With Elections Around the Corner, Nitish Kumar Resurrects 'Land to Landless' Rhetoric

Landless and homeless people in the state have long been promised reforms but have not seen them put into practice.

In a recent review meeting on environment conservation as part of the Jal Jeevan Hariyali Abhiyan, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar announced measures to help landless people dwelling near ponds, canals and rivers. He said that these families would either be provided land or money to purchase land so that houses could be built. The chief minister also ordered officers to identify beneficiaries across the state.

This is not the first time that Nitish – or in fact the Bihar government – has made an announcement to help homeless or landless people. In 2018, Kumar announced a sum of Rs 60,000 as assistance to homeless people under the Chief Minister Gram Awas Yojana. However, considering the lack of progress under that scheme, critics are already labelling the Janata Dal (United) (JDU) government’s latest announcement as merely paying lip service. Some also wonder if this is just a way to captivate voters, with the state set to have assembly elections soon.

Representative image of a family that lives near canals. Photo: Author provided

After independence, Bihar was the first state in the country to do away with the zamindari system. But zamindars were not stripped off their surplus landholdings because the ruling Congress party was full of upper caste landlords. These leaders chose a moderate, landlord-oriented path of agrarian reforms. In 1962, the Land Ceiling Act was passed but using loopholes, landlords evicted tenants of land at large. However, to provide protection to the ryots and sharecroppers, the Bihar Tenancy Act of 1885 was amended in 1970 to safeguard the interests of the tenants. Additionally, laws such as the Bihar Privileged Persons Homestead Tenancy Act and the Bihar Money Lender Act were enacted to safeguard the interests of labourers.

Also Read: Land Reforms Fail; 5% of India’s Farmers Control 32% Land

Around 90% of Bihar’s population remains rural and agrarian. As the state has a strong identity-based society, it is the social structure that determines access to resources. Possession of land is one parameter that adds value to individuals or families and their position in society. Higher land holding, either through inheritance or acquiring it, gets one more respect. Possession of land undercuts a person’s caste identity also.

Nitish Kumar’s reformation attempts

In Nitish Kumar’s regime, land reforms became a widely discussed issue in political circles when the report drafted by the Bihar Land Reforms Commission was submitted in April 2008. The report’s chief author, Debabrata Bandhopadhyay was credited as being the architect of land reforms in West Bengal under the Left front government.

The suggestions included a new Act to protect sharecroppers, strictly implementing the land ceiling Act and digitisation of land records.

The three key recommendations were:

  1. To do away with the present system of classification of land into six categories with varying ceilings, reducing it to 15 acres for all kinds of land.
  2. To allot between one acre and 0.66 acre of ceiling surplus land each to the lowest quintile of agricultural labourers consisting of 16.68 lakh households and assignment of at least 10 decimals (a decimal is 100th of an acre) of land to shelter-less households of 5.48 lakh non-farm rural workers each.
  3. To enact a Bataidari Act to ensure heritable right of cultivation to all sharecroppers with 60% share of the produce (if the landowner bears the cost of production) or 70-75% of the produce (if the bataidar bears the cost of production).

The commission concluded that there was a ‘structural bottleneck’ in Bihar’s agriculture due to a very queer pattern of land ownership. It said the absence of land reforms not only ensured that the feudal domination continued within the state, but also assures that there is an unending supply of cheap labour from Bihar.

Woman in mustard field, Bihar. Credit: Jack Wickes/Flickr CC BY-ND.20

These recommendations were opposed by a powerful lobby, mostly comprising upper caste and some backward caste people because it would give legal rights to sharecroppers. There was also hue and cry, within his own party and alliance partners BJP, and Nitish conveniently backtracked from his own poll promise to implement land reforms in October 2009.

Four years later, Nitish Kumar launched a programme to distribute three decimals to the state’s Mahadalit families. It claimed to identify 2.52 lakh beneficiaries under the scheme. In 2014, when Jitan Ram Manjhi became the chief minister (the first from the Musahar community), this was increased to 5 decimals. Manjhi also implemented the Dakhal Dehani programme, which provided land to Dalits, Mahadalits to build houses with ownership papers.

Also Read: How Nitish Kumar Made the BJP Vote for an Anti-NRC Resolution in Bihar

The ‘Operation Dakhal Dehani’ was initiated by Nitish after he backtracked from implementing the reforms suggested by the Bandhopadhyay commission. It was intended to hand over government, sarvodaya and ceiling lands to landless families.

Tribals and Mahadalits remain the prime victims of land deprivation in Bihar. The state’s tribal population is predominantly without land and remains excluded from the state government’s data records. If a large chunk of landless population finds no mention in the Census report, then Nitish’s claims to have served the landless population is farcical.

Social justice?

Speaking to The Wire, land rights activist Pankaj, who is based in Bettiah and was also a member of the Dakhal Dehani programme, said the Bihar department of revenue claims that 1.65 lakh households who have been allotted land. However, he says the government’s claim that in West Champaran district, only 12,000 people are yet to get possession is false. The real number, according to Pankaj, is 50,000.

The Wire has accessed a letter sent by the additional chief secretary (revenue and land reforms), Vivek Kumar Singh, to all division commissioners in April 2017. In the letter, he asks the commissioners to act upon the allotment of land to those who were entitled but did not get possession even three years after the programme was initiated.

Letter sent by the additional chief secretary.

The Jammu and Kashmir success story

Landlessness, as a nationwide challenge, was dealt with political firmness in states like Jammu and Kashmir and West Bengal. Undertaking an extensive research on land reforms in the Valley, George Mathew wrote that between the 1950s and 1970s, surplus land of 672 kanals was taken away, mainly from Rajputs and Mahajans. Of this, 70.24% was allotted to Scheduled Caste tenants. This led to a radical intergenerational shift in the occupation pattern of the SCs.

As Haseeb A. Dabru wrote, the level of economic empowerment in the state is evident from the fact that “more than 25% of the household earnings in J&K are from own cultivation”. This is higher than other states such as Punjab and Gujarat.

When compared with the achievements in J&K, the Bihar government’s claims of having served the deprived and lowering poverty and landlessness pale. Lofty announcements on providing land to rehabilitate the needy were just a systemic exploitative version of development that deepened the roots of the neo-feudal order and gave no space to an effective agrarian transition.

Before Nitish Kumar, previous regimes also did little to provide ‘land to the tiller’. The regime of Karpoori Thakur, who became chief minister in 1977, instilled hope, but his government was also populated by the same landowning upper/dominant castes and could not do much on the issue of land reforms. In 1980, when the Congress came back to power in the state, it also catered to the upper caste alliances. In the 90s, when Lalu Yadav became the chief minister, people pinned hope on ‘social justice era’. Operation Todarmal was launched by then-minister for revenue and land Inder Singh Namdhari and was aimed at detecting surplus land concealed by feudal landlords to distribute it among the needy within a fixed time-frame. It did not make much progress.

The same script has played out under Nitish, who has projected an image of trying to provide social justice to the landless. His narrative of sushasan (good governance) came and went and Nitish Kumar’s decade-and-a-half long tenure still finds the people of Bihar with broken promises of land reforms.

Saurav Kumar is an independent journalist.