Agrarian Change in Eastern India: The View from Bihar

August 27, 2010

By Deepankar Basu, Sanhati


In the backdrop of the growing peoples’ movement in the country against the logic of neoliberal capitalist development, Basole and Basu (2009) [available here] had revisited the “mode of production” debate of the 1970s to understand the evolution of relations of production and modes of surplus extraction in India over the last five decades. Using aggregate level data for agriculture and informal industry, which together employ about 94 percent of Indian’s working population, the paper had highlighted key aspects of contemporary Indian capitalism. The analysis was meant to link up with and inform attempts at radically restructuring Indian society in a socialist direction.

Though Basole and Basu (2009) had used several case studies related to the unorganized/informal industrial sector to complement the story emerging from aggregate level data, the paper had failed to do a similar analysis of the agrarian sector. The major lacuna of the paper, therefore, was its failure to draw on micro/village level studies of agrarian change to supplement aggregate level trends derived from sample survey and census data. In this article, we take the first step towards addressing that shortcoming by summarizing crucial aspects of the dynamics of agrarian change in rural Bihar over the last few decades based on three village-level studies.

The first study is based on fieldwork done between 1978 and 1980 in a canal-irrigated village in Purnea district in Northeastern Bihar (Chakravarti, 2001); though a little dated, this study offers a vivid picture of agrarian change in North Bihar, a well-known bastion of feudalism. In particular, this study throws light on the complex interaction of class and technological forces that led to the gradual replacement of tenancy with wage-labour based cultivation in Northern Bihar.

The second study that we draw on is based on fieldwork carried out in 1995-96 in 12 villages in Nalanda district in Central Bihar (Wilson, 1999). One of these villages had been surveyed as part of a 1981-82 collaborative study by the A N Sinha Institute of Social Science (ANSISS), Patna and, and the International Labour Organization (ILO); by comparing the late 1970s to the mid 1990s, this study provides useful insights into the transformation of agrarian relations in Central Bihar.

The third study that we draw on is much more comprehensive in both a cross sectional and time series sense. It is based on a resurvey of 12 villages in 1999-2000 spread across all regions of Bihar. While the resurvey was conducted by the Institute of Human Development, New Delhi, the original survey had been conducted, as already indicated, in 1981-82 by the A N Sinha Institute of Social Science (ANSISS), Patna in collaboration with the International Labour Organization (ILO) under the leadership of noted social scientist P. H. Prasad (Sharma, 2005). The findings of the resurvey allows us to compare key aspects of the agrarian structure of Bihar at two points in time, 1982 and 2000, and thus draw some conclusions about the direction of agrarian change.

Taken together, the three studies – especially Sharma (2005) and Wilson (1999) – offer a unique picture of the dynamics of agrarian transformation in Bihar, and points towards larger agrarian changes taking place all over Eastern India. Complemented with case studies from other regions of the country and the summary of aggregate trends presented in Basole and Basu (2009), this whole study offers a first pass at comprehensively understanding key aspects of the political economy pf contemporary Indian reality.

North Bihar

Our story about North Bihar draws, as we have already indicated, on Chakravarti (2001) and is located in a village in Purnea district (North Bihar). It is important to recall, at the very outset, that the whole of North Bihar was, and probably still remains, a primarily agrarian economy with very little industrial development. Right till the late 1960s, agricultural production was organized through tenant cultivation under a sharecropping arrangement. The predominant class relation in such a society, therefore, had non-cultivating upper caste landlords (called maliks) at one end and lower caste or tribal sharecroppers (called bataidars) on the other: the landlords were the owners of the land and the sharecroppers the actual producers. Typically the tenant provided all the inputs to production, often using a loan from the landlord to defray relevant costs, and had to surrender half of the gross output as rent at harvest time. Apart from half of the gross produce as rent payment, the tenant had to bear the burden of numerous other exorbitant demands from the landlord (called abwabs), including extremely high interest payment on his loans, which left very little of the output for himself. On top of this, the tenant and his family members had to regularly render unpaid labour services (called begar) for the malik.

