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Land Reforms in Bihar:
Need for a Far-reaching Approach

Pradeep Jha


Land reforms is an essential precondition for the process of transformation from feudal and semi-feudal society to modern capitalist society. That is why the question of land reforms cannot be seen only in the form of distribution of ceiling-surplus land among poor peasants. In the process of land reforms old classes are destroyed and new classes are born; economic, political and social power get transferred. With the birth of new classes the forms of agricultural production also change, techniques also change, the foundation for the relations between people involved in production changes. Along with this new social and cultural values are also built up. As a whole it can be said that the entire social composition changes.

In this paper an effort has been made to look at land reforms in Bihar in the last 50 years in this perspective. Along with this important debates relating to subsequent steps of land reforms including the possibility of nationalisation of land has also been discussed.

Five Decades of Land Reforms

Probably Bihar was the state where land reforms legislations were first brought in. It is important also to know the rural class composition right before the land reforms. In 1950s, just before the zamindari abolition there were 2,05,927 regularly revenue-paying, permanently settled, holdings. They accounted for 90% of the land area. Legally the zamindars were considered to be the owners of the land. But in reality their role was that of government-appointed middlemen who collected revenue from the title-holders. Revenue used to be paid in cash to the government and it used to be 90% of the revenue paid by the title-holders to the zamindars. But zamindars had the right to collect any amount of revenue as they wished from the title-holders. And then there were the title-holders at the second level who had obtained the right from the owners of the land or from other title-holders to collect revenue. At the third level there were the occupancy ryots who used to pay revenue for the land they had occupied and cultivate the lands by themselves or with the help of the members of their family or by hired labourers or with the help of their partners. They could transfer their rights to someone else. Below them were the non-occupancy ryots who had to pay revenue for occupying the land on a temporary basis. Then there were sub-tenants who had to pay revenue for getting land on a temporary basis from the ryots. At the lowest level of this arrangement were the labourers who in spite of putting in very hard labour did not have any right on the land and who were caught in various exploitative agrarian relations.

Looking at this composition it is clear that between the "tiller of the land" and the government there were many levels of revenue collectors. From the presence of so many levels of intermediaries it can be understood how much portion of the produce the actual producer would get after 90% of the rent went into the hands of the government. It is also not difficult to imagine that in such a situation there was no hope for any sort of development or formation of capital.

In the 30s and 40s, in Bihar a flood of peasant movement was gushing forth. The main role in these movements for zamindari abolition during the British raj was of occupancy and non-occupancy ryots. And tenants-at-will and labourers also participated. This is the reason why the biggest benefit of zamindari abolition went to the occupancy and non-occupancy ryots.

This is the background just before land reforms in Bihar. Its strong effect is clearly visible in the making of various legislations on land reforms and their implementation. Let us discuss these aspects one by one.

1. Zamindari Abolition

First of all, the Bihar government passed the Zamindari Abolition Act in 1947. Then in 1948 this was amended and published as Bihar Zamindari Abolition Act (1948). In 1950, Bihar Land Reforms Act was passed which was approved by the Supreme Court. During this period the zamindars here opposed this act with full force.

With this act the rights of zamindars and title-holders on land and at the same time trees, forests, fish-breeding ponds, markets, mines and minerals, were legally terminated. And these rights were directly vested with the state government.

But the process of implementation of this act was extremely slow. The Assembly and the administrative machinery were full of people coming from these gentry. Land survey records were very old (30 to 40 years old), field survey was progressing at a very slow pace and, most importantly, in spite of the government orders zamindars had not submitted documents of their private estates. By 1952 notices could be sent to only 155 zamindars. Looking at this delay in 1954 and again in 1959 this act was amended. It was then that notices could be collectively sent to all the zamindars in Bihar.

On the other hand, there were various clauses present in this act to protect the interests of the zamindars. Clauses V, VI and VII of this act permitted the zamindars to keep enough homestead land (house, courtyard, backyard, garden lands, ponds, libraries, places of worship connected with the household), khas land (land cultivated by their own draught animals or labourers or by hired draught animals or labourers) and land for the purpose of trade, handicraft or commerce and for storage etc.

