The Left Front and the rural bourgeoisie

The Left Front and the rural bourgeoisie

Image: NYT

What is now called the Singur controversy was sparked off by the decision of the West Bengal government to acquire 997 acres (affecting approximately 12,000 owners) of agricultural land, which it planned to grant to the Tata Group for the purpose of setting up a small-car factory. This land, which the Calcutta government says Tata chose over five other sites, is located about 40 km outside Calcutta, in the Singur block of Hooghly District. Given the intensity of cultivation and population pressure in West Bengal, the state government has always maintained that it would be difficult for expansion of non-agricultural activities to take place without the incorporation of land currently in use for agriculture. The state government claims, however, that care has been taken to leave fertile, triple-cropped land out of the acquisition process, proof of which can be sought in the irregularly shaped plot currently being offered to the Tata Group.

For the land being acquired, West Bengal's Left Front government has fixed compensation on the following basis: landowners are to receive INR 870,000 per acre for single-cropped land and INR 1,280,000 per acre for double-cropped land; sharecroppers are to receive 25 percent of the value being offered to owners – around INR 200,000-300,000 per acre. In December 2006, the government claimed that 7500 'man-days' of work had been created in the area, to offset some of the employment lost by the decrease in agricultural labour.

In addition, the Left Front (LF) government has put in place a training programme to provide skills to those who wish to seek employment in the Tata factory. According to the government, by early December, 1855 people – 1409 of whose land has been acquired, and 446 of whom are landless agricultural labourers – had enlisted in this government-funded programme. Training for the first batch had already begun in a newly established institute in the area.

For the Left Front government, acquiring land in Singur is a significant departure, as it seeks to change both gear and strategy in an effort to sustain the economic growth that West Bengal has seen over the past three decades. As the state Industries Minister Nirupam Sen put it in a recent interview, land reform, which had secured tenancy rights and was initiated when the LF was elected to power in the state during the late 1970s, was never an end in itself. "After successful land reforms, the decentralisation of Panchayati Raj, and the growth we have achieved in the agrarian sector, if we do not go for industrial development, then the entire economy of the state will go to ruin," Sen noted.

Wherever one stands in the debate over Singur, Sen's point is not one that can be easily brushed aside. Therefore, if there is any reasonable case to be made for state aid (in the form of, among other things, acquiring arable agricultural land) to foster private-sector-led industrialisation, and providing that the state has a reasonable package for compensation and rehabilitation, then why has the Singur project generated so much controversy and resistance?

A differentiated peasantry
Indeed, there has been significant resistance. Between 9 May and 27 September 2006, there were nine meetings between various arms of government and local representatives, including four with the Krishi Jami Raksha Committee (KJRC, the formal name of the political coalition of 19 organisations that opposed the Tata deal) to discuss modalities of land acquisition. But despite extensive consultations, the government's own records suggest that no consensus emerged from these meetings on how to take the process forward. Not only were the KJRC-government negotiations fruitless, but starting from 25 May, when the visiting Tata team was gheraoed and had to be rescued by the police, local resistance continued in the form of numerous sit-ins and rallies.

On 25 September 2006, the day compensation for acquired land began to be disbursed, the block office was surrounded by thousands of protestors. What proceeded to take place is still unclear, but the police eventually resorted to a lathi-charge that killed one and injured many more. Finally, as fence-building was about to begin in early December, in the face of sustained efforts by political groups to occupy the disputed land, police resorted to firing to clear the area. The administration finally imposed Section 144 – a section under the Indian Penal Code that bans public gatherings of more than three people – so as to continue operations.

In order to understand this intense resistance, it would be worthwhile to look at the area's economy. The total population of the five revenue units (the smallest administrative unit in a district) where land is being acquired is 24,048, including 7710 'main workers', 1034 marginal workers and a non-working population of 15,304. If we take main and marginal workers together, 35 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture. This compares favourably with the India-wide average, where more than 55 percent of the employed workforce is agricultural. West Bengal has an occupational structure similar to the all-India average, and the bulk of its labour force too is occupied in agriculture.

