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Who Are the'Community'?

The World Bank proposes "good governance" as the ultimate solution for those third world countries that have not been able to reap the benefits of globalisation. In its recent report on Bihar, the bank emphasises governance reforms by proposing decentralisation, community management of resources and micro-enterprises. However, in a classic neo-liberal sense it does so without questioning the existing structures of power and underlying relations of production.

Who Are the ‘Community’?

The World Bank and Agrarian Power in Bihar

The World Bank proposes “good governance” as the ultimate solution for those third world countries that have not been able to reap the benefits of globalisation. In its recent report on Bihar, the bank emphasises governance reforms by proposing decentralisation, community management of resources and micro-enterprises. However, in a classic neo-liberal sense it does so without questioning the existing structures of power and underlying relations of production.

KALPANA WILSON of the world which, despite the opening up of their economies, have been largely t is well over a decade since the World shunned by global capital, with the signifi-Bank, desperately seeking a panacea cant exception of those global trades which for the devastation wreaked by the first feed and in turn thrive upon a plethora of 10 years of neo-liberal reforms and struc-armed conflicts. Given this, it is perhaps tural adjustment policies in Africa, put surprising that the World Bank has taken forward the agenda of “good governance”, so long to train its sights on Bihar, which laying the blame for the massive increases at the state level would appear to fulfil in poverty and the collapse of social ser-many of the Bank’s criteria of eligibilityfor vices and infrastructure firmly on the “good governance” based reforms: ramdoorstep of “corrupt and inefficient” third pant corruption in the state’s allocation of world governments who were seen as resources, the collapse of the state’s monofailing to implement neo-liberal policies poly of violence and extremely low levels effectively. The state, having been reduced of private investment. This June however, to a skeleton by liberalisation, was now the World Bank launched a report, “Bihar: to be “reformed” with its main duty being Towards a Development Strategy” [World provision of the institutional framework Bank 2005] which applies these same for markets to flourish. principles and prescriptions to the state. Ever since, “good governance” has been The report, of course, cannot be seen in the World Bank’s answer for those regions isolation from a whole body of work by

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006 neo-classical economists, who have for some time sought the answer to Bihar’s agricultural stagnation in the “transformative power” of the market. Implicit in this, has been an attempt to marginalise any analysis of the underlying structures of agrarian power and to provide an “alternative” to the fundamental redistribution of resources – land in particular. This has however proved to be a difficult task, particularly since effective land redistribution and tenancy reform as well as a living wage for agricultural labourers have not only been identified as crucial for Bihar’s development by a succession of scholars, but are clearly formulated demands being articulated by powerful movements of the poor and dispossessed of the state.

This article explores three key characteristics of the neo-liberal discourse as it is currently being applied to rural Bihar: the assumption that it is possible to “reform” the state without transforming the structures of social and economic power and the relations of production which underpin it; the focus on so-called “machine reforms” at the expense of land reforms; and the exclusion of the class of agricultural labourers from strategies for agrarian development.

The State, ‘Machine Reforms’ and Agrarian Power

Seven years after Shah and Ballabh asserted in the context of Muzaffarpur district in north Bihar that “groundwater markets can transform a stagnant traditional agriculture into a modern, booming economy with powerful beneficial productivity and equity impacts” [Shah and Ballabh 1997], cereal yields in Bihar have continued to stagnate as they have since the early 1990s, and there is now widespread acknowledgement that growth potential has remained constrained with Bihar mired in an “agrarian impasse” [Kishore 2004].

