Rights

Tribal Communities Protest Changes in Jharkhand Land Laws

Land right activists claim that recent amendments make it easier for land sharks to grab tribal land.

Tribal communities in Jharkhand fear losing their land. Credit: Wasim Raja

Tribal communities in Jharkhand fear losing their land. Credit: Wasim Raja

Ranchi: Last year in May, when the Jharkhand government announced to remove handcuffs from all the statues and pictures of Birsa Munda, the indigenous people of the state lauded the newly-appointed first non-tribal chief minister Raghubar Das for his out-of-the-box gesture.

A few months later in November, when the state assembly amended the core of land tenancy law, the euphoria of a pro-tribal government took a beating. Protests and police firings replaced pro-government sentiments to the extent that a group of tribals also hurled shoes at Das a few weeks after the amendments.

Birsa Munda, Tilka Manjhi and many other tribal leaders had fought and laid down their lives for these very tribal land rights. Their rebellion forced the British colonial government to formulate tenancy laws to protect tribal lands and rights.

“This is not an amendment but a plan to grab the tribal land and sell it to corporates,” alleges Sanjay Basu Mullick of the Jangal Bachao Andolan (save forest campaign), a non-profit activist organisation. Connect the dots and a chain of events will reveal a conspiracy, he told VilageSquare.in, hinting at the state’s sponsored Momentum Jharkhand mega event organised in February last year to attract industrialists and investors to the state. “The state government repeatedly said in the event that they have a land bank,” he said.

Changes in law

The state government has amended three sections and abolished one sub-section of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNT), while one section of Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPT) has been amended.

Section 21 bars tribal land uses other than agriculture, construction of ponds, well and brick making. It has been amended empowering government to make rules for non-agriculture use of the agriculture land. For non-agriculture use of the land, a tax has to be paid that would be decided by the revenue officers.

Section 49 (1) has been amended to empower government to transfer tribal land for social welfare projects like hospital, schools, anganwadis (day care centres) and linear projects like pipelines, roads, etc. The cost of the transferred land shall not be less than the compensation fixed under the federal Land Acquisition Act.

Transfer of land

Section 49 (2) has been added to ensure that transferred tribal land shall be used only for the purpose mentioned during the time of transfer of land. If there is any change in the purpose or nature of the project, the land should be returned to the landowner. It also sets a deadline of five years for completion of the project. If the project in not completed within five years then the land would be returned to its lawful owner and land compensation money won’t be returned.

Section 71 (A) sub-section (2) that deals with tribal land transfer after compensation has been abolished. In Jharkhand there are around 64,000 cases pending under Schedule V. Schedule Area Regulation (SAR) courts have been set up in the state to deal with such cases.

Sukhdeo Bhagat, a former bureaucrat, points out that tribals are seeking compensation in these 64,000 cases and by abolishing 71(A)(2) these claims are likely to null and void. “These tribal families will lose their land and also their right to justified compensation,” he told VillageSquare.in.

Section 13 of SPT Act has been amended to align with the motives CNT Act amendments. Section 13 has been amended to allow the government to use the tribal land for purposes other than agriculture.

Rashmi Katyayan, a land rights advocate, Ranchi high court, says that the amendments mean that tribals can rent, lease or use their land for trades likes opening hotels, petrol pumps, shops, marriage halls. “The amendment has opened doors for land grab and complete dilution of tribal land rights,” Katyayan said.

The amendments have been sent to Jharkhand governor Draupadi Murmu for approval.

Protecting tribal land

After a series of tribal uprisings, the government had put Jharkhand under Schedule V of constitution of India. It protects tribal land in 13 districts and three blocks in two other districts of the state. Under CNT and SPT Act tribal land cannot be transferred or sold to non-tribals. It also bars tribal land use from other than agricultural and allied activities. Governor is the custodian of tribal rights mentioned under Schedule V.

Land right activists claim that recent amendments make it easier for land sharks to grab tribal land. Bineet Mundu, a researcher with Bindrai Institute for Research Study and Action (BIRSA) based in Ranchi, points out that last amendment to the CNT and SPT Act was done in 1996. The amendments of 1996, Section 49 of the CNT Act allows land acquisition and transfer in schedule areas for industrial development and mining.

“CNT and SPT already have provisions for industrial development and mining then why weaken it further? It means the government wants to favour land sharks,” Mundu told VillageSquare.in. Katyayan says that there is special provision for land acquisition for atomic and nuclear energy like one in Jadugoda, highways and linear projects.

Land right activists are protesting against the amendments. Even cardinal Telesphore Toppo joined the protests and met Draupadi Murmu, requesting her not to approve the amendments because they are ant-tribal.

This is not the first time that the CNT and SPT Acts have been amended. CNT Act alone has been amended 26 times. In 2010, the state government during the Arjun Munda regime tried to dilute CNT Act by waiving off deputy commissioner’s consent for tribal land transfer. The Ranchi high court, while disposing of litigation, reinstated the provision of the approval for land transfer in schedule areas.

Government’s view

Allaying fears and protests, chief minister Raghubar Das in a series of press conferences has countered that the amendments in tenancy laws are going to benefit tribals in the long run. He maintained that tribal families couldn’t use their land for commercial activities despite having large land holdings. “Time has changed and many activities can be carried out on these lands to prosper,” Das said.

Nidhi Khare, secretary personnel department and state government’s spokesperson, in a press conference claimed that amendments have been made after a series of consultations on measures that can uplift tribal families in the state. “Land use amendment was crucial as tribal families were not legally authorised to open even a small shop on their own land,” she said. She added that amendments would bring a spate of prosperity in the state.

Alok Gupta is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

This article was originally published on Village Square.