Vantage point

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Shallowness of the West Bengal Land Reforms

Ever since I first read about the Singur controversy, a bee has been buzzing in my bonnet. It finally bit. Six months ago, I had written a post about how the TATA Motors decision to set up a plant in West Bengal was disastrous. However I wrote that post merely from the labour trouble perspective. Why did I not realise that trouble would start right from land acquisition? Because, like several others I bought into the oft repeated "fact" that the Communists have carried out widespread land reforms in West Bengal. So I actually thought, believe it or not, that West Bengal is one place where the Narmada-type or Posco-type problems would probably not be repeated.

But it turns out that I was wrong in thinking that the Communists have done at least one good thing - land reforms. Singur gave me an opportunity to read more about the land reforms in West Bengal. And after reading about it, I have come to realise that the land reforms are a sham. They were at best, a short term quick-fix solution, with absolutely no long term respite for the poor farmers.

I am a big supporter of land reforms. While some of you may find this paradoxical given my libertarian beliefs, I insist it is actually consistent. Yes, I believe in the sanctity of property rights. But only when the property in question is rightfully the owner's. However I am not convinced that the massive landholdings of the zamindars can be thought of as their rightfully owned property. If you go through the history of India, most of the land has been distributed by Kings or rulers, i.e the "state" of that time, to these zamindars. That is, it was grabbed by force, and then distributed to a select few. The reason its ownership was given to a select few was for ease in tax collection. It is easier to collect tax from 1 zamindar owning 100 acres with a 100 farmers working on it, than from 100 farmers owning 1 acre each. This gave zamindars a lot of power.

Specifically in Bengal, the zamindars used to be only tax collectors. But the Britishers, to collect taxes more efficiently, conferred ownership rights to the zamindars under the Permanent Settlement Act, vastly multiplying the zamindar's power. Thus the land held by most zamindars at the time of India's independence, was theirs because of a legislation of convenience.

In other words, the status of land ownership in 1947 was a legacy of several acts which trampled on property rights. So setting 1947 as the zero on the graph does not make sense for a new country.

This country should have seen massive land reforms to right historic wrongs. Most of the land owned by zamindars should have been redistributed among the peasants working on those lands. And most importantly, these peasants should have been given individual ownership titles to the land. Individual ownership titles are very important. It is the difference between owning a home and having a long term lease on a home. It gives you clout, a say, and a voice. Unfortunately that didn't happen. Zamindars had a lot of clout, and land reforms were not carried out. Under Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan movement, several zamindars voluntarily gave up land to be redistributed. But even in this movement, following Gandhian principles, the focus was more on community ownership rather than individual ownership.

Coming back to West Bengal, during the 1977 elections the commies promised the voters land reforms. And keeping their promise, they carried out Operation Barga. However, is this really land reform? I don't think so.

Here's something about Operation Barga that Amit sent me yesterday(taken from here) -

In 1978, the government launched Operation Barga, a programme that has now recorded the names of approximately 15 lakh bargadars and educated them about their cultivation rights, thereby raising their economic and social status. The state changed the landlord-bargadar relationship in two fundamental ways.

First, through anti-eviction measures, the landlords were largely prevented from forcibly throwing the bargadars off the land. In fact, the bargadar rights were made hereditary and thus perpetual.

Second, the state guaranteed that the bargadars would receive a fair share of the crop (75 per cent if the bargadar provides the non-labour inputs and 50 percent if the landlord provides those inputs).

West Bengal 's land reform legislation does not directly attempt to turn the bargadars into landowners. However, the legislation includes two provisions intended to facilitate that conversion from bargadar to landowner. The legislation gives bargadars priority rights to purchase the barga land if the landlord decides to sell such land.

(emphasis mine)

I am not saying the land reforms were bad. They prevented evictions of the bragadars. And they ensured them a substantial share of the crop. But by not turning them into land-owners, the government still accepted zamindars as the owners of the land. By not giving the bargadars any property rights, they did not empower them sufficiently like land reforms should have.

And therein lies half the root of the Singur problem. The large land-owners are happy to sell the land because they think it is a good deal. But the bargadars, who were given no ownership rights, are being screwed over. Their livelihood is being snatched. And because they dont own any property, they lack the bargaining power. Because the land reforms in West Bengal, while doing a lot of minor good, fell well short of the main thing - giving property rights to the poor farmer over the land he cultivates.

Greatbong in the comments of the post here says -

My question is if my company was taken over by say Microsoft and the company reorganized the workforce and fired me then I would be in the same position as these landless labourers. Their “company” has just been bought out and re-organized.

Ah, but it is not the same as a company. A company is set up by its owners, by arranging for capital on their own. The employees are being paid for their efforts. They do not have a greater say. And I agree, in accordance with the capitalist system, they shouldn't have a say. But the land owners here don't have the same rights on the land, as Bill Gates does over Microsoft. They were just given the ownership by some rulers out of convenience for tax collection. They were just in the right place and the right caste at the right time. So a bargadar should have a say in whether the land should be sold, as opposed to an employee of a company, who shouldn't. To prevent this kind of a mess, bargadars should have been given ownership titles to the land they tilled.

It is another matter altogether than even land titles might not have helped in Singur. A majority of the farmers in Singur are small land-owners, some of whom might own land, others who might have bought off portions of the land using the provisions of Operation Barga. So even these rightful owners of the land they cultivate have been forced to sell their land by the government because of eminent domain. Thanks to the 44th amendment of the Indian constitution in 1978 which removed right to property from the list of fundamental rights. And here's an interesting tidbit which I also learnt from Amit. This decision was taken by the Janata government because the communists asked them to do so in return for their support in the 1977 elections.

Which brings us to an oft-repeated theme on my blog. Just like the right to freedom of religion is essential for the survival of secularism in this country, the right to property is essential for the reduction of poverty. Leftists and their utter disregard for the sanctity of property rights has hurt the rural and urban poor people of this country the most. Narmada was one chapter. Singur is another chapter. And urban slums are yet another chapter. And such chapters will keep getting added in our country's history for as long as the Government is not made to take radical steps to ensure the sanctity of property rights.

It will be a more pro-poor move than a dozen employment guarantee schemes.

My sincerest thanks to Amit and Ravikiran for their inputs used in writing this post

Crossposted on Indian Economy Blog where the comments are open

Update: A healthy debate at the Indian Economy Blog(linked above) has made realise a couple of flaws in my line of thinking. Please read the comments there for details.