People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 21

June 02,2002



Agrarian Relations and New Challenges in West Bengal


Anil Biswas


Anil Biswas, secretary of West Bengal CPI(M) state committee, delivered Comrade P Sundarayya memorial lecture on May 19 at Sundarayya Vignana Kendram in Hyderabad. The ocassion was 17th death anniversary of Com P Sundarayya.

Dr A Murali of the University of Hyderabad presided over the meeting. Former Polit Bureau member, L B Gangadhara Rao, who is also the managing trustee of Sundarayya Vignana Kendram was  seated on the dias. C Sambi Reddy, secretary of  Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, presented a report to the meeting explaining  the activities of the Kendram, its expansion and efforts being made for restoration of its prestigious library.


I FEEL honoured to be present here at the occasion of birth anniversary of Comrade P Sundarayya, one of the most outstanding leaders of the communist movement in India. PS, as he was fondly called, was a revolutionary throughout his life who contributed immensely in the formulation of theoretical understanding as well as building up the organisation to implement those understandings. He, truly, was a concrete embodiment of theory and practice.


Comrade PS , as you may know, was deeply involved with the party and the mass movement of West Bengal. He had very close relation with not only the stalwarts like Comrade Promode Dasgupta, Comrade Jyoti Basu but many of the younger leaders in the sixties were enriched by his direct guidance and affection. PS personally knew many comrades in different levels of the party and he was even acquainted with their families. PS stayed at the then CC office in Lake Place in south Calcutta and directly supervised the building of the party in the state. We still remember how he used to sit for hours at the site when the new printing machines were being assembled at the Ganashakti press. With the familiar dress, wearing khaki shorts, he was a surprise to the Chinese engineers who were involved in the work there. He was known for his appetite for perfection and tried to teach other comrades as well in the fashion. In such an episode, in 1967, there was a huge rally in Calcutta protesting the sacking of United Front government and PS not satisfied with reports from comrades about the exact size of the gathering went out himself in the next morning to Shahid Minar Maidan to gauge the full capacity of the ground.


The expansion of the CPI(M) and the left in West Bengal was intrinsically linked with the movement for land reforms. The popular base of the Left Front government and its continuing advancement with tremendous mass support is also integrally related with the land reforms measures it had initiated. As you know, these measures have been noticed not only within the country but also attracted international attention. I will try to deal with some of these aspects today. What I want to say at the outset is that PS was one of the leading figures who contributed in the initiation of the popular movement for land reforms in West Bengal. With his immense experience of the Telangana uprising, PS involved himself in the detailed study of the West Bengal scenario including the class stratification, the social forces in the rural areas, the pattern of agricultural production etc. He used to visit the villages, particularly in the then 24 Parganas, Burdwan, Midnapore and the districts in North Bengal, stayed with comrades there and gathered socio-economic information. PS suggested the basic framework and the tactical approach for the land movement in the state. His guidance was an enlightening factor in the development of the militant peasant movement in the sixties.





The most important colonial intervention in India’s agrarian structure was the introduction of Permanent Settlement in Bengal Presidency in 1793.  Its intellectual origin was the British Physiocratic belief that a capitalist land ownership on the model of the English landed aristocracy could be established on the fertile soil of Bengal though it was only a deformed system badly superimposed.  Marx noted that the consequence of this transplantation was no more than ‘a caricature of large scale English landed estates’ (Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 3, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971, pp.  333-334) which was reproduced in Bengal.  The result was that the traditional landlords in Bengal had to sell off their estates to more commercially oriented landlords and the new genre served the purpose of colonial masters.  Some additional measures empowered them to intensify coercive measures against tenants to collect rent from them.  Later some steps intended for small peasants were introduced but the hierarchy of renter interests was ever expanding.  On the one hand, the depeasantisation became a common feature.  On the other hand intense poverty coupled with regular famines were prevalent throughout the colonial period.


The colonial Bengal, in the nineteenth century too, witnessed frequent peasant unrests, in some cases culminating into revolts.  During 1920s and 1930s, share croppers movements were particularly evident first in western parts of the province, then spreading into north.  The demand of tebhaga (two/thirds share of the produce) arose from these movements.  Then, in 1946 onwards, the tebhaga movement engulfed large sections of the peasantry and with the intervention of Krishak Sabha and the Communist Party the movement gradually turned into a movement for protection and furthering of share croppers’ rights.  The movement with its militancy and upward political content became a major milestone in the history of Bengal.


It was the force of the peasant struggles, which compelled the Congress government after independence to initiate some tenancy legislations.  The abolition of Zamindari was coupled with the enactment of Acts defending the share croppers’ rights.  Notwithstanding the passing of these Acts, the concentration of the ownership was not dismantled, neither the eviction of the share croppers and refusal of their due share was stopped.  Deliberate loopholes and exemptions in the Acts provided continuation of exploitation in various ways.




