Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Operation Sharecropper comes a cropper

Shiv Karan Singh
KOLKATA, May 4: “As soon as I heard about the camp, I ran to get our name recorded”, said Mr Singho, remembering the events of 1984, when the effects of Operation Barga first reached his village, Liluakola, in West Midnapore. Mr. Singho remembers Land Reforms under the Left Front as a “good thing”, because under Operation Barga, his father, Sumanto Singho, a sharecropper, was protected from being evicted by the landowner and guaranteed a 75% share of the .3-acre area cultivated. This protection gave food security to the Singho family.
However, for Mr. Singho, the benefits of Operation Barga have long expired. His father passed away. And, in 1991, the state government acquired the land that he and his four brothers continued to sharecrop in Kalaikunda Gram Panchayat to establish a Tata pig iron factory. The compensation was less than Rs. 2,000. Now, with but a small adjoining homestead plot where they grow vegetables and sesame, the Singho brothers are another example of the lakhs of beneficiaries of land reform that have been subsequently dispossessed of food, income, and status by state land acquisition. For, although land reform protected the sharecropper from the whims of the absentee landlord, it has been powerless against the whims of the state government armed with the Land Acquisition Act (1894).
One of the reasons why the Left Front Government has maintained power for over 30 years in West Bengal is because of its implementation of land reforms of which Operation Barga has been touted as particularly successful. According to the West Bengal Human Development Report 2004, by 2000, 16.80 lakh bargadars were recorded under Operation Barga, which accounted for 20.2 % of agricultural households in the state.. However, the same report noted a marked decline in the recording of bargadars by the mid-1980’s and that there has since been “increasing land alienation by pattadars, and of eviction of bargadars, thus suggesting that the benefits of land reform have been relatively short-lived at least for some rural households.” The report details that 14.13% of recorded bargadars have been evicted since the commencement of Land Reforms.
Nevertheless, even such official acceptance of failures, which but mildly undercuts the perceptions of success in Land Reforms, does not account for the concomitant displacement and dispossession of recorded and unrecorded bargadars, pattadars, and agricultural labour in rural Bengal via coercive land acquisition laws for development projects like industries, dams, power stations, roads, and mines, ever since independence.
According to a study by Mr. Walter Fernandes, between 1947 and 2000, courtesy the Land Acquisition Act (1894) and the far more coercive West Bengal Land Requisition and Acquisition Act (1948), which was repealed in 1993, 47 lakh acres of land was acquired in Bengal, affecting 70 lakh individuals, of which 36 lakh represent those displaced and 34 lakh represent those deprived of livelihood.
That the numbers of displaced and dispossessed by land acquisition far outnumber those who have benefited from Land Reforms is a fact not lost to villagers like Mr. Singho, residing in the Kalaikunda Gram Panchayat in West Midnapore. Tailing the entry of the Tata pig iron factory, with the help of further land acquisition, numerous industries have sprung up on the same fertile land in last 15 years, eroding the livelihood of thousands of cultivators and providing them no jobs, while alternative uncultivable land north of Midnapore railway station still remains available. Such has been the rate of land acquisition in the area that a study by Mr. Abhijit Guha, using acquisition figures of only the Tata and proposed Birla factory - the project being since abandoned - argues that land has been acquired for industry in Kalaikunda at twice the rate at which it has been distributed in reforms.
Mr Trilochan Rana, a former CPI (ML) leader, who later joined the trade union wing of the Congress Party and led a local resistance against acquisitions and inadequate compensation that reached its height in 1995-1996, has witnessed the privations and disillusionment suffered by land losers in Kalaikunda Gram Panchayat at close quarters. On being asked whether the resistance in Nandigram will have an impact on the imminent Kalaikunda panchayat elections, Mr. Rana emphasised that “this time none of the 17 Kalaikunda seats will be uncontested.” And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added: “the rest of the story is in the secret of the secret ballot.”