On the one hand, the zamindars got these provisions, and on the other, they got a lot of time to utilise these provisions. As a result zamindars started evicting the title-holders fast and occupied large tracts of land in the capacity of occupancy ryots. Only those title-holders could become the owners of land who had the right of occupancy ryots. As has been mentioned earlier, just before the making of zamindari abolition legislation there were 2,05,927 estates. But later the land reforms implementation committee informed that 4,74,000 middlemen were affected by this act. The rate at which they divided their estates to keep their land within the ceiling limits of the amended act of 1950 so as to retain their rights over maximum amount of land is clear from this. According to one assessment the zamindars were successful in keeping 14% or about 15 lakh acres of their own land in the name of special category ownership. Apart from this a large part of public (government's) land was occupied in the name of 'khas' land. And for whatever land that they had to part with they got a hefty amount as compensation. The amount given to all middlemen was about 60 crore rupees.

In all these legislations there was no mention in any way about the rights of the labourers or poor peasants - the actual landless. The zamindars filed thousands of cases in which about 9100 acres of land remains trapped on which the zamindars still retain their hold. Yes, many levels of middlemen were of course eliminated and apart from the strata of erstwhile zamindars who became occupancy ryots those independent landowners who in the days of zamindari system were occupancy or non-occupancy ryots were also among the category of landowners.

In this way we can say for sure that in the first stage of land reforms land was redistributed only among the power-wielding classes.

2. Ceiling

As we have seen, in spite of the implementation of the zamindari abolition act, most of the erstwhile zamindars still retained a large part of their land. A good section of the occupancy and non-occupancy ryots became big jotedars. Thirdly, many rich people from the towns also purchased land in huge amount at whatever available price. With the declared aim of breaking this centralisation of land, for the first time in 1955 the ceiling bill which is called Bihar Agricultural Land (Ceiling and Management) Bill was prepared. Due to the strong resistance by the prosperous landowners this bill remained in cold-storage. In 1961 a very loose kind of legislation - Bihar Land Reforms (Ceiling, Land Allocation and Surplus Land Acquisition) Act - was brought in. In this act any 'person' (not the family) was given the right to keep 20 to 30 acres of land depending upon the category of the land. Apart from this, the right was given to retain 10 acres of land as homestead area, 15 acres for growing fodder in areas specifically delimited, and additional land equivalent to one-fifth of ceiling limits per dependent with the total not exceeding twice the ceiling limit in case the number of dependents exceeding four.

The biggest concession available to the landowners under this act was that within one year of implementation of this act the land which they own in their capacity as ryots could be transferred in the name of such persons who are entitled to inherit that land or could become owners of a part of the land after the death of the landowner. Because of this provision many old and new big landowners of Bihar were able to save most of their land by registering their lands in the names of sons and daughters, grand sons and grand daughters, and other relatives. Apart from this they took maximum advantage of concessions available for Bhoodan, educational institutions, tea gardens and farms etc. This act also permitted the landowners to take back land from non-occupancy ryots given in the name of 'self-cultivation'.

There were amendments to this act in 1971 and 1973 according to which instead of one person the family (one head and three minor children) was considered as the unit and the ceiling limit was reduced from 95 to 45 acres.

As far as the implementation of these acts are concerned landowners retaining ceiling-surplus land on 19 April 1962 were served notices in 1970 and there too only to 125 landowners in the first phase. By 15 March 1981 the government had acquired only 3.69 lakh acres of surplus land and even in that only 2.49 lakh acres were redistributed. It is a strange irony that till 2 October 1996, the distributed government land is 9,64,239 acres, i.e, 3.59 times more than the distributed surplus land. Even the distributed Bhoodan land is much more than this though most of it is infertile. 23% of the land assessed as surplus by the government was left to the owners on various grounds. Landowners again took resort to filing cases and about one lakh acres are under litigation.

Making use of the old provisions of the act the old and new landlords saved thousands and thousands of acres of land. The names of many such big landlords are well known in the districts of north Bihar like Purnea, Saharsa, Katihar, Dharbhanga, East Champaran, West Champaran, Betiah etc. On the other hand, making use of this act the landowners evicted the tenants (non-occupancy ryots) in large numbers. Thirdly, even though poor peasants got title deeds for land they were not well organised. They could not take possession of these lands. Thousands of acres of such distributed lands are still under landowners' hold.

A large part of cultivable land in Bihar is concentrated in the hands of religious and charitable endowments and trusts. Apart from trusts formed by the government, private trusts have also been formed in large numbers. Their aim is to save their land from being taken over under ceiling laws. About two years back the Chief Minister had said that religious Mutts-temples would be allowed to keep lands as one unit but no concrete steps have been taken in this direction till now. Violation of ceiling laws, tenancy laws and minimum wage laws are very common here.

