Understanding Exploitation in Rural Bihar: A Note

June 23, 2011

By Anirban Kar

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Even in this era of finance and globalization rural land ownership still occupies a central position in political economy of India. Peoples’ resistance, be it in Sompeta or in Narayanpatna, has revolved around similar aspirations; that of secured ownership of land. On the other hand, opposition to tenancy reform in Bihar and disbanding of Amir Das commission investigating Laxmanpur Bathe massacre show how desperate big landowners are to hold on to their privileges.

Since 60 percent of Indian population live in rural areas and about 60 percent of the total Indian labour force is engaged in agricultural activities, it is perhaps obvious that one cannot ignore the land question while ascertaining the structure and dynamics of Indian political economy. However the broader question which has occupied academics and activists since the 70s is: what is the nature of exploitation in rural India? In particular, to what extent capitalist mode of exploitation has replaced semi-feudal exploitation that India inherited from colonial period. Change in the structure of exploitation is a real possibility because Indian rural economy has got increasingly integrated with the global circuit of capital over the last forty years. The first major wave came in the 70s through ‘green revolution’ and later a bigger one in the 90s through ‘liberalization, privatization and globalization’. There is now enough evidence (see for instance, [KW] and [AC] especially in the context of rural Bihar) to show that the former failed to change the fabric of exploitation in Indian hinterland. But what can we say about the second wave of ‘reforms’? Has it really brought significant changes in the structure of exploitation in the rural landscape?

Two caveats are called for. First, this note does not aspire to answer the above question, which requires, among other things, extensive as well as intensive macroeconomic analyses well as case studies (see for instance, [BB] and [AS] respectively; both argue in favour of capitalist mode of exploitation). While some facts about land ownership has been discussed widely in the recent past (see [BB] and [VKR]), such as, increasing fragmentation of land, decreasing surplus from agriculture and a stagnant workforce locked in agriculture; some others have escaped our attention. In this small note, I shall try to highlight a few such factors. Second, this note will be primarily based on evidence from Bihar and considering the uneven development of India I shall not claim any universality for my propositions.

As a prelude, I shall, first, discuss why the land question is important in the context of political economy of India.

Production relation debate: A framework

At the cost of repeating the obvious, let me point out two of the primary differences between capitalist and semi-feudal (I shall also use the word ‘pre-capitalist’) modes of exploitation.

(1) Capitalist societies ensure secured ownership of means of production as well as secured contract between capital owners and labourers. Ownerships and contracts are enforced through state apparatus. In contrast semi-feudal societies are more likely to have fuzzy ownerships based on informal agreements dictated by social hierarchies and norms which have precapitalist origin. In Indian context, caste is likely to be an important determinant. Pre-capitalist contracts are enforced by various means depending on the local power structure: by employing private mercenaries, by using local governmental agents etc.

(2) In capitalist mode of exploitation labourers are free in their socio-political existence–“ the disappearance of all forms of personal dependence and patriarchalism in relationships’’ (Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia) -that is, dependence of labourers on capital owners is exclusively economic in nature. In a semi-feudal structure the subservience of the exploited lower strata on the elites has both socio-political and economic aspects; the subservience sustains through patron-client relationships and this feature gets reproduced.

Where does land fit in the broader political economic structure? To begin with, in a pre-capitalist rural society economic dominance is exercised through control over productive inputs, primarily land (but not exclusively; some other examples would be ground water, credit, trade etc.). A clientele is created by providing selective access to these productive inputs by the de facto owners—the exploiter elite. Then surplus is extracted in the forms of rent, interest payment, assured labour in a state of semi-bondage etc. Direct coercion plays a non-trivial role in transfer of this surplus to the exploiters. This, in turn, also gives rise to socio-political dependence and unfreedom of the dominated classes. Thus, surplus is extracted through simultaneous (mutually sustaining) use of localized economic and political dominance. In a capitalist structure, at the economic level, secured land ownership and secured tenancy rights promote long term investment in enhancing productivity and conservation, compared to insecure rights. Surplus thus generated not only creates new market for other commodities, but also a part of it is channelized into productive investment thereby generating a component of the famed dynamism of capitalism. In socio-political dimensions, secured and legal ownership of and/or access to productive inputs, diminishing the relevance of overt coercion, develop a sense of democratic rights across the population. This in turn loosens the grip of rural elites over the dominated classes in social and political spheres.

