Two Studies in Social Injustice

(In 1975-1977 I was posted as the Additional District Magistrate & Collector in charge of Land Reforms in the district of Nadia, West Bengal, India. The 20 Points Programme was in full spate, with distribution of title deeds to the landless featuring as one of the points, and rescuing the poor from the grasp of money-lenders. Here are two instances I dealt with.)

I -  Ghena Mridanga

Pekepara is a small village forming part of Baganchara Anchal in Shantipur Police Station of Nadia District in West Bengal.  Ghrina — better known as ‘Ghena’ — Mridanga was a resident of this village from his childhood. He had been working as a servant and day-labourer in the household and fields of Sagar Santra, a well-to-do farmer of Pekepara. The Santras had come to look upon him as part and parcel of their household and had even got him married.

Though working as a day-labourer, Ghena had dreams of standing on his own feet someday. Since 1969 he had been cultivating 0.7 acres in plot numbers 976 and 977 in Mouza Baganchara, Jurisdiction List 12, on behalf of Sagar Santra, handing over to him the entire produce. These lands originally belonged to the Maharaja of Krishnagar. During the last Settlement Operations Sagar Santra had managed to get himself recorded as a ‘jabar-dakhalkar’ (forcible occupier) of the plots since 1950.

When the Revisional Settlement Operations were announced, Sagar’s son Bhiku realised that as these lands had since vested in the State he would have to manipulate matters in order to maintain his illegal possession of the plots. Bhiku’s initial plan was to enter into a ‘benami’ transaction by setting Ghena up as a landless agricultural labourer cultivating Government lands on his own. This would lead to the plots being settled with him formally, as Government policy was to hand over ownership rights to landless cultivators of vested lands. Thus while Ghena remained the formal owner and patta (title deed)-holder, the Santras would continue as the real beneficiaries with Ghena working as their day labourer and household servant.

Unfortunately for Bhiku Santra, Ghena Mridnga had matured and was beginning to use his mother-wit. Ghena had heard that the actual possessor of vested land would be eligible for getting right and title over it. He also got wind of Bhiku’s plan. Suddenly one morning he left the Santras, set up his own little hut and started living as a separate entity in order to uphold his individual claim, and not as a ‘front’ for the Santra vested interests. Finding his initial plan gone up in smoke, Bhiku quickly shifted to clever propaganda. He had it put he had it put about assiduously that these vested plots had been purchased by his father from the zamindar, the Nadia Raj Estate, decades back and that he was, therefore, the legal owner. When this news reached Ghena’s ears, he saw all his fond hopes dissipate and quietly handed back the plots to the Santras. Sagar Santra promptly obtained an agricultural loan from the BDO and in 1973 sank a shallow tubewell on plot No. 977 — a tubewell which did not function for a single day but served as convenient proof of Santra’s occupation of vested land.

Only one thing was lacking to complete Santra’s triumph: legal right and title to the lands, which could be obtained only by  having the Government allot the plots in his favour. On the other hand, Ghena had not given up although he was now nothing but a landless agricultural labourer thrown out by his erstwhile employer. With the advice of some local villagers, Ghena applied to the Junior Land Reforms Officer (JLRO) of Shantipur Land Reforms Circle for allotment of these two vested plots. The Circle Inspector (Land Reforms) of this circle was sent by the JLRO on inspection to the area. He prepared a ‘math-khasra’ (record of field-possession) showing that Ghrina Mridanga, Bhiku and Krishnapada Santra (Sagar’s nephew) were in possession of both plots 976 and 977 since 1951 but that at present, i.e. in 1973, Bhiku alone was in possession of both plots. On the basis of this report, the Block Level Land Reforms Advisory Committee in its meeting held on 23-6-73 recommended settlement of the land as follows:-

Plot 976 area 0.51  to Ghena Mridanga s/o Khedu. Own Land:  nil

Plot 977 area 0.18  to                   -do-

   -do-     area 0.70  to Bhiku   Santra s/o  Sagar. Own land:  1.00

   -do-     area 0.70  to Krishnapada Santra s/o Nakul. Own land:  0.99

This recommendation was duly approved by the Sub-divisional Officer (SDO) Ranaghat in Settlement Case No. 11-XII/SP/73-74 of Mouza Baganchara, J.L. No. 12. However, the pattas (title-deeds) were not distributed till 1975 and it was only on 10-2-75 that the local Tehsildar (a commission agent for collecting land revenue who keeps the local land records) handed over the pattas to the two Santras after physical possession had been formally made over to them by the Circle Amin on 7-2-75. Curiously enough, the Amin (Group D staff who measures the land) had signed the possession certificate on 6-2-75 but this was over-written to 7-2-75 and signed by the JLRO without giving any date. No patta was handed over to Ghrina Mridanga. During the subsequent enquiry, the JLRO claimed that these pattas had been distributed to the Santras without his knowledge. He failed to explain how, in that case, he had signed the possession certificate. In the Register of Patta Distribution the column pertaining to the date of distribution was blank. According to the Amin, Ghrina’s patta could not be handed over because Bhiku Santra would not allow him to do so. He claimed that he had informed the JLRO of this verbally.

