Panchayat System, Rural Classes, and Agriculture in West Bengal

December 15, 2009

By Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri. Columnist, Sanhati. Translated by Soumya Guhathakurta.

This article, written in 2008, discusses the agricultural policy of the West Bengal government as outlined by Suryakanta Mishra, a CPI(M) leader, in a party journal.

In 2007, an important West Bengal state level leader of the CPI(M), Suryakanta Mishra, has set out to explain the agricultural policy of his party and its government in West Bengal, in a party journal [1].

The article has as usual claimed credit for ‘Operation Barga’ and the distribution of surplus vested land of 30 years ago, soon after the Left Front Government came into power in 1977. And why not? This 30 year old act is still the capital out of which the CPI(M) flogs political return in rural West Bengal. However, it will not be impertinent to point out in 2008 that the economic impact of recording/legitimizing share croppers/bargadars has been called into question by recent research. A sample survey [2] by Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mukherjee found that between 1982-95 production in agricultural holdings in West Bengal had increased by 5% as a result of barga recording, by 6% due to local irrigation projects, by 100% due to credit from the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), and by 500% due to distribution of agricultural ‘mini kits’.

However, the Left Front government did not pay much attention to these factors, and between 1982-1995 the number of ‘mini kits’ supplied per agricultural household and the subsidy on IRDP loans were halved. The expenditure incurred by panchayats on irrigation was also halved and the net increase in land irrigated from canals maintained by the state government increased at the meagre rate of 1% p.a.

On the one hand, Suryakanta Mishra has claimed credit for reduction in inequality in the land holding pattern. 98% of all agricultural households and 84% of all agricultural holdings1 are included within the size class of holdings with area less than 2 hectares. In other words, his claims of reduction of inequality rests on a reduction in the size of holdings. On the other hand, Suryakanta Mishra has commented that due to a reduction in the size of the holdings land has been fragmented and parcelled, and farmers are having difficulties in meeting even their household expenditure. To account for the impoverished state of farmers he has even pointed his finger towards neo-liberalism (presumably this refers to WTO-led policies, but, of course, the name of God should not be taken in vain).

The fact of the matter is that it is the Left Front government which has pursued the practice of neo-liberal economic policies. Vulnerable agriculturists have been given a spot of land and thrown into the clutches of the market without sparing a thought as to how that land will be cultivated. Government aid for basics like inputs, irrigation, credit and marketing of produce, including procurement and setting of support prices, has steadily diminished.

Mishra has not noticed any significant inequalities in the pattern of land holding. To measure inequality in the pattern of effective land holding, he has relied on the Gini index.

(effective land holding is the sum of the land owned by the agricultural household plus the land taken in by the household on lease or other arrangement for cultivation)

As per Mishra, Gini index is the lowest in West Bengal vis-à-vis other states of India and the index has also become lower with the passage of time. In 2002-03, the index was 0.56 for the entire country, where as it was 0.31 for West Bengal, which again was 28% lower than the position of the index in 1970-71. It may not be out of context to point out here that a Gini index of 0 signifies perfectly equal distribution of income or resources (i.e. every 20% of the population enjoyes 20% of the income or resources) and an index of 1 indicates a perfectly unequal distribution of income or resources.

However, the detailed nature of inequality in rural West Bengal is not correctly revealed by the Gini index for effective land holdings.

Two points are pertinent in this respect. First, there still remains a lot of inequality in land ownership and this will be apparent on properly analyzing the data used by Suryakanta Mishra himself. Second, in rural West Bengal, social and political dominance is now exercised not only on the strength of landed property but also on the strength of control over or access to other resources and agricultural inputs, as well as political connections.

If we take even a casual glance at the other states of India, then the limitation/inadequacy of the Gini index of effective holdings as a measure of inequality will be apparent. Assam, where there have been no significant land reform measures, has a low Gini index of 0.37. Further, Bihar and Jharkhand have not experienced any land reform initiatives and yet the index there has fallen by 18% between the years 1970-71 and 2002-03.

Nevertheless, since there is a debate with respect to inequality and class differentiation in rural West Bengal, one has to examine the scale of such effects and understand their precise nature

Economic indicators of class differentiation

Inequality in land ownership

Let us first see the distribution of land between the various sizes of land holdings. Since the Left Front government had undertaken a programme of distributing surplus vested land, it is expected that this may have led to an increase in small and marginal land holdings.

Between 1971-72 and 1991-92, a span of 20 years, there has been a growth in the importance of small and marginal farmers. But this has been accompanied by growth in importance of those with relatively larger holdings too. Such relative importance is measured by a specific index.

Let us try to understand the index by taking a particular size of holding as a specimen. The area of all the land holdings which fall within the size class of 0.002 hectares to 0.02 hectares is enumerated as a proportion or percentage of the total area of all land holdings. Next, the numbers of holdings are counted and the proportion or percentage of the number of holdings which fall within the limits of 0.002 hectares to 0.02 hectares is enumerated as a proportion or percentage of the total number of all holdings. Dividing the first percentage by the second gives us an index of the relative importance of those with a holding between 0.002 hectares and 0.02 hectares, and this index is known as the ICCR. It has been observed that between1971-72 to 1991-92, with respect to holdings measuring 0.002 to 0.02 hectares the ICCR has increased 1.7 times. In the case of holdings measuring 2 to 3 hectares the index has increased 1.5 times. In the case of holdings of other sizes the index has blown up less than 1.5 times [3].

