The 25-day fast undertaken by the feisty Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee ended on the midnight of December 28/29 on appeals by the President of India Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee followed by a somewhat conciliatory letter by West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. As we are aware, the issue of the fast was the handing over of 947 acres of agricultural land to the Tatas for their ?Rs.1 lakh car? project at Singur in the Hooghly district of West Bengal.
What this fast has triggered is the debate covering the entire country about surrendering of farm land or industry and special economic zones on the one hand and the so called agricultural revolution in West Bengal which the Marxist rulers of the State aver, should be replicated in other States. Let us have a close look at the agricultural renaissance.
Before Jyoti Basu relinquished office as the Chief Minister of West Bengal, he had announced that West Bengal had become the number one State in the country. This had thrilled the credulous people of the State who did not for a moment reflect on the cavalier manner of this announcement because West Bengal has nothing much to show in agriculture except for rice in which it remains the number one State in the country with a production – in three crop seasons- of about 14.50 million tonnes a year. It depends on other States for wheat products, cooking oil, sugar, pulses etc. However, it is surplus in potato.
What was the fact behind this tall claim was that in that particular year – 1999 perhaps- West Bengal was the first in the rate of growth in agriculture among all the States.
Similar is the story of unprecedented progress in agriculture in the State during the 30 years of Left rule. As has been tomtommed umpteen times all these years, the land reforms programme ushered in by the Left has brought in unprecedented prosperity to the farmers of West Bengal which explains the iron grip of the CPI(M) over rural voters.
Analysing these claims , Mr.Abhiroop Sarkar, an economist of repute, wrote in the Ananda Bazar Patrika published from Kolkata a three-part story which blew this hype to smithereens, saying that a major portion of the claim is actually nothing but fable. He conceded that the land reforms initiated in the late 1970s, decentalisation of power and the ?Boro? revolution in rice did benefit farmers till the end of the nineteen eighties. (?Boro? is the local name for winter/summer rice grown extensively in West Bengal from the beginning of the year and harvested just as summer sets in. ?Aus? and ?Aman? are the two other rice crops grown during the monsoon and post-monsoon seasons).
Mr. Sarkar also agrees with the view that till end of the 1980s, the economic conditions of the farmers did improve and they could face the world with rare self-confidence, not possible before .However, the chinks the armour started showing from the beginning of the 1990s.
First, the ?Boro? revolution could not cover the entire State because of lack of water in many areas. (Like other rice varieties, ?Boro? too consumes huge volumes of water). Secondly, where water was available earlier, arsenic contamination started manifesting because of relentless over-drawing of ground water. Thirdly, prices of farm produce remained constant while the cost of agricultural inputs started rising relentlessly. Rice and potato, the two major farm produce of West Bengal, no longer fetched sufficient returns on investment. The result was at least ten to twelve per cent of farmers ,who had obtained farming land as a result of land reforms, had sold off their lands and opted for manual labour away from villages. The proportion of farmers among the working population in the villages suffered a sharp decline from the beginning of the new century.
Mr. Sarkar said that it was often forgotten that West Bengal had perhaps the worst land: man ratio in the country. The number of people dependent on agriculture per acre in West Bengal, he says, is three times that in other States of the country. This was the result of pressure on land from the lakhs of people from East Pakistan who had migrated to West Bengal and the continuous migration of people from neighbouring States to West Bengal in search of jobs.
Mr. Sarkar concedes the fact that the per hectare yield of crops in West Bengal is quite high- just after Punjab and Haryana. However, even then, the per capita availability of foodgrains in the State is quite low compared to other State because of the huge population pressure.
It is in this context that Mamata Banerjee'sstruggle to save agricultural land assumes importance. West Bengal'spoor record in agriculture should make people aware that Mamata'sagitation has strong support from people still adhering to agriculture as their vocation.
The economist quotes certain statistics which show that West Bengal is far below many other States is a many of indices which reflect rural prosperity (or lack of then). In the year 2000, he says, the average per capita expenditure per month in rural areas in West Bengal was Rs. 454, compared to the all-India average of Rs. 486.The proportion of unemployed among rural masses in West Bengal was 2.7 per cent in compared to the all-India figure of 1.5 per cent. The percentage of people below poverty line in West Bengal was 31.85 compared to 27.09 in the country as a whole. In rural electrification, West Bengal stands 16th among the States. West Bengal comes at the ninth place among the 19 States with respect to irrigation facilities. There are only a couple of positive indices such as average life expectancy and rural literacy.
These facts, according to him, belie the claim that West Bengal was an advanced State with respect to agriculture and rural development. Actually, he says, West Bengal is a poverty-stricken, under-developed State.