the independent development of merchant's capital is inversely proportional to the degree of development of capitalist production”. (Capital, Vol. III, Chapter 20, also see box).

In other words, the crisis of capitalist transition and the domination of merchant capital, in West Bengal and in our country as a whole, are two sides of the same coin. There are many ways in which dominant merchant’s capital “tends ... to preserve” the elements of semi-feudalism. Probably the most important one in the case of West Bengal is that by financing the peasant small holding and small tenancy structure it enables the latter to survive and reproduce itself in the face of unequal competition from developed rich peasant farming and the pressures of market forces. Of course, it is a losing battle but the small cultivator carries on, and the price he pays for unviable farming is perpetual anxiety and a life standard often going below that of the rural proletariat. The last sentence in the quotation from Capital in the box — where “old mode” should be taken to mean, in our case, not feudalism proper but semi-feudalism in a semi-colonial setting – thus portrays an accurate picture of our poor bargadars and small owner-cultivators.

“The transition from the feudal mode of production is two-fold. The producer-becomes merchant and capitalist, in contrast to the natural agricultural economy ... This is the really revolutionary path. Or else, the merchant establishes direct sway over production. How­ever much this serves historically as a stepping stone ... it cannot by itself contribute to the overthrow of the old mode of production, but tends rather to preserve and retain it as its precondition...This system.. .worsens the conditions of the direct producers, turns them into mere wage workers and proletarians under conditions worse than those under the immediate control of capital, and appropri­ates their surplus-labour on the basis of the old mode of production.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, Chapter 20.

B. Capitalist Trends in Tenancy

FLABBY AND conservative that it is, capital in India penetrates agriculture not in steady steps sweeping away the remnants of feu­dalism, but in hesitant detours accommodating and utilising those remnants. One of the many symptoms of this is that traditional bhagchas (sharecropping) is being replaced not so much by direct cultivation by capitalist landowners as by small-scale thika chas (lease cultivation). The latter refers to fixed rent (to be paid in cash or in crop) seasonal tenancy, i.e., a lease contract for one season or year which may or may not be renewed for the next season(s). The advantages to the landowner are obvious: he gets an assured, no-risk return without any monetary investment; he keeps the lessee under constant economic pressure without any personal interven­tion because he is free to change the lessee at will; there is no threat of “barga record” and he is even free to take up direct cultivation as and when that appears to be lucrative enough, and also to revert to lease contracts later on. Not surprisingly, the incidence of lease cul­tivation is the highest in Punjab and Haryana (accounting for 85% of all tenancy contracts while for India as a whole 47% of tenancy contracts are for fixed money (29%) or fixed produce (18%), whereas only 40% account for the traditional produce sharing. (Sarvekshana, October-December 1995).

For the West Bengal situation we can depend on our own investi­gation. According to a survey conducted by the Kolkata chapter of Indian Institute of Marxist StudiesThe survey was conducted in 1998-99 in seven villages (mouzas) spread over all the five agro-climatic zones of West Bengal. It was our privilege that we had with us unprocessed data from a similar survey – based on the ‘same questionnaire and methodology (the census system) – conducted in these and other villages in 1978 by a group of left intellectuals – it was thus possible to compare the two sets of data., the area under tenancy (all types taken together) increased from 350.16 acres to 401.60 acres in the survey area. Within this the proportion of sharecropping declined from 86.70 per cent to 44.54%, that under fixed rent system (thika) rose from 4.96% to 47.08%, and the 'mixed' cases remained almost con­stant at a little more than 8%. The switchover to the fixed rent system is quite rapid (in tune with the national average) but the rate is far behind that observed in Punjab and Haryana.

Another new trend is reverse tenancy — substantive farmers leas­ing in land usually on seasonal or yearly contract. It emerged as a notable trend in the 1980s and 1990s when many poor and lower middle peasants found the enhanced cost of modern farming prohibi­tive, even as families with investible surplus found the high profits lucrative and began to expand their operational holdings. There is wide divergence of opinion as to how strong this trend is in West Bengal. In 1993, Ross Mallick noted that the incidence was quite high. SK Bhowmik in his 1993 work took note of the presence of reverse tenancy, “though not as intensively as in some green revolu­tion areas.” In his 1994 article Ratan Khasnabis observed that “such peasants [indulging in reverse tenancy – AS] are very small in per­centage terms”. In any case, the actual incidence of reverse tenancy varies greatly not only from area to area but also from season to season and year to year because rich peasants take to or give up this practice in accordance with the rise and fall in profit expectations.