To study inequality in land ownership Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mukherjee have used this measure with some modification in an authoritative sample survey [4] conducted by them. Let us now study the behaviour of ICCR on the data set of Bardhan and Mukherjee. We start with an example. At the first step, the area of all land holdings within a limit of 5 acres as a percentage of the total area of all land holdings is enumerated. Next, the percentage of households with holdings less than 5 acres (including landless households) to the total number of households is worked out. Dividing the first by the second we get the relative importance of those households with a holding of up to 5 acres. In 1978, the index for households with a holding of area up to 5 acres was 0.6, whereas the index for households with holdings in excess of 5 acres was 7. 7. 7.7 being 11.6 times 0.6, 11.6 can be taken to be an index of inequality.

[An ICCR index value of 1 signifies that for landholdings of a particular size, the percentage of the number of all holdings of that size to the total number of all holdings (of any size) is the same as the percentage of the area of all holdings (of that particular size) to the total area of all land holdings. An index value lower than 1 signifies that for that particular holding size, the percentage of the number of holdings of that size (to the total number of holdings) is more than the percentage of the area of these holdings (to the total area of all holdings), or, for that size, a higher percentage of the number of holdings has access to/ownership of a lower percentage of the land. This is a clear case of inequality of resources. An index higher than 1 signifies the opposite: the percentage of the number of holdings of a particular size to the total number of holdings is less than the percentage of the area of the holdings of that size to the total area of all holdings. In other words, a lower percentage of the number of landholdings have access to/ownership of a higher percentage of land area. It may thus be concluded that vis-à-vis the Gini index, a crude measure of overall inequality, the ICCR index measures relative importance , and exposes the distribution of inequality among the layers of size classes .]

A sample survey in another area of West Bengal5 exhibits a similar trend. For landholdings up to 5 acres, the index of relative importance is 0.6 and for holdings above 5 acres the index is 4.0, or the index of inequality is 6.7. Below and above 2.5 acres, the index of relative importance is 0.4 and 2.5 respectively, and the index of inequality is 6. It may be pointed out that the sample surveys of sources (4) and (5) have been done in different areas by two different sample survey teams. In the first case, 47% of the households were landless and in the second case 5% of the households were landless. However, in both the cases the inequalities in land ownership are clearly evident.

Let us now examine the situation in 1998. The sample survey whose data were used earlier for 1978 is used again. The ICCR index for owners of holdings up to 5 acres is 0.75 but the index for owners of holdings in excess of 5 acres is 11. In other words the index of inequality is 14.7, and it can be concluded that inequality had increased by 25% in a span of 20 years.

The inequality of land ownership4 can be exhibited more coarsely by another set of statistics. In 1978, households holding 12.5 acres (land ceiling limit) or excess constituted 1.6% of the total households, and they held 19.5% of the land. In the sample villages, 47.3% of the total households were landless.

In 1998, households holding 12.5 acres or more constituted 0.3% of the total households, but they held 7.6% of the land. 52.3 % of the total households were landless.

Therefore, inequality in land ownership had increased in the period 1978-1998, and it is evident from the aforesaid data that big holdings had become concentrated among a fewer number of households.

The increase in landlessness is visible not only in the area covered by the sample survey, but for the state of West Bengal as a whole6. In rural West Bengal, landless households constituted 39.6% of the total in 1987-88, and this increased to 41.6% in 1993-94 and 49.8% in 1999-2000. In other words, in 1999-2000, half of the households in rural West Bengal were landless.

As per Arjun Sengupta Commission’s report [7] in 2004-05, landless (holdings less than 0.01 acre) and marginal (holdings 0.4 to 1 acre) agricultural households constituted more than 92% of all rural households.

The set of statistics used by Suryakanta Mishra also reveals a similar picture. We can use the index of relative importance to examine the data presented by Mishra.

Take an example. The percentage of total land area contributed by holdings measuring 1 hectare or less is first worked out – this was 58% (in 2003). Next, the percentage of these households to all the households in the sample area is worked out – this was 92% (in 2003). Dividing the first measure by the second we arrive at the index of relative importance of those households with a land holding up to 1 hectare, and in 2003 this is 0.6. This index for households having holdings of various sizes is given in Table 1.

The statistics in Table 1 reveal that, between 1981-82 and 2002-03, the index of relative importance of households with holdings up to 1 hectare increased from 0.4 to 0.6. However, during the same period, the index of relative importance of households with holdings in excess of 4 hectares increased from a high of 9 to the even higher value of 20. In the case of households with holdings of less than 2 hectares and more than 2 hectares, respectively, the index of relative importance increased from 0.6 to 0.85 and from 6 times to 10 times. Therefore, it can be concluded that throughout this period, the index of inequality between holdings of less than 2 hectares and more than 2 hectares, not only remained high, but also increased in value from 9 to 12.

Table 1
Inequality in land holdings
Size of holdingsIndex of Relative
Importance (ICCR)
198119912003
Less than 1 ha0.400.500.60
Less
than 2 ha
0.600.700.85
More
than 2 ha
6.007.0010.00
More
than 4ha
9.0011.0020.00

If we consider operational holdings, the conclusion is the same.