Small portions of the produce for the tenant had two important implications. First, left with virtually no surplus, the actual producer, i.e., the tenant, had no incentive for improving methods of production or introducing technological changes; since the landowner was anyway not involved in the production process, the result was technological backwardness. Second, low productivity of crop production and a small share of the gross output for the direct producer also meant not only an absolutely low level of consumption for the tenant family but also the creation, year after year, of the necessity for loans from the malik and the impossibility of ever paying them back; the result was the perpetuation of poverty-ridden semi-servile life conditions for the tenant and his family members.

Two sets of factors, one social and the other technological, came together to affect a change in the situation so that by the early 1980s, sharecropping arrangements had been largely replaced by the use of wage labour to organize agricultural production. The social factors in question were those that were related to the emergence and sharpening of class struggle between landlords and sharecroppers; the technological factors, on the other hand, were the development of canal irrigation and growth of tractorisation. Let us take up each of these in turn.

The relationship between maliks and bataidars, resting on contradictory material ineterests, was bound to be tension ridden. Not only were the actual producers (the bataidars) exploited by the maliks in the sense of appropriating more than half of the gross produce of their labour, but maliks were also unwilling to recognize the occupancy rights of the actual producers (the bataidars). From the very beginning, there was a tussle between bataidars and maliks over the issue of occupancy rights, which went through two phases in Purnea.

The first phase of the struggle in the 1930s and 1940s was centered on the action of Santhal bataidars – located at the very bottom of the social hierarchy in terms of caste – against the exploitation of the maliks. Despite dogged resistance, the maliks managed to largely evict the Santhals – the original tenant cultivators – and replace them with more pliant intermediate caste bataidars. Within two decades, the intermediate caste bataidars, primarily members of the Yadav caste in Purnea, managed to replicate the struggle of the Santhal sharecroppers and fiercely fought to claim occupancy rights over the land that they tilled. Maliks, once again, attempted to evict the tenants, which the latter resisted, at times quite successfully. Successful resistance to forcible eviction by maliks meant, according to the letter and spirit of the Bihar Tenancy Act of 1938, that tenants could buy the land, and oftentimes that is what happened. “From the point of view of the maliks it [i.e., the successful struggle of the Yadav sharecroppers in Purnea] reiterated the dangers of entering into sharecropping arrangements with groups with a cultivating tradition. It thus compelled them to consider other ways to organize the cultivation of their lands; accordingly, greater attention was paid to recruitment of agricultural labour.” (pp. 70, Chakravarti, 2001). Class struggle created the incentives for the adoption of wage labour.

Around this time when the maliks were actively trying to reorient production relationships in Purnea, some crucial technological factors kicked in. Canal irrigation from the Kosi river became available from 1969, facilitating an enormous increase in the intensity and scale of cultivation. The traditional agricultural cycle, with annual cultivation of a single crop on a given field, could now be replaced with multiple cropping on the same piece of land. This led to the development of a pattern of agricultural production that encouraged the cultivation of paddy, maize and wheat, the last being a novelty in the area. Keeping pace with the strict requirements of cropping time in the new agricultural cycle was greatly facilitated by the adoption of tractors. Thus, the tenant-labour based plough teams were gradually replaced with wage-labour using tractors, the driver of the tractor being recruited, most of the times, from poorer members of the dominant caste. “By and large, the capacity of big landholders to organize production within the framework of the new agricultural cycle was determined by the possession of tractors.” (pp. 96, Chakravarti, 2001).

The confluence of social and technological factors, thus, heralded the decline of sharecropping and its replacement by the use of wage labour. But what emerged from the womb of tenancy was not the doubly free wage labour observed in 18th century England (Marx, 1992); maliks attempted to fashion labour arrangements that allowed the continuation of dependency and “unfreedom” even within the framework of wage labour. The main mechanism, in this case in North Bihar, through which agricultural workers were constrained to work exclusively for the same malik as his “unfree labour” (known as lagua jan) was debt.

