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The two legs of Rural Development: Land Reforms & Panchayats

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Two legs of developement in west Bengal, land reform and panchayats, an informative note

Surya Kanta Mishra

The left Front Government of West Bengal has now come to stay for over two decades now, In terms of stability this offers an unprecedented record, hitherto unforeseen in the current national and international Scenario, when antiincumbency has come to play a decisive role in shaping the election results. Academicians, scholars, political analysts among other had been in search of reasons underlying this remarkable difference. Some of them have rightly attributed the success of the left Front Government to the alternative approach it adopted toward’s rural development based on Land reforms and democratic decentralisation through Panchyat Raj Institutions. Both of them are necessarily dependent on political will, some thing lacking with the non-Left Governments. Land to the tillers and Panchayati Raj had been two important demands raised during the struggle for independent India. Even after 50 years of our freedom none of these the demands could be realised. The total amount of ceiling surplus land that could have been available for distribution taking 20 acres as the ceiling was estimated to be around 62 million axes during the Second Five Year Plan. Not even 10% of it could be distributed so far in the country as whole. Similarly inspite of dozens of recommendations made by committees, set up by the Government of India Meheta Committee, Ashok Meheta, L M Singh among others) and even after much advertised 73rd & 74th amendments to our Constitutions Panchayats continue to Languish in most part of our country. The current onslaught of globalisation and liberalisation has added wind to the sail of already existing trend of centralisation. Ever widening disparity in both economic and social spheres and increasing trend of centralisation of capital assets including land has lead to further shift of correlation of forces against declaration, unbridled market forces let loose by these forces are out to undo whatever little could be done through the meager land reform measures. The ninth Plan document has gone a step further by proposing to open up the land and tenancy market to the national big business and international finance capital with the avowed objective of relaxing the ceiling provisions and tenancy regulations. It is in this perspective that the achievements of Left Front Government in West Bengal should be judged.

The followings are source of the achievements of the left Front Government, the brief-

  1. West Bengal having only 2% of the geographical area and 3.5% of agricultural land in the country accounts for 20% of the total ceiling surplus land distributed in the country.
  2. Over 10.25 lakhs acres of land has been distributed to around 2.5 million beneficiaries so far.
  3. S.C. and S.T. account for 56% of the beneficiaries though they constituted 27% of state population. Over 4 Lakhs of pattas distributed are joint pattas given in the name of both husband and wife.
  4. About 1.5 million of share croppers have been recorded through Operation Barga and settlement of operations, thereby protecting them from eviction by landlords.
  5. Over 5 lakhs of landless families were given homestead lands.
  6. The total number of vested land allotted, recorded sharecroppers and recipients of home stead land together will exceed 4.5 million which accounts for 48% of the total land reform beneficiaries in the country.
  7. National sample survey data in 48th rounds shows that 69.4% of land in West Bengal are owned by small and marginal farmers, as against 35.52% held by them in the country as a whole.
  8. Land reform is a precursor of democracy. There cannot be any meaningful democratic decentralisation with lands remaining concentrated in fewerhtiands. Since 70% of lands belong to small marginal farmers, over 70% of lands belong to small marginal farmers, over 70% of panchayat members come from these sections, a class composition, unique in the country. West Bengal is the only state in the country to have regular elections to Panchayatraj bodies for five consecutive terms during last two decades. That this could be done without Constitutional Amendment shows it is political will and not the bill, which is more fundamental requirement. Over 50% of the budgetary plan allocation have been devolved to the District Planning Committees headed by the chairpersons of the Zilla Parishads.
  9. Farms census data from all over the country and world as well shows higher production performance and employment generation in smaller farms. Land Reforms coupled with supply of non land inputs through panchayats such as water, credit, seed, fertilizers & technology etc., has placed West Bengal in the highest position in food grain production. The annual rate of growth in between 1980-1983 and 1990-1993 had been highest among the states. (WB-5.5% as against 2.8% as country as a whole.)
  10. West Bengal having only 3. 5% of the agricultural land as against 8% of the population of country, production 16% of Rice (Highest) 31% of Potatoes (next to U.P. only) 61% of Jute (Highest) 18% of fish (highest for 10 consecutive years) 10% consecutive years) 10% of eggs & broiler each. (competing with A.P. and Tamil Nadu for first position)

11. Growth cannot be sustainable unless it is equitable. Higher growth rate in West Bengal is accompanied by highest rate of increase in percapita consumption of cereals in between 1981 and 1990 as per N.S.S. data when it came down in the country as a whole.

12. A comparison of rural poverty estimates between 1973-74 and 1993-94 and 1993-94 as per the report of the Expert Group of Planning Commission (Lakdwala Committee) shows highest reduction of rural poverty going by the diffence of percentage from 68% to 40%) in West Bengal among the States. Even in the years of liberalisation (1990-91 and 1993-94) when percent of rural poverty increased in most of the states, it came down by over 9% in West Bengal, again the highest reducation among the states. This is indicative of successful implemention of land reforms and antipoverty programme though panchayet.

13. Annual rate of growth of employment has been highest among the states at 2.9% against All India average of 2.35%.

14. Total small savings exceeded Rs. 1600 Crores an all time record for any state in the country. This has increased the purchasing power in the rural areas. The annual rate of growth of demand for industrial commodities in rural areas has increased by over 10%. This shows that land reforms is essential pre-condition for industrialisation.

15. Development is measured by Human Development Index rather than by the growth rates. Human Development Index for West Bengal was calculated to be 0.394 as against 0.384 for India as a whole. Going by the social indicators West Bengal ranks second among the Indian States as estimated by Institute of Pubin. Policy research, New Delhi next to Kerala only, another State to have implemented land reforms and decentralisation through Panchayets.

There are many more achievements those could be added to this list. However there is no scope of complacency. The existing bourgeois-land lord order, centre state relations and economic policies perused by the central Government pose formidable challenges and serious threats which most benefit must be made before justifier advance is made. How this can be done is yet another matter be discussed separately.

Surya Kanta Mishra is Minister of LandReforms and Panchayats West Bengal.

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