Economics of Social Choice and Bihar (3): A Peek into Land, Social Structure and Power Relations


Continuing my previous discussion of complex interaction among social choice, development and democracy in Bihar, I would be outlining how predominance of agriculture and resulting land relations among people has played a crucial role in shaping social and economic life in Bihar. This indeed is a vast area, and I would keep myself brief, just outlining the post-independence situation, process and interactions. As with the previous post, what follows is largely based on my paper written for Prof. Amartya Sen course.

Bihar is a vast plain of fertile agricultural land watered by perennial rivers. Accordingly, the society has been structured on land relations and land ownership assumed a very important role. It has been observed that with gradual development of economic activities, urbanization and commercialization, the role and importance of agriculture in overall economic relations gradually reduces, and consequently agricultural and land based relations decline stop playing significant role in shaping social and cultural environment. However, the case of Bihar seems to be different, or at least, this process of changing social relations seems to be very slow.

Bihar is still primarily an agricultural state, and ironically  with most outdated agricultural practices, techniques and management. In Bihar, agricultural activities are carried out using centuries old techniques, farmers still use oxen and wooden-iron plough and where finding a combined harvester is like sighting a dinosaur! (I myself have rarely seen a combined harvester in Bihar, and I can reasonably claim to have been out to villages and field quite often in last 3-4 years. In fact, no one in my village (in East Champaran district) has used a combined harvester). Urbanization too is lowest in Bihar, with as many as 85% of people still living in villages.

As the economic development has not taken place on expected lines, agriculture remains important and land relations continue to remain the most important determinant, not only in social but also in economic relations. Thinking more about this, I find it to be more of a conundrum: A puzzle and a challenge for our econometrician friends who may like to probe further the causal paradox: Agriculture remains preeminent because economic development has not taken place in other sectors or agricultural preeminence and resulting social structure has hindered development of other sectors of economy in Bihar!

Agrarian Class Structure in Bihar

In Bihar, agrarian class structure is quite closely linked to the caste hierarchy. Historically, during the British time, Bihar was under the permanent settlement system. Though this has been long abolished, in reality, the agrarian structure in Bihar is still to a large extent quite feudal and caste based. Most of the land is owned by four forward castes (though Kayastha are certainly the minority partners now). However, gross generalization may not be appropriate, as many upper castes are also tenants and small peasants. On the other hand, some upper backward castes especially Yadavs and Kurmis do hold large tracts of land in some parts of Bihar, especially in north central, kosi, and south central Bihar.  Further, not all backward castes are middle-sized peasants or small landholders. Many of them are sharecroppers, tenants as well as agricultural labourers. Despite all these qualifications, there is a large positive correlation between caste hierarchy, agrarian structure and landholding pattern in Bihar.

This image should not be considered a static one. It is highly dynamic – increasingly so in recent decades. The old feudal bondages are vanishing though new forms of land-agriculture based economic and social relations as well as oppression have also emerged. Many powerful sections of backward castes have joined the rank of landlords. In central Bihar two distinct types of landlords can be identified – feudal and capitalist- comprising of traditional forward caste landlords still engaged in cultivation through tenants, and upper backward castes generally practicing division of land and hiring a part to sharecropper for fixed or flexible rent (produce or cash – often called Bataidari/Hunda) respectively. The practice of sharecropping on its own has become quite important and is increasingly being practiced even by feudal landlords since many of them have started moving to cities in search of better education and professional opportunity. The trend is increasingly being noticed with new economic and technological sectors promising better and bright future for young educated middle class. Since these landlords have strong ties with their land and some member of the (extended) family does stay back in villages, they do not dispose off the land, instead it is given to sharecropper most of whom are from lower backward and scheduled castes. The practice is largely oral, leading to higher exploitation and arbitrariness.

At the bottom of the agrarian hierarchy are the agricultural labourers who come mostly from scheduled castes and lower backward castes. They suffer the most excessive from of caste and class prejudices and therefore have been the backbone of radical peasant movements in Bihar.

A point of further research is to how and to what extent agriculture in general and landlordism  in particular economically rewarding in Bihar (especially in light of its still subsistence nature) and why/to what extent it has contributed towards  shifting of new generation of landlords castes to other modern middle class occupations and activities? A related issue is the value of land, as land ownership is tantamount to ownership of wealth, and if not in agriculture, land is perhaps more profitably being utilized for housing, building, industry and other commercial purposes. And the question of how the skewed land ownership pattern has helped or hindered the shifting out of land/agriculture based livelihood by different castes? 

Peasant Struggle, Land Reforms and Social Violence

In Bihar, the starting of organized peasant movement can be traced back to early twentieth century when caste association proliferated in the state. It was the beginning of a protracted struggle for gaining political power by the backward castes. However, in the beginning its nature was a movement for social upliftment which soon turned into challenge to the social power of the forward caste landlords and rich peasants. Slowly, it started to take the form of an organized agrarian movement. An important early event was formation of Triveni Sangh – a federation of Yadavs, Kurmis, and Koiris in 1933 which emerged as a symbol of rising political ambition of backward peasant castes. After independence, Zamindari was abolished despite strong protest from forward caste landlords. However, the end result was not as encouraging across India, and especially in Bihar, it fared very poorly. It resulted in no significant transfer of land ownership and concomitantly, in power relations, though to some extent upper backward castes benefited from abolition of landlordism.

