Cover

New battles over ancient lands

Abhimanyu Kumar | Updated on March 10, 2018
Umbrella group: Adivasis from across Jharkhand gather at a rally in Ranchi under the banner of the Adivashi Budhi Givi Munch to protest against changes to the CNT (Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act) and SPT (Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act) laws that place restrictions on the sale of tribal landholdings. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

Umbrella group: Adivasis from across Jharkhand gather at a rally in Ranchi under the banner of the Adivashi Budhi Givi Munch to protest against changes to the CNT (Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act) and SPT (Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act) laws that place restrictions on the sale of tribal landholdings. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

Trunk call: The Raghubar Das government’s Momentum Jharkhand aims to attract global investments.

Trunk call: The Raghubar Das government’s Momentum Jharkhand aims to attract global investments.   -  PTI

Legacy of resistance: A descendant of the legendary tribal hero Birsa Munda, who fought against the British to safeguard indigenous landholdings, Sukram Munda opposes any changes to the tenancy laws. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

Legacy of resistance: A descendant of the legendary tribal hero Birsa Munda, who fought against the British to safeguard indigenous landholdings, Sukram Munda opposes any changes to the tenancy laws. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat   -  The Hindu

Costly cross-fire: In the crackdown against Maoists, it is the villagers of Khunti who suffer the most. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

Costly cross-fire: In the crackdown against Maoists, it is the villagers of Khunti who suffer the most. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

In harm’s way: Khunti district is in the Red Corridor, the site of a long and protracted battle between security forces and Maoists. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

In harm’s way: Khunti district is in the Red Corridor, the site of a long and protracted battle between security forces and Maoists. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

The local rules: In 2013, the Supreme Court authorised the village-level councils or gram sabhas to decide on granting the multinational company Vedanta mining rights in the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The local rules: In 2013, the Supreme Court authorised the village-level councils or gram sabhas to decide on granting the multinational company Vedanta mining rights in the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury   -  The Hindu

Minerals-rich Jharkhand wants to industrialise post-haste by amending land laws that date back to the colonial era. Its tribals are asserting their right of refusal

It is the day after Holi. On both sides of an undulating road that connects Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, to Ulihatu in Khunti district, small groups of tribal men carrying traditional hunting weapons scour the fields for game.

Created a few years ago, Khunti district lies in the ‘Red Corridor’ — a region in which Maoists are engaged in a long and protracted battle with India’s security forces.

“Rabbits,” says a young man in the hunting expedition, when I ask what they were looking for. “For wild boars, we have to go closer to the hills,” he says, pointing towards the dense forests in the distance. Forming one-fourth of Jharkhand’s population, the tribal communities do not celebrate Holi like the Dikus — the local term for outsiders settled in the State. “We have no interest in colours,” the young man, dressed in western clothes, tells me in Hindi, interspersed with a few English words. He refuses to give me his name, like all the other tribals I speak to during the course of the day, on my way to and back from Ulihatu.

The young man and his companions know about the proposed amendments to the State’s tenancy laws and all of them oppose it. The amendments would allow agricultural land to be converted for commercial use. Further, the ownership of the land will remain with the tribals and they can lease it to private parties. The government has also added ‘linear projects’ to the mix, which is bureaucratese for infrastructure.

Ulihatu is the birthplace of Birsa Munda, a tribal hero elevated to godlike status. He fought against the British in the late 19th century, leading to the enactment of the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which prohibits the sale of tribal land to non-tribals. In fact, there had been several revolts even earlier, all of which had forced the British to enact the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. Later amendments gave the Indian government power to take over the land for public welfare projects, as well as industrial and mining purposes.

In November last year, it was reported that the Jharkhand Assembly okayed more changes to the two laws, which are commonly referred to as the CNT Act and SPT Act. The government had first tried the Ordinance route to push through the changes, similar to what the Centre had attempted earlier with the Land Bill. (In 2015, the Modi government promulgated an ordinance thrice to implement its Land Bill, but allowed it to lapse subsequently following protests by the Opposition.)

The tribals are clearly not buying the promise of ‘development’ that these amendments are supposed to usher in. There are other worries too.

Karma Oraon is a prominent leader of the Jharkhand Adivasi Sangharsh Morcha, the organisation spearheading the joint protests by 40 different groups. The Morcha even organised a rally in March. According to Oraon, only 23 per cent of the land in Jharkhand is being used for agriculture, a livelihood on which nearly 90 per cent of the tribal population is dependent. A professor of anthropology at Ranchi University, Oraon likened the amendments to vajrapat, a body blow. “They have absolutely no care for the interests of the Adivasi,” he had said during an earlier meeting at his well-appointed office in the university. “How will an ordinary tribal ensure that he remains the actual owner of the land once he leases it to a mighty company? Will he be able to drive it out if he wishes? Moreover, the local tribals are not well-versed in the ways of the market economy and will not utilise the money they get in a proper manner.”

I ask the young tribal hunting for rabbits if the prospect of a job at one of the new factories or power plants that’s likely to come up on acquired land, interests him. “They will ask for a degree for a job and we do not have them,” he says matter-of-factly. “Even with a degree, there is no guarantee of a job as they will mostly hire their own people,” he adds. His companions nod.

An old man, who was listening in silence, speaks up at this point. “In 2013, the Supreme Court gave gram sabha the power to decide whether land can be acquired by the government. The same will be followed here.”