Chakravarti’s (2001) study ends in the early 1980s, and we are left with a picture of agrarian change whereby tenancy has been replaced by various kinds of debt-bonded wage labour. One can surmise, based on filed studies carried out in other parts of Bihar and in later years, that as employment opportunities outside agriculture became accessible to agricultural workers and poor peasants, their bargaining power increased, and elements of dependency and unfreedom gradually became weaker over time (see, for instance, Sharma, 2005).

Central Bihar

The story about Central Bihar that we wish to narrate is based on a study of 12 villages in Nalanda district by Kalpana Wilson: Chandkura, which had been surveyed as part of the ANSISS-ILO study of the early 1980s, and 11 other villages in the Hilsa block of Nalanda district (Wilson, 1999).

The narrative begins in 1965-66, a period remembered by members of the local population for an unusually severe drought. Till this period, cultivation was wholly rain-fed and the drought – stretching over many years – caused repeated crop failures in the region. This provided the impetus for adoption of the new varieties of seeds that were being promoted at that time by the State as part of the so-called Green Revolution, and simultaneously created the pressure to look for alternative sources of irrigation. Electricity had become available in a fairly stable manner from around that time; hence, cultivators quickly turned to tube well irrigation powered by electricity to deal with the problem of water. Tractorisation followed in its wake, largely to cope up with the rigours of the new crop cycle, just like in North Bihar.

Who were these progressive cultivators who adopted the high yielding varieties of seeds, invested in tobewell irrigation and ushered in a period of high growth in agriculture? Who were the agents of this peasant capitalism in Bihar agriculture? The 1981-82 ANSISS-ILO study found that the majority of such progressive cultivators, in the forefront of spreading the Green Revolution in Central Bihar, were intermediate caste (Kurmi, Koeri and Yadav) middle peasants. They were markedly different from the erstwhile upper caste landlords in one crucial respect: they were cultivating farmers, while the upper caste landlords had largely been parasitic non-cultivating owners of the land. How did the intermediate caste middle peasantry come to own the land? Though Wilson (1999) does not deal with this issue, one can surmise that transfer of land to the intermediate caste middle peasants was the result of processes seen elsewhere in Bihar: the class struggle of intermediate caste tenants for occupancy rights in the backdrop of half-hearted land reforms, leading, in many cases, to the sale of land by upper caste landlords to their erstwhile tenants. Whatever the reasons that facilitated the transfer of ownership of land to the intermediate caste households in Nalanda, there is no doubt, according to the findings of the ANSISS-ILO survey, that they were at the forefront of technological improvement and the switch to organizing agricultural production using wage labour in the 1970s.

That this new phase of “peasant capitalism” brought about changes in the relations of production can be inferred from by looking at some of the crucial aspects of the agrarian structure in Central Bihar: changes in the distribution of land ownership and the caste-class nexus, major sources of income of rural households, the prevalence or otherwise of tenancy and the development of various forms of wage labour.

According to Wilson (1999), ownership of land continued to be as skewed in 1995-96 as it was in 1981-82; the notable difference was the absence of “large” landholders, i.e., those owning more than 25 acres of land, in the later year. In 1995-96, while the top 10 percent of households owned about 64 percent of the cultivated land, the bottom 70 percent owned only 7.5 percent of the land. 50 percent of households were completely landless and another 21 percent owned less than an acre, making about 71 percent of households effectively landless. As observed in other parts of rural India, there was a simple pattern to the relationship between caste and class in Central Bihar: the scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe (ST) households, i.e., those who are at the bottom rung of the caste hierarchy, were predominantly landless labourers or marginal peasants; the dominant caste, in this case intermediate caste, households, on the other hand, were distributed across the class spectrum, with a significant share operating as rich and middle cultivating peasants.

