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Lost Opportunity in Bihar

Rural Bihar is being suffocated by the control exercised by the landed gentry who own a disproportionate share of cultivable land and yet have little interest in increasing agricultural production. Those who can and do - the marginal and small peasants - work the land as sharecroppers and have few rights to it. By rejecting the recommendations of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission, the State in Bihar has lost yet another opportunity to reorder production relations through legal means.

COMMENTARY

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Lost Opportunity in Bihar

D Bandyopadhyay

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the report to a deep freeze. The chief minister deserves compliments for showing courage to reject the report.

Certain figures regarding Bihar’s rural economy are heart-rending. The percent-

Rural Bihar is being suffocated by the control exercised by the landed gentry who own a disproportionate share of cultivable land and yet have little interest in increasing agricultural production. Those who can and do – the marginal and small peasants – work the land as sharecroppers and have few rights to it. By rejecting the recommendations of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission, the State in Bihar has lost yet another opportunity to reorder production relations through legal means.

D Bandyopadhyay (csdnd@del2.vsnl.net.in) is with the Council for Social Development, New Delhi.

T
he press has reported that in one of his recent Janata Durbars, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar d eclared that his government would not implement the main recommendations of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission 2006-08.

Soon thereafter, I received several telephone calls from the representatives of the national press stationed at Patna asking for my reactions. I said that the Commission had made some recommendations to the government of Bihar. It was for the government to accept them or to reject them or to accept them partially. It was entirely their prerogative. However, these recommendations were made with all good intentions to give the coalition p arties in power in Bihar an opportunity to break the semi-feudal fetters which i mpeded the unleashing of the creative productive energy of the working peasants. The report was submitted in April 2008. The chief minister announced his decision in October 2009. It took mature thinking of 18 months to come to this negative finding. One should be thankful that they took a final view and did not consign

november 21, 2009

age of rural labour engaged in agriculture and related activities was 89.3% in 1991 which came down to 81.1% in 2001. One component of this labour force was the “cultivator”. This component was 43.4% in 1991, which came down to 34.9% in 2001, a fall of nearly 10 percentage points. Such a drastic change in the occupational pattern could not take place over such a short period. Unless there was a definitional change, the matter would require scholarly scrutiny. Even with such a drop, the figure remains high at 81.1%. This labour force produces, on average, 33.4% of the state GDP (the share of the primary sector in the total). The fact that 80% of labour force produces only one-third of Bihar’s GDP, clearly indicates the intensity of p overty in the primary sector. On the

o ther hand, only 19% of labour force produces the remaining 66% of the state GDP. This shows how acutely iniquitous is the s haring of income among and between d ifferent sectors of the economy.

The truncated Bihar has hardly any possi bility of large-scale industrialisation for shifting of surplus labour from the primary to the secondary sector. Even assuming for the sake of argument that some

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Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

degree of industrialisation would take place through the intervention of the State, the nature of the modern industries being labour shedding rather than labour absorbing, there would hardly be any prospect of mass scale movement of labour from the primary to the secondary sector. A nother major stumbling block against l abour absorption in the secondary sector is the lack of education.

The Bihar Economic Survey 2008-09 (BES 08-09) shows that against the overall literacy rate in India in 2001 of 65.4%, B ihar cut a sorry figure with only 47%, with the female literacy rate a paltry 33.6%. Bihar also has an appallingly high rate of school dropout of 83% at the secondary level. What a h orrendous wastage of manpower and r esources!

Thus, knowledge-based modern i ndustry and occupation in the secondary and tertiary sectors is already out of bounds to 53% of the overall population and 76.4% of f emales in Bihar. Therefore, the position of Bihar as the second most poor state in the country should not cause any surprise.

Any state intervention for reducing poverty in the primary sector has to be done by restructuring production relations in that sector. That is the logic of the objective realities in the state of Bihar.

The landownership pattern in Bihar r emains acutely skewed even now. The N ational Sample Survey Organisation’s (NSSO) Survey Report No 491, 2003, on landholding patterns reveals a disquieting picture. Marginal and small farmers who constituted 96.5% of the t otal landowning community owned 66% of land. Medium and large farmers who constituted only 3.5% of the total landowning community owned 33% of the land. Of the latter, the large owners (constituting only 0.1% of the total) own 4.63% of total land. In a bsolute terms, this 0.1% of the large owners owned a little over 8 lakh hectares or 19.76 lakh acres of land – a colossal amount by Indian standards. Such a high concentration of landholding in the hands of a minuscule number of owners and with archaic production relations is a major roadblock against increased production and productivity in agriculture in Bihar.

Bihar is endowed with nature’s bounty. The land is fertile – in fact the best in the

Economic & Political Weekly

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november 21, 2009

Gangetic plains. It gets good rainfall of about 1,098 mm on average per year. But with such abundant natural endowment, the average productivity of rice (including three varieties) is around only 1,287 kg/ha (hereinafter beS, 2008-09, p xvi). This figure compares unfavourably even with the low production figure of 2,509 kg/ha in West Bengal. Punjab is way ahead with 4.6 tonnes/ha. And in China, production varies between 6 and 7 tonnes per hectare.

With such a high average annual rainfall, there should not have been much difficulty in providing irrigation to ensure stability of agricultural production. “But unfortunately only about 60% of cultivated area is endowed with some irrigation facility” (beS 2008-09, p 60). Even 60% is not a bad figure. It compares favourably with that in West Bengal. Yet how could one explain the wide difference in average rate of productivity of rice of 2,509 kg/ha in West Bengal with 1,287 kg/ha in Bihar. Does the solution to this riddle lie in technology only or in social engineering of altered production relations?