3. Tenancy Reforms

As the third stage in land reforms the question of tenancy reforms came to the fore. The Congress Agrarian Reforms Committee which was known as Kumarappa Committee had suggested that those real tillers who are not themselves the owners of land but who had been cultivating the land hired by title over a period of more than six years, would get the ownership rights over such land. A clear condition for taking back the land for self-cultivation was that it should be cultivated with their own labour. Whenever there was a discussion on tenancy reforms and security of tenure in Bihar, there were evictions of title-holders in large numbers. From the first to the fourth Plan a lot of concern was expressed that in the name of self-cultivation reoccupation of the land by landowners was going on unchecked. The newly emerging landowners started changing the title-holders after every one or two years so that they would never get caught in legal problems. According to one NSS estimate, at least 10% of cultivable land in Bihar is given out on title deeds (if south Bihar is left out where this system is not common, then this percentage is higher for the rest of Bihar).

The most common form of title-holding in Bihar is tenancy. Normally poor and small middle peasants are engaged in tenancy. In some parts prosperous peasants also hire land and till it, specially in irrigated areas. Division of the harvest is the main form of tenancy. Contrary to the tenancy laws, a tenant never gets more than 50% of the net produce. They are not legally protected because all tenancy is oral. There is no written record.

In the absence of infrastructural facility the landowners fear taking up risks in farming. That is why they find it proper to give their land for tenancy at rates higher than the expected rates. The people involved in services and trade in cities or members of upper castes who look down upon labouring in the fields give even their small plots of land for tenancy. In the absence of security to title-holders and due to the changes in tenancy year after year, and finally, due to the exploitative system in the division of harvest, the tenants are not interested in increasing the quantity or quality of the produce. Probably the levels of foodgrains production are much less compared to states of western India and even West Bengal.

All laws made for security of tenancy have proved ineffective till date. The absence of any title deed document is the biggest legal impediment but basically this is a social problem. No government has expressed the political will to solve this problem. Karpoori Thakur, during his tenure as chief minister, had taken up the plan for updating of the land records and keeping tenancy records so as to protect the rights of the tenants. But after this plan went ahead for some time in Koshi division this was stopped saying that "this will become like a survey and tenants would record their names in large numbers leading to disruption of peace in this agricultural area". Even during the JD regime twice there was some talk of providing rights to tenants - tenants could not get their rights but on the other hand they were evicted in large numbers. Their problems remain the same even today.

4. Land Consolidation

Like tenancy reforms the work of consolidation of holdings was given up after some time. Absence of up-to-date records of land itself blocked its progress. Wherever there were efforts to keep it going, large landowners using the muscle and money power took over the fertile land of peasants into their possession and left their infertile lands to them. Seeing an attack on their interests the peasants started opposing land consolidation and finally this process came to a halt. It is said that land consolidation was a major cause for the development of agriculture in Punjab. But in Bihar this has been the reason for peasants' problems.

Some Debates

No matter how partial, incomplete, discontinuous and extremely sluggish the steps of implementation of land reforms were in the past five years it has significantly affected the rural composition of Bihar. Along with the continued existence of old zamindar families possessing thousands of acres of land in some pockets, new type of landlords and rich farmers also dominate the scene in the countryside belonging to both upper castes and backward castes. Their assertion and aggressiveness is quite strong and powerful. Along with this new class, new kind of labourers have also come to the fore. Different from the earlier harwaha who were tied with small plots of land and loans, these are a class of free labourers who work on daily wage basis. Side by side large segments of middle peasantry cultivating their owned land have also emerged. Proportionally with the rise of these new classes the methods of cultivation has also changed. Apart from tenant cultivation now cultivation is done by employing free labourers too. Particularly in irrigated areas this dual system is more pronounced. The use of pumpsets for irrigation and the use of fertilisers and high-yielding variety seeds have increased. Here and there one can see tractors, increasing penetration of capital in agriculture through banks and 'blocks' is an ongoing process.

1. Have the tasks of land reforms essentially been completed?

Seeing these manifestations of capitalist development some people have started saying that the question of land reforms has been essentially solved in Bihar and now with the scientific restructuring of agriculture (putting emphasis on entrepreneurship) and through revitalising the panchayati raj system the remnant agrarian problems too can be resolved. In a sense this is correct. Lenin had referred to two ways of capitalist development in agriculture - landlord path and peasant path. According to Lenin, "in the landlord path slavery and serfdom (in a new form of capitalist way) are preserved to the maximum extent, the development of productive forces is sluggish, the development of capitalism is delayed and large sections of peasants and therefore the proletariat too suffer from extreme disaster, exploitation and oppression. In the other road, the development of productive forces takes place quite fast and the peasantry finds the best conditions for its existence."