For the scheduled caste households, who accounted for roughly 50 percent of all the households, more than 90 percent of income derived from wage labour in agriculture within the village in 1995-96. For the intermediate caste peasant households, income from cultivation accounted for the major share of household income. A noteworthy feature of Central Bihar, according to Wilson (1999), was the rapid growth of poor peasant households – those that neither hired in nor hired out labour in agriculture – over the two decade period, from 3.7 percent of total households in 1981-82 to 19.3 percent of households in 1995-96. Interestingly, about half the poor peasant households reported that they were primarily dependent on non-agricultural sources of income, highlighting the importance of non-farm employment in the informal sector for the rural poor.

What is the picture regarding the prevalence of tenancy in the mid-1990s? Only about 19 percent of households reported leasing in land for cultivation, with the average size of owned plots of the tenants less than 1 acre and the average size of the leased in plot about 1.2 acres. Large landholders did not lease in land; hence, there was no evidence of reverse tenancy, something observed in other parts of North Bihar.

Continued landlessness and declining prevalence of tenancy meant the growth of wage labour, both within and outside agriculture. Two kinds of labour arrangements was observed by Wilson (1999): casual labour (with daily wage payments) and attached labour (with annual contracts and a small plot of land for the labourer). Bonded labour and other forms of attachment had declined significantly even by the time of the 1981-82 survey; by 1995-96, they had virtually disappeared as had unpaid labour services performed for landlords by agricultural labourers.

Wilson (1999) points to an interesting indicator of the decline of attached labour between 1981-82 and 1995-96. This related to agricultural inputs that were needed for the small plot of land that was “given” to the attached labourer. The 1981-82 survey had found that landlords provided free electric powered tubewell irrigation to the agricultural labourer to reinforce his attachment; in 1995-96, the attached labourer had to hire the tubewell from the landlord at the going market rental rate, apart from providing all other inputs (other than seeds, plough and bullocks) to cultivation. A contractual relationship had replaced the patronage-cum-bondage of the early 1980s.

In 1995-96, therefore, the major dividing line “according to which the majority of inhabitants of Chandkura and other villages in Hilsa define themselves is that between ‘kisans’ (literally peasants) and ‘mazdoors’ (workers). This is partly an expression of the fact that the area is dominated by landowners of the Kurmi Mahato caste, traditionally a peasant caste. It also reflects contemporary reality in which the central class contradiction is between landless or near-landless agricultural labourers, and employers who themselves engage in cultivation, with very few non-cultivating landlords. ” (pp. 322, Wilson, 1999).

The primacy of the contradiction between agricultural labourers and employers in Central Bihar, of course, did not rest on a dynamic agrarian economy. The peasant capitalism of the 1970s encountered serious roadblocks, and by the mid-1980s, the whole process had more or less stalled. Following in the footsteps of the erstwhile upper caste landlords, the intermediate caste peasants started channeling the agricultural surpluses of the 1970s into unproductive avenues dominated by corruption and crime. This allowed them to develop the political clout to appropriate various arms of the State and thereby siphon off the lion’s share of development funds. What Das (1992) called the “primitive accumulation through corruption and crime”, thus, became one of the fastest routes to economic prosperity. The flip side was economic stagnation.

The growing corruption affected State investment in infrastructure and led to reduction in the availability of key inputs, the most crucial being electricity. The near total de-electrification of Central Bihar by the mid-1980s forced the adoption of diesel pump sets by cultivators, substantially increasing the costs of production. Combined with increasing cost of fertilizer – officially subsidized by the State but available to actual cultivators only through the black market – the adoption of diesel pump sets for irrigation reduced, or even completely wiped out, surpluses of cultivating peasants. The combination of factors that led to either a diversion of surpluses into non-productive avenues (like crime and corruption) or a reduction of available surpluses (due to increasing costs of cultivation), heralded a stalling of the dynamic of peasant capitalism of the 1970s.

Statewide Dynamics

The picture of agrarian change painted above for North and Central Bihar is corroborated by the 1999-2000 resurvey of the 12 villages surveyed originally in 1981-82 as part of a comprehensive ANSISS-ILO study (Sharma, 2005). Since the stratified random sample of roughly 600 households is spread across the plains of Bihar, a comparison of the agrarian structure in 1981-82 (original survey) and 1999-2000 (resurvey) gives a fairly accurate and comprehensive picture of key aspects of agrarian change in Bihar.