Although the above distinctions can serve as a ready guide, reality may not conform exactly to the model features outlined above (there come the importance of rigorous empirical analysis taking into account the regional specificities, mentioned earlier). In any case, based on this framework, I shall argue that in the context of Bihar a pre-capitalist mode of exploitation still persists.

Arguments in favour of capitalist mode of exploitation

I do not intend to provide a full fledged literature survey on this issue here. I shall restrict myself to a few major arguments, related to my note, forwarded in support of the capitalist mode hypothesis. For full analysis (both macro and case study), one can read [BB], [UP], [RRS] and this Sanhati article by Deepankar Basu among others.

1. Land ownership: Land has got fragmented over last few decades; average size of ownership has decreased from 3 acres in 1982 to less than 2 acres in 2003. During the same time, number of effectively landless households (owning less than 1 acre) among all rural household has increased from 48 percent to 60 percent. [BB] reported

‘Changes in the distribution of landownership in Bihar, according to the resurvey in 1999-2000, has been underlined by the loss of land, as measured by the average size of ownership holding, from all categories of size-classes and all caste groups. The loss of land was steepest for landlords, big peasants and agricultural labourers; the loss was lowest for the middle category of peasants’.

2. Labour contract: Based on their field study in 1981and 1999, [RR] provides a comparison of labour contracts in Purnia district of Bihar. They note that compared to 1981, the most striking change is the decline of permanent labour. Virtually all agricultural labourers are now casual, daily paid; the many permanent ploughmen (halwaha) of 1981 have effectively disappeared. As far as share tenancy is concerned, macro data shows similar trend; it was found that the percentage of households leasing in land has declined from 25% in 1971-72 to 12% in 2003 and the proportion of sharecropping to all tenancy contracts has remained the same (around 40%) over the years.

It can be argued based on these trends that the grip of erstwhile landlords is disappearing fast and have been replaced by rich and middle farmers (point 1). Unlike landlords, who extracted surplus through various direct channels involving political-economic coercion, predominant mode of surplus extraction by rich farmers work through the institution of “free” wage-labour (point 2), one of the defining features of capitalism. Other factors, such as control over non-land inputs, borrowing, capital formation, investment, migration are integral to this analysis and some of these have been taken into account by the above mentioned references.

I shall re-examine this using a new set of relatively recent data.

Data source

I shall draw most of my evidence from a booklet ‘Landlessness and social Justice: An assessment of disparities in land distribution and prospects of land reforms’ based on a land-mapping process in Bihar. Since I do not have access to the full data (more nuanced analysis is possible with the full data), my analysis is restricted by evidence presented in the booklet. This will be supplemented by other secondary sources.

Click here to access the booklet from Ekta Parishad and Praxis [PDF, 1 MB] »

I shall discuss the data collection process in some detail, because I believe it is qualitatively superior to macro data (as well as some mechanical case studies) due to following reasons;

1. Although the underlying politics is essentially reformist [1]; the data was collected with the aim of forming ‘the basis for collective action’ [preface, EP] rather than for official or academic use.

2. Intense involvement of landless villagers in the process of data collection and compilation.

In 2007, Ekta Parishad and Praxis, carried out a land mapping exercise in the following five districts; 14 villages of Sikandara block in Jamui, 7 villages of Kauwakol block in Nawada, 6 villages of Bankebazaar block in Gaya, 10 villages of Bagaha block in West Champaran and 1 village of Paliganj block in Patna. But in the booklet the data from Patna were not reported. From each village three four villagers were chosen whose collective knowledge was used to draw a comprehensive lad map of the village. Important information relating to each plot of land such as name and caste of the person who presently has control over a plot; duration and basis of control; size, quality and irrigation status of the plot; name of the legal owner etc. was collected. The map thus prepared was presented in front of a large gathering of the villagers for verification. This map was compared with the official map before final data compilation.