After the state government had issued instructions for undertaking a crash programme for distributing all pending pattas, it was on 29-4-76 — more than a year later — that the Circle Amin and the Assistant Revenue Officer of the Land Reforms Circle went to deliver Ghrina’s patta. Once again Bhiku objected and successfully confused the ARO (whose function is purely to recover government loans and who has nothing to do with land records) by producing a copy of the Record of Rights wherein Sagar Santra’s name appeared as forcible occupier of the lands retained by the Zamindar. The ARO quickly left the spot after perfunctorily issuing Santra a notice under Section 49(A) of the West Bengal Land Reforms Act, asking him to vacate possession of the vested lands not allotted to him. He also ‘allowed’ Santra and Ghena three days’ time to settle the matter amicably.

However, on 2-5-76 Ghena took the law into his own hands and tried, ineffectually, to gain possession of the lands allotted to him three years back. Sagar Santra immediately sent off a complaint to the Land Revenue Minister who asked the Additional District Magistrate (Land Reforms) [ADM(LR)], Nadia to report. Santra claimed, in his complaint, that the plots had been vested in the State wrongly and that they rightfully belonged to him and were being cultivated by him and his forefathers for generations without break. He alleged that Ghena had ruined the vegetable crop he had grown on these plots with the help of a band of dangerous criminals, and that he apprehended danger to his life and property from this ‘terrible marauder’ Ghena.

On enquiry it was found that after the notice had been issued to Bhiku Santra by the ARO asking him to vacate the lands allotted to Ghena, no action was taken to lodge a complaint with a judicial magistrate, as provided in the WBLR Act, when Bhiku did not take any steps to comply with the order. Ghena, in turn, applied to the SDO Ranaghat — an IAS officer on his first posting — on 12-6-76 complaining that he had approached the JLRO for being given possession of the lands, and had been rebuked for attempting to take possession without having a patta. On subsequent occasions Ghena had been told by the JLRO that he had better approach the Block Development Officer and the ADM (LR) for getting patta since he had ‘dared’ to send petitions to them. He was also told that a case had been instituted against him in the Ranaghat Court and until this was decided, no patta could be given to him. The SDO Ranaghat passed on Ghena’s petition to the JLRO on 25-6-76 for ‘taking necessary action’. The JLRO noted on the petition on 1-7-76, “The patta cannot be handed over to the allottee at the present stage of the situation growing in the locality” and did not send any intimation to the SDO, who did not pursue the matter.

On 22-6-76 copy of a notice to the Collector, Nadia, under Section 80 of the Civil Procedure Code was received by the JLRO from one Gyanadabala Dasi, wife of late Rajendra Manna, stating that Sagar Santra was her caretaker appointed for 0.51 acres in plot 976 and 1.58 acres in plot 977, i.e. precisely the portions allotted to Ghrina and the Santras, and that it was she who had taken settlement of these lands from the Nadia Raj Estate. The notice warned the Collector to desist from distributing the said lands since the Records of Right were wrong and Gyanadabala Dasi intended to file a suit for declaring her title to the lands. The JLRO duly forwarded on 2-7-76 a skeletal statement of facts to the Revenue Munsikhana Section of the Collectorate which deals with civil cases involving government. The section took no action in the matter, as it was only a notice and no suit had yet been field. In the meantime, Bhiku Santra had lodged a number of complaints in the form of General Diary entries in the local Police Station against Ghena, alleging various types of intimidation on his part.

At this point, the ADM (LR) Nadia, decided to investigate the case in person. He had, in succession, sent two officers to look in to the case: one was a West Bengal Civil Service (WBCS) probationer who had been a Kanungo in the Settlement Directorate for over a year with field experience to his credit; the other a very senior WBCS officer who was a veteran of the Settlement Directorate. None of these reports could satisfactorily explain the mysterious appearance of Gyanadabala Dasi on the scene and the JLRO’s reluctance to hand over the patta to Ghrina. The SDO, who had then been asked to look into the matter, did not visit the spot but endorsed his JLRO’s report that the danger of breach of peace precluded handing over the patta. The SDO firmly expressed his view that subordinate officers should be backed up instead of being disbelieved.