Therefore, despite the fact that Singur is a prosperous agricultural area, it is considerably less agrarian than the rest of the state. By that yardstick, it is more urban than rural. The population is also reasonably well educated, with one estimate putting literacy levels at almost 75 percent. According to statistics from the government's rehabilitation package, among the first batch of 179 trainees, only 18 percent had education levels of less than Class X, and nine percent had graduate or higher degrees.

We know that there are approximately 12,000 people with land titles in Singur who will be compensated as part of the land-acquisition process. As noted, however, there are a total of 8744 workers (both main and marginal) in the area, of which only 35 percent (3055) is in agriculture. Of these, 1320 listed 'cultivation' as their main occupation, while another 156 listed this as their marginal occupation. Therefore, there are only 1476 people who would be classified as farmers, suggesting widespread absentee landlordism (even after accounting for the fact that some land-title holders probably belong to the same household).

There are a few other critical aspects of the area's agricultural practices that have come to light in the course of the debate over Singur. First, most single-crop farmers rely almost entirely on family labour for agricultural operations. Second, there is evidence of both perennial and seasonal in-migration of agricultural and non-agricultural labour into the area. As a result, according to one estimate, the agricultural labour force is effectively double the 1579 currently recorded. Third, there is considerable evidence of substantial private investment in irrigation and mechanisation in the area.

Given all this, what can we infer about the area's economy? First, all evidence suggests that not only is Singur an agriculturally prosperous area, but that commercially viable capitalist farming has taken root there. Second, despite the fact that it is an agriculturally prosperous area, agriculture is not the most important source of income or employment; as a result, there are land-owning households where agriculture accounts for only a small proportion of household income and employment. The shift away from agriculture would then explain the high degree of absentee landlordism. In all likelihood, a large proportion of single-cropped land belongs to households for which agriculture accounts for just a small proportion of income and employment.

Third, given that only 17 percent of the employed workforce is classified as being 'cultivators' (which would include both owner-farmers and bargadars, or sharecroppers), landowners who practice multiple-crop farming probably, in addition to working their own land, also lease-in – that is, access on a rental basis – a significant amount of land for cultivation. Fourth, bargadars probably also account for work done on a significant proportion of the cultivated area. Fifth, therefore, owner-cultivators and some bargadars use the land-lease market to operate as large capitalist farmers, who conduct agricultural operations on the basis of hired, often migrant, agricultural labour.

Sustained agricultural growth in the overall context of diversification away from agriculture, then, has created a differentiated peasantry. First, it has produced a large set of households with relatively small land holdings for which income and employment from agriculture now constitute a small proportion of total household income and employment. Second, this process has also created a smaller set of relatively larger landowners and tenant farmers, who have used the land-lease market to expand agricultural operations, thereby allowing them not only to grow but to accumulate as well. In other words, they practice commercial farming and see it as a way to make profit. This reasoning is supported by the fact that Singur has a fairly active land market.

To phrase it differently, a small, rural bourgeoisie has emerged that is driving the capitalisation of agriculture in the Singur area. Given prior land reforms, sustained agricultural growth and somewhat improved access to education has meant that this emergence has not taken place alongside the pauperisation of the small peasantry, as may otherwise have been the case. The incipient rural middle class has diversified away from agriculture. In a sense, this is the best kind of agrarian transformation that one can hope for – capitalisation of agriculture alongside a diversification away from agriculture.

Notice that for the emergent rural bourgeoisie – ie, the land owners who lease-in large areas of land, and bargadars who use the land-lease market to operate as large-scale farmers – the compensation offered by the government would seem completely inadequate. The land owner would be compensated on the basis of owned area, which in this case would be substantially smaller than his operated area. Furthermore, the bargadar in any case gets only 25 percent of land value as compensation. Perhaps most importantly, land for both of these sets of farmers is a source of profit and accumulation, not just income and employment. From such a standpoint, compensation levels would certainly be deemed inadequate.