However, in the study of inequality one should not confine the focus to a single factor, namely inequality of land holdings, for the ceiling on land holdings is 12.5 acres, which is not too high itself. Of course, there are benami holdings also. During the tenure of the second United Front government (1969-1970) there was a concerted effort to identify land above ceiling limits and record such land as vested. Powered by enthusiastic public initiative, approximately 5 lac hectares were identified as surplus and vested with the government. The first Left Front government (1977-82) had also encouraged such movements. Although the movement lost steam during the later Left Front regimes, it must be understood that the significance of benami holdings in the context of land relations has also diminished over the years.

Employment of agricultural labourers and class differentiation

The author of source 5 has not limited the study of inequality to the size of land holdings only. Following Utsa Patnaik, agriculturists have been classified into 6 categories. The categorisation is based on the proportion of hired labour and household labour used by an agricultural household on its own holdings and also on the quantum of labour expended by the household on the holdings of others. The categorization is illustrated in table 2.

TABLE 2 distribution of labour
expended by various categories of agriculturists

Category
of Agriculturists
Labour expended from household
in own holdings
Hired labour used in own holdings% Household labour expended
on others' holdings
LandlordsNil100.00%nil
Rich farmers23.00%77.00%nil
Middle farmers69.75%30.25%1.40% (98.60%)
Small farmers94.73%5.27%21.77% (78.23%)
Poor farmers95.34%4.66%84.00% (16.00%)
Landless
farmers
Nilnil100% (0.00%)

Note: Figures in bracket indicate
% of household labour expended in own holdings

Landlords use only hired labour in their holdings. Rich farmers are more dependent on hired labour than labour from their household. Middle farmers are more dependent on their household labour than hired labour and a very small part of their household labour is expended on other’s holdings as the bulk of the household labour is expended on their own holdings. A distinct trait of middle farmers is that the quantum of labour expended by the household in others’ holdings is far less than the quantum of hired labour used in their holdings and this distinguishes middle farmers from small farmers.

Small farmers are similar in all respects to middle farmers except one, they expend more man days in others’ holdings vis-à-vis man days expended by hired labour in their own holdings. In the case of poor farmers, the major portion of their household labour is expended by them in others’ holdings rather than in their own holdings.

Let us see what the sample exhibits. Of all the households, 29% are landlords or rich farmers, 31% are middle or small farmers and 40% are poor and landless farmers. Therefore, there are three clear categories in the case of agriculturists based on dependence on hiring in labour for their holdings, dependence on household labour for their holdings and dependence on hiring out household labour. In the case of poor and landless farmers the majority are agricultural labourers.

It is to be remembered that,

(1) In this study, no distinction has been made between land given out for cultivation under tenure arrangements for cultivation (like barga) and household land in which hired labour is used. Further, distinction has not been made between household labour expended and hired labour utilised in land taken in for cultivation under tenure arrangements, on the one hand, and labour expended in others’ holdings, on the other. However, for the state of West Bengal, in the years 1991-92 and 2001-02, only 14.4% and 14.1% of the total holdings, respectively, and 10% and 9% of the agricultural land were cultivated under tenure arrangements7. This implies that the importance of tenure arrangements in West Bengal is following a declining trend and this trend is expected to continue.

(2) In reality, the use of hired labour can be under various arrangements.

(3) Farmers are heavily in debt. In 2003, households with holdings up to 1 acre had debts outstanding to the tune of Rs.7,6767 per household. In the case of households with land between 1 and 2 acres and in excess of 2 acres the outstanding debt was Rs.12,194 and Rs.21,556 respectively. It will be seen below that households with holdings up to 2.5 acres have availed of loan from non-institutional sources also. In other words, impoverished agriculturists are also in the oppressive grip of non-institutional credit providers who charge usurious rates of interest and, unlike households owning large holdings, their repayment capacity is limited.

It follows that without an extensive in-depth study over a large representative area it will be hasty to conclude that pre-capitalist production relations have been transformed into capitalist production relations. However, it is indisputable that old production relations are disintegrating, and it necessarily follows that political parties ought to be alert to such changes in order that political programmes and ground realities may be dovetailed.

All pervading inequality – in irrigation, in credit availability, in inputs, in output, in property

In the survey done in source 5, it is seen that with respect to all the indicators of economic strength such as ownership of land, movable and immovable assets/properties, irrigation facilities, marketed produce, availability of institutional credit are biased towards the rich farmer. This reality will be evident from the data exhibited in Table 3.

Table
3
% share of
categoryassetslandirrigationinputsOutputmarketed produce Inst. credit
Landlord&
rich farmers
66526561777540
Middle
and small farmers
24372628141433
Poor
& landless farmers
91191191127

Inequality in indicators of economic strength

The author also noted another significant metamorphosis whose effect will go far. Landlords and rich farmers, in whose hands the bulk of the economic power is concentrated, do not always own a large quantum of land. Land holdings up to 2.5 acres (excluding landless farmers) are owned by 66% of total agriculturist households. Although 60% of irrigation facilities, inputs, output and marketed produce was in the hands of households with holdings exceeding 2.5 acres, households with holdings up to 2.5 acres had access to 49% and 63% of institutional and non-institutional credit respectively, and 63% of assets (other than land) were also under their ownership. It necessarily follows that there exists a well off section within this category also. This signifies that there has come into existence a nouveau riche section whose holdings are not substantially large but who has managed to corner a substantial share of assets, credit and other agricultural inputs/facilities. The conclusion is that ownership of land is no more the only pillar of power in rural society.