Thereupon the ADM went straight to the village in question, visited the plots in dispute, the house of the Santras, the hut of Ghena and spoke to the villagers. He discovered that Gyanadabala Dasi was the masi (maternal aunt) of Bhiku and was the termagant ruling the Santra household with an iron hand. He found that the JLRO was in the habit of visiting the house of the Santras (a large pukka building) and that on his last visit, after the SDO had passed on Ghrina’s complaint to him for necessary action, he had first gone to see Gyanadabala Dasi, asked her why she had not sown anything on those plots yet. Then he had told Ghena that until the shallow tubewell was lifted from the plot, possession could not be given to him and also that this would have to wait till the case against him in the court was decided. The Santras had promptly sown both the plots with kalai (a type of pulse) in defiance of the notice under Section 49-A of the Land Reforms Act asking them to vacate vested land on penalty of eviction and payment of damages. As for the shallow tubewell, the only sign of its existence the ADM found was the pipe.

The ADM also found that both the reports sent by the JLRO on the complaint made by Sagar Santra to the Land Revenue Minister had been drafted by the JLRO himself, which was extremely unusual, and that the fair copies had been made out not by the assistant dealing with such matters but by the Issue Clerk and the Amin. Moreover, the details of the land records supplied in these reports were wrong. The correct RORs (Record of Rights) had been copied from the local Settlement Office later, but were sent to the ADM in original by the JLRO without keeping copies or correcting his own records. The JLRO’s style of functioning was an important clue which led to the ADM’s discovery of a mass of irregularities and serious lacunae in the land distribution carried out by this JLRO.

The ADM then took the SDO Ranaghat with him to the spot along with Amins, demarcated the area allotted to Ghena Mridanga and formally handed over both the patta and the land to this allottee in the presence of the villagers and the Santras on 28-9-76. He explained to Ghena that since Bhiku had already sown kalai in the plots, he should be allowed to harvest the produce without interference. The office copy of the patta was handed over to the JLRO who, by then, was at his wit’s and fell all over himself promising to protect the rights of Ghena.

On 5-11-76 the ADM was surprised to find Ghena in his office with a complaint of having been driven off his land by the Santras assisted by the Gram-Adhyaksha (village headman) of the village. The SDO Ranaghat was immediately informed. On 9-11-76 the SDO wrote to the Circle Inspector of Police, Shantipur, asking him to ensure peaceful possession of the lands by Ghena and wanting a report by 15-11-76. On 17-11-76 the SDO informed the ADM that the allegation made by Ghena was false, since the CI had reported that he was very much in possession of the land and (extremely significant) “he has harvested kalai on the land”.

II - Nanda Dalui

Nanda Dalui owns 3.56 acres of land at Assannagar in the police station of Krishnagar in West Bengal. He supports his mother, wife and 4 minor children. He inherited this land from his father the late Sudhanya Dalui and his uncle the late Surya Dalui. Both his father and uncle had taken a loan of Rs.3,600 jointly from the Nadia District Cooperative Land Development Bank Limited (NDCLDB) for sinking a shallow tubewell. They were also indebted to the tune of Rs.700 to Jitendra Nath Saha, a fertilizer and pesticide licensee who had no money-lending licence. Saha realised the debt in kind at about Rs.10 less than the prevailing market price. The money-lending transactions were entered by him in a hath-chita, a small account book bound in red cloth.

In March 1974 Sudhanya Dalui  received a notice from the NDCLDB for re-paying Rs.2,100.  He approached Jitendra Saha for advancing a further loan to meet the demand of the Bank. This was perhaps the opportunity Jiten Saha was waiting for.  He informed Sudhanya Dalui that he would not be able to advance this loan without security since Dalui had not repaid the earlier loan. Sudhanya was compelled to execute a registered sale deed for two bighas of his land for a loan of Rs.1,000,  whereas the market value of the land was around Rs.2,000 at that time. Sudhanya was also pressurised into executing a bainanama (sale-agreement) that he would sell his remaining land for Rs.3,000 should he fail to repay Rs.3,622 by Chaitra 1382 B.S. (April 1976) on payment of Rs.500 by Saha. The market value of this portion of land being irrigated with a shallow tubewell was not less than Rs.20,000. Dalui, however, did not hand over possession of any portion of his land to Saha. He went on repaying his loan to Jiten Saha by giving him a share of his produce. It is not possible to assess the fairness of the price determined by Saha for the crop since there was no entry in the hath chita about the quantity of crop received. At one place only, where an entry had been made, it was found that Dalui had given Saha 176 kg of paddy for Rs.220, but in the next page the balance brought forward omitted the amount wholly.

