Lessons from the land reform movement in West Bengal, India

Lessons from the land reform movement in West Bengal, India

Did the 1980s land reforms help reduce poverty in West Bengal?

The Indian state of West-Bengal saw two major turnarounds in its rural sector in the eighties. The growth rate of rice production jumped from 1.8 per cent during 1960-80 to 4.7 per cent during 1977-94, and rural poverty fell from 73 to 31 per cent between 1973 and 1999, greatly surpassing achievements of other Indian states.

This coincided with the 1977 election of a coalition of left-wing parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM, which held uninterrupted power for the following 26 years. The CPM instituted a series of major rural reforms guaranteeing heritable rights to sharecropping tenants; ensured better distribution of products between tenants and owners; and confiscated surplus landholdings from big land owners and distributed part of this to poor farmers. This was followed in 1985 by decentralisation of village power structures through a three-tier system known as panchayati raj.

This paper attempts to identify which factors were behind West Bengal’s rural success, using cross-section time-series pooled regressions on district-level data.

Its results suggest that:

  • the reforms guaranteeing heritable rights to sharecropping tenants had some effect in raising productivity of yield and led to increases in the use of irrigation, fertiliser, rural roads and labour
  • it appears to be economically optimal to accord heritable rights to 25 per cent of sharecropping households in a district: extending coverage beyond this level tended to mean that too many of the households included in the programme were too poor to afford other, complementary production inputs
  • the panchayat system created the right incentive and power structure to increase investment in land through better irrigation, rural roads, seeds, and higher labour use; this helped to improve yields by spreading the availability of these inputs
  • panchayats also played an effective role in mediating water disputes and ensuring a steady labour supply and minimum wages
  • weaknesses of the reforms included the neglect of wage demands of poor people other than sharecroppers, particularly agricultural labourers, and a lack of attention to gender inequality
  • the reforms also failed to ensure the state’s economy diversified into new crops and non-agricultural rural industries.

The paper concludes that the success of the West Bengal model depended on a number of historical and political factors specific to the state. However, it argues that at least some parts could usefully be emulated elsewhere, especially strengthening of the grass roots decision making process.

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