Even Suryakanta Mishra concedes that it is incorrect to conclude that in rural areas the contradiction between the rich and poor has not increased. He says: In rural areas, the landlords are still the mainstay of the ruling classes ….. they continue to exercise control over access to credit, irrigation & other inputs and also over agricultural marketing.

Side by side in rural areas, at least half of the working population is constituted by agricultural labour [7]. In 1993-94, 1999-2000 and 2004-05, the percentage of agricultural labourers among rural workers was 46%, 56% and 49% respectively.

Which class wields influence over panchayats?

Do landless agricultural workers have sufficient influence over the working of panchayats? What proportion of members from these households, constituting 40-50% of the rural population, find representation in the panchayats?

As per government survey6, in 1978, of 100 gram panchayats, 6.5% of the elected members were landless (agricultural workers or bargadars). Agricultural households holding less than 3 acres were represented by 22% of the gram panchayat members whereas land owning households were represented by 51% of the members. Non-agricultural households were represented by 43% of the gram panchayat members. [One of the then advisors to the government of West Bengal, Dr. Satyabrata Sen, estimated [8] that in 1979, only 7% of panchayat members belonged to the landless strata].

After the 1983 elections, in a survey6 done over 200 gram panchayats, it was seen that 5.5% of the elected members were from landless households and 52% members were from land owning households. 43% members were from non-agriculturist households.

Before the 1988 panchayat elections, a survey was done on the occupational background of 127 CPI(M) candidates, and this is exhibited in the report mentioned in source 6. Not all of them were successful in winning the election (77% won) and so the result of the survey is not discussed here. Post 1993 panchayat elections, in a survey [6] over 8 districts, done by the government, the joint proportion of agricultural labourers and bargadars in gram panchayat, panchayat samity and zilla parishad was found to be 17.0%, 10.5% and 5.5% respectively. The joint representation of agriculturists, fishermen and craftsmen was 28.0%, 23.5% and 9.0% respectively.

Representatives belonging to other occupations or the unemployed jointly accounted for 54.0%, 66.5% and 86.5% respectively. Teachers constituted 6.5%, 15.5% and 32.5% respectively of the elected bodies (in 1978, teachers constituted 14.0%, and, in 1983, they constituted 15.5% of the panchayat members).

It is thus observed that during 1978-88, a span of ten years, the representation of landless agriculturists in the panchayats was a negligible 5%, and this climbed up merely to 15% in 1993-98. During 1978-88, half of the elected panchayat members were agriculturists but this figure decreased to 20% in 1993.

The proportion of non-agriculturists amongst elected panchayat members increased from 30% during 1978-88 to 60% in 1993.

It can be concluded that the voice of the landless in the panchayat bodies is indeed weak. Moreover, till 1993 landed agriculturists constituted a fair proportion of the elected panchayat members. However, post -1993, the majority of the members belonged to sections which were not agriculturists or handicraftsmen or those in the occupation of animal husbandry.

A glance at the occupational status of the panchayat members reveals that Panchayati Raj is controlled by rich agriculturists, service holders, shopkeepers, businessmen, teachers and sections which have been classified as ‘unemployed’ or under ‘others/social service’. 30-40% of the panchayat membership is constituted by persons classified under ‘unemployed’/ ‘others’/ ‘social service’ ….. who are they? It will not be incorrect to conclude that they are all political party workers. Rural poor have been well and truly excluded from the panchayat decision making process.

The ideal of a panchayat being a place for rural folks to sit and discuss common issues to come to a decision among themselves and to implement that decision has remained a pipe dream. In effect, panchayats are run under the diktat of the administration and local political functionaries. That the faith of the common people on panchayats has eroded is revealed by the rate of absenteeism in the gram sabha and gram sansad sessions.

The WB Human Development report (source 6) has commented that the attendance in gram sabha sessions in 1997 was 16% and fell to 12% in 2001. In the case of gram sabhas, the attendance in 1997 was 30% but fell drastically in later years. However, the report noted that the average attendance of bargadar and pattadar members was a high 63%. Those who had actually benefited from the recording of barga or the distribution of pattas of vested land have taken interest in the functioning of panchayats. However, since their numbers are not too many, their record of attendance did not have a substantial impact on the statistics of overall attendance in panchayat sessions.

Sudipta Bhattacharya’s survey [5] recorded the same apathy towards panchayat meetings (Table 4)

Table
4
Gram
Sansad
Year1996199719981999200020012002
Attendance(%)18181613131111
Gram
Sabha
Year19961997199819992000
Attendance(%)3030295.55

Another indicator of the relative economic strength of poor peasants and agricultural labourers is the wage level. In 1999-2000 the daily wage rate was Rs.43.45. In 2004-05 it was seen that 94.5% of the wage earners in rural West Bengal earned less than the agricultural minimum wages (Rs.66 per day) stipulated by the Central government. 62.4% of rural wage earners earned less than the minimum wage (Rs. 49 per day) stipulated by the National Commission on Rural Labour [7]. It is clear that agricultural workers have a weak bargaining capacity.

It is thus evident that in rural areas a section of agricultural households are still dependent on their household labour for agricultural work but there is a distinct class differentiation between those who engage wage earners on their holdings and those who are engaged as wage earners.