In sharp contrast with such profit-oriented tenancy stands the sub­sistence tenancy of the poor bhagchasi whose net share of the pro­duce (after deducting the expenses he incurs on cultivation) covers just what is needed for subsistence. So what he gets amounts, in terms of economic content, to a form — a semi-feudal form, one might say — of wage, i.e. the value of labour power. Such tenants or agrarian workers in disguise also come out as day-labourers in farm or off-farm employment; in the true nature of things they personify and rep­resent a process of painful metamorphosis of landless/poor peasant into the rural proletariat/semi-proletariat as a consequence of retarded and tortuous transition to capitalism.

We do not go into further details on tenancy relations in West Bengal; vast literature is available on the subject (see, in particular, Comrade B Sivaraman’s two-part review article on Bhowmik’s ex­haustive work (1993) in Liberation (September and October 1996 issues). Our brief discussion, it is hoped, has brought into focus considerable materials relating to what Lenin had described as “the formation of capitalist relations within this very [accompanied by “feudal features” – AS] renting of land”. (Lenin, 1908; emphasis in the original)

C. Modes of Surplus Appropriation, Accumulation and Domination

IMPORTANT CHANGES in conditions of cultivation (e.g., the spread of bodo paddy cultivation, multi-cropping, the shift from mainly rain-fed to mainly irrigation-dependent farming in many areas) and a certain degree of development of productive forces (in inputs like HYV seeds, machinery, techniques and skills) over the past two decades have led to appreciable changes in inter-class and intra-class relations in our agrarian society. Take the case of new methods of irrigation.

The introduction of the green revolution package in West Bengal demanded, and soon led to, an irrigation boom in the 1980s. In addi­tion to traditional sources like tanks, rivers and canals, “shallow” tubewells (those fitted with diesel, and rarely electrical, pumpsets) became very popular and proved very effective. Since the late 1980s, however, falling water tables led, in many cases, to the introduction of mini Submersible Tubewells (MSTW). The MSTWs can access more secure water sources (more than 15 meters below ground, com­pared to 8 to 10 meters in the case of shallow tubewells) and this eliminates or reduces the risks of the tubewells running dry during the peak seasons. Moreover, they have a command area several times bigger than the “shallows”. But the high cost, and the reluctance of the bankers to grant loans under the “minor irrigation development programme” except to those whom they consider creditworthy, place these machines beyond the reach of even the upper middle peasants. In areas where other means of irrigation are unavailable, a monopoly over water supply is created, and the MSTW owner uses that in ei­ther of two ways: selling water at an exorbitant rate to other cultiva­tors in the command area, thereby extending a hegemonic influence over them; or offering to take others’ plots in the command area un­der thika lease, thereby expanding his operational holdings and prof­its. Either way, he stands to gain and dominates the scene.

But the implications of this, still continuing, shift of emphasis to “submersibles” or “mini deep(s)” as they are popularly called, do not end here. Diesel-powered pumpsets are not only far cheaper but much more portable and versatile: they .can be easily carried and used for irrigation from rivers, canals, tanks and also fitted to tubewells. For middle and rich peasants with scattered holdings these have been a great help. The, MSTW, a far more fixed arrangement with a fixed structure and command area, enhances the urge for consolidation of holdings and concentration of land (cf the mention of “distress sale” and “capitalist concentration of land” in Hooghly district, which boasts a large concentration of MSTWs, in the Pandua Zonal Conference Report of the CPI(M)).

At another level, the rapid depletion of ground water caused by them is believed to lead to arsenic poisoning (over 2 lakh people in 7 districts in the state are reportedly affected by arsenic-induced ail­ments), and also threatens the availability of groundwater in the fu­ture. The problem peaked in the mid-1990s when the experts blamed the excessive withdrawal of groundwater also for shortage in the state’s main canal-feeding reservoirs (The Statesman, 11 December, 1995). There was even talk of purchasing water from Bihar. The 1997 bodo paddy faced deep crisis in districts like Murshidabad, Birbhum, Howrah and Hooghly. All this forced the state government to monitor and restrict the installation of new MSTWs, thereby preserving and strengthening the water monopoly of existing owners. The latter freely exploit their grip over this absolutely unsubstitutable input to behave like “waterlords” and charge an absolute rent, so to say, on dependent cultivators. Community MSTWs do supply water at a much cheaper rate, but they are grossly inadequate to meet the rising demand, and the LFG seems to be in no mood to ensure collective water rights to the weaker or less well-to-do sections of the peasantry.