There are peasant households in Singur, however, for which agriculture still accounts for the bulk of income and employment. Whether these peasants gain or lose will depend on whether they find other employment, and of what kind, after selling their land. If there is reasonable uncertainty of finding suitable work, then these peasants would be unwilling to sell, because without land they would not only have to look for work, but would also have to buy their grain (which at the moment they grow) from the market. Perhaps the worst off among these is the unregistered bargadar, who loses access to land and who, being unregistered, receives no compensation to boot.

Rural v industrial bourgeoisie
We are now in a position to discuss the major areas of contention between the state government and the KJRC, which can be broken down into four major issues. First, the government claims that it has letters of consent for 952 of the 997 acres that will be acquired. The KJRC says simultaneously that it has letters from at least 300 farmers, with land holdings of 184 acres, saying that they "have not and will not give our land to Tata Motors".

According to the official status report, by 2 December 2006, out of the required 997 acres, compensatory payments had been made for 635 acres of land to 9020 land title holders. The report also says that two days later, "post-award consent had been acquired for 332 acres". The report noted that there remained about 3000 title holders and bargadars who had not yet been paid. There are a couple of points that need to be noted about this. One, it is likely that some of the "post-award consent" for the 332 acres acquired by the administration from 2-4 December was the result of 'persuasion' rather than any voluntary process. As a result, with the backing of a full-blown political campaign on the issue of land acquisition, some of those who had been 'persuaded' might have decided to change their minds and declare their true positions to the KJRC – ie, that they did not want to sell.

Two, if one compares the average size of land holdings of those to whom payments had been made (9020 claimants for 635 acres) with that of those to whom no payment had been made (3000 land title holders for 332 acres), it is clear that the smaller-scale land owners were the first to sell to the government, while the larger-scale ones held out and were probably ambivalent. This is confirmed by the fact that the KJRC reports that it has 300 farmers with land holdings of a total of 184 acres (2.5 percent of landholders, accounting for 18.5 percent of the land to be acquired) who have signed letters stating that they do not want to sell. Our analysis suggests that landowners who lease-in land stand to lose from the compensation package, and it is the larger-scale landowners who are most likely to lease-in land. Therefore, all evidence would seem to suggest that the consent of large-scale landowners, if obtained, was probably not given willingly, and that it is they who are most fervently resisting acquisition.

The second issue of contention between the West Bengal government and the KJRC is over the government's statement that 90 percent of the area being acquired is single-cropped. It would appear that the basis for this claim is somewhat dated, and in any case it is almost certainly an overstatement. Going by the assumption that the 300 farmers who have given letters to the KJRC are large-scale farmers, we would conclude that at least 18.5 percent of the land is double- if not triple-cropped. If we assume that all single-cropped land has already been sold to the government – that is, 635 acres out of 997, leaving 362 acres – given that such land owners would have the most to gain from the compensation package, then about 35 percent of the land can be understood to be double-cropped. The proportion of double-cropped land therefore probably lies somewhere between 18.5 and 35 percent.

The third issue is KJRC's claim that the government is acquiring land for the benefit of the Tatas at one-third the market price. While establishing a 'fair' valuation of land is always a tricky matter, there is very little evidence to suggest that the government has underpaid landowners. Indeed, all evidence would seem to point in the opposite direction – that the government has tried to evolve a mechanism for the determination of a reasonable price, taking into account a variation of capitalised future earnings, assuming that the land remains in agricultural use. One might argue that bargadars who get only 25 percent of land value as compensation are receiving a very raw deal. But it must also be recognised that the Left Front's land reforms only gave bargadars usufruct (usage without damage) and not ownership rights. Therefore, the KJRC is wrong to claim that the government is underpaying for the land. What it would probably like to say – but cannot publicly demand – is that the price currently on offer does not make economic sense for the rural bourgeoisie.

Finally, the fourth point of contention is the number of bargadars affected. The Nagrik Mancha, an NGO that has been working on the issue, claims that there could be up to 2400 bargadars in Singur, while the Sanhati Udyog, another NGO, has claimed that there are probably 1200 unregistered bargadars. Whereas the government's statement that there are approximately 400 registered and unregistered bargadars is almost certainly an underestimation, our analysis would suggest that the claims of both Nagrik Mancha and Sanhati Udyog are somewhat off the mark, and that the government's estimate is in fact much closer to the actual number.

