Opposition Unites to Fight BJP on Land Act Amendment in Jharkhand

It is believed that the Raghubar Das-led government will use the amendment to give land away to corporate houses without local people's consent.

Ranchi: Jharkhand is on the boil again; this time, because of presidential assent to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Jharkhand Amendment) Act, 2017. Opposition parties, social organisations and anti-displacement groups have termed the land amendment Act by the BJP government a ‘death warrant’ and united themselves in order to ‘uproot’ the BJP from the state in the 2019 general elections and assembly elections.

At a meeting convened by Hemant Soren, leader of the opposition and executive president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) on June 18, the Congress, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM), Left parties and several social organisations decided to form a joint coordination committee to ‘expose the BJP’s hidden agenda’ on the Land Act amendment. The united opposition has announced numerous programmes to oppose the amendment of the Act. They have also composed slogans like ‘jamin bachao‘, ‘jiwan bachao, Jharkhand bachao’ (save land, save life, save Jharkhand) and ‘Jal, jungle, jameen ki loot, nahi kisiko chhoot (No freedom to loot land, forest and water) – which will perhaps become catchphrases for contesting the 2019 elections against the BJP

“The land amendment Act is a hidden agenda of BJP to hand over huge tracts of land to corporate houses for mining and industries in Jharkhand. This will cause huge displacement. Even before this amendment, displacement of tribals and non-tribal settlers has already taken place. We will go to the people and with their support defeat BJP in its hidden agenda,” said Hemant Soren. He is leading the united coalition against the BJP’s ‘hidden agenda’ and it was on his call that all Opposition parties and social organisations held a four-hour long meeting on June 18.

The Raghubar Das-led BJP government had passed the Land Amendment Act in the Jharkhand assembly in August 2017 and had sent it to President Ram Nath Kovind for his assent.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das. Credit: PTI

Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das. Credit: PTI

Many crucial provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 have been amended by the BJP government in Jharkhand.

Though the copy of Amendment Bill, that finally got the assent of the President, isn’t in circulation (the government seems to have kept it away from the public), copies of the draft Bill are available with the people. As per this, the amendment ‘relieves’ sub-section (ii) of Section 2 in Chapter II (dealing with Social Impact Assessment), and ‘some’ provisions of Chapter III (dealing with Food Security and acquisition of agricultural land).

The government has kept the sub-section (i) of Section 2 in Chapter II – which mandates Social Impact Assessment. But as it does away with subsection (ii) of Section 2, the social impact study will actually be devoid of substance, and will only be for the sake of it.

Further, the amendment also has fiddled with the ‘consent’ of landowners for the acquisition. All that the gram sabha now is empowered to do is to give its ‘advice’.

While the government of Jharkhand sees little utility for Social Impact Assessment, the government of its neighbouring state Odisha has come up with an elaborate system to do it.

The state government shall establish an independent organisation (hereafter referred to as the State SIA Unit), which shall be responsible for ensuring that the SIA study is conducted by such persons or bodies other than the requiring body as per the provisions of the Act”, reads the Odisha Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Rules, 2015.

“This amendment is a total disregard of the 2013 Land Act passed by the UPA government and supported by the BJP. Doing away with SIA is barbaric. The government wants to take lands of the villagers and it is not even ready to study the impact of the acquisition on them,” said Salkhan Murmu, a former Member of Parliament and president of Sengel Abhiyan.

Copy of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Jharkhand Amendment), 2017, Bill. Photo by special arrangement.

Copy of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Jharkhand Amendment), 2017, Bill. Credit: Special arrangement.

Murmu said, according to the amendment, the government can acquire land with just a notification and does not even have to conduct ‘public hearing’ of gram sabhas – a crucial provision of 2013 Land Act. The 2013 Act provides that 80% of landowners, in case of rural areas, should ‘consent’ to the land acquisition, while in urban areas, the figure is 70%. The word ‘consent’ has been done away with by the amendment, Murmu pointed out. “This law is more draconian the 1894 Land Acquisition Act that had been amended in 2013,” he stressed. The Sengel Abhiyan had called a Jharkhand bandh on June 18 in this regard.

Status quo

Jharkhand is a mineral-rich state, with 40% of India’s mineral deposits. Many mining and industrial houses have their stakes here. Though the amendment says that lands under this Act would be acquired for public purposes like ‘school, college, university, hospital, panchayat bhawan, rail, road, waterways, irrigation, pipeline, transmission and other government buildings’, leaders don’t quite believe that the lands will not be acquired for industry and other public purposes.

