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Whose Land? Evictions in West Bengal

In the initial months of governance by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, attempts appear to have been made to begin subverting the positive results of the land reform programme of the Left Front. What is happening appears to be the inevitable outcome of political rivalry, the hegemonic rule of one party giving place to another, with the citadel of power changing its colour, making the "red" one "green". But a contextual reading of the situation may reveal its more sinister implications that are going to have an impact on land relations in the state as a whole in the long run.

COMMENTARY

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Whose Land? Evictions in West Bengal Malini Bhattacharya landless went on even in the 1990s and later; thousands of cases had been filed by landowners in various courts as a result of which large numbers of bona fide tillers were prevented from getting the patta documents establishing their right to the land cultivated by them, but even they

In the initial months of governance by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, attempts appear to have been made to begin subverting the positive results of the land reform programme of the Left Front. What is happening appears to be the inevitable outcome of political rivalry, the hegemonic rule of one party giving place to another, with the citadel of power changing its colour, making the “red” one “green”. But a contextual reading of the situation may reveal its more sinister implications that are going to have an impact on land relations in the state as a whole in the long run.

Visits to locations, made in July-August 2011, were organised by a human rights forum, Punarnaba.

Malini Bhattacharya (mihirmalini@gmail.com) is the former chairperson of West Bengal Commission for Women and at present the convenor of Punarnaba.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
january 28, 2012

“Land to the tiller” was one of the

major slogans on the basis of which

the first non-Congress government came to power in West Bengal in 1967. One of the first things it did was to issue an ordinance stopping all eviction, and ensuring that tillers were not prevented from taking possession of legally vested land amounting to 4,00,000 acres rescued from benami (in the name of another person) possession, on which the former government had chosen to take no action. The ordinance, coupled with administrative action and the vigilance of the Kisan Sabha, enabled the sharecropper to claim his fair share to the fruits of the land he had tilled. At the same time, by October 1967, it was possible to distribute almost 2,50,000 acres of the vested land to poor and landless cultivators through entirely transparent public action. All this is history. Subsequently, various reverses repeatedly threatened the land reform measures taken at that time, until the establishment of the Left Front government in 1977. The expanded implementation of these measures after 1977 was undisputedly the firm ground on which the continued popularity of the Left Front government among the rural poor rested. The process of retrieving benami land and distributing it to the

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were protected from eviction where the cases lingered for a long time.

In the first three months of the new Trinamool Congress (TMC)-Congress coalition government which has come to power in 2011, also with a large popular mandate, the positive results of the land reform measures of the Left Front seem to be on the way to being subverted completely. At the eye level, what is happening appears to be but the inevitable outcome of political rivalry, the hegemonic rule of one party giving place to another, with the citadel of power changing its colour, making the “red” one “green”. But a contextual reading of the situation may reveal its more sinister implications that are going to have an impact on land relations in the state as a whole in the long run. It may also have adverse effects on agricultural production which had improved dramatically for close to three decades during Left Front rule.

Eviction in Trinamool Style

The incidents that took place in Haroa block in North 24 Parganas on 9 July 2011 offer a unique example of the changed circumstances. Here large tracts of benami land had been converted into fisheries (bheris) by the landowners and it was only in 1996, after a long struggle by the Kisan

COMMENTARY

Sabha, that it was possible to retrieve this land in the four moujas (a revenue area) of Tentulia, Munshir Gheri, Batagacchi and Nebutola Abad, later to vest and distribute it among the landless in the area, a large section of them being from the scheduled tribes (STs) and scheduled castes (SCs). There were in all about 2,909 pattadars (title deed holders), 2,450 sharecroppers and about 4,600 cultivators who had not yet been granted pattas due to various pending court cases. They were raising one crop every year on the small plots allotted to them and leasing it to local people for fisheries for the rest of the year. The women, who cultivate the land, and also make a living catching crabs and shrimps from the bheris told us that since they got possession of this land, the need to migrate to other parts of the district for work had declined; their lives had improved.

In the first week of July 2011, these same cultivators were ousted from the land just at the time when cultivation was due to start. On the pretext of looking for illegal arms, armed gangs recruited by the TMC in the locality started infiltrating into the area with the active support of local jotdars (a substantial owner-farmer who employs labour), who had been waiting in the wings for such a situation. They brought the police in their wake and when no hidden arms could be found, the alaghars (little shacks on poles set up on the water of the fisheries to guard against thieves) were set on fire, seeds and provisions were destroyed and the bheris were appropriated by planting TMC flags on the ground.

