Gopinath Majhi lounges on his sofa. "My lifestyle is similar to that available at the Taj Bengal," the Bengali farmer says. In Arambagh district, about 100 km from Calcutta, the Majhis own vast tracts of land. But because of government ceilings, they admit to only 50 acres. In addition, they own six rice mills, a tractor, several power tillers, a fleet of Maruti cars, and about 10 trucks and two huge houses of 40 rooms each, which cost about Rs 60 lakh to build. They employ 30 agricultural labourers and an army of domestic servants. Sitting in his mansion, complete with a satellite dish, microwave ovens and four VCRs, Majhi says he plans to expand his agricultural business further.
Majhi is a perfect example of the capitalist farmer who thrives in Left Front-ruled West Bengal. In recent years, the state has registered the highest rate of agricultural growth in India with production shooting up by 50 per cent from 8.28 millions tonnes in 1980-81 to 12.44 million tonnes in 1993-94, giving it third place after Punjab and Haryana. And this growth has been powered almost solely by capitalist farmers like Majhi. In Basirhat in North 24 Parganas, Arambagh and other parts of Hooghly and Burdwan districts, the large landowner has taken a long agricultural leap thanks largely to Operation Barga launched by the state government in the early ‘80s.
Impressive, no doubt, until one looks closely at the objectives with which these land reforms were initiated. Operation Barga aimed to give the bargadar or sharecropper a legal entitlement to the land. While in the past, the rights of the landlord extended far enough for him to be able to dislodge the bargadar at will, or even deny the bargadar a share of the crop, the Left Front government has, by law, established the bargadar firmly on the land.
But Operation Barga has not worked the way the government envisaged it. Contrary to the government’s claim that the wide-ranging land reforms have benefited the poor peasant for whom they were originally intended, it is a new class of rich entrepreneurial farmers like Majhi who are mopping up the rewards of the CPI(M)-led government’s land reforms.
And it’s hardly surprising. The land redistribution programme has created holdings that are so small – sometimes about 1.75 acres – that they are just not economically viable for the small farmer. In order to undertake modern farming techniques – such as mechanisation, buying high-yielding varieties of seeds and expensive fertilisers which are no longer subsidised by the West Bengal government -–the farmer needs larger plots of land to make his yield profitable. The ownership of a pocket-sized plot may be good for the self-esteem of an erstwhile landless peasant but it is simply not profitable.
This is where the rich farmers have stepped in. The poor barga-sharecroppers and ryots (small landowners), left with no other option, have offered their lands to those with enough resources to undertake modern farming in return to a share of the crop. So a process of amalgamation of holdings has taken place where the people with capital have put individual holdings together and are thus able to cultivate large tracts. And those with the capital to farm are more often than not rich merchants, moneylenders, or the older jotdars or zamindars.
The government order that the bargadar must be given his share of the crop has squeezed the poorer landowner the most. His holdings have been cut in half because he now has to parcel out his land to the bargadar. Yet neither does the bargadar have much land to his name, since his land is only a share of a small holding. Nor does the small-time landowner have the resources or the political clout to amalgamate holdings like the rich farmer to whom the barga system has not made much difference.
Further, fairly stringent land ceilings have been imposed. A family of five may not own more than 17.30 acres of non-irrigated land and 12 acres of irrigated land. So while the statute book still shows that 60 to 70 per cent of the land belongs to small and marginal farmers, in fact, most of the land has returned to those with the resources to cultivate it. The mechanism by which this has happened is not documented anywhere. But it is the large holdings of benami land that have made the Bengali agricultural miracle a possibility. Ramapati Ray, a Calcutta-based lawyer and a large landowner, says a number of these affluent farmers are very loyal to the CPI(M). "They provide the party with money, trucks, as well as other infrastructure. They are all, in fact, like political nominees," he says. Ray argues that sometimes the party even encourages the bargadars to stake a claim to the land in order that the smaller landowner is impoverished and forced to hand over his land to the rich farmer. The big farmer then farms profitably on large holdings and hands over a part of his money to the party.
The Majhi or the Reja families of Arambagh and their neighbour, Jugal Kishore Ghosh, who also owns more than 50 acres of land, are vociferous in their loyalty to the party. "We have always owned land, but now we can farm even more profitably," says Jugal Kishore Ghosh.
A visit to the districts around Calcutta will prove that the West Bengal countryside is not a seething mass of joyful cadres of small farmers, each producing a bumper harvest on his minuscule plot. On the other hand, via the Left Front’s land reforms, the older landlords – or jotdars – have returned to the land.
Dulal Mondal of North 24 Parganas owns so much land that he refused to divulge the exact figure. He also owns cars, lorries and cows, in addition to a bio-gas plant, power tiller and tractor. According to Srikanta Mondal, a local NGO worker, in these parts one should never ask how much land a farmer owns because he never gives the right figure. "Instead we always look at the size of the gola (haystack). Its size give us an idea of the yield of his land," he says.
Mujibur Rahman, who owns over 30 acres of land, describes himself as "an upper-class middle farmer". He grows paddy, jute and groundnut, lives in a two-storied house with about 25 rooms and is saving to buy two new motorcycles. "Unlike poor people who go in for distress sale of crops, I can afford to wait a bit because I have money in the bank," he says. The poor peasant is further impoverished because farmers like Rahman step in during times of peak demand to sell at much higher rates than those who are froced to sell at any price they can get.
Thus the process of pauperisation, feels Ashok Ghosh, director of the Athagarha Vikash Kendra, an NGO in Baduria district, is carrying on apace even in areas of high productivity. "The farmers have no capital or cannot furnish a collateral for a loan. Often as a last resort, they transfer the land to others," he points out.
N. Niyogi, district agricultural information officer in Baduria, says the government programmes are well intentioned but sometimes do not work. "A power tiller costs a certain amount of money. But the loans available from the government are far lower than the market price of a tiller. So instead of buying a tiller, the farmer simply re-tiles his leaking roof with the money. And hence, not only does he not get a tiller, he also becomes indebted to the government."
The rise in West Bengal’s agricultural production has more to do with the land being in the hands of those who can afford the costly agricultural inputs rather than in land reforms. As a senior officer in the CPI(M)-led government admits, "The lot of the small peasant is exactly the same as it always was."
Still, the Left Front insists that land reforms have transformed West Bengal. Well, they have, but by unleashing market forces. For the rich landowners there’s only one truth and Majhi sums it up, saying: "comrade Jyoti Basu has been good for us. May he last long."