Sudhanya Dalui and his brother Surya Dalui both died soon thereafter. Nanda Dalui was faced with a nightmarish situation and had to approach Jiten Saha again to repay the outstanding dues of the Bank. Saha showed Nanda Dalui the bainanama and asked him to hand over two bighas of irrigated land. Nanda Dalui did not agree to the suggestion and was served with a pleader’s notice informing him that the bainanama would be converted into a registered sale deed unless the debt was repaid by Chaitra 1382 B.S.

Nanda Dalui submitted a petition to the ADM (Land Reforms), Nadia, on 10 March 1976 stating his problem and praying for succour. The Assistant Magistrate & Collector (an Indian Administrative Service probationer on training) was entrusted with the enquiry into the case. He summoned the parties to the office of the Anchal Pradhan (elected head of the community development block-level panchayat samiti) on 13 March 1976 but the parties were not present at the appointed place. The Anchal Pradhan informed the Assistant Magistrate that the matter had been amicably settled. Sri Harinarayan Mallick, who had sponsored the petition of Nanda Dalui, also denied the facts stated therein. The Assistant Magistrate had, however, noticed Nanda Dalui hovering about in a hesitant manner near the office. On making enquiries about the antecedents of the Anchal Pradhan the Assistant Magistrate found that he had lands and properties in Assannagar, Krishnagar and Calcutta and was an unofficial agent of the local Marketing Cooperative Society for purchasing jute. It was found that local farmers did not get a fair price for their jute and the Anchal Pradhan had appropriated the money as middleman.

The Assistant Magistrate asked the Anchal Pradhan to produce the parties immediately as he suspected that the alleged settlement between Nanda Dalui and Jiten Sahu was spurious. Nanda Dalu and his witness confirmed his suspicions. On interrogation Jiten Saha became extremely nervous and made contradictory statements about the loan due to him from Nanda Dalui. He was informed of the moratorium on realisation of rural debts imposed by the West Bengal Rural Indebtedness Relief Act 1975 and was asked to settle the matter with Nanda Dalui forthwith. Saha asked for seven days’ time for the purpose.

A week later Nanda Dalui reported to the Assistant Magistrate that Jiten Saha had given him hints that he should sell two bighas of his land and repay his debts with the sale proceeds. Saha also did not turn up before the Assistant Magistrate at the appointed time. The ADM (LR), along with the Additional Superintendent of Police and the Assistant Magistrate, thereupon visited Assannagar on 23 March 1976 but could not find Saha although prior intimation had been sent. The Anchal Pradhan and Jiten Saha’s elder brother Subodh Saha were asked to ensure that both the parties appeared before the ADM on the next day along with the sale deed and the bainanama.  

On the following day, Jiten and Subodh Saha appeared, but without those documents which, they pleaded, were lying with their lawyer and were not easily available. Nanda Dalui was also present and recounted the entire history. It was pointed out to Saha that he was guilty of evading stamp duty and that action under Section 64 of the Indian Stamp Act could be taken against him, involving a penalty of Rs.5,000. Further, it was found that his fertiliser and pesticide licences had expired and had not been renewed so far. Moreover, he was lending money to many people. On all these facts being pointed out and on being reminded about moratorium on rural indebtedness, the elder brother, Subodh Saha gave a written undertaking that he was taking the responsibility to cancel the bainanama and retransfer the lands to Nanda Dalui by a registered sale deed. He also undertook not to press Nanda for repayment of the debt amounting to Rs.3,622.45 and agreed that it could be repaid by Nanda at his convenience. Accordingly, he was asked to execute the sale deed on the same day and arrangements were made for handing over it to Nanda Dalui. The bainanama was also cancelled the same day.

The Nadia Land Development Bank which had, in the meanwhile, taken steps to auction the lands for realization of its loan, was informed of the developments and it agreed to allow time till the next year when it was hoped that Nanda Dalui, freed from the burden of usurious demands, would be able to achieve a certain amount of financial solvency.

The local BDO was instructed to allot the wheat minikit and summer paddy seed package to Dalui under the agricultural extension programme for enabling him to start cultivating his land free from the crippling problem of obtaining basic inputs.

At the same time the ADM succeeding in persuading the U.B.I. (the Lead Bank) to finance Nanda Dalui. The first step they took was to pay off Dalui’s loan to the Land Development Bank. Then they deputed their field officer for supervising Dalui’s wheat and paddy cultivation on the field along with an agricultural input loan of Rs. 700 for the wheat and Rs. 1,000 for the summer paddy.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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