Barga Blues


The most determined resistance to land acquisition in West Bengal is coming from those who possess little or no land

Nilanjan Dutta Singur/Kolkata

Whatever critics may say, the ruling Marxists in West Bengal seem to be adhering to Marx like moss to a stone. If ‘He' has said that history repeats itself, the first time as a tragedy and the second time as a farce, then so be it.

After playing the "success of Operation Barga" tom-tom loudly for three decades, the CPM-led Left Front (LF) government decided to "re-launch" the exercise. The announcement came from the Writers' Buildings when the panchayat elections were round the corner. As the ruling front suffered a jolt in the elections, it is likely to take some time before it recovers from the shock and puts the programme on track. But the move itself pointed to ground realities that had contributed to the volatile situation in the countryside.

Immediately before the announcement, Land Reforms Minister Abdul Rezzak Molla admitted in the state assembly that a large proportion of bargadars (sharecroppers) had lost their recorded rights as sharecroppers. The figure he gave was as high as 27 per cent, though the State secretariat mandarins somehow managed to reduce the percentage to 20 the next day.

The LF parties, which came to power in 1977 as a coalition, have a common past. They had
once organised sustained people's movements in the countryside on the land question. Like its predecessor, the United Front government, the LF government takes pride in this past. The journey from the historic Tebhaga sharecropping peasants' struggle (1946) to Operation Barga (1978) is shown as a glorious path charted by the Left in Bengal. And now, they are proving that they have not abandoned the land issue, in a different manner though.

Operation Barga was launched to give the sharecroppers some security against eviction by the unscrupulous jotedars. The idea was to protect the interests of the actual tillers of the land, not only those of the owners. A piece of land provides succor not to the owner alone, but also to the much larger population of sharecroppers and agricultural labourers engaged to work the ground along with their dependants.

Apparently, in the current scenario, land has become precious for the government to realise its dream of rapid industrialisation. More than 40,000 acres of land is supposed to be acquired for various industrial and real estate projects, including the controversial special economic zones (SEZs), within a year. However, it is doubtful what proportion of these huge tracts of land will eventually see industries coming up and how much will be swallowed up by the ‘real' estate, replacing downmarket habitats by elite housings or just pushing up prices in the land market. Whatever happens, the space would obviously have to be sliced off from the already scarce agricultural land in the state.

A report titled Status on Land, published by the state land and land reforms department, admits that "the extent of land currently under non-agricultural use is higher in West Bengal than in India.

The comparative data show that the share of land under non-agricultural uses in West Bengal in 2003-04 was 18.5 per cent while the corresponding share for India was 7.7 per cent."

One does not know whether the mandarins had really thought that the acquisition of land would be as smooth as their pronouncements. The process of making people move from their soil is historically fraught with blood and tear, especially in view of the circus of rehabilitation that the displaced populations are forced to witness repeatedly. This time, the government's efforts to acquire land have received a fatal jolt at Nandigram and Singur is still proving a hard bargain though lucre and lathi have won the initial round.

It is while trying to push through the best policy of land acquisition they could conceive, that is, offering a "respectable" price to the owners and registered sharecroppers, that the "people's ministers" have been suddenly struck by a revelation. The most determined resistance to land acquisition is coming from those who possess little or no land. They are not even recorded as bargadars. They are supposed to be impossibilities after three decades of Operation Barga. And yet, they are just there, like the non-literates in the much-touted "totally literate" districts, or people dying of starvation in a state that boasts of occupying the top position in agriculture. And their lives depend so profoundly on farming that they would cling to the land even if the official owners might agree to part with it for momentary financial gains.

Where did these unregistered bargadars and landless agriculturists suddenly come from?

The lesson need not be written in blood. In 2003, a comprehensive survey by the State Institute of Panchayats & Rural Development (SIPRD) warned that as much as 14.37 per cent of registered bargadars had been dispossessed of their barga land, 26.28 per cent were suffering from a sense of insecurity that they might lose it in the near future, and 13.23 per cent of pattadars had also been alienated of the land they had received. The distribution of patta or title deeds to landless and marginal peasants is supposed to be another stumbling block in the LF government's land reforms policy.

Unlike most official reports, the SIPRD study frankly said, "Though Operation Barga is being extended from time to time, it is a paper extension only. The methodology as originally devised, that is, evening meetings to motivate the bargadars, spot enquiries into petitions for barga recording, etc., is no longer adopted by the revenue officials. Again, with the passage of time, the grassroots level democratic institutions, that is, panchayats and the peasant organisations etc. seem to have lost interest in the programme initially evinced by them. The methodology of Operation Barga having fallen in disuse and the thrust on recording petered out, the recording has been rendered a routine with its rate suffering a downward slide." The fact is,  the real downslide started in the early 1980s, shortly after the ‘operation' started.

The result of Operation Barga losing its steam was reflected in the situation in Singur. The West Bengal government Status Report noted that for 37 registered bargadars in the 997-acre project area there were 170 unregistered ones. The official figure for the number of bargadars seems rather low, but if we trust the proportion of registered and unregistered bargadars, it reveals that about 42 per cent of the bargadars in this area were still unregistered. This does not speak well for the success of the land reform programme.

Moreover, Singur has a more complex barga system than any other area. With crop rotation throughout the year, the bargadars also rotate. And so, they are seldom recorded. The population statistics show that before the land acquisition, the agricultural economy of Singur was dominated by marginal farmers and agricultural labourers. These sections, along with the unregistered or unrecorded bargadars, are bound to be losers in any land acquisition transaction, as in the case of the present automobile ‘Nano' project.

Re-launching this drive may be a good makeover move for the beleaguered government. But, realising its goals needs the political will to undertake a massive reorientation programme for the babus at the party and block offices. They might then ask, so who will provide cheap and absolutely unorganised labour for the syndicates supplying building materials and security guards to the "developers"?