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By Shubhendu Dasgupta. Translated by Debarshi Das, Sanhati 2 August 2008

One of the many aspects of the land reform programme was security for tenants. Those land owners who would not cultivate the land themselves, would lease out the same to the tenants. This is called tenancy cultivation – or “barga” cultivation in Bengal. Those who would lease in the land on barga cultivation would be called “bargadars”.

There used to be several kinds of contracts between the land owner and the bargadar. What was absent was the certainty that the bargadar would get the land each year on barga. We have already noted the issue of certainty of tenancy. Had she wished so, the land owner would change the bargadar every other year. Land and harvest suffered as a result. Since the bargadar did not know if she would be able to lease in the land the following year, she did not take initiatives to improve fertility of land.

Non-improvement of land fertility in turn implies poor harvest. Keeping this in mind, land reform programme stipulated that those who have been leasing in should be given tenancy in future as well, they cannot be thrown out. Name of the bargadars would be registered with the government. The government termed the programme as “Operation Barga”. The bargadars obtained the certainty of tenancy and they therefore concentrated on the improvement of farming. Neither was there much scope for fights with the landlord over the share of harvest – these issues started to get settled by the government rules. It was subsequently often claimed that tenancy security was behind the agrarian development in West Bengal. However it was also claimed that the ownership of land would be eventually transferred to the bargadar which never came to pass. The government simply did not execute it.

One month ago there was a news item published in news papers on this. It goes like this,

One, the Government of West Bengal wishes to abolish bargadari system and hand over the land to the bargadars. To accomplish this, amendments to the present land reform act would be passed.

Two, land owners have complained that bargadars were not paying their due share. The land owners are unable to sell off the land as well. The current laws mandate that they can sell the land only to the bargadars, whereas most of the bargadars are unable [financially] to purchase the land.

Three, The Government of West Bengal would create an organization called Bhumi Company Limited. This company would raise money from the market and would purchase land from the land owners. The Company would then ask the bargadars to buy the land from it. The bargadars would be given loans to buy land and they would have to pay interest on the loan. If the bargadar is unable to buy, she would be given ownership of one-fourth amount of the land, the rest three-fourth would go the government. It does not mean that the government would once again lease out this three-fourth land to a bargadar. It is not specified what the government would do with the land.

This is tenant eviction in a round about way. No thought has gone into if the bargadar would be able to sustain with the one-fourth of land. It has been reported that the land revenue minister, the chief minister and the finance minister held discussions over this issue. Let us try to figure out the further significance of the news reports.

Amended Land Reform Act, 1981 specifies the provisions if the bargadar does not pay her due to the land owner. The proposals mentioned above have avoided them completely. The present act says, if the owner wants to sell off the land in some dire circumstances (the act contains a list of them) she can do so only to the bargadar. There are plenty of provisions in the act enabling the tenant to purchase the land. State Land Organisation would be formed which would provide assistance. Cooperatives would be formed which would come to the rescue by advancing loans. The proposal we have here however talks of formation of a land company limited (which may not be a fully governmental organisation) which would raise funds from the share market. Not only land, finance of land is also being turned into something whose fate would be sealed by the market.

The present act says, if the bargadar is unable to buy, any farmer who can buy it under the provision of “patta” would be given the land. The land must be kept under the plough and the same bargadar should be retained. Under the land reform act the bargadar cannot be evicted or removed. Ownership might change, not the tenant. Right of the bargadar is hereditary, and non-transferable. Under the proposed new system the land would be purchased by the Land Company Limited from the owner – this violates the existing rules. After making the purchase the Company would ask the bargadar to purchase the land; the bargadar [possibly] would not be able to buy. If she takes a loan she would be unable to pay the interest. The Company thereafter would not ask some other farmer to purchase the land – a provision which is the there under the current act. The bargadar would own one-fourth and the Company would be the owner of the three-fourth of the land. This would subsequently be sold to some industrialist or a real estate company. The land under cultivation is thus getting reduced, chunks of it are becoming available for non-agricultural purposes without much hassle. It is perhaps the motive to act as land broker which is behind the government’s new proposal.

The land which would thus be acquired might probably be located not in some remote village. They would possibly be in urban outskirts, beside the highways – the most sought-after location for industrialists and real estate companies. Moreover, what has been proposed applies to the registered bargadars. About the unregistered, there is not a single word. The onus of remaining unregistered does not however rest with the bargadars. The government showed little initiatives on this count.

Need for agricultural development was behind the Floud Commission recommendation in British India to turn bargadars into “raiyats”. A further motivation for this was to bring about political stability in rural areas. Land reforms acts of independent India were a reflection of this. Bargadars have the responsibility to improve land fertility, which is crucial for food security. There existed political necessity of land reform as well, which remains to this day.

But we are veering away from this idea in the capitalist economy of the present day. Land is no longer a critical input for food and cultivation, it simply is a tradable commodity. Those who have the money and the willingness would be handed over land. It is absurd to ask if that land is to be used for farming, or for industries, or for building houses. The agency which should have asked, namely the government, is keeping quiet. Possibly we, who want food, and peasants, bargadars, who produce it, would have to ask these questions. For the world is in a deep food crisis at present and would remain so in the foreseeable future.

This article originally appeared in Sanbad Pratibad.

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