Like sale of water, hiring out of tractors and other implements like diesel pumpsets has also emerged as major means of extending he­gemony and appropriating surplus. In many cases, ploughing by tractor becomes even technically necessary and a smallholder has to depend on the goodwill of a big cultivator of an adjacent holding to get his tiny plot ploughed by tractor simultaneously with the bigger holding. He makes a good payment for this service, of course; still he feels obliged because refusal by the owner/hirer of the tractor would put him in a fix. New ties of dependence thus, grow up – new forms of what used to be called patron-client relationship. The monetary gain is also great: many a capitalist farmer is known to have bought a second tractor with the profit made simply by hiring out the first. In fact, reinvestment of surplus in modern implements (and in trade) is generally believed to be free from the hassles associated with very big landholdings and to yield safer, higher returns at least in the short run. This is the main factor (not the ceiling law), which explains why the degree of concentration of modem agricultural machinery is much higher than that of land — a fact brilliantly brought out in the Party state committee’s rural investigation report.

In this survey we found that households owning more than 15 bighas (approximately 5 acres) of land constitute 4.57% of rural house­holds but own 34.91% of all arable land, 71.53% of tractors and 84.5% of "pump-shallows". If we calculate the coefficient of concen­tration (percentage of any particular item — say, land — owned by a particular size-class divided by percentage of households in that size-class) for each item, we find that it is 7.66 for land (34.91 divided by 4.57), 15.65 for tractors and still higher at 18.50 for pump-shallows. But this does not mean that the top rungs of rural society are loosen­ing their grip on land; the very opposite is true. On the basis of NSS data, Dipankar Basu calculated that the value of the coefficient of land concentration in the 5 acre-plus category has increased from 4.81 in 1972 to 5.94 in 1982 to 7.19 in 1992 (Basu, 2001). These findings tally perfectly with ours. It appears that the rising trend has continued, reaching 7.66 in 2001.

We can therefore infer that during the LF rule the upper middle and rich peasants have, thanks to their incomparably better access to capital-intensive technology, actually consolidated their relatively small (compared to the past and to certain other states) advantage in land-holding. They have also diversified into sundry agro-related businesses like mini rice mills, fertiliser and pesticide retailing, petty money-lending, and so on; but land still remains the base of their socio-economic prosperity and influence.

It is the top rung of these prosperous and well-to-do farmers that constitute the West Bengal version of kulak class, the principal target of class struggle today. They often appoint managers to supervise their sprawling operations, send their sons (rarely, daughters too) for higher education in metropolitan centres and maintain close relations with dominant political parties. They wield the maximum social au­thority and control political power at local levels, providing the funds and materials (rice, liquor etc.) needed for mobilising votes. They have no qualms about changing sides and such shifts in their support played not a small part in the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-BJP chal­lenge even to the rural bastion of LF. It is they who take the lead in uniting the rich and middle peasants against the rural poor (on wage questions, on developmental issues like priority in electrification, the location of, say, a community tubewell, and so on) as well as in tack­ling the movemental forces with the power of money and political connections. Unlike their counterparts in Bihar, they do not keep pri­vate armies, but, if need be, can get the same purpose served by the police and CPI(M) cadres or TMC/BJP/Congress musclemen. For a graphic illustration of the ways of this class vis-a-vis the rural proletariat, read the story of Dadpur, reported in sub-section E, below.

D. Subsistence Farming and Economic Diversification

THE AGRARIAN economy in West Bengal continues to be a small peasant economy, but one that draws support and substance from a spurt in multiple economic activities in the non-farming sec­tors. In fact, rural West Bengal at the turn of the century is marked by a queer coexistence of two opposite trends: (i) continued and renewed centrality of subsistence and supplementary farming and (ii) growing monetisation and diversification of the non-agricultural economy.

