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Troubled land of Bihar

“The destiny of Bihar cannot be allowed to be defined by just one person. He needs to be overthrown.” Those strong words from Janata Dal (U) dissident leader Digvijay Singh found a surprising show of support at a farmer’s rally held in Patna on Sunday.

patna Updated: May 10, 2010 23:58 IST
Mammen Matthew

“The destiny of Bihar cannot be allowed to be defined by just one person. He needs to be overthrown.”

Those strong words from Janata Dal (U) dissident leader Digvijay Singh found a surprising show of support at a farmer’s rally held in Patna on Sunday to protest Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s plan to give sharecroppers some rights to the land they till.

About 100,000 farmers attended the kisan mahapanchayat, a grouping of big farmers that has turned into a platform for opponents of Kumar, from within and outside his party, to unite — ahead of the assembly elections in the state.

No one had expected such a show of strength from a disparate group of “scheming dissidents” from various parties against Kumar, who — by all counts – has been doing well to possibly win another tenure.

The protesting farmers came from all districts, and all kinds of political shades. The binding force was just one — opposition to a proposed land reform Bill that Kumar may soon bring in the assembly. The proposal is based on report prepared by Debabrata Bandyopadhyay — a former bureaucrat credited for land reforms in neighbouring West Bengal in the 1980s.

The report suggested that the state prescribe a ceiling of 15 acres for all types of land, agricultural or non-agricultural; provide some legal rights to sharecroppers (bataidaars) on the land they tilled, so that they could also benefit from institutional loans and crop finance; and redistribute 2.2 million acres of land, which he calculated could be freed from “illegal possession of big landowners” in Bihar.

This chunk, the report said, had been hidden from the state via benami (nameless) and other illegal transactions as fake donations to institutions and religious trusts.

However, Bihar, which has had a history of class-caste conflicts over land, reacted sharply. The landowners, not to be taken in by Kumar’s statement in the Bihar legislative council and publicly that he “had no intention of giving effect to the reforms”, have charged him with dividing the state, deepening class divides and leading Bihar towards a civil war.

Kumar’s own JD-U is split on the issue. Its ally, the BJP, did not agree entirely to the proposals, neither did influential sections within the Congress or even Lalu Prasad’s RJD. While other parties are restrained, knowing it would be too controversial to take a position either way in an election year, the kisan mahapanchayat has received the backing of MLAs and MPs cutting across party lines. JD-U dissidents, spearheading the campaign against the land reforms agenda, had lain low for a while till their personal differences with the regime became too obvious. Rajiv Ranjan Singh Lalan, the former Bihar JD-U president and the closest confidant of Kumar, was the first to “break away” from him. Prabhunath Singh, former party MP from Maharajganj; Digvijay Singh, JD-U MP from Banka; and Akhilesh Prasad Singh of the RJD joined forces thereafter.

While the first three had personal problems with Kumar, it soon became obvious that they had a game plan ready to cash in on the fears of the landed groups over land reforms.

At the Sunday rally, Lalan warned of civil strife should the state go ahead with the reforms. Terming Kumar a “dictator” and an “autocrat”, he warned, “We had taken him to be the party bridegroom and helped him to power by sending out Lalu. We can do it again should Kumar go against the wishes of the people.”

Nagmani, the influential leader of Koeris, said, “We erred in counting him in as chief minister. He needs to be taken down.”

The mahapanchayat’s argument is that the bataidaari system has worked successfully whereby landowners could leave the actual tilling to the sharecroppers on a 50:50 claim to the produce. “This benefited both — the landowners could sustain themselves, while the tillers managed a living. The state agenda has sowed serious suspicion, forcing landowners to evict bataidaars out of fear that land could be taken away should Nitish Kumar come back with a majority. This is creating joblessness and unnecessary tension, and could lead to class wars and militancy,” said the former legislative council member and the chairman of the Bihar Rajya Adhivakta Sangh, Ramesh Prasad Singh.

As it is, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers constitute 39.27 per cent of the total labour force of the state and are ready recruits for the Left, including the militant varieties. This is why, perhaps, Bandyopadhyay observed: “The reforms would help mitigate Naxalism.”

CPI (ML) General Secretary Deepankar Bhattacharya agrees: “Land reform is the need of the hour; else, the agrarian strife would continue to rage.”

The pro-Bill group says: “Bengal increased its per capita income to Rs 31,722 after 1978 reforms, while Bihar’s per capita income has risen to just Rs13,959 in 2009, due to low productivity base”. Land Reforms Minister Narendra Narayan Yadav is not ready for the Land Reforms Bill. “There is no proposal to go through with it as the chief minister has reiterated time and again”, he said, adding “in any case, the existing laws can deal with ceiling cases and land-related anomalies”.

JD-U spokesperson Shivanand Tiwary does not see any wrong per se with the reform suggestions, but believes that in its present form, it would require modifications. “The government will never take a decision that is inimical to the interests of the landowners,” he said.

Even former Bihar Industries Association president KP Jhunjhun-wala says the business and trade sector disapproved of the Bill in its present form. “The proposed ceiling of 15 acres per family would discourage big business from coming to the state.”

Interestingly, Bihar was the first state to abolish zamindari in 1950 but the follow-ups have failed. Ironically, what Bandyopadhyay penned in his conclusion while arguing for land reforms has turned out to be true for the present Bihar situation. He had said, “…The countryside of Bihar is apparently peaceful with smouldering embers underneath, which might ignite the bushfire anytime.”

But all said and done, the idea among landowners — that a stronger Nitish Kumar after the elections may indeed legislate for land reforms — is what can hurt the NDA campaign in the run-up to the November assembly polls. In reaction, Nitish Kumar’s clarification that he does not intend to implement the Bill can wean away his newly acquired Dalit base.

And, there lies the irony.