Now those who want the landlord class to be transformed into rural bourgeoisie really consider the land reforms to be essentially over. But in that case their claim that it is a 'peasant raj' will be proved to be a hoax. Even after fifty years of independence the declared aim of land reforms is far from over. That is, the direct relation between the government and the actual peasantry has still not been established. And in the rural society the old and new landlords and kulaks are still dominating. These classes not only seriously lack in enterprising spirit they also by appropriating all kinds of government investments in the agrarian sector block the sprouting of the enterprising spirit of broad peasantry.

The political representatives of this newly emerged ruling class don't talk of 'politics' and 'potatoes'; rather, they are busy in the loot of the government treasury and talk of guns and bullets. Their journey from Socialist party to Janata Party to Janata Dal was actually the journey of their alienation from the peasants, the reflection of separation of peasants and kulaks.

'Kisan raj' but extreme deprivation for the peasants! Land reforms may or may not actually develop productive forces but it does create the conditions for the development of productive forces. But in Bihar even after 50 years if productive forces are in such a disarray it itself shows that the road of capitalist development is not the peasant road but the landlord road. If we go on this road the semi-feudal land relation may continue to exist for decades. Should we adopt this road?

2. Protection of tenancy vs. land to the tiller?

F. Tomasson Januzzi writes that we cannot advice 'land to the tiller' kind of land reforms because in that case landless agrarian labourers will also have to be given land and in that case land will be parcellised into so small pieces that cultivation will cease to be a viable activity. Therefore it is better to protect tenancy. This will encourage tenants to cultivate and therefore the quantity and quality of production will increase. In the present conditions as the tenancy in Bihar is oral and unprotected any step towards protection of tenancy would definitely be a step forward. So this is welcome. But pitting it against 'land to the tiller' is a reactionary step. The essence of capitalist land reform is abolition of rent on the basis of landownership, i.e., elimination of ground rent. This only establishes the direct relation between the state and the peasantry while the landlord class is abolished. To remain confined to the protection of tenancy will amount to recognising the system of intermediaries, as well as stopping capitalist land reforms in the mid way. In West Bengal even after 20 years of Operation Barga no steps could be taken on handing over the ownership of land to the tenants. Our studies show that the tenants there in general do not get more than 50% of the produce.

We don't advocate giving land to all agrarian labourers. This is never the meaning of 'land to the tiller'. Agrarian labourers get wage for their labour and therefore for them minimum demands like minimum wage to need-based wages can be raised within the ambit of land reforms. 'Land to the tiller' means abolition of ownership over land of those who do not cultivate the land themselves. 'Land to the tiller' is the last institutional link of the capitalist land reforms which leads to the abolition of land rent determined on the basis of land ownership and the system of intermediaries. As far as the redistribution of land is concerned it should definitely be distributed in a manner so that the land is an economically viable entity.

3. Is land nationalisation an anti-peasant programme?

50 years of experience of land reforms conclusively proves that formulation as well as the implementation of the related laws have been tailor-made to serve the interests of representatives of the landlord class instead of the real tillers. Therefore even today the problem of land reforms continues to pose a stiff challenge. And strong remnants of semi-feudal relations continue to remain major factor behind the deprivation of the peasants.

Land reforms have got entangled in the web of rules, laws and litigations. Actually these laws have provided legality to the landlords' rights over the land. Now if the land has to be taken away from them nationalisation of all the land and its redistribution among peasants is the only way out. This revolutionary road will be quite appropriate to establish the direct relation between the state and the actual tillers.

Land nationalisation is not any socialist programme like socialisation of capital. Rather it the highest stage of capitalist reforms. Right to till the land will remain with the tillers. The state will only possess the right to collect the revenue and to manage the land. Even now the final owner of the land is the state. But for all practical purposes landowners enjoy this right. Through nationalisation the state will take into its own hands this practical right and lease out the land to the peasants by dividing it into viable units of production and for a long period (say, for example 5 or 10 years and more in favourable conditions).

The actual peasants have nothing to fear because they will get at least that much land which shall be taken over from them. It is quite possible that they also get additional amount of land out of the lands taken over from the landlords so that they have at least a viable unit of land. So for actual tillers, even in the worst conditions, even if they don't gain anything, they don't stand to lose anything either.

But for such a radical land reform measure in favour of peasantry a really democratic government in the state and also conscious, organised village-level peasant committees are essential. Only in such a peasant raj can we hope for an unparalleled development of entrepreneurship and diversification in production and opening up of the road to cultural development.

(Tranlated from Hindi by Siddartha)

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