According to the 1999-2000 resurvey, the distribution of landownership continued to remain very skewed with the bottom 66 percent of households cultivating only about 20 percent of the land. As a share of rural households, there had been both a decline of large landowners and a growth of the effectively landless: while those owning more than 5 acres of land had declined from 13 percent of households in 1981-82 to 5.5 percent in 1999-2000, those owning less than 1 acre had increased from 67 to 73 percent during the same period.

Changes in the distribution of landownership has been underlined by the loss of land, as measured by the fall in 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 with poor middle peasants even gaining some land between 1981-82 and 1999-2000. In terms of caste, the most interesting pattern was the relatively lower loss of land witnessed by the intermediate caste groups: Yadavs, Koeris and Kurmis. It is not surprising, therefore, that these castes should emerge as the dominant caste group in much of Bihar by the early 1990s.

Both these patterns have had important implications for changes in the caste-class nexus in Bihar. At the lower end of the social and economic ladder, there is hardly any change over the decades: the lower caste households continue to remain landless and near-landless, and mired in poverty. At the upper end of the social ladder, there is a noticeable shift, though incomplete, in the ownership of land and the exercise of social power from upper caste non-cultivating landlords to intermediate caste cultivating peasants.

In terms of the organization of agricultural production, there were two notable trends, decline in tenancy arrangements and a growth of casual labour. While the proportion of households leasing in land for cultivation had declined significantly from 36 percent in 1981-82 to 23 percent in 1999-2000, the proportion of leased-in area in total cultivated area has inched up marginally. This had resulted in an increase in the average size of leased-in plots. Within the overall trend of declining tenancy an interesting pattern had been observed: larger sized holdings increased, while lower sized holdings decreased, leasing-in of land for cultivation. “In the higher land size category, particularly those with more than 10 acres of land, there has been a phenomenal increase in proportion of households leasing in as well as that of leased-in area. Earlier, no leasing in was reported by the households above acres but during 1999-2000, the practice has started in this category also.” (pp. 966, Sharma, 2005). This implies that “reverse tenancy” had emerged as an important trend in Bihar since the early 1980s. In terms of the tenancy contract, fixed rent tenancy – both in cash and in kind – seems to have largely replaced sharecropping arrangements, especially in the relatively dynamic regions. “Apart from sharecropping, leasing in against labour services (labour tying tenancy) was one of the important modes of tenancy during 1981-82, which seems to have almost vanished by 1999-2000,” especially so in the Southern plains of Bihar (pp. 967, Sharma, 2005).

The period since the early 1980s had also witnessed a drastic decline in the prevalence of attached labour: in 1999-2000, attached labour accounted for less than 10 percent of total wage labour contracts. The decline of attached labour had gone hand in hand with the increase of casual labour: as a proportion of the total workforce, casual workers increased from 34 percent in 1981-82 to 52 percent in 1999-2000; the increasing casualisation of the workforce has mainly replaced self-cultivation and attached labour. Real wages were reported to have increased between 1981-82 and 1999-2000 in all the villages surveyed, with increases ranging between 50 and 100 percent over the two decade period; this meant an annual growth rate of real wages between 2 and 3.5 percent. While this rate of growth was barely above the growth rate of population, it was certainly an improvement over the near stagnation of the earlier decades. What factors were responsible for the modest growth in real wages? The two most important factors leading to increases in real wages were militant mobilization of landless and poor peasants, and migration outside the village, both facilitated no doubt by the growth in agricultural productivity during the short lived phase of peasant capitalism in the 1970s.