What, then, is the upshot of all of the above? First, the Left Front government is correct when it claims that, unlike in other states, the process of land acquisition in Singur will not pauperise the peasantry. Indeed, as one would expect of a progressive government, some care has been taken to ensure that the interests of the small peasantry and the incipient rural middle class – the groups that constitute the overwhelming bulk of the 12,000 land-title holders – have been addressed. For most of these people, household income and employment have diversified away from agriculture, and therefore it is in their best interests to sell what small plots of land they have, particularly when the price they have been offered is relatively fair. This is why, for the most part, land sale has been voluntary.

Second, however, there is an emergent rural bourgeoisie, accounting for a small proportion of the title holders but a significant proportion of the land acquired, whose interests have been adversely affected by the acquisition. It is from this group that the vehement resistance has come, and what consent for land sale has been obtained from this it has in all likelihood been non-voluntary. This group is joined by a small contingent of peasants, including unregistered bargadars, whose livelihoods are probably at stake. If one leaves this last group of peasants aside (whose employment prospects it would be possible to improve through vocational training and job creation), then the Left Front government has chosen in its change of strategy to further the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie directly at the expense of the rural bourgeoisie.

If the state government has been progressive in the design of the land-acquisition programme, it has been far less so – and verging on the undemocratic – in its implementation of it. This is no small matter, not only because of the LF's avowed espousal of democratic politics, but also because in a democratic polity, process is almost as important as objective. And debate and discussion, even if strongly contested and acrimonious, form the cornerstone of that process. Outside of the role discussion plays in legitimisation, given that nobody is endowed with perfect knowledge, it also ensures that all possible and feasible options have been explored.

Unfortunately, both in the choice of strategy and in its implementation, the government of West Bengal, epitomised in the positioning and pronouncements of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has adopted a 'my way or the highway' attitude. This is doubly unfortunate, because it is only a progressive government that has the theoretical wherewithal to understand that it is the very dialectics of successful growth that necessitate a change in strategy. But if the manner of choosing and implementing that choice is undemocratic, or seen to be so, then it redounds on that choice and undermines an effort that perhaps only a progressive government can make.

Treading carefully
The government's rationale for the change in strategy – the need to generate industrial employment in small and medium enterprises so that overall employment generation is maximised – is important, because long-term economic success depends upon sustained increases in productivity alongside near-full employment of all available resources, including that of labour. Therefore, all successful development experience has been associated with two things: first, a close link between industrialisation and productivity; second, accelerated employment growth that has allowed a shift of labour from low-productivity primary sectors (agriculture) to higher-productivity secondary (industry) and tertiary (services) sectors. Given this, successful development in West Bengal has been necessarily associated with a sharp decline in the share of agriculture in both output and employment.

Put differently, in a largely agrarian economy (as most under-developed economies are), productivity growth is driven by capitalisation of agriculture and the generation of productive non-farm employment, thereby allowing labour to move away from agriculture. In a capitalist, market-driven economy, the former requires the emergence of a forward-looking rural bourgeoisie, while the latter requires the growth of manufacturing and, later, a services sector. The quicker both of these processes work, the quicker economic development is achieved. But notice that even if both processes work well, the share of agriculture in both output and employment declines – and, as a consequence, so does the relative position of the rural bourgeoisie vis-à-vis the non-rural bourgeoisie.

But if the process of growth in any case marginalises the rural bourgeoisie, why pick a strategy that directly pits the interests of the rural and industrial bourgeoisie against each other – particularly given that, by all accounts, it is a forward-looking bourgeoisie, interested in investing in the capitalisation of agriculture? In essence, why target multiple-cropped arable land for acquisition? The answer is not very clear, at least to this writer. In part it may be explained by the fact that Singur was the preferred choice of the Tata Group. It may be that it was also politically expedient, since this is an area dominated by the Trinamool Congress, which also represents the interests of the rural bourgeoisie. Given that the rural bourgeoisie would resist, it is perhaps better that the resistance be in Singur and the political battle be between the Trinamool combine and the Left Front; elsewhere, after all, the rural bourgeoisie might have been a part of a broad left coalition, and the political battle might have been fought within the Left Front.