Class and caste

Let us take a look at the caste structure of the landless agricultural workers in West Bengal. In 1971 scheduled castes and scheduled tribes constituted 43% and 49% respectively of the landless agricultural workers. In 1991 these proportions were 41% and 51% respectively.9In source 7 it has been observed that amongst agricultural worker households, during the 5 years between 1999-2000 and 2004-2005, the proportion of scheduled caste households remained constant at 36% although the percentage of scheduled tribes climbed from 9% to 15%. In the case of OBC s the proportion remained constant at 4% whereas the proportion of other castes decreased from 51% to 45%.

In other words, more than half the agricultural workers come from backward communities. In the case of landless agricultural workers, nearly all of them belong to backward communities. In West Bengal, amongst wage earners from backward communities the majority came from the scheduled castes. In India as a whole, among agricultural labourers, a third belonged to scheduled castes and a third to OBCs. In the sample survey [7] area covered by Sudipta Bhattacharya the relationship between class and caste is clear. In the sample survey of the 10 landless persons, 9 belonged to scheduled castes or scheduled tribes and among 73 poor peasants, 89% belonged to scheduled castes/tribes. Further, among 72 persons from non-backward communities 72% were rich peasants or landlords.

It is difficult to come across data on the presence of Muslims in the agricultural labourer category in West Bengal. Sachar committee10 collected this data for the entire country. In 2004-05, 57% of rural workforce consisted of upper caste Hindus and 33% consisted of Muslim farmers; but 12% of agricultural workers consisted of caste Hindus whereas Muslims constituted 21% of this category. Therefore vis-à-vis upper caste Hindus, Muslims constitute a significantly higher proportion of agricultural workers.

Therefore in rural West Bengal there is an element of class differentiation on the basis of caste. There are more scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and, to an extent, Muslims amongst agricultural workers and less amongst land owners.

However, one cannot blindly equate class and caste. The ‘Gini’ index for the rural population of India is 0.28. The same index for rural Hindu scheduled castes/tribes, OBCs and Muslims is 0.24, 0.25 and 0.26 respectively. Therefore the normal inequality in rural India is comparable with inequality faced by the aforesaid categories. This indicates the presence of a ‘creamy layer’ amongst the aforesaid categories. Though few, there do exist landlords and rich agriculturists among these communities. Sudipta Bhattacharya’s sample survey5 shows that among 69 persons belonging to scheduled castes category there were 6 landlords and 3 rich agriculturists, among 61 persons belonging to scheduled tribe category there were 2 rich agriculturists and among 13 Muslims there were 2 landlords and 2 rich farmers.

In most cases these landlords and rich farmers provide leadership to the poor people of their community. This is a political barrier in the path of class struggle.

Functioning of Panchayats

The control of panchayats is in the hands of rich agriculturists, landlords, businessmen, people from various professions and political workers and very little influence is exercised by agricultural workers.

Aware of this everyday reality poor agriculturists and agricultural workers seldom attend panchayat sessions. If they can organize themselves into peasant committees then they can attend gram sansad and gram sabha sessions and pursue their class interest in the functioning of the panchayat institutions.

The process of bringing the control of the functioning of the panchayats from the clutches of the well off into the hands of poor agriculturists and agricultural labourers will not be an easy task. It is a task that can be achieved only after much struggle, a struggle which will be intense.

On the other hand, in the struggle against big capital the united resistance of the agriculturists is both a necessity and a prospect. The agriculturists of Singur and Nandigram have unitedly resisted the recent attempt by big capital to appropriate their land for its selfish purposes. Therefore, poor agriculturists and landless workers must also learn to unite with well off tillers of the soil in struggles for the protection of common interests.

Lest this be construed as an attempt to disturb the peace of West Bengal, one has to add in haste that Suryakanta Mishra has said that against the dominance of the landlords one must organize class struggle with great force. Unfortunately, in reality, the class struggle against the bad elite in most cases will be directed against the rotten local leadership of his own party. The recent movement against dishonest ration dealers is an example of a struggle against this rot.

But why a class struggle against landlords only? Why is Suryakanta Mishra silent against national and global big capital which are swiftly advancing their paws towards agricultural land and commodities? The answer is not far to seek. The route by which an essay on cows (গরু) soon becomes an essay on crematoriums (শ্মশান) has also been taken by Suryakanta Mishra, and his essay on agricultural policy becomes an essay on industrialization where big capital is not a class enemy but the ‘lord almighty’ in person.

Anyway, let us take a look at Suryakanta Mishra’s programme for the agricultural sector.

1. Small holdings should be brought under contract farming. The contract will be with national capital and the agricultural produce will be marketed by them. It is obvious that these business houses will need to have sufficient clout in the market or in other words they will be big business houses.

That these business houses will swallow up the small agriculturists is an oft repeated criticism and so Mishra has hastened to add that government and organized agriculturists must be alert enough to keep a check on these business houses.

However Singur has shown that it is the opposite that will happen. Government and Mishra’s party’s agricultural front organization will sell the agriculturist’s interest to big capital. The peasant will be converted into a bonded producer for the big company in question..

Mishra has also spoken about national capitalist class. We will now see how his party has brought in global capital to rural areas.