“About 72% of the producers in rural West Bengal”, Mishra and Rawal pointed out in their paper, “... produce primarily for their sub­sistence and not for the market.” In addition to this subsistence farm­ing by small cultivators, one also witnesses among wage workers the spread of what we have called supplementary farming. Considerable sections of wage earners in agricultural and/or other jobs try to make sure that at least part of the rice required for consumption is pro­duced on their own or leased-in land. According to the Rural Labour Enquiry, 1993-94, almost half of rural labour households in West Bengal possessed small amounts of land — as against less than 6% in Punjab, less than 15% in Haryana and less than 25% in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. (Let us note in passing that this indicates a particularly sluggish differentiation of the peasantry — which is a function of capitalist development — in West Bengal.) Such otherwise irrational and unviable farming can actually take place because the producer de­prives himself, and perhaps, his family members too, of the wages due to them. This is his survival strategy, particularly for the slack seasons when jobs are difficult to come by, and grain prices are par­ticularly high.

Side by side with subsistence and supplementary farming, we no­tice a growing diversification of the rural economy manifested in the proliferation of off-farm employment and sideline occupations. Accord­ing to preliminary reports of the latest (2001) Census, there is a large exodus of workforce from cultivation to “household industries,” small rural industries, salaried jobs, professions etc., so much so that for the first time in history, the proportion of main workers engaged in cultiva­tion (cultivators and labourers taken together) has come down to 43% !

Well, that does not contradict what we see in real life.

A big — in many cases the bigger – proportion of those known as khet majurs (agrarian labourers) actually get an equal or higher number of work days as dinmajurs (day labourers) in unspecified jobs — such as in brick kilns, rice mills, various development projects like Indira Awas Yojana, minor irrigation projects and so on. With extensive urbanisation and the development of roads, markets, warehouses etc., occupations like rickshaw and cart pulling, carrying headloads, working as cleaners and garage assistants, hawking, operating small shops and so on now offer temporary or fulltime employment to a large number of people, specially the new entrants into the labour market. As for sideline or auxiliary occupations, mention must be made of poultry, livestock breeding, fishing, cane work, processed food preparation, beedi making etc.. Participation of women has increased several fold in these areas, and to some extent in agriculture as well. Moreover, poor people have devised ingenious ways of augmenting family in­come. Many of them lease out ponds (the owner, to be paid a certain amount of money) take up Poshani (rearing cattle-say, a cow-owned by another person, on condition that the first calf will go to the care­taker, who can keep it or sell it while the owner gets the milk or vice versa; actually there can be innumerable variations like these) and engage in such activities on an increasing scale.

What is the economic significance of all this? An attempt is being made in some circles to project these, particularly the Census find­ings, as yet another great achievement — a sign of (capitalist) devel­opment spilling over from agriculture into other areas. Do the text­books not tell us that economic progress entails an expansion of the industrial and tertiary sectors vis-a-vis agriculture? Well, in view of the various indices discussed in this essay, such an inference would sound utterly ridiculous. Judged in that overall context, the trends mentioned in this sub-section only point to a rural economy where agriculture, stagnating in terms of forces and relations of production, can no longer function as the mainstay of capitalist growth, which therefore takes place by other distorted means.

E. Trends in labour relations

WEST BENGAL shares with most other states a number of recent trends in agrarian labour relations: (a) growing off-farm em­ployment, (b) a shift from a permanent/attached labour to casual la­bour and from (c) intra-village labour employment to conjoint em­ployment of local and migrant labour, (d) progress from beck-and- call service and extra-economic coercion to voluntary contractual ar­rangement including group contract and (e) a marked increase in in­dependent class action on the part of agrarian labourers coupled with more collective (rather than personal as in the past) oppression by the capitalist farmers. Let us now see how these general trends take on particular forms in West Bengal.

We have already taken note of (a) while discussing the growing diversification of the rural economy. As regards (b), the main aspect is the dissolution of old landlordism and, with it, the end of traditional labour service and debt bondage sometimes extending across genera­tions. But that does not mean a complete end to all sorts of informal, often disguised attachment relations along caste, familial and eco­nomic lines. The traditional mahindar (attached labourer on 24-hour duty on a nearly permanent basis) is a rare figure today, but often the old system is recreated on a yearly contract. The chosen labourers also double up as field supervisors.

