Reversal of Land Reforms:
THE countrywide official campaign for reversal of land reforms has assumed a particularly farcical dimension in West Bengal. On August 4, the State Assembly witnessed a rare unity of the treasury and opposition benches when the House resolved to pass the West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Bill after ridding it of the most controversial clause 14q which had proposed to do away with rural land ceiling on a whole set of pretexts. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and industries minister Nirupam Sen were however absent during the vote. While Bhattacharjee walked out minutes before the Bill was put to vote, Sen did not attend the House at all. The unity in this case however meant not the opposition supporting the treasury bench, but vice versa, as Left Front MLAs backed an amendment moved by the opposition Trinamool Congress! This manoeuvre was necessary because apparently a government cannot retract or amend a bill placed by itself!
West Bengal has of late been witnessing an alarming conversion of agricultural land into plantations and construction. The state government wanted to legalise and encourage the process and accordingly section 14q of the Amendment Bill had proposed to lift the ceiling to attract investment in the name of promoting cash crops, plantations, contract farming, tourism, infrastructure, urban construction and renewal and what not. But alongside investment, such a measure would have surely also invited enormous peasant resentment, and that is a risk sections of CPI(M) leadership are not prepared to take at a time when Assembly elections are less than a year away. The workers and employees of the state public sector and government departments are already up against the government’s campaign to downsize the workforce, and any convergence of worker-peasant anger could prove too much for the Left Front government to handle.
While land ceiling limits thus remain in force for the time being, the Amendment Bill has nevertheless managed to create enough ‘legal’ room for a shift in land use pattern away from agriculture or for transgressing the ceiling limits. The bill provides for outright sale of land belonging to closed factories and empowers district collectors to sanction changes in land use pattern. Ganashakti, the CPI(M)’s Bengali daily, ironically portrayed the amendment bill as an exercise in ‘plugging the loopholes’ of the existing Act. State CPI(M) Secretary Anil Biswas claimed that the ‘backtracking’ actually illustrated the CPI(M)’s commitment to evolving consensus views on contentious issues.
The Chief Minister however had another story to tell. After the Land Reforms Minister Abdur Rezzak Molla informed the Assembly of his reservations regarding the attempt to do away with land ceilings, the Chief Minister tried to put up a brave front by telling the press that he too shared these reservations! In fact, he said he was surprised to discover such a clause in the bill and said someone must have overlooked it! The CPI(M) never tires of brandishing its record of land reforms in West Bengal. Is the CM then confessing that the Left Front government now treats the land reform agenda so casually that a clause seeking to do away with rural land ceiling could surreptitiously find its way into the bill presented by the government on the floor of the Assembly!
With their conflicting claims and clever pretensions, the CPI(M) leaders are however only managing to deepen the controversy. The day after the controversial clause was dropped, Abdur Rezzak Molla reiterated his reservations on the floor of the Assembly and called for a wider debate on land-use pattern so that the people of West Bengal get “a chance to express their opinion on the alarming shrinkage of agricultural land in the name of development.” He put the estimated magnitude of conversion of agricultural land at an alarming rate of 50,000 acres a year. Incidentally, right at the moment one Salem group of Indonesia, which has been invited by the Chief Minister to set up a new township, has asked for more than 5,000 acres of land in Molla’s home district South 24 Parganas!
While the Minister stressed the need to save agricultural land in the course of his speech in the Assembly, on the same day Anil Biswas held forth in a Party meeting in Kolkata on the need to find more land for industrialization. As a report puts it, “Biswas made it clear that the party apparatus was solidly behind the Chief Minister, almost daring leaders who had opposed the amendment to stand up and resist.” ‘Make no mistake, there are 277,000 members in the CPM and another two crore with frontal and mass organisations, who will be directed to rally behind the government to enable it to carry out industrialisation,’ said the State Secretary.
As the Salem group and its corporate cousins from across the world hunt for thousands of acres of arable land to set up Bengal’s own Gurgaons and the party-turned-government apparatus called the CPI(M) rewrites land reform laws to bulldoze Bengal’s poor peasantry and bargadars into a renewed state of landlessness, the land question is bound to spring more surprises in West Bengal’s deceptively ‘stagnant and predictable’ politics. q