2. He has written about marketing and credit availability through co-operatives and self help groups. However, he has not gone beyond the prevalent practice in many agricultural areas where a few farmers bond together to use a tractor or use their collective credit worthiness to apply for bank credit, to suggest the pooling together of scattered and fragmented holdings into consolidated cultivable blocks (ownership remaining unchanged) through co-operative societies. Rather, in Mishra’s article the last word on Marx, ‘capital’ and commodity is that in agriculture some vestiges of pre-capitalist production relations have survived to the present and so we cannot progress towards joint or co-operative farming.

Here, one of the stages on the path to socialism, workers’ co-operative farming, has been muddled up (deliberately?) with private co-operative farming where private ownership continues to remain intact. The second is definitely a capitalist endeavour but Anand milk co-operative experience suggests that agriculturists can be enthused about such endeavours.

3. The plan of ‘industrialisation’ of Mishra’s government presumes the expropriation of people from agriculture. There is no proposal by the government to ameliorate the situation. It is apparent that Suryakanta Mishra has not taken any lessons from Singur Nandigram. He has written about using NREGA which is empty talk and an excuse for inactivity for it is known to all that in 2006-07, in West Bengal, on an average 6 days of work was made available to eligible households in lieu of the stipulated 100. In 2007-08 the average increased to 18 days [17].

In other words, Mishra’s programme is bound to compromise the interests of rural agriculturists at the altar of big capital. It is a covert notification of the left front government’s agenda that during its regime Singur -Nandigram will continue to occur.

Development of production relations in agriculture

The possibilities of developing the productive forces have been exhausted in agriculture, pre-capitalist production relations continue to be present and so there is no scope for improvement in agriculture. While parroting these lines, Suryakanta Mishra fails to indicate the path along which the productive forces and production relations in agriculture can progress and the inter-relation between the two. He prays at the altar of big capital led industrialization to lift agriculture from its present morass.

When compared to other states of India, West Bengal lags behind in terms of agricultural productivity. It therefore follows that much can still be done in agriculture; increasing productivity is of primary importance and there is scope for the same. A survey by KPMG and CII has pointed out that productivity in West Bengal of rice, wheat, oil seeds, potato and dal is lower than the leading states of India by 50.5%, 65.9%, 58.5%, 76.3% and 97.1% respectively [11].

Which will be the simple yet effective way of augmenting agricultural productivity?

To measure agricultural productivity, Madhusudan Bhattarai and A. Narayanmurthy have used an index named TFP. TFP is the difference between the increase in crops and livestock in a state during a particular year and the incremental outlay on inputs to agriculture in that state during that year. Instances of such inputs to agriculture are rivers, ponds, irrigation canals, irrigation using underground water, high yielding crops, fertilizers, roads, literacy. The impact of these outlays on the creation of net wealth in agriculture can be measured with TFP.

A survey for the period 1970 to 1994 shows, that since 1980, the impact of High Yielding Variety of seeds, or HYV. is on the wane. For the entire period under consideration, it has been worked out that for every 100% increase in the rate of planting HYV seeds the index of productivity TFP went up by 6%. Similarly, doubling the use of fertilizer on 1 hectare land increased TFP by 4%. In the case of agricultural land which had access to underground water irrigation, when the access to irrigation was doubled, the TFP went up by 9%. The point to be noted is that these inputs are expensive and so even if they have a positive impact on the yield , the incremental impact of increased production over increased outlay on the inputs is not significant. Therefore, the impact of these inputs on the TFP index is marginal.

However, the impact of surface irrigation and literacy are significant. When the access of agricultural land to surface irrigation is doubled then the TFP index goes up by 33%. Similarly, when the literacy rate doubles, the TFP index goes up by 41% .

Example: Surface irrigation and increase of agriculturally produced resources

To increase net wealth in agriculture, the way forward is to increase outlay on surface irrigation and education. Now we come to facts and figures on West Bengal of which one cannot be proud of. Big irrigation canals and embankments have silted and lost their utility due to callous maintenance. In West Bengal, between 1990-1993 and 1997-2000, the portion of agricultural land having access to surface irrigation facilitated by canals and ponds has decreased from 51% to 33% – in other words a decrease of 35% in 7 years. The comparable figure for the rest of the country is not quite encouraging- a decrease of 15% over 7 years. However, in the case of West Bengal the situation is abysmally bad [13].

Kalyan Rudra [14] in 2007-08 worked out that of the 13 lakh hectare metres of surface water that can be used for irrigation, only 40% of it has been made available for irrigation. The government has not exhibited any urgency in harnessing the balance 60%.

One can approach the problem from a different angle, by looking at the portion of agricultural land that has access to surface irrigation. The West Bengal finance minister claimed in his 2008-09 budget speech that 70.5% of the agricultural land had access to irrigation. In 2005-06, 22% of the agricultural land had access to irrigation facilitated by government canals (Economic Survey, 2006-07). More than 48.5% of the land was dependent on underground irrigation (tube wells etc.). More the coverage of agricultural land with surface irrigation vis-à-vis underground irrigation, more will be the addition to net agricultural wealth. In the Punjab in 1994 [12], 93% of the agricultural land was irrigated by canals.

Hence, the proportion of agricultural land covered by surface irrigation can be increased by another 60%. It has been seen earlier that if the coverage increases by 100%, TFP increases by 33%. Therefore, expansion of surface irrigation facilities is the key to augment agriculturally produced net wealth by 20%.

