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More About the Land-Man Construct

The persistent relevance of the land question is at the core of the crisis of governance that the State has to contend with...

Anyone familiar with the story of the transition of society from the pre-industrial to the industrial stage will recognize the centrality of the land question. Tenancy was/is a core issue of land-man relationship in still largely pre-industrial societies that remain substantially dependent on sedentary cultivation for providing a living to their rural population. Many other institutions and sources of living have undoubtedly been woven round it, but it acts as the fulcrum of economic organization.

Perhaps in no other society had tenancy been so complex with its bewildering diversity as in India, till some reform of the institution came to be effected in the years following independence. Tenancy has since been shorn of much of its diversity of form; but the essential feature of the institution - its exploitative nature, deprivation of the man/woman who actually works the land of her fair share of the produce, survives, why even flourishes with greater intensity in many areas, wearing very many nomenclatural cloaks that conceal this essentially exploitative nature of production- relation, to use a commonplace term of Marxian economics.

The number of people who still eke out a living, fully or partially - from working on land that they do not own - far exceeds the number that has benefited from redistribution of land through imposition of land ceiling, assignment of public land by the State and an assortment of other land redistribution measures. Despite this, the Tenancy Question has virtually vanished from the domain of public consciousness. It may sound harsh to many sensitive ears if one says that considerable sections of opinion makers, - a number of academics included - treat the issue as closed, either there being nothing much left to be done or being ever likely to change.

The publication of P.S. Appu's Crisis of Governance - with more than half of its space devoted to the Tenancy Question - is a very welcome step towards drawing attention to what remains a glaringly unfinished, crucial task of the Indian State. Much praise is due to Dr. P. Bhattacharya, editor of this volume, for taking this thoughtful step towards rekindling public interest in the subject by bringing out this slim volume of Appu's writings, not too long after the first volume of his in the Samsad series on public administration had been published. In a way, the book makes amends for a significant gap left in the earlier collection of the author's writings in the same series. For, according to the scheme of land reforms adopted in the nation's planning regime in the early fifties of the last century, tenancy reform ought to have made far more substantial progress, thereby paving the way to genuine land redistribution through land ceiling and other auxiliary measures.

To say this, however, is not to ignore the continuing relevance of the task to press ahead with land redistribution even at this rather late stage. The half-accomplished tenancy reform, leaving it in limbo as it were, and then jumping onto the land-ceiling bandwagon with much radical rhetoric, all fell into a well known pattern - to impress people with spectacular, eye-catching, or earsplitting gestures, without substantially disturbing the basic structure of the outrageously iniquitous social-economic order.

The implicit change in priorities, brought about by the Central and the state governments in the late sixties and early seventies of the last century, had largely been dictated by the prospect of gaining political mileage likely to open up through this shift in course. But that is another tangled story, not to be repeated here.

From the perspective of contemporary importance - not only to the land-poor and land-hungry masses but also to the sections of society happily ensconced in the enjoyment of property rights of various forms - agricultural, forestry-and-mining based et al, the land question has once again begun to loom larger now than until the recent past. Discerning observers of the current crisis in the tribal districts of West Bengal will not fail to see the inter-connection between the land question covering practically all dimensions of land-man relationship, and the emerging threat to the basic structure of the polity. Those who had begun to dismiss land reforms as passé, are now being jolted out of their complacency.

The persistent relevance of the land question has once again begun to force itself upon their thinking as the core of the crisis of governance that the State has to contend with. No matter which version of India they have in mind - the 'dreamland' of the 21st century or the traditional society that cannot be swept away from consciousness, the land question once again seems to refuse to go away. For one thing, despite much diversification of the economy and the declining share of land-based economic activities in the GDP, more than sixty per cent of people still make all or the most of their living out of land.

The Chinese experience clearly demonstrates that despite relatively fast declining dependence of the rural population on land, China's much diversified rural economy is still built around land-based life. In the Indian condition this pattern of growth is likely to be more enduring. In the tribal areas virtually no economic activity is feasible that does not attract the land question in one form or the other.

As already noted, half of this volume under review is devoted to the tenancy question. To a casual reader, this may look like a bit of an anachronism. However, to many it will make eminent sense that in doing so the volume hits the nail on the head by highlighting the land question. The upsurge in wide swathes of tribal India owes its origin and continuing rationale to the relentless exploitation of traditional tribal rights in land. These are not simply loss of forest rights caused by reckless commercial forestry and mining activities to fuel processes of wealth creation for the rich, mostly 'outsiders', no share of which has benefited the tribal communities. There is much more to them.

Conversion of forest land to other uses for commercial benefit of the private entrepreneur and for large public projects has gone along with the tribal farmer's loss of cultivation rights where cultivation began to be perceived as an increasingly lucrative enterprise for the local rich and the corporate sector. The close relevance of the author's instant volume in terms of giving perspective to the contemporary crisis would have been more obvious had this inter-connection been brought out by the addition of a short chapter, arguably by the editor himself. It would have more effectively served one of his main, stated objectives for bringing out the volume which, in the nature of things, is dated in as much as it does not deal with the changes that have occurred to land-man relationship since the publication of the author's writings on tenancy more than 25 years ago.

Incidentally, the author's book on land reforms in India, written by him as Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow, gives an overview of the situation prevailing at the turn of the century. The rest of the volume deals with a variety of issues that will be recognized more easily as live issues of governance of the contemporary Indian polity. The author's writings ring with his characteristic passion for justice, fair play and equity. They also convey some very timely warnings of the emerging threats to the body politic being posed by reckless abuse of power and deplorable tinkering with established institutions of our democratic State system. These make interesting reading with the effect of elevating the mind of the reader, no doubt.

It will require the present reviewer to shed all traces of his cynicism to entertain the hope that these moving pleas and warnings, all imbued with transparent idealism, had or will ever have any perceptible impact on the minds of men and women who 'matter'. However, one can possibly share with the editor a certain measure of optimism that the writings on the institution of bureaucracy may yet have some wholesome effect on those of its ranks who have not yet had time and opportunity to be wholly spoilt. Fortunately, their number is legion.

A regrettable feature of the volume is, it is littered with too many spelling mistakes, wrong punctuation marks and non-standard use of capital letters. More attention to these shortcomings in a future edition or reprinted version will make its reading a more pleasant experience.

P.S. Appu: Crisis of Governance, Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata, 2009.


More by :  A. R. Bandopadhyay

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