I arrived in Bihar in 1956 as a student from USA. I was excited at the prospect of getting to know “village India” – I was on a mission to understand the dynamic features of India’s rural economy. I had got to know a little of India as a Senior Fellow at Dartmouth College in the United States, and as a post-graduate student at the School of Oriental and African Studies and at the London School of Economics and Political Science in London.
As it turned out, I had no idea how incomplete and fragmented was my knowledge of India, and especially “village India.” My sense of rural India did not differentiate between the descriptions of villages in the Punjab articulated by distinguished representatives of the British Raj like Sir Malcolm Darling (author of Punjab Peasant in Prosperity and Debt) and the writings of Harold Mann (who described agrarian conditions in Maharashtra).
What is more, my perceptions of village India were wrapped, in a sense, in the Khadi of Indian nationalism and the modernizing ideals enshrined in the Constitution of India, the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, and the polemics of some of the politicians and urban intellectuals who led India to freedom from the British. I was assuming, naively, that “village India” was infused with commonalities: twin bullocks pulling a plow, Persian wheels lifting water from wells, mud huts of uniform design, thatched with straw.
So, I was not at all prepared for the complexity of rural India – reflecting the diverse histories of the land systems of the varied people who lived in the Indian countryside. Their lives were an endless struggle and contest involving the vagaries of nature and the behavior of those who really ruled rural India: those at the apex of what I soon came to refer to as the “hierarchy of interests in land.”
I had decided to do my primary field work in Bihar because I had developed the notion that Bihar had a bright future, even though even in 1956 it was perceived as one of the least developed of Indian states. Arguably, it had the finest land resources in the whole of India – vastly superior to those of the Punjab where colonial investments in canals had helped to ensure increases in productivity during the British Raj. With the enactment of land reforms, as promised by the Congress Party, providing new status and incentives for rural Biharis, I assumed that the productivity of the rich lands of Bihar could be increased rapidly and the poor cultivators of Bihar could be made prosperous.
However, I had much to learn about the actual conditions in rural Bihar. These conditions, which went beyond the quality of the land and the availability of water, would determine whether the land could be made more productive and the actual tillers of the soil more prosperous.
My learning experiences began in Northern Bihar, across the Ganga from Patna City, in Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga districts, and in Southern Bihar in the districts of Patna and Gaya.
Crossing the Ganga from Patna to Muzaffarpur district, Bihar, in 1956-57 involved taking a paddle wheeled riverboat – modern technology for that time. But, the great river, as it flowed past Patna was filled with river boats that were mirror images of 18th century boats during the era when Lord Cornwallis came to India following his defeat by the Americans in what the British still refer to as our “war of independence.” Needless to say, there was no bridge across the Ganga at the time. This meant that North Bihar was a region within which the rhythm of daily life from season to season gave the impression of being unchanged from the 18th century.
One moved about in Muzaffarpur district by means that seldom involved gasoline powered vehicles. An occasional bus, following its own schedule, meandered into the countryside from Muzaffarpur town. However, to reach one of the villages that I chose to live within meant that I had to travel by bullock cart – the most common vehicle in the countryside.
The village that I had selected was “invisible” at less than a mile. It was a naturally camouflaged collection of reed and thatch huts. Large tracts of land separated the huts; in fact, the village had the aspect of a series of hamlets, each a semi-autonomous unit of the main village. I soon discovered that this physical fragmentation of the community, a relatively common feature in many sections of the North Gangetic Plain region of Bihar, coincided, partially, with differences in caste. However, the hamlets did not seem to be homogeneous by caste. Rather, each hamlet seemed to contain people who shared the same economic and social status in the hierarchy of the village.
The village’s population was 434, with 75 households. I found that 61 households could be classified as “holders” of land, and these households had and average of about six persons. Landless households were smaller, with about 5 persons each.
I remember that I was daring enough to ask rather personal questions of the village people. I did this with the help of a young friend, Dayanand Sahay, who later became a Member of Parliament, representing a district in South Bihar. Dayanand had been a disciple of Jaya Prakash Narayan, the socialist leader, who even at that time had moved away from his political commitments to become a follower of Vinobha Bhave’s bhoodan (land gift) movement.