Even in the case of free workers, big farmers often strike up some sort of special understanding with some of them involving some small favours in return for assured supply of labour during peak seasons. The rich peasants prefer to lease put their separate plots to more than one poor/lower middle/landless peasants for bodo cultivation, with an implicit understanding that the lessee(s) with his family members will provide wage labour to the lessor during aman or aus crop on priority basis Modem cultivation, with its stress on time manage­ment, is thus prompting landowners to recreate pre-modem depend­encies, often mutual, in numerous ways. Such attachment, though voluntary and less than permanent (usually covering one or a few years), hampers the development of class solidarity among the wage-workers. The tiny section involved in such special arrangement usu­ally hesitate to join strike struggles because they do not wish to spoil the source of assured employment in the expectation of a small and uncertain increase in wages.

Now let us consider the third point (c). If the vestiges or new forms of “patron-client relations” add to the difficulty of organising the agrarian workers in their militant class organisations, so do large-scale migrations. Workers come from most parts of the state as well as from the eastern and southern districts of Bihar, seeking employ­ment in the main double crop paddy- and potato-growing region com­prising Bardhman, Hooghly and a few other districts. The foremost source districts are Bankura, Birbhum, Malda, Murshidabad, Jalpaiguri, and the North and South Dinajpurs.

The potential as well as the actual use of migrant workers helps employers in destination areas to keep the wage level depressed. In the source areas, on the other hand, we find it difficult to build stable organisations of agrarian workers because its members are frequently in the roaming mode. Those who stay back in these areas sometimes find themselves in a potentially advantageous position; they can uti­lise the limited supply of labour to press for higher wages. But, more often than not, this is offset by other difficulties: demand (of labour) itself remains low and most advanced and youthful elements are not available in the village at the opportune moment since during every peak season they go out in search of work. The migrant workers on their part face all kinds of hardships, arbitrary dealings and awkward situations – e.g., when wily employers try and use them as blacklegs against striking local workers — but unorganised and away from their own soil, seldom can they put up an effective resistance.

As for point (d), all wage labour is by definition contractual, but at least a couple of new features merit our special attention. One, the labour haat. Workers and employers from nearby (and also rather dis­tant, but not very far) villages meet in an open field in the morning and the latter pick up the required number of labourers for the day. Only some – usually a minority – of the workers can sell themselves. Quite often a worker who leaves home at daybreak comes back at midday empty-handed (he has spent his pocket money on to-and-fro bus fare unless he is wealthy enough to own a bicycle) and with empty stomach, only to find his wife and children waiting in anxious expectation.

The labour haat is a crude, primitive form of capitalist labour market, brought into being by shortage of employment opportunities and developed communications. It differs from migration in that the latter takes the worker to a distant place for fortnights/months on end, whereas the labour haat entails daily commutation. In this market labour power is bought and sold, just like vegetables in the morning market, through hard, direct bargaining at a price approximating the ruling market rate. Almost always (except during short peak sea­sons) it is a buyers' market and the sellers, because they are not organised, gain but little from their enhanced mobility.

Secondly, phooran, or the system of hiring a group of local workers for a specific job (say, harvesting the crop on a particular field) against an agreed lumpsum payment, is growing more and more popular, par­ticularly for harvesting work. The workers strain themselves to the maximum, just as piece-rate workers in industries do, so that they can finish the job quickly and take up another shift (or two) the same day. For a few days their daily earning soars, while the employer gains by reaching the harvest to the market ahead of other farmers. But the process sidelines the famale and the middle-aged workforce, and quickly drains out the vital energies of the younger ones.

As for the last-named trend (e), the situation in West Bengal is definitely different from all other states. Here the CPI(M) deviated from its national policy by refusing to form a separate agricultural workers’ union, preferring to keep the “dangerous” class tied to the middle-rich peasant leadership of the kisan sabha. Independent class action of the rural proletariat and semi-proletariat is therefore possi­ble only by breaking the powerful political hegemony of the CPI(M) and fighting against the relief-reform-terror regime of the LFG. But that is the path they are taking — here and there, often unnoticed, slowly but surely. If the conscious trend-setter in the 1990s were our agrarian worker comrades in Karanda (Burdwan district), the latest example of this growing trend was witnessed in Hooghly district, not very far from Kolkata (see box).