Out of 14, the BJP today has 12 MPs in Jharkhand. After six Jharkhand Vikas Morcha legislators crossed over to it, the ruling party now has now 43 out of the 81. The BJP government had passed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Jharkhand Amendment) Act, 2017 from the Assembly on August 2017, and sent it to the President for assent.

The government in Jharkhand has been making all out efforts to avail land in Jharkhand for projects, particularly for industrial houses, by amending various land Acts. Earlier, in November 2016, it had tried to amend the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. But steep opposition by tribals, farmers and anti-displacement bodies made Governor Draupadi Murmu not give her consent to the Bill.

However, Jharkhand revenue and land reforms minister Amar Kumar Bauri has maintained that the Act is in favour of the people of Jharkhand. “The amendment will help the government do public welfare works,” Bauri stressed. BJP state president Laxman Gilua too reiterated that the government’s land Act amendment is pro-tribal and pro-poor.

Amid protests by the opposition, the Jharkhand Assembly on Saturday passed the Religious Independence Bill, 2017. Credit: PTI

Amid protests by the opposition, the Jharkhand Assembly had passed the Religious Independence Bill, 2017. Credit: PTI

However, the BJP government’s stand on the amendment has few takers. It is being looked at with suspicion.

“The BJP government is bulldozing itself on the people. It is a political battle and it has to be fought politically. The Congress has joined hands with other Opposition parties for 2019 elections and we all will unite to uproot the BJP from Jharkhand,” said Ajoy Kumar, state president of the Congress.

Numerous land Act amendment efforts by BJP government, including the Anti-Conversion Bill (Religious Freedom Bill 2017), has created an atmosphere against the ruling party in Jharkhand. The tribal people in particular and non-tribal land holders have started feeling that they are unsafe as the government is taking away many of their rights through amendments. The BJP government may have given a tool in the hands of the Opposition for 2019 elections – an atmosphere for which has already been created in State.

A few days ago, former chief minister Arjun Munda, also a tribal, had expressed his displeasure over the state of affairs in Jharkhand.

BJP national president Amit Shah is slated to visit Jharkhand next month in order to see preparations for the 2019 elections. Meanwhile, some industrial houses are reportedly looking for lands for industry, particularly in Santhal Pargana – the bastion of JMM and tribal politics.

“Our party president and former chief minister Babulal Marandi has already said that a united government by the Opposition, will do away with all the anti-people laws of the BJP government in the first cabinet meeting itself after the 2019 elections. The united Opposition is going to the public against the misrule of BJP,” said Bandhu Tirkey, former human resource development minister and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (JVM) leader.

Non-political organisations too see that there is a popular discontent across Jharkhand which has already become the rallying point against BJP. “The June 18 meeting led by the JMM set the tone for 2019 elections. The Opposition and social organisations are to go to the village to explain to them the Land Act amendments,” said Prem Chand Murmu, president of Adivasi Budhijivi Manch.

As per a plan set by the Opposition parties and anti-displacement organisations, effigies of BJP government will be burnt in front of block offices on June 19, dharnas would be staged in front of district offices on June 21. A sankalp (resolution) would be taken on Santhal Hul Diwas to fight the land amendment at Bhognadih in Santhal Pargana, the birthplace of Santhal fighters Sido-Kanhu, on June 30. Over a lakh of tribals gather every year on June 30 to commemorate Santhal Hul—Santhal Revolution against the British and the moneylenders. On July 2, all Opposition will sit on a day-long dharna at Raj Bhawan in Ranchi.

“A dharna also would be held at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, following which a delegation of all Opposition and anti-displacement bodies would meet President Ram Nath Kovind to hand over a memorandum opposing the amendment,” said Hemant.

Hemant has been asked to form the coordination committee in which representatives of all Opposition parties and anti-displacement bodies would be members. It will chalk out strategy to fight the Land Act amendment and other issues affecting the people. He is also the projected chief ministerial candidate of the Opposition for 2019 Assembly elections, atmosphere for which appeared to have set in with opposition to Land Act amendment of the BJP.

The BJP has enjoyed a strong support base in Jharkhand since the days of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose Central regime saw the bifurcation of Bihar and the formation of Jharkhand 18 years ago. The state supplies a good number of MPs to the Centre every general election. But the Land Act amendments will likely weigh on the fortunes of the BJP this time.

Santosh K. Kiro is an independent journalist. He is also the author of Life and Times of Jaipal Singh Munda and Munda Folktales and Elephant Stories.