To achieve this end the government of Suryakanta Mishra must stop the misinformation campaign that the government has exhausted all improvement possibilities in agriculture and rather than subsidizing big capital initiatives with crores of rupees it should divert its investment efforts back to agriculture by building embankments, digging canals and restoration/improvement of existing canals and other water bodies.

An activity, apparently quite ordinary and traditional like provisioning of irrigation facilities by digging tanks and canals can boost the agriculturally produced net wealth by 20%. If this possibility fructifies then at 2005-06 prices, the agriculturally produced net wealth (SDP) will increase by Rs.9,000 crores which is higher than the industrially produced net wealth during 2005-06.

It therefore follows that dissemination of misinformation such as exhaustion of productive possibilities in agriculture and futility of development efforts in agriculture are ploys to succumb to the overtures of big capital.

We refrain from an attempt here to discuss the efforts to extend literacy in the state. All we state here is that the first step in the discussion would be to unravel the truth behind the inflated claims of success in augmenting the literacy levels of the state.

Improvements in Agriculture and augmentation of the farmer’s purchasing capacity

A positive fallout of expanding irrigation facilities and supply of inputs to increase agricultural wealth will be the expansion of employment opportunities. The process of creating agricultural wealth by increasing the intensity of agriculture will call for more working hands. Well off agriculturists will reap maximum benefit but they will call for more working hands and this will increase the man days of work for agricultural workers and also increase their bargaining capacity for higher wage rates.

By now it is a proven fact that investment by big capital does not create employment. Economists like Amit Bhaduri have proposed a development model that’s primary and principal condition is generation of employment opportunities and which is opposed to the prevalent discourse of development powered by big capital investment.

Generation of employment opportunity will ensure purchasing power in the hands of rural poor and this will create a market for various goods used by them which will be catered for by production initiatives from small industries — provided the government of the day steps in proactively. However, the government of Suryakanta Mishra is not inclined to think about the alternative of decentralised village based industries. They are enamoured of big capital. Their dream is that big capital from overseas will come, start contract farming of, say, potatoes, buy the potatoes, and manufacture potato wafers in mammoth factories. So drunk are they on the sweet fragrance of potato wafers that they don’t care if the mammoth factory employs very few people, and the profits are transferred outside the village boundary, perhaps the country’s boundary.

This may sound like a joke but it is not one. The American predator Pepsico’s Frito Lay company has the capacity to manufacture wafers from 30,000 tonnes of potatoes. Last year they were buying 12,000 tonnes of potatoes from 1800 agriculturists spread over 6 districts. This crop was being cultivated on a total of 1600 acres of land following the rules of a contract with Frito Lay [15]. Frito Lay is in complete command of the entire production process and is dictating the crop output and the price at which the crop will be purchased by the company is determined before the sowing of the seeds, whatever the market price may be at the time of harvest. The company is providing the technology for cultivation of potatoes and this includes the provision of seeds, fertilizers and other inputs. Bengal is familiar with this modus operandi. The infamous and exploitative indigo plantations of colonial Bengal profited from the equally exploitative ‘dadon’ or contract farming system. The neo indigo planter Frito Lay is now here in the garb of a neo colonial company. This garb is acceptable to Mishra’s government or else why all the wining and dining? Frito Lay makes a profit of a whopping US$ 325 crores every year from its ‘ready to eat’ food business. In 2005, Pepsico reported a profit of US$ 750 crores from abroad (International Tribune , 9 February 2006)

Camp followers of big capital will question my reservations about this profiteering. My reservations stem from the fact that the government could well have financed this ‘dadon’ farming and ensured the retention of the profits with the farmers and small rural producers. The detractors will ask who will give the government the Rs 80 crores that Frito Lay is investing [16] or its ‘state of the art’ potato wafer technology. The magic of investing Rs 80 crores fades when the meagre employment at Frito-Lay’s Sankrail factory is counterposed with the prospect of spreading the production of potato wafers (albeit at a lower level of technology) over numerous villages generating substantial employment opportunities at a fraction of Rs 80 crores. Who will co-ordinate this activity of farming potatoes and sealing wafers? Why? The self help groups of course. Mishra has written about the potential of self help groups in distribution of goods in rural areas.

The rural unemployed and under-employed need work. Work will generate income which will be spent by them on purchasing manufactured goods. This will bring investments to these industries and in case of small industries, additional employment will be generated. It is in this context that the significance of NREGA is to be understood. During 2007-08, in West Bengal, there were 41 lac applicants for work under NREGA.17 The stipulated wage rate was approximately Rs.75/day or Rs 7500 for 100 days. From NSS data we know that at 2005 prices the annual consumption expenditure of a family of agricultural labourers is approximately Rs.5300 per annum. So a properly implemented NREGA would generate a disposable income of Rs.2200 in the hands of 41 lac families or Rs. 900 crores per annum. This will substantially expand the rural market and a planned implementation of work under NREGA could result in the building of rural infrastructure like road links to the nearest railway station and market, cold storages and godowns, and irrigation links to the main irrigation canal.