Understanding the mode of exploitation: analyses of the features revealed by the data

a. Encroachment of land

Though zamindari was statutorily abolished in 1952, using the legal loopholes and weak enforcement, dominant castes of Bihar remained in the control of land. Intermediaries of zamindars and occupancy tenants, mostly from upper castes, some from upper layer of middle castes also benefited from the process (see for example [BN]). As late as in 2002, Liberation (September 2002, Land struggle in West Champaran reaches new hights) provided a list of big landlords in West Champran.

Here is an excerpt.

‘Markandey Pandey, a resident of Deoria district in UP, is a notorious land mafia who has been illegally possessing 250 acres of land in Chiutahan village. He possesses legal papers only for 6.5 acres…Dilip Verma, Madhu Verma, Om Verma and their families belong to Kayastha community. They are in relation to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first president of India. They have around 5,000 acres of land under their possession. Their land spreads over Shikarpur, Gaunaha, Mainatanr and Ramnagar blocks of the district.’

In the land mapping exercise, it was found that high proportion of land has been encroached by the dominant section of the society. The average size of land illegally occupied by this section stands at 2.4 acres and cover 10% of the total encroached land. If we compare it with the average legal landholding of upper caste (4.44 acres in Gaya and 3 acres in Jamui), it is evident that the size of illegal encroachment is nearly as big as legal holding [2]. In contrast average encroachment by SC, ST and OBC are 0.46, 0.85 and 0.98 acre respectively. [EP] notes that such instances of occupancy by lower castes are ‘driven by compulsions of eking out a livelihood, as clearly evident from their high degree of landlessness’. Although not documented it is likely that lower caste occupants can maintain their illegal possession over encroached land only by entering into a patron-client relation with the landlords/big farmers of that area.

How do the upper castes occupy new land and maintain their possession? One major source identified by [EP] is inability of landless people to establish effective control over land allotted to them by the Government. Rich farmers and landlords in connivance with administration, police and judiciary occupy these plots. In such cases although the government documents (and hence, macro data) show the landless households as new owners, effective control of land still rest with the landlords/rich farmers. In many cases, ‘daakhil-kharij’ (the receipt of land allotment) did not even reach the legal owners. As a typical example the following case was reported by [EP]. After promulgation of land ceiling act, 81 acres owned by Mahant Ramdhan were divided and redistributed among people without land. However till date no receipt has been issued by the government to the recipients. Where people have received land documents, rich farmers and landlords maintained their illegal occupation by using force. Liberation, April 2004, published a fact finding report on Sonebhadra district in UP (bordering Bihar).

‘Our visit to these villages and discussion with the people revealed that the main bone of contention between the land owners and the landless has been to wrest physical control over the cultivable lands that were distributed to the landless poor almost a decade ago. They had legal right over the land through the parchas given to them, but the poor were prevented from entering the land by the sheer power of the landowners in collusion with the criminals.’

[EP] also found that landlessness and failure to establish effective ownership over land is particularly severe for SC and ST households. I shall take up this issue in the next section. But evidence from this section shows how control over land still seems to be serving as a prime base of non-capitalist exploitation in rural Bihar.

b. Landlessness of dalits and adivasis

Landlessness is an important factor in understanding the rural class structure because landless households are expected to form the core of agrarian working class. They do not own any means of production except labour power and hence are most likely to enter into a wage-labour contract with the rich (de facto) land-owners. They are also most likely to migrate in search of better wage rates, which may loosen the grip of political control (see [RR] for a case study). Macro data shows that effective landlessness (ownership of less than 1 acre) has increased tremendously in last few decades and a major portion of income of these households now come from wages.

