Sharecropping is a system of cultivation with an agrarian arrangement between the landholder and cultivator for sharing the produce between them according to the established system. Sharecropping is essentially a remnant of pre-money system or commodity economy. The king collected his revenue in kind from the actual producers. The peasant retained a part of the produce as a right to his subsistence and the king as his sovereign right extracted the surplus. The system of sharing crop between the sovereign and the actual cultivator continued down to the early Mughal period. The Mughal economy began to be magnetized noticeably from the mid-sixteenth century and it obtained more or less a universal pattern in the early nineteenth century. The system of produce-rent however can be traced even in the early 20th century and in barga form it exists even now. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the land rent was determined on the basis of the produce sharing between the landlord and tenant. Colebroke, a member of the asiatic society, Calcutta and an eminent orientalist recorded in 1804 that the landlords collected rent from raiyat during the nawabi period on the basis of crops produced. The basis of crop sharing was determined by custom. He found three major criteria of crop sharing between landlords and raiyats. These were (1) one half for the landlord and one half for the raiyat; (2) one third for the landlord and two-third for the tenant and (3) two-fifth for the landlord and one fifth for the landlord.

All these rates, according to him, were determined by custom. When the rent payment was made in money form, the landlords just fixed the money value of the produce as rent. It was the discretion of the landlords to change the mode of rent payment either in cash or in kind. When the prices of commodities rose, landlords tended to collect rent in kind, and when the prices depressed, in cash. During the survey and settlement operations from the last decade of the nineteenth century, a significant number of raiyats were recorded as payers of produce rent, dhankarari (fixed rent in kind) and bargadars or sharecroppers.

The under raiyats, who had no rights in land, cultivated the land of the jotedars and mahazans and others normally on crop sharing basis. Again, the basis of such crop sharing was largely determined by local customs. There was regional variation in the forms and intensity of sharecropping. The abad or reclamation movement of the nineteenth century is characterized by sharecropping system. The proprietors or ijaradars (leaseholders) of jungle lands had tried to induce abadkars or clearers by offering to them attractive terms. Until the land came under full productivity no rent (mostly produce rent) was demanded. Then rent (produce or kind) was progressively increased until an optimum level reached which got stabilised as the pargana rate. A significant number of the clearing raiyats were sharecroppers.

Series of tenancy legislations (Rent Act 1859, Bengal Tenancy Act 1885 and Tenancy Act of 1928 etc), frequent famines, short term and long term rise of prices of agricultural products, and most importantly rapid growth of population from the mid-nineteenth century led to the erosion of the institution of sharecropping. Rights of sharecroppers were undermined or negated by proprietors to evade the constraints of tenancy laws. Their rights were particularly threatened by the rising demand for land among the sharecroppers, an effect of the growth of land hungry population.

Sharecropping in the 20th century is closely associated with the deteriorating land: man ratio, marginalisation of cultivators, changes in cropping pattern and a process of polarisation between rural classes. Under the new scenario of land control rural differentiation process reached such a point in the early 1930s that significant part of rural population became landless. On the other hand, there were dominant rich peasants controlling lands beyond their capacity to operate by themselves. Their lands were operated by marginal and landless peasants called bargadars or sharecroppers who surrendered normally half of their harvest to the malik or proprietors. The process of rural pauperisation was heightened by the great depression of 1930s. The sharecroppers were the people who suffered most during the recession. The Great famine of 1943 was another event to stimulate rural differentiations. The landless peasants became bargadars of the landed class. According to the district survey and settlement operations reports (1900-1945) the peasant population of every Bengal district had sharecroppers ranging from 10% to 30%.

Such an agrarian schism had its natural impact on social and political relations. nikhil banga praja samiti, a pressure group led by the left wing Muslim politicians and Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha, a communist led organisation, had organised the sharecroppers against the jotedar class. Inspired by them the bargadars (also called adhiars) challenged the existing system of surrendering half of the harvests to the jotedars. They demanded two thirds of crops produced by them instead of existing one half. In some districts of north and northeast Bengal sharecroppers' struggles under various names, such as tebhaga,nankar, tonk etc began from the early 1930s and continued well after the partition of Bengal in 1947.

Barga, as tenure, was declining from the 1960s. The east bengal state acquisition act 1950 had banned all intermediate tenures excepting the barga. Whereas, in the 1950s, about 20% of the total agriculture land were held by bargadars, in the 1980s, the barga tenure occupied only 16% of the total land. In the1990s, barga tenure has steeply declined to less than 10%. But during the period, new tenures emerged to replace the barga. Due to rapid expansion of High Yielding Variety (HYV) of rice and some other crops, the landowners tend to lease out their land in barga tenure based on cash nexus for a fixed period. Now barga of traditional type is found only for non-irrigated traditional cropland not yet farmed on capitalist basis.

The Land Reforms Ordinance of 1984 had provided one-third share of the produce of barga land for the owner and two-thirds for the sharecropper. But no measure was ever taken to implement the law at village level. As a result, the barga system had been operating in the villages according to market forces. The barga share had always been determined according to local practice and competition. Hence its term and conditions vary from area to area. At present, landowners tend to keep their control over farming decision by contributing part of the investment. Many bargadars now find wage labour more lucrative than barga farming. This is a change in the rural economy which show all the indications of capitalist development in agrarian relations. [Sirajul Islam]

Bibliography Adrienne Cooper, Sharecropping and Sharecroppers' Struggles in Bengal 1930-1950, (Calcutta: 1988); RL Chakraborty, Rural Indebtedness in Bengal, (Calcutta : 1997), Sirajul Islam, Bengal Land Tenure (Calcutta : 1988).

See also tebhaga movement; begar; bengal tenancy act 1885; peasant movements.