Improved irrigation, we have seen, will generate a disposable income of Rs.9000 crores and this along with proper NREGA implementation will ensure the availability of Rs.10,000 crores of disposable income in rural West Bengal. Left front’s 2006 state assembly election manifesto talks of a concealed but potential market of Rs.21,000 crores in rural West Bengal. However, they are keen to offer this on a platter to domestic and international big capital. We want this potential market to generate decentralized industries in rural areas. Only then will sufficient rural employment be generated.

Given an assured income there are many goods that common people in rural areas are eager to buy like clothes, cosmetics, agricultural tools & implements, articles of use in daily life like scissors & knives, radios & televisions and cycles. A little support from the government could lead to the setting up of small industries to meet this latent demand and generate employment. Alas! Suryakanta Mishra’s government will smile in disdain to this proposal of encouraging production of basic stuff like knives and scissors when juxtaposed to brightly packaged, butter fried, crisp potato wafers produced by Lays that will brighten up Calcutta malls with the flavour of New York.

Expectedly, Left front’s 2006 election manifesto contained plenty of hyperbole about agriculture. To emphasise that the manifesto is a forgotten episode, an attempt has been made here to understand the essence of CPI(M)’s agriculture policy from an article by a heavyweight leader published in a theoretical journal of the party. It is apparent that they are not keen on any improvements in agriculture per se which can be achieved by enhancing productivity. Rather, they are more keen on contract farming, tied to the purse strings of foreign capital. It is obvious that the cream of profit will be skimmed away by big capital and nothing will be re-invested in the rural environs from where the surplus originated. Left Front government has no objection to such profits heading towards American shores.

Yet we have seen that there are measures for increasing agricultural productivity, which, if taken, could result in significant improvements in the agricultural sector resulting in more jobs and the proliferation of small and cottage industries. The result will be a distribution of work and earnings over a wider section of the population and a reinvestment of the surplus at its point of origin rather than filling the coffers of big capital. It is not as if Suryakant Mishras of this world are not aware of this prognosis but yet they continue to placate the overtures of big capital.

About the alternative

The alternative outlined here is a capitalist one, but it cannot be accomplished by camp followers of the corporates. It is a people’s programme, a supplementary to the people’s democratic land redistribution programme, and one which can only be successfully implemented by people’s committees, led by poor and landless peasants, working through institutions of participatory democracy like the gram sansad, under the protection, political and economic, of a state essentially independent of corporate big capital. It calls for

1. Land redistribution in favour of the tiller,

2. All economic decisions through the gram sansad,

3. Guarantee of productive employment for labour,

and is essentially a programme for changing relations of production in agriculture, with consequent unleashing of the productive forces which Mishra’s party cannot see, blinded as it is by the tinsel glitter of international capital.

In other words. the alternative entails and implies a concomitant political struggle against international big capital and its rural allies and is an important component of that struggle. From another point of view, it occupies a transition period, at the the other end of which lies co-operative and collective farming.

References

(1)Suryakant Mishra, The Marxist, No.2, 2007 (statistics: NSS 491, 2003; NSS 492, 2002-03)

(2) Pranab Bardhan & Dilip Mukherjee, Land Reform and Farm Productivity in West Bengal, 23.04.2007

(3) Anirban Dasgupta, Agrarian Reforms in West Bengal Since 1970: A closer look at the actual facts, Department of Economics, University of California, Riverside, 2005.

(4) Pranab Bardhan & Dilip Mukherjee, Land Reforms, Decentralised Governance & Rural Development in West Bengal, Stanford Centre for International Development Conference, May 31 – June 3, 2006

(5) Sudipta Bhattacharya , Class Politics and Participatory Rural Transformation in West Bengal, Bath.AC.UK/CPE/Working Papers/ 05-04.p.d.f, Bath University, 2005.

(6) West Bengal Human Development Report (2004)

(7) Report of National Commission for Enterprises in Unorganised Sector (Arjun Sengupta Commission), August 2007.

(8) D.Bandopadhyay, article on PDS on www.sanhati.com, 13 October 2007; translated from Dainik Statesman.

(9) Manohar Mouli Biswas, dalitmirror.com, 20 January 2008.

(10)Sachar Report, November 2006, P M’s high level committee, Cabinet Secretariat 901.

(11) The Times Of India. 13 December 2007

(12) Madhusudan Bhattarai, A Narayanmurthy, Irrigation and Other Factors’ Contribution to the Agricultural Growth and Development in India: A Cross – State Panel Data Analysis for 1970-94, International Water Management Institute, I W M – Tata Annual Workshop, January 27-29, 2003.

(13) Anik Bhaduri, Upali Amarsinghe, Tushar Shah, Future Of Irrigation In India, 2006, International Water Management Institute.

(14)Kalyan Rudra, The Status of Water Resources in West Bengal, indiawaterportal.org, 2006-07.

(15) Namrata Acharya, 22 February 2008, Business Standard

(16)Project Monitor, 2 April 2008.

(17) i Government, 17 March 2008.

2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Panchayat System, Rural Classes, and Agriculture in West Bengal”

  1. prakash Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 04:42

    dear sanhati friends,
    You are, all, doing good, timely and bold works.Your work is verymuch useful for struggling and other democratic forces of the world,particularly india. A remarkable and hard work you people are doing.
    thanks a lot for work and committment.
    I did not read this particular article. I will write about it later.
    thanking you
    prakash

  2. JassiMostru Says:
    June 4th, 2010 at 18:23

    Hi
    Very nice and intrestingss story.

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