It was only during the United Front governments in 1967 and 1969 that serious political-administrative effort at implementing a number of land reform legislations were initiated in the state.  Significant progress in respect to implementation of land reform was made during the period.  Hare Krishna Konar, the revenue minister in the 1967 United Front government will always be remembered as a man who gave a call of occupying lands vested with the government and benami lands.  This was followed by virtually a mass upsurge of the peasantry in the countryside.  It was then that the masses of the peasantry united under the leadership of the left in the struggle for implementing land reform.


The two United Front governments formed in the late 1960s were, however, short lived and could not complete the task.  After 1977, when the Left Front government came to power the state support and the peasants’ movement converged to widen and hasten the process.  Land reforms in West Bengal was aimed at changing the correlation of class forces in favour of the rural toiling masses. 


The land reform implemented by the Left Front government in West Bengal had two major components: tenancy reforms and redistribution of land.


Implementation of tenancy reforms was made possible firstly by an amendment in the West Bengal Land Reforms Act brought about in 1977.  This amendment provided the legal basis for the movement popularly known as ‘Operation Barga’.  The amended legislation outlined clear procedures for identification of bargadars (sharecroppers) and laid down very strict conditions for preventing their eviction.  At the same time, it clearly stated that the burden of proving would lie with the landowner.  With this legislative backing, public meetings were organised, with the help of panchayats and mass peasant organisations, to mobilise sharecroppers to register their names in the land records.  It was a huge success.


The second important component of the land reform in West Bengal was redistribution of land to the poor and the landless. About 14 lakh acres of land were acquired by the state government, which constitutes about 18 per cent of the total land acquired in India.  Of the total land acquired by the state, about 14 lakh acres were distributed to around 24 lakh landless and marginal-cultivator households.  This constitutes about 20 per cent of the total land distributed in all the states of India under land reforms.


It must be emphasized that the process has been carried out despite the onslaught of economic reform and liberalisation.  Between 1993 and 1999, about 95,000 acres of land were acquired in West Bengal and about 94,000 acres were distributed under the land reform programme.  This accounts for almost all the land acquired in the country as a whole and 42 per cent of the land redistributed in the country in this period.  In fact, in India as a whole, the data do not show any increase in the land acquisition, indicating that in some of the other states land was actually given back to the landlords.




The process of land reform was accompanied by important institutional changes brought about with a radical reorganisation of the system of local government.  A system of democratically elected local government bodies was established at three levels.  Elections to the local bodies were held in June 1978, after a gap of eighteen years.  West Bengal today is the only state that has the distinction of having had regular elections to local bodies every five years, for the last 25 years.  The panchayats in West Bengal were given a substantial share of the state’s resources and a range of responsibilities that were earlier assigned to the district-level bureaucracy.  The participatory nature has been reinforced by introducing ideas and legislations from time to time.


I refer here to Suryakanta Misra’s analysis where he characterises the institutional changes brought about by the Left Front government as a ‘policy of walking on two legs’, that is, a two-pronged strategy of development: implementation of land reform and establishment of democratic institutions of local government.  These, are interlinked and both require strong political will.  A well-organised peasant movement and a system of people’s participation in local government are crucial instruments for the implementation of land reform.  While, on one hand, the democratic institutions of local government are very important instruments in the strategy of implementation of land reform, their involvement also helps strengthen these institutions by making them a platform for struggle by historically oppressed classes and castes.


These had their impact on agricultural production.  West Bengal emerged as a forerunner state from a long period of agrarian impasse.  In the 1980s, the rate of growth of foodgrain production in the state was the highest among the major foodgrain-producing states of India. The compound rate of growth of production of foodgrains was about 6 per cent in West Bengal in the 1980s. Detailed analysis by different economists have revealed that the high growth-rate was noticeable in most crops, it was widespread across districts, was not associated with higher instability and was not due to only weather conditions.  Cropping intensity in West Bengal has increased steadily from 136 in 1980-81 to 180 in 2000-2001, the second highest in the country, next only to Punjab.


The post-land reform period has been associated with large-scale expansion of irrigation.  According to National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data, the net irrigated area in West Bengal increased by about 115 per cent between 1975-76 and 1992. 


In the 1990s, West Bengal had the highest growth of per capita net state domestic product (SDP) in the whole country.  Between 1991-92 and 1998-99, the rate of growth of SDP in West Bengal was 6.88 per cent, higher than for example, Maharastra (5.14 per cent) and Gujarat (4.81 per cent).  This overall growth was coupled with reduction in poverty, increased nutritional level of the poor people and higher human development index.