However these apparent changes towards a capitalist form of exploitation hide many channels of underlying non-capitalist control. For instance, according to 1991 census, among female agricultural workers in Bihar, 33% were cultivators while 60% were agricultural labourers. But should this be taken as a sign of wage labour relation? On the contrary, exploitation of women agricultural workers has become the hallmark of caste-class oppression (this has been widely documented; see for instance [GK]). I reproduce here a paragraph from an excellent fact finding report by PUDR on massacres in central Bihar in early nineties [PU].

‘In the eyes of the people at large, oppressors are those who trample upon the dignity of their labourers by forcing them to work for low wages, denying them access to land and subjecting them to humiliating practices. Employers of labour who possess such ignominious characteristics are marked out from other employers and locally designated as zamindars or as samant. The identification of a person as a zamindar/samant is not linearly related to the size of landholding. In essence, this identity, subject to the capacity to hire labour, hinges on the possession of a particular aggressive mentality, which may be characterised as a feudal mentality (samant vichar), manifested in a callous, intimidatory attitude towards labour in general and the dignity of women in particular’.

Thus in determining the mode of exploitation, mere statistical data on the proportion of agricultural workers, prevalence of “formal” wage contract etc. can be quite misleading.

Thus it is not enough to look at landlessness data. One should also look at the causes of landlessness. Caste composition of landless households can be useful in this context. As mentioned earlier [EP] has collected data on landholding by caste. It was found that effective landlessness is highly correlated with caste hierarchy. For instance in West Champaran, 96% SC households are effectively landless, while the corresponding figures are 80% for ST, 64% for OBC and only 26% for higher castes. Similarly in Gaya, 70% of SC households are effectively landless, compared to 40% among the higher castes. These figures are hardly surprising, because land has always been under the control of upper castes. But it indicates that wage labour does not necessarily mean a capitalist contract. A formal wage labour contract between a rich farmer and a landless labourer also embodies a production relation between an upper caste landowner and a dalit landless. This relation has non-capitalist origin and has been historically defined by simultaneous economic and extra-economic control. Thus it is conceivable that semi-feudal caste oppressions can hide behind the apparent capitalist wage labour form of exploitation.

Since my analysis is limited by data availability, here I jot down a few questions that require father analysis. What are the main causes of landlessness apart from land fragmentation? To what extent increasing landless is contributed by dalit/adivasi households? Is it the case that increase in upper caste landless is primarily a result of occupational diversification from farmer/landlord to contractor, trader etc. rather than from cultivator to agricultural worker? To what extent migration has loosened the socio-political grip of upper caste on dalit/adivasi labourers/cultivators?

c. Hidden tenancy

Many studies have observed the prevalence of sharecropping in Bihar. D. Bandyopadhyay, who formulated the Bihar tenancy reform act (subsequently rejected), admitted that ‘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’ [DB]. This is incompatible with the NSSO estimates of percentage of area leased in to total area owned and the percentage of area leased out to total area owned, which were 7% and 3% respectively in 2003.

[EP] land mapping reveals that this anomaly is primarily due to underreporting of tenancy. It was found that in almost all the districts included in the study sharecropping is a common phenomenon. As a typical case, the booklet provides a land map of Lachhuar village in Jamui district. In this village, out of 717 acres of village area, 295 acres, that is around 40%, is under sharecropping. Although size class distribution of these plots are not provided, it is mentioned that the above 295 acres are enclosed in 56 holdings, of which 33 belong to upper and middle castes while 18 to OBCs. The booklet summarises the findings on sharecropping in the following paragraph. It is self explanatory and it clearly indicates the persistence of the classic semi-feudal mode of exploitation through sharecropping.

‘In most cases of sharecropping, the agreement between landowners and sharecroppers seem to violate the provisions of Bihar tenancy act 1885. Importantly, most cases relating to sharecropping in the state are based on verbal agreement and no landowner wants to have such agreements written out on paper or assume the form of formal contract. According to prevailing customs the sharecropper has to give one-half of the yield of the land cultivated by him to the landowner, which is a breach of the legal ceiling prescribed to this effect. Further landowners make sure that sharecroppers do not get to cultivate any plot of land continuously over a long time to pre-empt possibilities of legal transfer of land ownership in the name of the sharecropper.’