Various land reforms measures in Bihar during early 1950s were of limited success only. Though they were able to alter the permanently settled land relations, they were not effective in resolving the contradiction resulting from these reforms. The land reforms ostensibly designed to benefit the disadvantaged were subverted by vested interest who dominated the state politics and administration (Chakravarty, 2001). The effects of these reforms, which were coming from the top, failed to address the issue of land, wage and social status of landless castes. As land reform measures were implemented half-heartedly mainly due to dominance of forward caste in the Congress and also due to poor laws, ownership remained concentrated. The famous Bhoodan Andolan of Binoba Bhave as well as efforts of Jaya Prakash Narayan did not bear any significant fruits either. Further, in this iniquitous state of affairs, introduction of Green Revolution in late 1960s and early 1970s, though to a limited extent, further aggravated the problem. Even now, the lack of commitment to land reforms and towards ending caste exploitation from political circles where the configuration has been changed making upper backward castes more powerful but where dalits continue to suffer, has been cited as one of the major challenges for state government in Bihar (Kumar 2009a).

In this respect, the past 25 years of rule by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar is quite revealing. The desirability of land reforms has been used sometimes by political leaders as mere rhetoric, and nothing significant has been done towards this ideals. Government now talks of agricultural development, but not of land relations and land ownership. Perhaps Nitish and Lalu know that land reform is something which cannot be achieved!

Alas, in this era of globalization, liberalization and free markets, even talking about land reforms itself is antiquated and anachronistic! And I should stop lest I be declared a fossilized creature in no time! Nevertheless, let me mention about naxalism and caste armies of 1990s without which understanding today’s Bihar would be difficult.

Naxalism and Caste Armies

The failure of effective land reform is intimately related with rural unrest and rise of Maoist movement in Bihar. The guerrilla warfare and annihilation campaigns against landlords, moneylenders and police of Bihar by Maoist, acquired widespread support of poor sharecropper, suppressed landless labourer and scheduled castes in the interiors of rural Bihar (especially central and earlier south Bihar, which is now Jharkahand). The main targets of Naxal were village based landlords who mainly belonged to Bhumihar, Rajput, Yadav as well as Kurmi castes. The Naxal violence still is a force to reckon with and it has acquired new dimension with the pan-India spread of ultra left movement in past two decades.

As a result of growing menace of Naxal armedstruggle, the state government in 1970s allowed arming of landlords in Naxal affected areas. This process ultimately led to formation of caste based fighters (Sena), and they belong to all the major landowning castes – Bhumihars, Rajputs, Yadavs and Kurmis. With the emergence of caste Senas and near abnegation of responsibility by the state government towards its citizen, Bihar entered into a prolonged period of bloody clashes between Naxal and caste armies and massacre of people during troubled 1980s and 1990s. Even during 2000s, it has been noted that in semi-feudal society of Bihar with ruthless oppression, violent revolts and resistance, private armies are flourishing in the atmosphere of lawlessness and the cycle of violence and counter violence continues (Louis, 2000).

Bihar of Today

However, the menace of naxalism and caste sena seem to be a thing of past since 2005, and variously the credit has been given to Nitish Kumar. However, the naxalism movement is not dead, and is simmering below the limelight. The situation in rural Bihar has not improved, and the land relations are still exploitative to a large extent.  We need to be careful not to think that land and land based social relations are now not that important even in rural areas of Biahr. We would be grossly mistaken. However, what has perhaps happened, and is continuing with greater intensity now is emigration of landless lowest castes to towns and urban centers where they are employed in non-agricultural commercial activities. And this emigration is in various forms and directions, with people moving to different towns in Bihar and to Delhi and other metropolitan areas, and the better offs even moving to Middle East. What is more, this emigration out of villages/land is not confined to lowest caste alone. As I mentioned earlier, even the new generation of landlord casts are abandoning land, agriculture (and Bihar) for greener pastures in metro cities and abroad. Perhaps this is natural and desirable also, as this will only reduce the excessive burden on land!

I would like to end with another question:

Except Patna, I think most other towns of Bihar are suffering from what is called “urban decay”. I have not seen any significant change and development in these towns in past 25 years. They have remained the same, or even have gone worse in some cases. Sample this:- no town in Bihar uses traffic lights! Patna has now started with installing and using traffic lights. But no plans for any other city, they are still at the subsistence level – struggling even to maintain roads, drains, water supply, sewerage and trash disposal services! How to reconcile it with so much talked about “growth story of Bihar” of past 10 years? And when the urban areas and capital city are like this, what to talk of agriculture!

This all is taking me to the question of “governance challenge” facing Bihar and it is another topic altogether.  

So Bye for now! Have a Good Day!


  • Chakravarti Anand (2001). Caste and Agrarian Class – A View from Bihar; Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai; April 28, 2001
  • Kumar Avinash (2009a). Illegitimacy of the State in Bihar; Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai; October 31, 2009, Vol XLIV, No. 44
  • Louis Prakash (2000). Class War Spreads to New Areas; Economic and Political Weekly, Mumbai; June 24, 2000

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