While militant peasant struggles in the context of growing labour productivity had contributed to increasing wages in the 1970s and 1980s, migration became more important since then. With stagnation in agriculture deepening since the mid-1980s, the rural poor have increasingly resorted to outmigration, both seasonal and long term, to improve their material and social conditions; whereas distress migration had been a widely noted phenomenon for North Bihar, the last three decades has seen migration becoming more widespread across the rest of Bihar too. Between 1981-82 and 1999-2000, the findings of the survey indicated, there was a substantial increase in migration from the villages of Bihar: while 10 percent of all adult workers had identified themselves as migrants in 1981-82, about 19 percent did so in 1999-2000. The distribution of migrants between types of migration had also changed significantly: in 1981-82, about 80 percent of migrants were seasonal; in 1999-2000, close to 50 percent were long term migrants. All the villages also showed an appreciable increase in the number of persons commuting to nearby urban or semi-urban areas for employment.

Behind Contemporary Stagnation

Let us now try to bring together all the strands of the stories we have narrated and try to understand the reasons behind contemporary agrarian stagnation. While the picture emerging from these insightful case studies is the growth of capitalist relations of production – decline of tenancy, growth of wage labour, decline of attached and bonded labour, growth of casual labour, replacement of patronage by contractual arrangements, increase of migration to locations outside agriculture and outside the village – other signs associated with capitalism are completely missing. Lack of concentration of land and persistence of small scale cultivation are often seen as signs of a lack of growth of capitalist relations; some would argue that this warrants a characterization of the contemporary political economy as semi-feudal. Does lack of land concentration and the perpetuation of small scale farming, and the resultant economic stagnation have anything in common with the stagnation associated with semi-feudal relations of production observed in an earlier period? We don’t think so.

To understand the issue of land concentration, let us recall that by the process of concentration is meant the transfer of land from smaller to larger landholders. But a smallholding owner of land can give up his/her ownership to the larger landholder in at least two different ways: he can be forcibly driven off his land or he can sell it off. In India, both historically and today, the first form of land transfer – so important, of instance, in the development of capitalist agriculture in England (Marx, 1992) – has not been observed on any substantial scale. The recent attempts by the State to forcibly drive off peasants from their land has been fiercely resisted all across India, from Nandigram to Kalinganagar. While forcible eviction has, thus, been small or even totally non-existent, neither has sale of land by smallholders been observed on a large scale in the post-1947 period. The refusal of smallholders to part with their land is, therefore, impeding the movement towards concentration. What lies behind this refusal?

There is lot of evidence that small scale agricultural production has become economically unviable, in the sense of generating a comfortable surplus. Mishra (2007) and Government of India (2005) show that only families with large landholdings (i.e., 10 acres or more) could generate more income than their expenditures. Given the increasing unviability of agricultural production within the present set-up, the refusal of small landholders to give up ownership and move to alternative means of livelihood becomes even more mysterious. Why do smallholders refuse to give up ownership of their land if cultivation of their tiny plots, despite heavy self-exploitation at the family level, has become seriously unviable? The answer must be that giving up ownership of tiny plots of cultivable land would mean a further worsening of the material conditions of their existence compared to their current situation.

If we were to, for a moment, pay attention to the situation of employment (or livelihood options more generally) outside agriculture, we could probably understand the dogged refusal of smallholders to part with their tiny plots of land. Employment outside agriculture in India today is predominantly available in what has come to be called the unorganized or informal sector. As the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector has clearly documented, employment in India’s informal economy is marked by low wages, abysmal conditions of work, no social security, and no job security. The alternative to agricultural production is, thus, low-paying and precarious employment. In such a scenario, clinging on to a small piece of land can mean assuring a part of subsistence in the face of extreme income uncertainty. The growth of the informal sector, therefore, feeds on and reinforces the lack of land concentration. The logic of semi-feudalism – appropriation of the surplus labour of direct producers predominantly through institutions other than wage labour; prevalence of direct labour services, bondage and attached labour; interlinked credit, labour and product markets; prevalence of usurious credit; lack of incentives for productive investment both for the direct producers (the tenant) and the owners of the land (non-cultivating landlords); rural power deriving primarily from the ownership of land – does not seem to be at work here; what is relevant is the political economy of contemporary backward capitalism resting on the vicious cycle of precarious non-farm employment and small-scale agricultural production marked by low productivity (see Figure 1).