In the same context, [AC] makes an important observation.

‘Petty cultivators (around 19 per cent of the households), comprising mainly dalits, also held a marginal position in the structure of land control… The working members of a petty cultivator’s household were compelled to hire themselves out as agricultural labourers as the amount of land operated was grossly inadequate for a living. Thus, though some members of the class referred to themselves as ‘chhote kisan’ (small cultivators), and others as bataidars, many simply described themselves as performers of mazdoori’.

Thus it appears that categories such as cultivators or sharecroppers are fluid in nature, at least in rural Bihar. In fact it is conceivable that location of a household in terms of these categories may even fluctuate over the years. However it is important to remember that mode of exploitation in a society is a fundamental category and it cannot fluctuate like the ‘official categories’. Thus if sharecroppers are subjected to semi-feudal exploitation in rural Bihar then it is unlikely to be very different for agricultural labourers.

d. Enforcement of contract

Prevalence of illegal encroachment of land and informal sharecropping bring us to the important issue of enforcement of a contract. It is apparent that such informal contracts cannot be implemented through state apparatus such as administration, police and judiciary, which is characteristic of a capitalist mode of exploitation. Instead these contracts are enforced by landlord/rich farmers by developing a patron-client relation with the state apparatus. Unlike capitalist enforcement, the latter requires a part of surplus extracted from labour to be shared privately with state agencies (on top of state funding for such agencies. These state-agents also run their own predatory form of direct coercive surplus extraction, but that is beyond the scope of the present study.). Similar observations have been made earlier by different studies. [AC] remarked

‘Such examples confirm the existence of a symbiotic connection between the dominant class in a village and the local organs of the state. Indeed, state power in Bihar, by being appropriated by village-based elites, is actually embodied in structures of power at the grass roots’.

[EP] has also documented several incidents of this nature. The following case can be taken as a typical example. In Nayagaon and Kathfor villages of West Champaran 5.75 acres of ceiling surplus land belonging to Sharda Devi was distributed among twelve scheduled caste families. But Paras Nath Yadav took control over the distributed land. Although the circle court verdict favoured the aggrieved families yet in last twelve years no official actions have been taken to carry out the court order.

Conclusion

I emphasize that objective of this note was not to reach a definitive conclusion. Let me summarise here the main points.

1. Based on some secondary sources, it seems non-capitalist exploitation is still the predominant form in several parts of rural Bihar. However this note considers some of the relevant factors related to land-ownership only and further studies are required to establish (or reject) this tentative conjecture.

2. Aggregate data (similar criticism applies to mechanical case studies), though useful in providing a broad perspective, is not reliable while determining the mode of exploitation. Since macro data are collected for official purpose (as opposed to from the need of radically transforming the society) it fails to capture the nuances of informal ownership, contracts and their enforcement at the grassroot level which are integral components of patron-client relationships and thus, non-capitalist exploitation.

3. Since a substantial component of semi-feudal exploitation perpetuates through extra-economic channels, apart from purely economic variables it is also crucially important to look at factors like non-economic social hierarchy, historical path of development and regional specificities of the rural society concerned for understanding the structure of exploitation in its entirety.

Notes

1. The limitation of land reform and tenancy reform without dismantling the entire edifice of exploitation is best exemplified in West Bengal. It became a tool of political and economic control for ruling CPI(M). See this Sanhati article by Krishanu Mandal for an analysis.