He is referring to the 2013 judgment that authorised village-level councils to decide on allowing mining by the multinational corporation Vedanta in the sacred Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. The UPA-2 government’s Land Bill too conferred similar powers on the gram sabha. The amendments proposed by the Jharkhand government do not have similar provisions.

Asked whether he was unwilling to part with his land because he distrusted the government, the young man merely states, “That we cannot say.”

A few kilometres down the road, I come across another group of tribals resting under a tree in the middle of their hunting. They are landholding farmers who cultivate paddy, wheat, and lentils.

“The government will not give any guarantee (regarding compensation and rehabilitation),” says one of the farmers.

He mentions the road that I had travelled on to arrive here from Ranchi. “Six months ago, the government acquired land from us to construct this road. They asked us to submit papers for compensation... We were told we would be compensated within three months but that has not happened yet,” he says.

In Ulihatu, I am unable to meet Sukram, a descendant of Birsa Munda. He is in Ranchi on personal work. His children do not wish to say anything. Sukram had earlier told a national news magazine that his family opposed the amendments and would protest alongside the other tribals.

Tribals elsewhere in the State are expressing their resentment in more dramatic ways. Just a week before Holi, protests broke out in Godda, where the government has allowed Adani Power to set up a coal-based thermal power plant.

Several people have died in the numerous protests that erupted after the proposed changes to the tribal land-use laws were announced last year.

These changes have not been approved yet by the governor, Draupadi Murmu, also a tribal. The buzz is that the Central government may make her the President after Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends. A State BJP spokesperson confirmed this was on the cards, even while conceding that the party was worried that she had not cleared the changed laws.

Almost halfway from Ranchi to Ulihatu lies Kolme, a tribal village. I ask for directions after failing to locate it. Three men sitting outside a forlorn-looking grocery store correctly guess that I am looking for the house of the ‘martyr’ Abraham Munda’s widow. They give me painstakingly detailed directions. Abraham was killed while he was on his way to take part in a rally in Ranchi on October 22 last year.

The narrow road that branches off from the main one towards Kolme is courtesy of Kariya Munda, the veteran BJP tribal leader and member of Parliament from this constituency. He too has spoken out against the dangers of alienating the State’s tribals with the proposed amendments, as have other BJP leaders, including former CM Arjun Munda.

Kolme is a small hamlet with mud houses and thatched roofs. Its lone provision store — the walls marked by a mobile phone advertisement and a kitschy eulogy for Jesus Christ — is closed. The village seems empty, perhaps because they are all out hunting. I ask a wiry old man for directions to Abraham’s house and he offers to take me there.

“All the neighbouring villages are protesting, including this one,” he says when asked how Kolme felt about the proposed amendments to the land laws.

Sarani, Abraham’s widow, receives me at her house and directs me to sit on the bed, while she remains standing. “We are poor people with a little bit of land. We do not want to give it. How will we live without land? They want to turn us into beggars,” she says in a low but firm voice.

She has five children, including a son who is disabled. The family farms for a living. One daughter studies nursing in Khunti. “It costs ₹10,000 per month,” she says, adding that she hasn’t received compensation from the government after her husband’s killing. “A district official came to visit but we got nothing.”

Suddenly, the old man who had led me here reappears and asks me to step outside. I find the house is surrounded by a score of paramilitary personnel. They want to know my identity and the purpose of my visit. They let me go after a few minutes of interrogation.

The question on everyone’s lips these days in Ranchi is: Can the elephant fly?

A multi-coloured flying elephant is the official emblem of Momentum Jharkhand, a grand event by the standards of the small State, which, nevertheless, contains 40 per cent of India’s mineral resources. Designed to draw investors, the event was attended by Ratan Tata, Kumar Mangalam Birla and Gautam Adani, among others. Finance minister Arun Jaitley was the chief guest, with other senior BJP leaders in attendance. Several memorandums of understanding were signed with business houses, on the strength of a proposed land bank. The Opposition and several activists have decried the idea, alleging that the entity consists of village land reserved for community use. The event attracted other controversies too. There were reports that in order to forestall protests the government had imposed Section 144, prohibiting the assembly of more than five people in one place.

The State government, in the meanwhile, is doing all it can to turn the promised investments into reality. Chief secretary Rajbala Verma flew to Mumbai in March to discuss the proposals with a leading business house.

“The event has put Jharkhand on the global map as an investment destination. From raw material to the finished product, everything will be available here,” says a senior official of the State unit of Confederation of Indian Industries (CII). The CII has worked closely with the government in developing the roadmap for Momentum Jharkhand, the official said, praising the authorities for their “continuous interaction with the industry”. On a shelf at the CII office in Ranchi, I spot the winged elephant again, etched on a memento on display.

The official chooses to play down the protests. “The tribals of Jharkhand are innocent, humble and soft. Some vested interests are instigating them.” He compares the government’s current situation to that of learning to ride a bicycle. “You fall down a few times and end up with bruises.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. While the government spokesperson mentioned 2017-end as the deadline for implementing the projects under Momentum, the CII official said they would start functioning in the next couple of years.

Put simply, the State government has staked its reputation, if not existence — for Jharkhand has a history of unstable governments and issues concerning tribals are especially tricky — on making the elephant fly.

Abhimanyu Kumar is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

Published on May 05, 2017

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