If the Left Front wins this battle with the rural bourgeoisie of Singur – and if it has not been forced to pay too heavy a political price – then the terms of future negotiations will have been set and a signal sent to rural bourgeoisie elsewhere. But notice that even where it comes to picking a battle with the rural bourgeoisie (which it considers necessary for achieving its broader goal of industrialisation), the Left Front has treaded very carefully. As we know, the most productive, triple-cropped land has been left out of the land-acquisition process; and therefore, even though it is the interests of the rural bourgeoisie that have been hurt the most in Singur, it is not as if they have been wiped out.

It is just as well that the Left Front treads carefully. It is not clear, after all, whether its chosen strategy of industrialisation will generate the amount and kind of non-farm employment that will allow labour to shift out of agriculture in West Bengal. And if it does not, the growth puzzle will not have been addressed. The process of successful development sketched above is, after all, neither smooth nor automatic. First, there are many countries in which development does not fit this pattern, and is characterised by both under-development and mal-development. Second, even where growth is taking place in the right direction, in market economies the employment of labour displaced due to the capitalisation of agriculture is not assured. It is possible that growth will take place alongside increasing under-employment and unemployment. Third, for countries that come late into industrialisation (for instance, India and China), the process tends to be more capital intensive and hence industrialisation produces fewer jobs at every level of income. As a result of the above, for late industrialisers, the decline in the share of the labour force employed by agriculture tends to be much slower. In India, for example, even though agriculture's share in gross domestic product has declined to a little more than 20 percent, it still accounts for up to three quarters of employment.

Clearly, then, that such a large proportion of the labour force continues to be employed in low-productivity agriculture means that benefits from growth are very unequally shared, the lion's share going to the very small proportion of the labour force employed in urban areas. As such, for India (and West Bengal), the generation of non-farm employment of a kind that allows labour to move out of agriculture is absolutely key to both growth and a more equitable distribution of the benefits of growth.

The situation is complicated further by the fact that a very large proportion of the labour force currently employed in agriculture has very low levels of education – on average between two and four years of schooling. The bulk of the non-farm jobs now being generated (mostly in urban areas), meanwhile, require average education levels of at least seven years. Job generation of the kind witnessed by the Indian economy subsequently does not match the skill profile of the bulk of available labour. This not only increases both under-employment and unemployment in the rural areas, but it forces people to remain in agriculture for much longer than they would care to. While this is an India-wide story, it captures the economic developments in West Bengal reasonably well – with the proviso that, given sustained agricultural growth in the state for the last three-odd decades, incomes in agriculture have fared much better than in other parts of the country. Regardless, there is no evidence that the sort of non-farm jobs that will be brought to the state by Tata's small-car factory and its ancillaries will be able to absorb the sort of labour that is currently employed in agriculture.

In a scenario such as this one, West Bengal (and, indeed, the whole country) faces some critical, difficult issues. Sustained increases in productivity are key to economic growth, and therefore the state has no option but to accelerate the process of industrialisation. But as we have seen, simply industrialising is not enough. The process needs also to be a kind of industrialisation that will lead to the generation of rural non-farm jobs, which allow for labourers employed in agriculture to move out and up. Otherwise, necessity might force the state to build alliances with the same rural bourgeoisie that it is today trying to marginalise, and generate non-farm rural employment that will absorb the labour that will continue to be made surplus in agriculture.

The final irony of all this is that success in Singur – in the sense of generating non-farm industrial employment – will not imply that the model will be successful elsewhere. As noted, Singur is much less agrarian than is the rest of West Bengal. With only 35 percent of labour employed in agriculture and a relatively better-educated workforce, Singur has already made the transition. The true success of this strategy will be when it will be able to absorb surplus labour in those parts of the state (and country) where agriculture still accounts for 50 percent or more of the workforce.

~ Mritiunjoy Mohanty is an assistant professor of Economics at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian