A Visit to Two 'Flaming Fields' of Bihar

D Bandyopadhyay*


Public hearings in two villages in Jehanabad and West Champaran districts of Bihar revealed that in an area that in 1986 was called the "flaming fields ", the embers of discontent over agrarian issues were still smouldering.


In 1986, a document was published by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) CPI(ML) entitled 'Report from the Flaming Fields of Bihar'. Vinod Mishra wrote the introduction to this report. Among the flaming fields were the districts of Gaya and Champaran. As the chairman of the Bihar Land Reforms Commission this author had the opportunity to be present at two 'jan sunwais' (public hearing) held in two villages of Jehanabad (part of the old Gaya district) and West Champaran. A visit to these two districts showed that though there were no flames, embers of discontent and resentment over agrarian issues were still smouldering.

The commission first met the revenue officials of Jehanabad district on September 21,2006. In response to a query as to how many applications/disputes regarding 'bataidari' (sharecropper) under 48 E of the BT Act were pending, the commission was told that there was none. In fact, the deputy collector (LR) clarified that in the last decade and a half not a single dispute was raised. The last dispute raised was in 1985-86, which was disposed of in 1992-93 after having gone through all the processes of appeals.

When it was further asked how it was that in an area which had had a long history of peasant movements under the leadership of different left parties there was no bataidar dispute, they conjectured that perhaps, after a continuous violent struggle over the last 25 years, realisation had dawned on both sides to come to some sort of social pact for peaceful agricultural operations rather than carry on a struggle which caused more suffering than gain to the bataidars. They thought that it was time to restore peace through mutual understanding. When further asked about the incidence of bataidari they all said that it was widespread.

They spoke at length on different types of bataidari. Generally, it meant produce sharing on a 50:50 basis. In these cases the input cost was shared also on a 50:50 basis. Where the bataidar shouldered the entire cost he could get a share on a 60:40 basis. But the tendency was to move away from produce sharing to "money batai". In this system the notional quantum of produce share was converted into money on the basis of average price of the produce during the year. Absentee landowners preferred this system as it was hassle free. They did not have to supervise the sharing of the crop and other allied issues. If actual prices went up, the gain was to the bataidar. If the prices went down the landholder gained.
What surprised the commission was that the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and other ultra-left parties sanctioned such mutual agreements which were definitely against the interests of bataidars.

It was also pointed out that the left parties who had a dominant presence in the area were levying a charge of 10 per cent of the produce from the landlords to ensure peaceful cultivation. Generally produce of two "cottahs" was left for the ultra-left group of the area. This was the "peace levy" . Locally it is known as the "do Kathaia bandobast". Thereafter, the landholder could have a flexible arrangement of crop sharing with his bataidars. This flexibility not only permitted some variation of crop sharing and input cost sharing in favour of the landowners, they could shift the bataidar from plot to plot in every season so that no bataidar could ever claim to have cultivated the same plot for 12 years with the remote possibility of getting occupancy status. Landowners generally did not evict bataidars from their holding so long as they "behaved", which included not raising any dispute. This explained the non-existence of any batai dispute in the revenue offices of Jehanabad.

The discussions then veered round to the prevailing wage rates for the agricultural workers. It was stated that rates varied between Rs 40 and Rs 50 per day for a full day's work as against the notified minimum wages of Rs 68 per day for unskilled agricultural workers. In the irrigated areas the wages were around Rs 50 as against Rs 40 to Rs 45 in non-irrigated areas. During the sowing season when demand for labour was high the wages could cross even the minimum rate to reach Rs 70 with a mid-day meal. The hours of work would be from 8 am to sunset around 6 to 6.30 pm. It would be a long 10-hour stint with an hour's break. Strangely, the left parties did not take up the minimum wage issue at all. According to the revenue officers there was hardly any pending dispute regarding minimum wages with the labour department. It seems as if having secured their dominant presence in the agrarian sector and having been assured of a regular levy extraction system, the ultra-left parties were more interested in capturing state power by an occasional show of force like the Jehanabad jail break rather than persistently espousing the cause of bataidars and agricultural workers. Having created a niche of political domination and economic extraction they were happy maintaining th& status quo in the current agrarian relations.

List of Grievances

A public hearing was organised in Masart to get a feel of the actual agrarian relations.
Attendance was quite large. An encouraging feature was the presence of a large number of women. That women in a remote village could come out and participate in an open public meeting showed that they had achieved a fair degree' of autonomy as individuals. It was a significant sign of social progress. On our way to Masart at the village of Bishanpur, a large number oflandholders had gathered on the road with a request to listen to their grievances. To cut a very long story short, after a protracted litigation they regained the title in respect of a 40-bigha area. However they were facing trouble from the leftparties and bataidars. Since there could not be any immediate solution to a complicated issue, their representation was handed over to the officials concerned.

In the jan sunwai the organisers were requested to advise the peasants to state their problems relating to bataidari, payment of minimum wages and gender discrimination. Of course they were told that they were free to voice any other grievance that they had. There were no major complaints regarding bataidari. Anyone who spoke on the issue was asked whether he had filed any dispute with the circle officer (revenue). The reply was uniformly in the negative. On the issue of minimum wages the women particularly mentioned that they receive one and a half kg of grain (rice) and half a kg of mixed 'satto', Rs 15 being the price for one and a half kg of rice and Rs 20 for a kg of satto the total would come to Rs 25 per day. It seemed too low as compared to the statement made by revenue officers regarding daily payment of Rs 40 to Rs 50 for an ordinary operation in an ordinary season. A little probing made them admit that it was the rate for 'nikkoni' (weeding) which was half a day's work (8 am to noon). When they had to work for long hours they were given some food. They did not mention anything about the quantum and nature of food. Hence no monetary computation could be made. But they all asserted that there was no gender discrimination in payment of wages. Though it appeared to be too good to be true, looking at the dignified and empowered posture of the women present, one could not disbelieve their statement.

Then there were complaints regarding non-receipt of 'parchas' for long occupation of 'gair mazarua khas' land and 'shikasht' land. Two women in tattered sarees prayed for old age and widow pension. One old person complained that he suffered from hunger as he was not getting any food due to lack of employment. On enquiry it was learnt that the employment guarantee scheme had not yet been made operational in Jehanabad. It would be operational from October 15, 2006 onwards. Destitution with all its ugliness was visible to a discerning observer. A large number of petitions were received. Those were handed over to the senior officer present, with a request to treat them sympathetically and send a report to the secretary to the commission.

The visiting team of the commission reached Betiah Circuit House on the evening of September 22, 2006. Apart from the additional district magistrate (ADM) (LR) and the manager of the Betiah Estate, a few members of the press met the chairman to apprise him of the actual agrarian situation in the district according to their information and perceptions. The ADM (LR) said that there were only five cases under 48E of the BT Act (bataidari case) in the whole district. Though bataidari was largely prevalent in the district, there were hardly any disputes regarding the system. It appeared that the bataidars had just reconciled themselves to the harsh, coercive and inequitous system because they had no other alternative. It was just like what Mahatma Gandhi had found in 1917 - that ryots of Champaran (Betiah was a subdivision of that district) had always resented and resisted the evils of the "tin kathha" system imposed by the ruthless European indigo planters but had "only yielded to force". However strange it might look, the condition of the_poor peasantry has not changed very much in their favour in the intervening 90 years.

According to the print media representatives, one Bepin Behari Varma, once the manager of the Betiah Raj estate carved out a separate estate for himself called Shikarpur estate before the abolition of zamindari in Bihar and became its owner. Over the years his family prospered. The family always had an MP and an MLA among its fold and it was well represented in the all-India and state civil services. The family became so powerful that it became almost "untouchable" in the American sense of the term. Further, according to them the family still had in its direct possession 3,000 to 4,000 acres of benami land. Though there was no MP or MLA from this family after the recent parliamentary and state assembly elections, its members were well represented in all the three tiers of panchayat in Betiah district. So its social and political influence remained undiminished even now. No significant improvement in the agrarian situation could take place unless the overwhelming land resource power of the family currently headed by Madhu Varma could be substantially reduced. There were other three to four influential land owning families who among themselves controlled the land resources of the district. They were assured that the truth or otherwise of their statements would be verified during the jan sunwai to be held at Dhanauti village on September 23, 2006.