On 9 July, the peasants made an organised effort to re-enter their land and start cultivation; the intruders retreated, but soon returned with a large contingent of armed police, and according to eyewitnesses, both the police and the armed gangs opened fire without warning, as a result of which three adivasi peasants, Kanai Sardar, Bonko Sardar and Saharab Sardar received bullet injuries. Kanai Sardar was seriously injured. The rest had to run away to save themselves in the face of this joint attack as they had no arms save their lathis. At the moment, in Tentulia mouja alone, the entire vested area consisting of 1,265 bighas (1 bigha= about 1/3 acre) is over-run by intruders and about 3,000 peasants including those who had been tilling the soil, but who had no patta documents, have been forcibly evicted. In Nebutola Abad mouja, about 3,700 persons have been ousted from the land they had been cultivating. In Munshir Gheri, where adivasis dominate, 120 out of 1,100 bighas of vested land are occupied by outsiders.

Left Front Policy

Comparing this with other places such as Bolpur block in Birbhum and Sonarpurblock in South 24 Parganas which we had visited, it is evident that adivasi peasants are being targeted, especially since they are more vulnerable. But others too were in danger of losing whatever land they had been granted in the earlier dispensation. In Sonatikuri in Bhangar block, South 24 Parganas, the majority of cultivators facing eviction belonged to the Poundrakshatriya (SC); in one part of Kankutia village in Bolpur, a large number of them were Bagdis (SC). In Purbasthali block in Burdwan, apart from some members of SCs and STs, Muslims constituted a major part of the evicted peasants. These were the people who had been the main beneficiaries of the land reforms of the Left Front.

All of them had been landless before they were granted pattas. The plots of land distributed to them had been small, hardly ever more than three or four bighas, but often much less. Many of the beneficiaries had to work as agricultural labourers on other people’s land for part of the year or to supplement their income by non-agricultural work even after having some land of their own. There were a few who could afford to hire some workers, but also worked on the land themselves.

It had been the policy of the Left Front to give small plots of land to the largest number of landless people; Harekrishna Konar, the major architect of land reforms in West Bengal, commenting on this, said that where there were large numbers of landless poor, even small plots of land that allowed them to raise some crops, would ensure security for them. He had asserted that with adequate inputs from the government, parcelling out land in small plots would not have any negative impact on production either. Later, they might be encouraged to move towards cooperation. That particular development never took shape in West Bengal, but Konar’s prediction

january 28, 2012

about the positive effect of land reforms on production proved to be prophetic.

All the peasants we met were indeed owners of small plots, earnings from which had to be supplemented by agricultural or non-agricultural labour. In Bolpur, for instance, many of them found supplementary livelihood in construction work. But it is quite true that even in a period of acute agrarian crisis, they found some security in owning a plot of land. Their attachment to the land was therefore very strong. The women in Haroa lamented that if they could not recover their land they would have to go back to being migrant labourers for their livelihood. Those who had been tilling the land without patta documents owing to pending lawsuits were obviously more vulnerable than those who possessed the documents.

In Purbasthali, many people told us that when they had gone to plead with TMC leaders, they had been told that no one having a patta document would be evicted. But in spite of such assurances, many of those having pattas had also been thrown out, as had been the case even with some owners of rayati (land held under tenancy) land, that is, land with secure legal right. In Harapur in Sonarpur block, the panchayat pradhan told us that while the Munda (ST) community living there had not yet got pattas owing to administrative tardiness, the land tilled by them had been declared vested and the rights of the adivasi peasants had been recorded. In spite of that, this land was now under forcible occupation.

Terror in the Air

In many instances, the police had aided and abetted this forcible occupation as in Haroa; they had refused to take complaints and had even lodged false cases against the peasants. In Kankutia, Bolpur, an atmosphere of terror hung over the village because there were arrest warrants against 40 persons from that single village and as many as 19 persons, none of whom except one was named in the FIR, had been arrested on the charge of breaking law and order; in the mean time, the real troublemakers who had been forcibly grabbing patta and rayati land and evicting sharecroppers and had on that same day thrown

vol xlvii no 4

COMMENTARY

bombs to prevent officials of the block land reforms office from taking measurement of this land, were going scot-free.

In Haroa, the peasants told us that nobody could have prevented them from retrieving their land if the intruders had not been helped by the armed police. How ever, in Sonatikuri in Bhangar, the civil administration took a more neutral stand and declared that actual tillers, whether they had pattas or not, must be allowed to cultivate the land. Eviction was prevented as a result of this, and also due to the peasants being much better organised, although the threats continued.

Who were the intruders? Invariably, they advertised their political identity by carrying TMC flags which they planted on the fields of which they took possession. According to our information, they were led by armed gangs who were obviously available on hire. In some cases, as in Haroa, they had direct connections with local jotdars, but not invariably. In Bolpur, for instance, the leaders were local strongmen who had taken to land-grabbing under the new political patrons. But often their following also consisted of people from the neighbouring villages recruited with promises of a share of the land wrested from the lawful owners.

In Purbasthali, we were told by Abdus Sukur of Kesabbati that the small plot of rayati land from which he had been evicted was handed over to another man who already had more than one acre. In other cases, landless labourers from the neighbourhood were engaged to till the occupied land, while the legitimate pattadars and sharecroppers were excluded. In Kankutia, Bolpur, we saw a large number of agricultural labourers, men and women, who possessed only homestead land and travelled to different parts of the district in search of better wages. They seemed unconcerned with the problem of eviction and it was understandable that they would not mind working on the land from which others had been evicted, provided that the wages suited them. Nonetheless, much of the occupied land would remain fallow this year since the time for cultivation was already over. The new occupants were preventing the rightful owners from accessing the land in the hope that eventually it would be theirs.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
january 28, 2012

In Sonatikuri, we were told that conflict was particularly intense in one area (dag no 815) consisting of about 36 bighas where land had been allotted both to supporters of Left Front and TMC. In the new dispensation, poor neighbours were trying to dislodge other poor neighbours so that their land could be forcibly grabbed. Superficially one might think that these evictions are cases of quid pro quo, where those who had been powerful earlier are being paid back in their own coin. But before passing such a judgment, one should note that those who are being described as TMC supporters also got their land in the Left Front regime as belonging to the ranks of the landless poor. In fact, the long struggle waged by the Kisan Sabha as well as the government for the rights of the latter had established a pro-Left hegemony which had gone beyond its core political support.

Fragile Positions

In the situation we are talking of, supporters of different parties are not pitted against each other in irreversible black and white like the armies in Mahabharata; categorisation as Left Front or TMC supporters is at times fragile, any shift in the situation may fracture it. Poor people often compromise for sheer survival, particularly when being named as supporters of one party may cost you your hard-earned land; loyalty may waver when withdrawal of protection is sensed. Thus, in the present circumstances, a new political concentration claims its followers from the same ranks.

In Harapur village in Sonarpur block, South 24 Parganas, we found a settlement of 60-70 families belonging to the Munda (ST) community who had been engaged in agriculture for several generations in the panchayat area in Kheadah. While the mud house even of the panchayat pradhan bore marks of poverty, we found all the children, including girls, going to school. Embattled by the changing world around them and being gradually sucked into it, the younger people were finding supplementary occupation. They are travelling to the nearby metropolis to work as daylabourers in construction work. The pradhan told us that this community had been actively involved in the land struggles of

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1967-69 and that he had heard stories of Kisan Sabha leaders coming and spending nights in the village and sharing their meagre fare of rice and boiled water-lily (shapla) stalks. But for quite some time now, whether peeved with the administration’s delay in giving them pattas or whether because they felt that they needed the protection of the emerging political power, some of the members of this adivasi community have shifted their alliance. Yet, when their village was attacked in the new regime, and they were forcibly evicted from this land by murderous gangs from the neighbourhood, they had gone to the chief minister’s house in search of redressal, but to no avail. This points out the fragility of the position of the poor.

In the last 20 years, the incidence of landlessness has definitely grown apace in West Bengal giving rise to new tensions in land relations; the fact that among main workers, the percentage of cultivators has declined between 1991 and 2001, while the percentage of agricultural labourers has risen, could be an indication of the extent of land alienation caused by the declining profitability of agriculture and the fragmentation of land as well as by rapid urbanisation. It is undeniable that one major reason for the Left Front’s loss of popularity among the rural poor was that somewhere on the way it lost the clear insight that a leader of the peasant movement like Harekrishna Konar had once shown into the crisis of the small producer in the agrarian sector. The nature of the crisis has changed today, but the Left’s perception has failed to reflect that change.

What some might interpret as skirmishes at the ground level, bound to happen with the change of regime, are in fact, closely tied up with the conscious agenda at the top with which the new government in the state is moving. If the recent conflicts are further aggravating landlessness, and if there is little chance of any new landless occupants of such forciblyacquired land ever having any legal rights to it, then this falls in with the political designs of those in power at present. Such occupants can only hold on to this land illegally, provided they pay allegiance to their new patrons. They may, in turn, be

COMMENTARY

thrown out to suit the whims of the latter. maa-maati-maanush (mother-land-man), middlemen and the land mafia in the pro-This land then becomes easily available to so far as one may gather from newspaper cess. Both this declared policy and what is all kinds of speculators and middlemen. reports, deliberately glosses over the crisis happening on the ground further under-For all its pious declarations not to acquire of the small producer. Moreover, it leaves mine the position of the small producer in the land even of a single unwilling peasant, the latter quite unprotected from the dep-the emerging scenario of land relations in the “land policy” of the government of redations of private buyers, spawning West Bengal.

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january 28, 2012 vol xlvii no 4

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