| Long road ahead
On the eve of the first panchayat polls in 1978, rural West Bengal was on the threshold of sweeping changes — economic, political and social. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which led the Left Front to power in the state the year before, was both the agent and the beneficiary of those changes. Twenty five years on, the same party is desperate to retain its rural hold as a new challenge has emerged in the villages.
This challenge is primarily economic and the CPI(M) does not quite know how to face it. The first flush of radical agrarian reforms — recording of bargadars, distribution of ceiling-surplus land and so on, coupled with the benefits of the Green Revolution, brought about rare agricultural prosperity. As agricultural production and productivity increased, it benefited the small and marginal farmers, the principal beneficiaries of the land reforms, as well as middle farmers who were not particularly enthusiastic about the left’s inroads into villages.
As nearly 93 per cent of the state’s total landholdings are small and marginal — between one and two hectares — the left had the obvious advantage of numbers. Increased agricultural production and benefits from the panchayati raj made most of these small and marginal farmers the left’s natural ally. They remained poor, but not as desperately poor as before; more importantly, their new-found right to small plots of land and access to small benefits from panchayats created a sense of economic and social security. Life was no longer one long queue after another for gratuitous relief during the lean seasons.
Things started changing in the mid-Nineties and reached a near-critical point in the next few years. Agricultural production started declining, making all sections of the rural economy desperate to cope with the downturn. It hit the middle farmers the hardest — even by official estimates, increased costs of production and declining prices nearly halved the returns from paddy cultivation between 1990-97.
The small and marginal farmers too were caught in the web of this downward trend in farming. In fact, they were no less affected than the big or middle farmers. Not only was their own cultivation yielding less, they were also earning less in daily wages. The tendency to cut costs found an easy target in them — very few of them would today get Rs 60 a day, as fixed by the government. Even the CPI(M)-dominated panchayats would not press for the payment of Rs 60 for the fear of alienating the middle farmers, who would rather stop farming than pay that kind of wages.
The result of all this is a dramatic change that is threatening to undo the benefits of the left’s own land reforms. More and more small and marginal farmers are selling off their plots of land, because they cannot raise the funds to grow the crops, and reverting to their earlier status of landless wage- earners. But the wages they get are no longer what the government fixed but what their employers decided to give them. The government’s own statistics confirm that the number of agricultural wage-earners has significantly gone up in the last six years. The population increase has complicated matters.
The sixth panchayat elections have come at this critical juncture. The panchayats can offer only a meagre succour; they cannot make good the losses to the agrarian economy. After all, panchayats are decentralized government, they are not engines of economic growth. But panchayats have also raised expectations of economic aid that are increasingly difficult to fulfil. The various projects of the Central and state governments to create rural jobs are being wasted to distribute small largesse that may help the ruling party retain its votebank but which cannot sustain the economy even for the most underprivileged.
Hence the CPI(M)’s call for agrarian reforms, which led the government to seek the help of McKinsey. After much opposition from within the front and the rejection of three drafts, the government approved the new agriculture policy only weeks before the panchayat elections. The policy accepts the declining trend in agriculture and seeks to change much that was ushered in by the land reforms. The emphasis on crop diversification and commercialization of agriculture is likely to bring in fundamental changes to the present agrarian situation and consequently, the political equations in rural Bengal. Obviously, the small and marginal farmer is no longer the focus of the policy change for the simple reason that he is the least likely to be able to raise the resources for large-scale commercialization of farming. Only big and middle farmers can do that.
But land reforms had more or less erased big landlords from West Bengal. The changes of the past decade have seen a slow but unmistakable emergence of a new class which has accumulated large landholdings, often at the expense of small and marginal farmers. From farming to small business, they are increasingly at the helm of the rural economy. Much of their new economic and political power also stems from their links to the Marxists who need them as much as they need the latter. Although their economic status would make them the least dependent on panchayat benefits, they exploit the panchayat funds by way of building contracts for roads, schools, hospital buildings so on.
The CPI(M) has a tough job in hand promoting this new ally, while, at the same time, trying to represent the interests of the poor in the villages. This is also a major source of tension, not just between it and the opposition parties, but also among the Left Front partners. And the panchayats play a major role in this conflict because they are seen as a steady source of funds.
It is surprising how little the new challenges in agriculture and the government’s new policy have figured in the panchayat poll campaign. While the Marxist “terror” against political opponents or “corruption” in the panchayats took up most of the campaign space, virtually no debate was started, even by the CPI(M), on its new thinking for the rural economy. Nobody denies the importance of roads, drinking water or electricity for the villages, which are the basic campaign issues for the people. But unless the rural economy is sustainable, the people will not be able to buy even these basic amenities. There is thus a fundamental need to link the panchayats to the regeneration of the farm economy.
As the heat and dust of the panchayat polls settles, the government has to get into action to put the new policy in place. The panchayats would be a key instrument in doing that. The Marxists know that and hence their desperation to beat the opposition challenge to their hegemony in the villages.