Dhanauti is a village situated near the Nepal border about 60 km away from Betiah. After coming out of Betiah, about seven to eight km from it, the road ceased to exist. Folklore has it that Lord Buddha on his last journey to Kushinara (present Kushinagar) followed this road. After continuous rough rolling and pitching for about four hours we reached the village with all our bones protesting against the harsh & violent treatment they received during the journey. We went straight to the panchayat office where we were received cordially by a couple of organisers of the public hearing and rather officiously by the gram panchayat mukhia. Soon the organisers left and the mukhia was left alone with us. That there was no love lost between the organisers and the mukhia was apparent from their body language earlier. As soon as the organisers left the room, he became quite warm and cordial. His first statement was that he had defeated both Madhu babu's proxy and the organisers' candidates in the recent panchayat polls. But the left wing party was spreading a canard that he was put up by Madhu babu and that Madhu babu's candidate was a phoney one put up to divide the votes. This sudden outburst seemed more to confirm the doubt he tried to dispel. Then he said that these organisers who belonged to a strong left political party really did nothing for the benefit of actual cultivators. They were only for agitation and disturbance that already affected peaceful cultivation which all landowners and bataidars disliked. He cautioned us not to give any importance to grievances that they would make in the jan sunwai. The undercurrent of tension existing between the landowning class and the actual tillers came out sharply and openly.

No Long-Term Strategy

The organisers had built a small rostrum under a peepal tree by the side of the main road of the village. A crowd of three to four hundred persons had already collected. There were women among them though their proportion appeared to be smaller than that at Jehanabad. Since we had insufficient time the organisers were requested to start the proceedings without further ado. Those who wanted to express their grievances stood in a line. Men and women came up to the rostrum and said whatever they had in mind on the microphone. They also brought with them written petitions. There were two major sets of complaints. One set related to nonregularisation of occupation of gair mazarua land and shikast land and variations thereof. The other set related to absence of physical possession of allotted land in spite of valid parcha given to them by the revenue officials. A very serious complaint related to distribution of parchas by ministers for the same land at different points of time. It appeared that the same land was shown as distributed by ministers in 1982, 1986-87 and sometime in the early 1990s. If true, the local revenue officials took the ministers for a ride. Fraud was perpetrated both on the ministers and the landless peasant by the revenue officials. In fact, 700-odd petitions related only to these cases. Altogether about a 1,000 written complaints were received in two hours. All these petitions were publicly handed over to the ADM (LR) who was present with a request to look into each case properly and to inform the complainants individually the results of the official action. The land reforms commissioner who was also present assured that he would ensure that all the written complaints would be appropriately looked into and that all the petitioners would be given oral rulings by the officials. The collector would also inform the land reforms commission about the outcome of these enquiries.

The commission was a bit surprised to note that no complaint was made about the abuses of the bataidari system. Though frequent references were made about holding of large tracts of land beyond the ceiling in benami, when a request was made to come forward with specific evidence so that at least a few cases could be reopened as provided for in the law, the response from one of the organisers and local leader was strange. He said that it was for the government to gather evidence and the peasants' organisation had nothing to do with it. If it were to be left to the government, it had done all that it thought should be done. Therefore, they had no occasion for lodging a general complaint that such and such landowner still possessed thousands of acres of agricultural land. It was explained to the leaders and the general audience how in West Bengal in the late 1960s sharecroppers and agricultural workers were organised to tender oral evidence in hundreds and how on the basis of incontrovertible oral evidence, well-crafted documents were rejected and discarded, lands were brought under the ownership of the original landowner and excess lands were vested in the state. Perhaps, the peasants' organisations here were too busy to respond to the acute and instant cases of repression and oppression to find time for the tedious process of gathering evidence which might help the poor peasants in the long term.

Towards the concluding portion of his famous report on the ryots of Champaran in 1917, Mahatma Gandhi had recorded "The indigo planters have successfully used, the institutions of the country to enforce their will against the ryots and have not hesitated to supplement them by taking the law in their own hands. The result has been that the ryots have shown abject helplessness, such as I have not witnessed in any part ofIndia where I have travelled" (Tendulkar, D G Mahatma, Publication Division, GoI, New 'Delhi, 1951, pp 206-07). Almost 90 years later, we also witnessed the same powerlessness, the same fear and the same resourcelessness writ large on the face of poor peasantry at Dhanaut in Betiah.