Peasant capitalism led by intermediate caste cultivators, which had been noticed in parts of Bihar in the 1970s, seems to have completely stalled. The upper end of the social and economic spectrum in Bihar has seen changes both in terms of caste and landownership. Upper caste non-cultivating semi-feudal landowners have been gradually replaced by intermediate caste cultivating, rich and middle farmers as the rural ruling class-caste; the size of landholdings have declined due to demographic pressures. Benefiting from the land reforms, mainly those related to occupancy rights of tenant cultivators, of the early post-colonial period, this group of cultivators has gradually become the largest landowners in Bihar. Garnering a large share of institutional credit and taking lead in the adoption of Green Revolution technologies, this emerging class-caste accumulated some surpluses in the 1970s but subsequently used it, via corruption and crime, to capture the arms of the State. Corruption and the neoliberal retreat of the State reinforced the agrarian impasse created by diversion of surpluses away from productive investment channels stalling incipient peasant capitalism.

The lower end of the social and economic strata is marked by landlessness or near-landlessness. In an agrarian economy, a (near) landless family can eke out a living either by hiring out its labour or by leasing in land. In the first case, the family is exploited through the institution of wage labour by the extraction of surplus value; in the second, it is exploited through the institution of tenancy by the extraction of rent. When we look at Bihar, over the last three decades, from the perspective of the landless and near landless largely lower caste families (who comprise about 70 percent of the rural population), we discern the gradual replacement of tenancy and various forms of bondage by casual wage labour. Exploitation, though ever present, has changed its form crucially, from semi-feudal to capitalist ones. Nonetheless, acute poverty and a near subsistence existence remains their lot. Neither State intervention, nor the development of capitalist social relations have, by themselves, significantly improved their lot.

If there has been any improvement in their material and social lives, it is because of their collective economic and political struggles under the leadership of various Marxist-Leninist parties and the gradual increase in employment opportunities outside the village. Their militant struggles, in combination with increased outmigration, have increased real wages, substantially reduced forms of attached labour, labour tying tenancy contracts, bonded labour and begar (unpaid labour services), and have dealt decisive blows to the worst forms of caste and sexual oppression. The hope for progressive social change lies in strengthening those struggles and taking them to a higher level.

(I would like to thank Debarshi Das for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper.)


Basole, A. and D. Basu. 2009. “Relations of Production and Modes of Surplus Extraction in India: An Aggregate Study,” Working Paper, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Byres, T. J., K. Kapadia and J. Lerche (eds.). 1999. Rural Labour Relations in India. London, Frank Cass.

Chakravarti, A. 2001. Social Power and Everyday Class Relations: Agrarian Transformation in North Bihar. New Delhi, Sage Publications.

Das, A. N. 1992. The Republic of Bihar. New Delhi, Penguin.

Government of India. 2005. “Income, Expenditure and Productive Assets of Farmer Households,” Report No. 497, NSS 59th Round.

Marx, K. 1992. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1. New York, Penguin. (first published in 1867).

Mishra, S. 2007. “Agrarian Scenario in Post-reform India: A Story of Distress, Despair and Death,” Working Paper, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai.

Sharma, A. N. 2005. “Agrarian Relations and Socio-Economic Change in Bihar,” Economic and Political Weekly, March 05, pp. 960-972.

Wilson, K. 1999. “Patterns of Accumulation and Struggles of Rural Labour: Some Aspects of Agrarian Change in Central Bihar,” in Byres, T. J. et al. (eds), Rural Labour Relations in India, pp. 316-354.


2 Responses to “Agrarian Change in Eastern India: The View from Bihar”

  1. Biresh Says:
    September 19th, 2010 at 02:30

    We would like the author to go through our publication ‘Communist Voice’, April 2010 issue which carries an article on the Bandopadhyay Commission Report on Land Reforms in Bihar.

  2. Prof MPS CHANDEL Says:
    February 9th, 2011 at 08:22

    Article is amply reflect the ground realities

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