CPI-ML, Land Struggles

Amendments to CNT & SPT Acts : Assault on Land Rights of Tribals in Jharkhand

Mr. Raghubar Das, Chief Minister of the BJP led Jharkhand Govt., cannot stop patting himself on the back for a supposedly greatly successful ‘Global Investors’ Summit’ in Ranchi on 16­17th February, 2017. The Summit had 12 Union Ministers in attendance to ensure proper projection of Modi’s ‘Make in India’. It is being claimed that 210 MOUs worth Rs.310,287 crore have been signed with Indian and foreign corporates with an employment potential of over 2 lakh jobs. Obviously no statistics are being revealed as to how much land will be seized from Adivasis and how many of them will be deprived of their agricultural land, forests and livelihood.
Earlier other Chief Ministers have also made many such claims of MOUs many of which did not materialize particularly because of strong movements of Adivasis and other peasants resisting seizure of their lands and refusing to sell. The Raghubar Das Govt., in order to forestall this, has made changes in the CNT and SPT Acts to pave the way for grabbing of Adivasi lands for corporates.
The Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act,1908 (CNT) and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act,1949 (SPT­ based on the Regulation III of 1872) are the basic laws governing rights, both individual and community rights, of Adivasis in Jharkhand on all land in the village ­ agricultural land, village community land, forest land. The Acts also recognize traditional and customary rights apart from the codified rights. These laws were not any gift from the British rulers but were the result of armed revolts by adivasis against the seizure of their lands and forests and their oppression and exploitation by feudal zamindars and moneylenders loyal to the British. From Tilka Majhi to Sidhu Kanu and others in Santhal Parganas to the revolts of the Hos, the Kols and finally the ^Ulgulan^ led by Birsa Munda in Chhota Nagpur there were a succession of armed uprisings which compelled the British to enact these laws and regulations.
The principle of self administration and control over their lands by Adivasis in general in the country can be seen in the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and is also indicated in the Vth Schedule of the Constitution.
One important aspect of the CNT and SPT Acts is that they severely restrict and in some aspects totally prohibit transfer of Adivasi lands, the objective being to protect against land alienation among Adivasis. The Bihar Govt had extended the scope of these laws to include Dalits and OBCs. The Jharkhand BJP Govt. has made significant amendments greatly diluting the provisions so as to enable the Govt., Corporates and Land mafia to seize land. They were first brought as Ordinances on 21 May 2016 and later the Bill was hastily pushed through the Assembly.
The basic amendment to these Acts is that the Govt. has accorded to itself the absolute power to change the land use from agricultural to non­agricultural viz.­ “Power to regulate non agricultural use: Notwithstanding anything contained in the Act for the time being in force, State Government shall frame rules to regulate the non-agriculture use of land in such geographical areas and for such uses as notified from time to time by the State Government.” and the power to expand the permissibility for “transfer of occupancy holding…” to include “Road, Canal, Railway, Cable, Transmission, Water Pipes and other service utility as pipelines, schools, colleges, University, Panchayat Building, Hospital, Anganwadi or any public purposes/project or activity which the State Government may add”. As is well known “public purpose” has been used by governments to include any and every activity of Corporate. The Govt. has empowered itself to frame Rules and issue Executive orders as required for the benefit of Corporates.
PESA, 1996 clearly states that Panchayats and Gram Sabhas in the Scheduled Areas are empowered with authority “to prevent alienation of land in the Scheduled Areas and to take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated land of a Scheduled Tribe.” The amendments of the Jharkhand Govt. subvert PESA and take away the constitutionally invested authority of Gram Sabhas. Here it is worthwhile to recall that in Niyamgiri, the Supreme Court directed that the opinion of Gram Sabhas be taken and the Gram Sabhas of the Adivasis overwhelmingly rejected the handing over of land to Vedanta for bauxite mining. The objectives expressed in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution also are to “…regulate the allotment of land to members of the Scheduled Tribes in such area…” and to “…prohibit or restrict the transfer of land by or among members of the Scheduled Tribes in such area…” The Govt. of course has no compunctions about riding roughshod over any constitutional or legal safeguards won by the Adivasis.
Since the time of the promulgation of the Ordinances there has been widespread opposition particularly from Adivasis. There have been many agitations by various political forces and other democratic organizations. Within the ruling political alliance the AJSU party has expressed its strong opposition but remains in the Govt. Adivasi MLAs of the BJP have expressed their reservations mutedly. In view of the groundswell of opposition in the masses the opposition parties in the assembly with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha leading have called successful Jharkhand Bandh twice. A new phenomenon emerged during these bandhs wherein important leaders down to block level were taken into preventive detention on the eve of the Bandh and they submitted without a murmur. They were fed well and rested comfortably while the common adivasis faced police repression in the streets. The Bandhs were successful but organized big demonstrations on the streets were very few in the absence of leaders. The right to bear traditional arms was not questioned in Jharkhand till now but after the Bandh police raided Adivasi student hostels in Dumka and other places, beat up students, seized their traditional bows and arrows and the administration evicted them from the hostels. There was only mild token protest from the side of the opposition parties.
The attitude of the ruling class parties in Jharkhand has so far been of opposing the amendments as an electoral compulsion. This is understandable considering that they are all in favour of luring Corporate into Jharkhand with lands and mineral resources. Furthermore, there are leaders in all the parliamentary parties in Jharkhand who have openly flouted the existing provisions of these Acts and have acquired lands for themselves illegally.
The Raghubar Das Govt. and the various wings of the BJP­RSS are propagating about the necessity of land for ‘development’ and are organizing active support for the amendments among the people who have migrated into Jharkhand from other parts particularly Bihar, Chattisgarh and Bengal. The basis for this was also laid during its electoral campaign where it propagated for a non­Adivasi Chief Minister and subsequently in its liberal domicile policy for migrants.
One important aspect which is often not considered regarding the validity of these amendments is that these Acts are not routine laws, but are special laws regarding a specific community of people in a specified geographical area and essentially represent a contract arrived at between Adivasis and the British Govt. They have been carried over and are acknowledged in the constitution separately and are not subject to judicial review. Is it democratic for legislators in the Assembly who have been “elected” from other geographical areas to decide on changes in these laws? If these amendments are so beneficial for the development of Adivasis, why does the Raghubar Das Govt. not conduct a referendum on these amendments in the Scheduled Areas of Jharkhand? Or at least the opinions of the Gram Sabhas should be sought. That would be much more democratic but the govt. knows they will be rejected on this count.
The Adivasis of Jharkhand know from long experience that so­called development has meant for them only displacement from their land and livelihood, destruction of their social formations and customs and culture and even their identity for tens of lakhs of them. They are fighting against this fresh assault on them in the form of these amendments and will continue to fight. All patriotic and democratic forces must come forward to join this struggle.