2. A size class distribution of encroachment would have been more useful, but the booklet does not provide this data.

References

[AC] Anand Chakravarti; Caste and agrarian class: A view from Bihar; Economic and Political Weekly, April 2001

[AS] A. N. Sharma; Agrarian Relations and Socio-Economic Change in Bihar; Economic and Political Weekly, March 2005

[BB] Basole and Basu; Relations of production and modes of surplus extraction in India: Part I – Agriculture; Economic and Political Weekly, April 2011

[BN] D. Banerjea; Personal Cultivation: The crucial issue in land reforms; B N
Yugandhar and K Gopal Iyer (eds), 1993

[DB] D. Bandyopadhyay; Lost opportunity in Bihar; Economic and Political Weekly, November 2009

[EP] Landlessness and social Justice: An assessment of disparities in land distribution and prospects of land reforms; Ekta Parishad and Praxis- Institute for participatory practices, 2009. Click here to access the booklet from Ekta Parishad and Praxis [PDF, 1 MB] »

[GK] George J. Kunnath; Becoming a Naxalite in rural Bihar: Class struggle and its contradictions; Journal of Peasant Studies, 2006

[KW] Kalpana Wilson; Small cultivators in Bihar and ‘new’ technology; Economic and Political Weekly, March 2002

[PU] Bitter harvest: Roots of massacre in rural Bihar; People’s Union for Democratic Rights, 1992

[RR] Rodgers and Rodgers; A leap across time: When semi-feudalism met the market in rural Purnia; Economic and Political Weekly, June 2001

[RRS] Socio-economic surveys of three villages in Andhra Pradesh: A study of agrarian relation; edited by V.K. Ramachandran, Vikas Rawal and M Swaminathan, 2010

[UP] Utsa Patnaik; New data on the arrested development of capitalism in Indian agriculture; Social Scientist, July-August 2007

[VKR] V K Ramachandran; The state of agrarian relations in India Today; The Marxist, January–June 2011

5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Understanding Exploitation in Rural Bihar: A Note”

  1. kk Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 5:00 am

    I think the author is not at all aware of the debates among Marxists about what signifies non-capitalism and capitalism in agriculture and about seemingly non/pre-capitalist forms of exploitation having capitalist significance. What is non-capitalism in his analysis? Encroachment? Caste?
    Hilarious is his statement:

    “Pre-capitalist contracts are enforced by various means depending on the local power structure: by employing private mercenaries, by using local governmental agents etc.”

    In which capitalist (according to him) countries did this not happen? He should try to familiarise himself with what happened in history – he can read Hill, Hobsbawm and many others readily available to see how illegality and predatori-ness constituted the origins of capitalism.

    It is pathetic to see ‘Marxist’ scholars talking about fighting feudalism more than fifty years after Kosambi argued in 1954:

    “Talk of fighting feudalism today is on a level with talk of fighting dinosaurs.”

  2. kk Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 5:10 am

    Anyway Kosambi’s article that I quoted above is very instructive. You can read it now online if you don’t have a pph copy of Exasperating Essays:

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/kosambi/exasperating-essays/x01/1954.htm

  3. MR Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:25 am

    No doubt, with such ‘marvellous’ understanding of the social reality of the subcontinent, Kosambi himself has today become a dinosaur, while CPI/CPI(M) are on their way to extinction! Those who are still ‘In Search of the Capitalist Farmer’ of course cannot but overlook the feudal/semi-feudal production relations and forms of exploitation. Anirban Kar’s article is a timely retort to the theories of ‘Capitalist Development’ in India, which exist only in the fertile minds of CPI/CPM intellectuals, not in reality.

  4. kk Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 9:37 pm

    Another bogus and ignorant ‘retort’. The whole politics of CPI/CPIM is based on removing feudal vestiges and completing capitalist transition (which according to them – including the neo-CPIM, the Maoists – the capitalists in India themselves are unable to attain).

  5. kk Says:
    June 23rd, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    With this understanding of India’s political economy, all of them supported Tikait and India’s (big) farmers’ movement. With this understanding, their leaders and cadres do not take much time in concluding finally that SP, RJD, JMM, Trinamool etc are the parties of the day – why remain communists when anyway we have to just fight caste, encroachment and complete the capitalist transition. See the destiny of many ex-s in the naxal movement.

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