Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz define "nondecision-making" as a manifestation of power in decision-making. They argue that to identify power one needs to analyse decisions that were not made i.e. issues that never even came up for discussion.
This holds true for land reform as an issue in the context of the recently concluded Bihar election. The campaign saw both alliances cover a gamut of issues, with varying degrees of emphasis, including religion, caste, development, corruption, nepotism, law and order et al. However, land reform did not come up in popular discourse during the vigorously fought election campaign. This reflects the power of land-owning communities in Bihar's society and polity - after all, both Narendra Modi's development model and Nitish Kumar's vision of growth with justice will remain wishful thinking in the absence of land reform.
"[B]oth Narendra Modi's development model and Nitish Kumar's vision of growth with justice will remain wishful thinking in the absence of land reform."
Land reform has failed in most states of India, except in West Bengal, Kerala and J&K, but in Bihar it has essentially been a non-starter. In 1950-60s, land reform was brought in by the Congress, but was severely resisted by the upper caste landlords dominating the party and the Bihar legislature. Lalu Yadav made land reform a poll issue in the 1990s but even he didn't bring about any changes despite claiming to be a leader of the downtrodden. In 2006, Nitish Kumar constituted the Bihar Land Reforms Commission under D Bandyopadhyay, who played major role in 'Operation Barga' a successful land reform operation in West Bengal. In 2008, the commission submitted its report, but has been put on the backburner since then.
Given this history, it is not surprising that land reform was barely mentioned in the Bihar poll campaign. This also goes on to show that caste-wise there may have been change in the power structure in Bihar but it still is tightly linked to ownership of land. Needless to say, it is highly unlikely that land reform will be implemented in the state -- regardless of who is in power.
The NDA would have baulked at upsetting its core constituency of upper castes, who are traditionally land-owners. Now that the Mahagathbandhan has come to power, it is not necessary that the road to land reform has become any smoother. The core caste constituency of the present alliance -- Yadavs, Koeris and Kurmis -- have become land-owning castes post the land reform of the 1950-60s and the Mandal revolution. It is highly unlikely that the ruling alliance will venture to upset their core constituency.
Why land reform?
Land reform is essential to tackle the state's backwardness and to promote rapid industrialisation. Any inclusive development cannot be envisioned without proper land reform. Wide distribution of cultivable land to the landless poor leads to more equitable rural prosperity which acts as an engine of growth backed by rural consumption and savings. Agriculture's contribution to the state's domestic product is only 33%. The land-holding pattern is also highly concentrated. According to an NSSO survey, marginal and small farmers who constitute approximately 97% of the land-owning community own only 67% of total land. On the other hand, medium and large farmers, who constitute only 3.5% of the total land-owning community own 33% of total land. This skewed land ownership has led to tenancy and absentee landlordism.
With increased tenancy, return on rent has become more lucrative than return on capital invested for landlords; as a consequence, they prefer not to invest in agriculture. On the other hand, tenants don't feel motivated enough to invest since they know most of the output will be appropriated as rent by landlords. This leads to lower output, poverty and keeps a large section of the rural population out of market consumerism.
The Indian experience and lessons from North-East Asian economies
Everybody loves East Asia economies for the miracle they have achieved in so little time. Manmohan Singh was always fascinated by these economies, and Narendra Modi wishes to create manufacturing growth stories to match East Asia's through the Make in India initiative. However, we have completely ignored that the stepping stone to the industrialisation of these economies was set in land reform. As development economist Michael Lipton aptly noted, "If you wish for industrialisation, prepare to develop agriculture."
" It will require courage, statesmanship and political manoeuvring on the part of Nitish Kumar if he decides to bring in land reform."
Post-independence India has witnessed vigorous debates on land reforms. 'Institutionalists' favoured land to the tiller and small-scale farming to improve productivity. On the other hand, there have been arguments in support of consolidation of cultivable land and mechanised farming to increase efficiency. This concept of efficiency is imposed from developed countries; given the surplus labour, the focus of developing economies should be to increase agricultural output until marginal return on labour become zero.
Land reform in India, in general, involved land ceiling, abolition of intermediaries and recognition of tenancy rights. In practice, politics dominated economics of land reforms in India. Consequently, there was what P C Joshi termed as "sectorial or sectional reforms" instead of comprehensive land reform. Enough loopholes were left in various state legislations to allow landowners to transfer land to their relatives and benami holders and evict tenants. The only success that can be attributed to land reform in India was the weakening of traditional landlords, which gave rise to new land-owning castes. In the case of Bihar, land reform led to the emergence of Yadavs, Koeris and Kurmis as land-owning dominant castes. Further, various government initiatives in terms of institutional credit and agriculture inputs were cornered by the ruling elite.
Indian states, and in particular Bihar, will do well to learn from the successful land reform models implemented in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. In his book How Asia Works, Joe Studwell has brilliantly explained how land reform was key to the rapid industrialisation of North-East Asian economies. Rural prosperity, which emanated from land reform, ultimately became a platform for the next stage i.e. manufacturing booms in these economies. All three economies implemented agricultural economist Wolf Ladejinsky's prescription on land reform in varying degrees and with varying success. Some of the broader steps taken in this model were: maximum allowed retention of approximately 3-5 hectares, restrictions to ensure that tenancy did not re-emerge, making any reversal of land transfer difficult, below market price compensation to landlords, and allowing purchase of land in installments by tenants.
Importantly, one of the most remarkable features which defined success and failure was the formation of land committees which oversaw land reform. In the successful models of Japan, Taiwan and Korea, tenants and owner-farmers outnumbered landlords in land committees which ensured just appropriation of land. Contrast this with the failed example of the Philippines, where land reform was overseen by bureaucrats, and Indonesia where land committees were headed by landlords.
If we compare land reforms in our county, we will find more similarities not with the successful models of North-East Asian economies but with the failed ones of South-east Asian economies like the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Similar to India, loopholes in land reform policies, allowing time to landlords to transfer land to benami holders to prevent seizure, poor implementation of even flawed policies etc were common features of land reform policies in these economies.
"It will require courage, statesmanship and political manoeuvring on the part of Nitish Kumar if he decides to bring in land reform."
Household farming when properly supported by government-aided agricultural inputs, extension services and marketing support, leads to a rise in agricultural productivity. This stimulates rural prosperity, which provides a market for consumption of low -cost domestically manufactured goods. And this is the stepping stone for industrialisation which is manifested in the recent economic miracles of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China.
It will require courage, statesmanship and political manoeuvring on the part of Nitish Kumar if he decides to bring in land reform. If achieved, this will be biggest feather in his cap and the political and economic benefits will be much higher than his flagship achievements in his last two tenures. However, we are yet to hear anything concrete on land reform from him .
To conclude with an insight from Joe Studwell's book:
"...Land policy is the acid test of the government of a poor country. It measures the extent to which leaders are in touch with the bulk of their population-farmers-and the extent to which they are willing to shake up society..."
Evaluating various Indian central and state governments in general and Bihar specifically, it would be apt to say that most of them not only don't care for the farmers of India but are very much hand in glove with the land-owning elite of Indian society to maintain the status quo.
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