Reluctant, however, to question either the policies of economic liberalisation which have led to increased production costs in agriculture, or the underlying structures of rural inequality, those operating within a neo-liberal framework have turned their attention to the state in Bihar, arguing that the absence of “adequate infrastructure” and “economic incentives” are more important constraints to development than agrarian structure [Kishore 2004]. But this is a false dichotomy: while rural electrification and investment in rural roads and major and medium irrigation systems are extremely urgent needs in Bihar, their absence cannot be understood in isolation from the nature of social and economic power in the state. Crime, corruption, political careerism and the siphoning off of development funds have emerged as key sources of accumulation for those rich peasants who were able to amass significant agricultural surpluses in the relatively favourable production conditions which prevailed in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The dire condition of Bihar’s infrastructure is therefore not only linked to the absence of a rich peasant led farmers movement of the type which was seen in Haryana, Punjab or UP to demand its improvement. It also derives from the fact

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that successive groups of dominant landowners have found it more profitable to extract rental surpluses from poor and landlesscultivators (whether through moneylending, markets in agricultural machinery or the appropriation and reselling of scarce agricultural inputs) and – for those who have the connections – to engage in different levels of organised crime which are inextricably linked to political parties and the state than to invest in cultivation.

These forms of what Das (1992) called “primitive accumulation” are made possible by pervasive social and economic inequality. As I found during fieldwork in central Bihar, even in the absence of productive investment in agriculture, a very high rate of exploitation of labour ensured that rich peasants continued to extract some surpluses. These surpluses formed the initial capital which provided access to networks which linked administrators, criminal gangs and the dominant political parties [Wilson 2002]. Thus agrarian power provides not only the social but the economic basis for entry into other, more lucrative, avenues of accumulation. And this power is reinforced by the ubiquitous threat of violence against anyone who challenges it.1

In this context, perhaps we should not be surprised that neo-liberal writers and policy-makers have explicitly posited socalled “machine reforms” as a more “acceptable” alternative to thoroughgoing land reforms, which would undermine one of the cornerstones of agrarian power [see for example Shah 1999]. Even small-scale movements for land redistribution (targeting ceiling surplus land or illegally occupied government land for example) have been seen to strike at the roots of social as well as economic authority, and as such, have not only generated intense resistance from the powerful, but have been accompanied by challenges to a plethora of related manifestations of inequality, including exploitative labour relations, and the sexual abuse of dalit women legitimised by ideologies of caste and gender. The oft-cited objection that the potential of land redistribution for economic development is limited due to demographic pressure on land ignores the fact that such movements rarely aim at the creation of a multitude of tiny peasant farms, but incorporate a variety of collective and cooperative approaches to cultivation and resource management.

By contrast, “machine reforms” are the equivalent of micro-enterprise, the favoured neo-liberal model for “empowerment” of the poor, in that they focus on individual improvement rather than collective transformation, and effectively attempt to bypass demands for redistribution of resources. And in practice, without a challenge to existing structures of power and patterns of accumulation, any measures aimed at facilitating access to technology for small and marginal cultivators are likely to go the same way as earlier attempts, which largely failed due to their appropriation by more powerful groups with connections with the local administration.2

The World Bank and the ‘Community’

For the World Bank, however, Bihar’s crisis is located primarily within the state itself and even public sector infrastructural investment is not highlighted as a priority [World Bank 2005]. Rather, the Bank’s focus is on “reforms” which further limit and constrain the role of the state.

Along with decentralised administration, the World Bank lays considerable emphasis on “involving communities” in the delivery of services such as irrigation. The shifting of responsibility for services and infrastructure to NGOs and the “community” has been another element of the good governance agenda and has a number of well-documented implications. In particular, it has allowed neo-liberals to portray privatisation and the dismantling of public services as “empowering” the community, while simultaneously extending NGO control over “civil society”.

Another key aspect, however, is the fact that in the context of existing power relationships, “community management” of resources can actually reinforce inequalities within the “community”. Let us look at one “example of excellence” cited by the World Bank, the Paliganj participatory irrigation management experience [World Bank 2005:88]. According to the World Bank, this “experiment” in Patna district – in which since 1997 the Paliganj distributary canal farmers’ committee has collected water charges, retaining 70 per cent for operation and management of the system – has led to “substantial improvements”. An increase in irrigated area, a decrease in the number of breaches and obstructions in the canal, and an increase in yields are among those mentioned [World Bank 2005:74].

