Gandhigiri maybe the buzz word these days, but in Mahatma Gandhi’s Karmabhoomi Champaran, where he had spearheaded a peasant movement against the British indigo planters in 1917, the oppression of successive generations of peasants still continues as nothing has changed in the last 90 years.
Peasants in general continue to be poor, have no rights on land and are forced to work as bonded labourers. The only change discernible is that, today, the oppressed peasants are ‘slaves’ to the local landowners, not the colonial masters.
Sounds incredible in independent India! But this is a fact pointed out by D Bandopadhyaya, Land Reforms Commission Chairperson, in his report about his visit to village Dhanauti in Bagaha sub-division of West Champaran district (near the Indo- Nepal border).
Earlier, West Champaran was part of the composite district of Champaran. He has recommended that vast tracts of land and estates held in benami possession should be immediately taken away and settled in the name of the tillers.
Bandopadhyaya, in his note to the government, has said that despite the bataidari system (land given to peasants for tilling on a contract) in vogue in the entire district, complaints of abuses of bataidari are negligible and only five cases of bataidari dispute is registered in the district.
"It appears that the bataidars have just reconciled themselves to the harsh, coercive and iniquitous system because they have no alternative. The situation is quite similar to the one that the Mahatma had found in 1917 about the ryots who resented the "tin kathia" system but had had submitted to force."
The commission, which is working out ways for better land reforms in Bihar, has found that "there are three to four thousand acres of land held in benami possession by influential people of the area. Despite the abolition of zamindari long ago, these families continue to control vast land resources by virtue of their political and social clout."
Bandopadhayay has said that these families have managed to hold onto a position of dominance in the area by capturing political power and putting their own representatives in panchayat bodies.
Referring to his visit to Dhanauti, Bandopadhyaya said peasants made two general complaints- one was about the non-regulsarisation of occupation of gair mazarua land (government land) and shikast land and the other about the non-possession of land despite having parchas ( land titles).
Another interesting fact the commission has pointed out is that the peasants had been allotted the same land at different points of time by ministers ie in 1982, 86-97 and early nineties perhaps due to the fraud committed by revenue officials.
"We received 700 such complaints in just two hours. It shows how deep runs the frustration among the peasants."
Interestingly, Bandopadhyaya has said that peasants in Dhanauti and elsewhere are afraid to talk of the oppression perpetrated on them by the landed class due to the fear of reprisal. He has said that no evidence was given by the peasant organisations about the holding of vast tracts of land in benami possession or exploitation of bataidars.
Apparently, appalled by the plight of the peasants, Bandopadhyaya has recommended that laws should be amended to detect benami transactions of land so that landless get land for tilling. In his concluding remarks Bandopadhyaya says that there has been no change in the pitiable condition of the peasants witnessed by the Mahatma in 1917.
"We found the same fear, the same sense of powerlessness writ large on the faces poor peasants at Dhanauti in West Champaran."