*Author is the chairperson of the Land Reforms Commission in Bihar He is the man behind successful run of `Operation Burga', the land reform measures in West Bengal started by Left Front Government nearly three decades back.




I must thank Mr Bandopadhyaya for his fact revealing article on present situation in Bihar.

Though relevance of all the issues brought out by him cannot be questioned, however it has been intriguing to me is that Chakbandi has not even a slightest mention as one of the major problems pervading agriculature in Bihar. Since independence, chakbandi has never been done in major paddy growing districts of Bhojpur, Sasaram, Buxar etc. and other parts of the state. Due to vertical division in families in last two to three generations, land fragmentation has led to smaller plots of the sizes of even 3 to 5 katthas. There are people who have 10 to 15 plots of sizes of even 3 - 5 katthas. Such small plots are totally unsuitable for cultivation of crops and the owners are forced to have Bataidari arrangement with the person cultivating adjacent plot who can profitably utilise it. In such cases, the small / marginal land owner's condition also remains almost as precarious as the Bataidar. It is more so because these marginal landowners have been politically at the receiving end of the government policies since independence. Chakbandi would help in the consolidation of land for small farmers and subsequently lead to a higher yield. It will prove to be the most potent weapon of development especially for the marginal farmers who have been forced to abandon Bihar in search of livelihood in other states. Farmers owning two to five bighas of cultivable land in multiple fragments cannot survive tilling such small fragments of their lands and are forced to move to other developed states to earn livelihood doing even petty jobs. Chakbandi and consolidation of lands into one or two chaks may prove beneficial to such type of people and may help them come back to their native places to earn their livelihood.

I would be blessed if a great person like Mr Bandopadhyaya can throw some light in this forum on this aspect of agrarian reform of Bihar and make us aware of the proposals he envisages for the upliftment of the marginal landowners and recommendations if any by him as the Chairperson of Land Reforms commission to the government of Bihar.

Amar Singh
Hetampur Dist


I must thank Mr. Bandyopadhyay for explaining the situation of agrarian relations -- and, therefore, highlighting the problems in repeating an Operatyion Barga -- in today's Bihar through his visits to Jehanabad and West Champaran.
These two cases amply represent the whole situation in the State with minor local variations.

What is shocking is that because of the Grand Alliance among the land-holding classes -- represented over the years through the erstwhile zamindars, their modern descendants, politicians, bureaucrats, police officials, members of the judiciary and some journalists -- the implementation of the land reforms has never been in focus or on the agenda of the people who matter in Bihar.

It is no coincidence that an overwhleming number of members of this Grand Alliance belong to the so-called upper castes while some hail from the local dominant caste. Mr. Bandyopadhyay is very right in pointing out that the Left Parties -- however close or far from the 'Centre' -- have also not been honest enough in their conduct despite claiming to be the torchbearers of the Pesants' Movement.
Sir, the very fact that the State Government has asked a person like you to head the Land Reforms Commission has generated a lot of hope among those who sincerely want the agrarian relations of rural Bihar to undergo a total change in today's times of Globalisation.

We look forward to a great, earth-shaking report from the Commission. You should realise that a very large number of people are wholeheartedly with you.

Ashish Sinha


Poverty and landownership in West Champaran

I belong to Chakhani (Tellia Tola), village of Bagaha, Police Station of West champaran District of Bihar. I was born and brought up in that village. I have seen how a few upper caste families control the total land in those areas. Perhaps, the chairman must have seen. In every village there are only one or two 'Pucca' buildings and that too, surrounded by poor huts. Only these 'Pucca' building owners have almost total control on lands. Rest all the people work either in their their fields or migrate to outside Bihar. These poor people have been all these years so frightened that they are used to not to disclose 'real' facts. All the officials are also mostly hands in glove. So, it is not surprising that in 'Jan sunwai ' not a single person came forward to tell about real stories. I request to get benami lands probed through honest agency.

Krishna Sah


Thank you for your kind e-mail dated the 15th January, 2007, regarding poverty in West Champaran. Nothing will take place unless there is an upheaval from below. So all right minded people should try to organize and mobilize people for asserting their rights.