One rather obliquely expressed “unanswered question”, however, relates to the “factors determining the extent of cooperation between village members, especially those differentiated socially and spatially across the distribution system” (op cit:74). What does this imply in Paliganj, where “social differentiation” and class contradictions are acutely visible, and sustained struggles over wages, land and resources have been taking place between large landowners and the mainly

Economic and Political Weekly January 7, 2006 dalit labourers and marginal cultivators? Where the Ranvir Sena, the heavily armed criminal gang which emerged in 1994 with the avowed aim of terrorising into submission those who challenged the economic power of the dominant groups in central Bihar, and is responsible for a series of brutal massacres of dalit and Muslim women, children and men, still has a strong base among the dominant upper caste Bhumihar landowners? This is a question which certainly needs to be answered before the “Paliganj experiment” slips into the World Bank’s stock of neo-liberal “success stories”.

A recent survey of the catchment area of the Paliganj distributary canal [Sharma and Anil 2005] found that whereas “there were various provisions for the accountability, transparency and representative character of the committee” the reality was very different. Out of an 11-member executive, four members own more than 24 acres of land each, in a region where a holding of even 10 acres makes one a large landowner. Of the 56-member distributary canal committee, 31 members belong to the upper castes, 24 to the intermediate Yadav and Kushwaha castes, and just one member is a dalit – while there are no women at all.

Cultivators all along the length of the canal testified that there have been no elections to the committees at any level, no regular meetings, and no regular tax collection or proper accounts of collection. As far as the increase in irrigated area is concerned, it was found that “the water does not reach the lower-level villages when it is actually needed – as a result, the rice cannot be harvested and wheat cannot be sown on time. Instead, water reaches in October-November… resulting in waterlogging of the fields” [Sharma and Anil 2005]. Interestingly, many cultivators highlighted the fact that earlier they had often succeeded, through agitation, in pressurising state officials into ensuring that water reached their villages at the time it was needed. Now that the canal is supposedly in the hands of “water users”, they find themselves too intimidated by the strongmen who surround Balmiki Sharma, the powerful Bhumihar landowner who has been secretary of the committee since its inception, to protest (op cit).

The survey also revealed large-scale corruption, with vast sums being allocated to contractors for field channel construction which was then carried out so badly and using such poor materials that the channels collapsed or remain useless. In just one example: “at Bhimani Chowk, Rs 3,65,000 have been allocated for pucca construction, despite the fact that the canal here has lain non-functional for the last 10 years; the contractor happens to be a close relative of Balmiki Sharma!” (op cit).

Marginalising AgriculturalLabourers

While the World Bank itself acknowledges that 40 per cent of Bihar households are primarily dependent on agricultural wage labour for survival and that the rural poor “are far more likely to be agricultural wage workers or casual non-farm labourers, rather than cultivators or employed in a regular non-farm job” [World Bank 2005:14], this group is strikingly absent from the strategies being put forward for Bihar’s development. This amounts to

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ignoring the direct producers of a large proportion of the state’s food and other crops. It also attempts to marginalise the experiences of those who, with little or nothing to fall back on, have been left most vulnerable to the shocks of the global market.

In fact, agricultural labourers – and indeed working people in general – find a place in neo-liberal development models only as the woefully inadequate “human resources” who must “choose” to make themselves more marketable if they are to survive. Significantly, they do not appear at all in the Bank’s definition of the “people of Bihar” – “civil society,” (for which read NGOs) “businessmen, government officials, farmers and politicians” [World Bank 2005:1]. For the exponents of “machine reforms”, meanwhile, agricultural labour is simply an input for cultivation whose increased cost has made production less profitable. In reality, small cultivators, who have been the hardest hit by the rise in the prices of inputs, do not generally hire in labour on a significant scale in Bihar, particularly when this is measured in net terms.3 In fact, a large proportion of small and marginal cultivators essentially subsidise cultivation with wages earned through hiring out family labour (particularly women’s labour) for agricultural operations, along with various poorlyremunerated off-farm activities. Thus the distinct – and often undifferentiated – group identified in the neo-liberal literature as cultivators or “farmers” (and assumed to have shared interests) is in reality not only extremely diverse but includes both wage labourers and their employers within it.