Based on face-to-face interviews conducted with members of every household in the village, I recorded the principal castes of the village. These were Awadia, Ghamar, Dhusad, Kurmi, Lohar, Teli, and Yadava. There was also a single Muslim family. I quickly realized that no single subset of persons in the village exercised leadership in the community. Instead, the interests of the villagers were subordinated, as they had been for generations, to those of a powerful absentee zamindar (landlord). As of August of 1957, even after what was referred to in Bihar (and in India generally at the time) as the “abolition of zamindars” (technically, the “abolition of intermediary interests” in the Bihar Land Reforms Act of 1950, as amended in 1954) the zamindar still retained control of 500 acres of the village’s 600 cultivable acres. He also maintained his “intermediary interests” (referring mainly to the rent-collection rights of the zamindars and tenure-holders as conferred originally to them in 1793 by the Permanent Settlement) in a number of other villages within Muzaffarpur district.
The absentee landlord’s power in the community was exercised directly by his “estate manager.” This power was exercised daily in ways that ensured that every aspect of the life of the village was subordinated to the needs and interests of the zamindar. This power was exercised in both subtle and violent ways. The environment was reminiscent of my understanding then of European feudalism. There was no way that the villagers, individually or collectively, could protest against the authority of the zamindar and his estate manager.
Even the landholding villagers did not command holdings that could be classified as economically viable. The total (100 acres) of the land held by landholding families of the village was divided into 361 non-contiguous plots; on average, a household owned only 1.68 acres of land, consisting of several fragmented pieces of land. As a result, no landholding villager had the capacity to derive even the major portion of family income from the land held by the family. All the families, the landed and the landless, therefore, had to survive by working for wages on the lands of the zamindar during each agricultural year.
I remember my anger when I learned that the zamindar had recently reduced the wages paid for labor on his fields, suggesting as he did so because his economic interests had been damaged by “zamindari abolition” legislation. The “pre-Abolition” rate had been Re. 1 and 2 annas (total 18 annas) per day for male laborers; the post-Abolition rate per day for men was only 8 annas, or half a rupee. Female laborers worked for less. A working day usually started at sunrise and ended at sunset.
I digress here to mention that my encounters with the people of this village were difficult to digest. I was a stranger in a strange land. I was an American. I was young – only 22 years old. My knowledge of India was bookish. My knowledge of Hindi was imperfect and, even when useful, quite different from the idioms employed by the Biharis of the North Gangetic Plain. I found that I could not remain professionally detached from the conditions in the village, however much I tried to do so. Frustration and anger enveloped me daily … especially when I saw the powerlessness of the people.
Yet, even in 1957, it was apparent that the villagers were being encouraged to begin thinking for themselves. While I never asked the villagers questions focused on their political views, the majority of them volunteered that they planned to support a local Communist Party candidate in the General Election of 1957. However, they neglected to consider the fact that the zamindar to whom they were subordinate was a member of the Bihar State Legislature and a prominent member of the Congress Party. I was not surprised to learn that when voting occurred in the village in 1957, all the votes were “delivered” to the party of the zamindar.
Reflecting now, in 2007, on my experience in “village Bihar” (in selected villages of Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga, Patna, Gaya and Ranchi Districts), in 1956 and 1957, I remain frustrated that the people at the base of Bihar’s agrarian hierarchy, especially landless agricultural laborers and sharecroppers with no permanent rights in land, have not experienced the benefits that they were supposed to get from land reforms. From my perspective, the promises of agrarian reform in India were mainly rhetorical, rather than substantive.
With wisdom gained through the years, I recognize that the Congress Party itself had difficulty accommodating the interests of stalwarts of the Party, including the first President of the Republic of India, Rajendra Prasad, who was himself a major zamindar of Bihar. It became difficult politically to confer property rights in land to poor peasants – especially if that meant taking away rights in land from the landholding elites who wielded political power in the countryside.
I know that the land systems of the different states on India are extremely diverse, and conditions in Bihar cannot be used to describe conditions in other Indian states where land systems differ. Nevertheless, I think it is generally true that the promises made at the time of Independence to the poor people of India, and especially those living in the countryside, were never fulfilled meaningfully. This is one way of explaining, at least to some degree, why India’s contemporary economic progress, much heralded in 2007 (fifty years after I left Bihar at the end of my field work there), has been accompanied by widening income inequality for the nation as a whole. Those most lagging behind are the rural poor who are the people most dependent on agriculture for subsistence, and who, at the same time, do not have secure rights to land. A question still pertinent in modern India is the same old question that I used to ask in 1957, “Who is producing on Who’s Land for Who’s Benefit?”
© F. Tomasson Jannuzi 2007
Tom, now Professor Emeritus of Economics and Asian Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, has been a student of India’s political economy since the 1950s. Educated at Dartmouth College and the London School of Economics, his field work and numerous publications reflect his personal commitment to India’s rural poor.