One thought one would get an answer to this question in the “Road Map for Agriculture” given in the Economic Survey 2008-09 already referred to.

Unfortunately, it repeats the usual technical solutions for augmenting production and productivity in agriculture. These technologies are all well known. The question is: Why are not these technical solutions being applied? Here comes the main issue of production relations.

Though there is no comprehensive data regarding the bataidari (sharecropping) system, a conservative estimate is that about 35% of cultivable land in Bihar is under the batai system. The extortionist arrangement of crop-sharing gives negative impulses to the use of technology. A bataidar has no incentive to apply costly technology. In the first place, he cannot a fford it. Second, even if he did so, a significant portion of the incremental production would be siphoned off as rent to the landowner. Thus, in about 35% of cultivable land, agronomy is practised in an i ndifferent manner thereby retarding growth in agriculture. In another onethird of cultivable land owned by only 3.5% of landowners belonging to medium

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and large categories, it is the feudal syndrome of rent seeking which gives them both hassle-free income and social status. Land to them is not a factor of production. It is a symbol of power, influence and status. They cannot think of themselves as cultivating peasant farmer by applying the capitalist mode of production. Like sterile gold, it lends lustre to their position in the society. It is only the other one-third of the cultivable land which is being cultivated by the peasant-farmers where there are some signs of buoyancy. But where two-thirds of the cultivable land drags down production, only onethird of the cultivable land cannot make up the loss.

In the first half of the 1990s agriculture in Bihar had a negative growth rate of (–) 2% per year. Later, up to the early part of the first decade of the present century it grew at an imperceptible rate of (+) 0.8% per year. With all the technologies available in the market why is it that the actual tillers are not accessing them. “It is evident that there is a structural bottleneck in Bihar agriculture due to 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” (Report of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission, p 4).

West Bengal experienced a stagnant growth rate in agriculture for a century between 1891 and 1981 when it varied b etween 0 and (+) 1. But from 1982-83 it witnessed a remarkable rate of growth rate of 5% to 7% p a for little over a decade continuing up to the mid-1990s. How did this miracle happen? Operation Barga recor ded the names of 1.6 million sharecroppers, which gave them security of tenure and heritable right of cultivation. Distribution of one million acres of good culling surplus agricultural lands among a little over two million landless and land poor families resulted in (combination of both) cultivation of 30% to 33% of land sub-optimally to the extent that labour could substitute capital.

Land reforms, particularly Operation Barga, brought about peace in the countryside which induced and prompted the middle peasantry to invest in land, particularly in mini-deep tube wells for irrigation of their own land and for selling the

COMMENTARY

surplus water to other farmers in need of irrigation. In addition, the middle peasantry came to political power through the three-tier panchayats, which were activated in the middle of the 1978. The Sixth Five-Year Plan diverted a large volume of resources to rural development, which were routed through panchayats in West Bengal where the newly empowered middle peasantry who were productive agents, used them for building infrastructure in support of agriculture. It was the combination of these favourable factors which created the critical mass which produced an explosion in agricultural growth breaking asunder the century- old stagnation. The fact that the CPI(M) government later on failed to deepen and widen land r eforms is another s tory. That caused tapering off of the rate of growth. Even so the growth was above the national trend. For knowing and understanding the be neficial effect of land r eforms one does not have to cross the “Kala Pani”. A ride on the Patna-Howrah Inter-City

Express would give anyone an opportunity to know, if one were interested in learning about this.

I would like to end this piece with a s tory. Gorakh Nath Sinha, the renowned professor of Economics of Patna University narrated this fable in a class where a nother brilliant product of the economics department of the same university, Muchkund Dubey, was present. I heard it from him recently. This is about the origin of the caste of Bhumihar brahmins in B ihar. When Buddhism became the state religion under Ashoka, leaders of the society in Pataliputra and other settlements b elonging to the higher castes of brahmins, khastriya, kayastha, etc, en masse became Buddhists to get r oyal favour. As they already belonged to the enlightened segments of society, they became abbots, head monks, etc, of various Buddhist monasteries and Vihars. All the monasteries received huge land grants from the king and his vassals for their u pkeep. As heads of such institutions they managed these lands and enjoyed their fruits. With the advent of Sankaracharya there was a resurgence of Hinduism and Buddhism lost royal patronage. All the heads of monasteries and important functionaries of Buddhist Vihars decided to become Hindus. But they put a condition that they should all be enclassed as b rahmins

irrespective of their original caste which in any case they had lost as they had Hindu

become Buddhists. The rulingcouncil agreed with the caveat. As they were coming to the Hindu fold with all the landed properties which, really b elonged to “Mutts” and monasteries, they would be called “Bhumihar (land- usurper) b rahmins.

Any usurper anywhere feels highly i nsecure about his possession because he knows about its illegitimacy and illegality. Therefore, he develops a fiercely possessive instinct about his possession. This fearsome desire to possess land, later on, permeated the psyche of the entire landowning class of Bihar. Though it is a folktale, it explains the psychology of the a ttachment to land that the landowning classes have in Bihar.

The government of Bihar has lost yet another opportunity of reordering production relations in agriculture through legal means. Perhaps, land reforms in B ihar will have to wait for a violent and massive social upheaval in future.

november 21, 2009 vol xliv no 47 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

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