The marginalisation of those who survive primarily as waged agricultural workers within dominant approaches to tackling Bihar’s “impasse” has significant political as well as economic implications. Currently, the struggles of this section for wages, land, social dignity and democratic rights are forming the core of a broader movement for social and economic transformation, in which the demands of small cultivators – for affordable inputs, roads, electricity and water – are also being raised. In fact this movement, led by the CPI(ML), which is today the strongest left force in the state, has been the only one to systematically press these demands, alongside those relating to crime and corruption.

During the last two decades, this movement has also challenged effective disenfranchisement of large sections of the working people. Ironically, while in many areas the largely dalit rural poor have successfully resisted armed attempts by the dominant landowners and their allies in the police and administration to forcibly prevent them from casting their votes, in the current assembly elections it is in the name of World Bank-inspired “good governance” and transparency that the rural poor of Bihar once again find themselves denied the vote, as they have been removed en masse from voters lists on the pretext of ID verification. Yet such measures, however damaging in the short-term, seem unlikely to prevent the process of polarisation which is underway in Bihar – between different sections of its working people on the one hand and complex networks of powerful landowners, politicians, administrators and criminal gangs on the other.

Evidently, this process involves a struggle between two different types of solidarity. First is that based on caste linkages and relations of dependence, with the goal of maintaining the status quo. It is this which forms the basis of the “community” as envisioned by the World Bank and embodied, as we have seen, in the operation of the Paliganj participatory irrigation management project. On the other hand there is solidarity between mainly dalit agricultural labourers, small cultivators of diverse caste backgrounds, and those sections of the middle classes who are also excluded from – and terrorised by – processes of accumulation through corruption and crime, with shared goals of social and economic change. The growing political consolidation of this latter alliance was reflected in the election of a CPI(ML) MLA in, among other constituencies, Paliganj itself – in the earlier round of assembly elections this year. Clearly, it is also an alliance which must shape any genuine “development strategy” in Bihar.




1 See Chakravarti (2001: 286-93) for a discussionon this.

2 One example is the Integrated RuralDevelopment Programme (IRDP) which wassimilarly “designed as if redistributive landreform and security of tenure had nothing todo with poverty alleviation” (D Bandhyopadhyay, unpublished manuscript, cited inJannuzi, 1996:194). In Nalanda district, bankmanagers and middlemen in the blockadministration frequently charged poorhouseholds “commissions” of up to 50 percent on IRDP loans [Wilson 1999:215].

3 While small cultivators’ adoption of the “new”technology has increased their labourrequirements during peak seasons, many ofthem exchange labour, particularly women’slabour, with other similar households, rather than hiring in casual labour.


Chakravarti, Anand (2001): Social Power and Everyday Class Relations: Agrarian Transformation in North Bihar, Sage, New Delhi.

Das, Arvind (1992): The Republic of Bihar, Penguin, New Delhi.

Kishore, Avinash (2004): ‘Understanding AgrarianImpasse in Bihar’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 39, No 31, July 31.

Jannuzi, F Tomasson (1996): India’s Persistent Dilemma: The Political Economy of AgrarianReform, Orient Longman, New Delhi.

Shah, Tushaar and Vishwa Ballabh (1997): ‘WaterMarkets in North Bihar: Six Village Studiesin Muzaffarpur District’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 32, No 52, December 27.

Shah, Tushaar (1999): ‘Pump Irrigation and Equity:Machine – Reform and Agrarian Transformation in Water Abundant Eastern India’, Policy School Working Paper No 6, The PolicySchool, Anand.

Sharma, Kamlesh and Anil Kumar (2005): ‘WorldBank’s “Participatory Model”: Investigationinto the Paliganj Distributary Canal Farmers’Committee’, Liberation, Central Organ ofCPI(ML), Vol 11, No 6, October.

Wilson, Kalpana (1999): Production Relations and Patterns of Accumulation in the Context of a Stalled Transition: Agrarian Change inContemporary Central Bihar, UnpublishedPhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London.

– (2002): ‘Small Cultivators in Bihar and “New”Technology – Choice or Compulsion’,Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 37, No 13, March 30-April 5.

World Bank (2005): Bihar: Towards a Development Strategy: A World Bank Report,World Bank.

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