Worried at such unruly activities on the part of khetmajurs, the state leadership of the main ruling party has come up with a two-pronged counter-strategy.

First, they have placed renewed emphasis on developing agrarian worker cadres who will safeguard the interests of employers (a la - Sirajuddin, dubbed “democratic forces” if not communists).


IN MANY ways it was Karanda re-enacted. Thatched houses of agrar­ian workers in the Keshabpur-Sompara-Ghoshpur cluster of hamlets under Dadpur Police Station of Hooghly district were burnt down on 14 February, two days after seven worker leaders had been arrested amidst severe police repression on the poor households. There was no loss of human life because male members had already been abscond­ing and others managed to make good their escape. Everything else, including paddy and cattle were destroyed.

The story began in November 2001 when the khet majurs demanded a wage increase of five rupees for ordinary labourers and Rs.20 for those involved in the particularly arduous work of carrying the produce from the fields to the granaries. The wealthy employers flatly rejected the just demand. The workers struck work. The paddy was ripe and began to rot. After a few days the employers had to bite dust and accept the demands. Seething with rage they decided to punish the workers, first by abandoning the impending potato cultivation and by using migrant workers for the next crop, i.e., bodo cultivation. The first part of the economic vendetta was successful, with the workers pushed into a state of semi-starvation. Then, in February, the employers .actually started hiring in workers from outside. The agitating labourers physically re­sisted and failed the scheme. The police was called in. Repression started on the 12th February, culminating in the midnight fire two days later.

Like Karanda (in Bardhman district), this area is located in one of the most advanced belts of “green revolution” in the state, and is a CPI(M) stronghold. Class polarisation is unusually sharp, but both sides owed allegiance to the ruling party. The arrested were CPI(M) members/activists, including the ex-panchayat representative and labour leader Sukumar Murmu; the burnt houses also belonged to party followers. Leading the employers was Mohammed Sirajuddin, a typical kulak leader of the CPI(M); influential member of its Polba-Dadpur Zonal Committee, a teacher and owner of 30 bighas of high quality, triple-cropped land with a MSTW. The big difference with Karanda was that there the khet majoor comrades had already crossed over from the CPI(M) to our Party. Their political activism had become a much greater threat. So the scale of repression was much higher. But in terms of independent (in the truest sense of this overused word) class asser­tion of the agrarian proletariat, the unsung heroes of Keshabpur-Sompara-Ghoshpur have held out a new promise, a great hope.

“The task of developing conscious cadres from among agrarian labourers is extremely important. One of our vital responsibilities is to see that unwarranted activities on the part of organised rural labourers do not alienate other sections of the rural democratic forces. Peasant front cadres from other family backgrounds find it rather difficult to carry out this task, -whereas the politically con­scious activists from khetmajur families do this with great effect. Our experiences in several districts have proved this.” (From 20th State Conference Documents).

The “experiences”, to be sure, include success stories as well as failures like Karanda and Dadpur.

Secondly, they have reiterated the need to keep the initiative in wage struggles firmly in the party's grip, so as to pre-empt class mili­tancy and to leave no scope for radical forces to 'foment trouble'. The 20th State Conference has sternly criticised the local leaders (most of whom are buyers of labour power) for their apathy and pretentious claims on this score:

“In spite of our consistent emphasis on this aspect, most of our district leaders are yet to realise the importance of this front. Instead of building up planned movements for wage increase, temporary mar­ket-induced increases in wages are .often sought to be projected as fruits of wage struggles ...” (emphasis added).

But in the context of the downward trend in crop prices, such struggles can only be conditional and restricted:

“... it is possible to assess the per capita surplus value generated by agricultural labourers by deducting the average input cost from the sale price of crops, and ... to decide on the fraction of that surplus value for which we can conduct wage struggles of agrarian labour­ers. ...”

So the quantum of the “fraction” remains to be decided by CP1(M) leaders who are admittedly averse to wage movements, and if the employers can show (as is their wont) that there is no surplus, the question of wage rise won’t arise at all-however badly the workers might need it! This is what the LF’s promise of “adequate living wage” for agrarian labourers (point 20 in the 36 point charter released in 1977) has boiled down to.