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Land rights: An upcoming issue in India
Janadesh-2007 and the representation by the Dongria Kondhs, a primitive community, both have shown how complex the problem of land ownership and tribal rights have become. Its time these issues are sorted out before these turn explosive.

IT NEEDED a long march by 25,000 landless tillers to the national capital, to pinpoint an issue that is not only a matter of life and death for the millions but also threatens the environment and bio-diversity of the country. Janadesh 2007 also brought to the fore, the complex challenge of development and its cost in human terms. It emphasised the need to formulate a national policy for the utilisation of land and the rehabilitation of the dispossessed occupants and their dependents.


As one looks forward to a progressive, vibrant India in the coming decades, prosperity would hopefully get permeated to the common man.

Be it rural, urban or tribal citizens, question that is repeatedly cropping up in the mind is, will that really happen? Or will this aspect be given the go-by by the government, society and planners? The Indian constitution gives equal rights, powers and protection to all its citizens, of which the urban and rural segments have got some share but the tribals are still waiting for their part of share.

Janadesh 2007, the march of nearly 25,000 landless tillers, labourers, dalits and tribals, who have been deprived of their land rights had come to New Delhi, in the last week of October, with the resolve that they would not return unless the government accepted their demands and came up with concrete plans.

The leaders who planned and organised this march, explicitly said that if the government did not accept their demands or talk to the landless people, it should be ready to pick up their bodies from the congregation sites or route of the march. It was clearly stressed that these people were tired and seriously malnourished. It would be difficult to survive or go back to the same old system.

Today, village land in thousands of acres is being acquired in the name of special economic zones, small shopkeepers are being forced to close their business as corporate giants are entering the retail business. The rally leaders also said, dispossession from land and displacement was a phenomenon not only limited to the tribals and dalits. Today, the government does not want the people to become self-reliant and is doing everything to ensure that we become dependent on outsiders for everything, the Janadesh gathering noted.

Some of the demands of Janadesh 2007 were establishment of a national land authority to provide a clear statement on land utilisation in the country, identify lands available for redistribution and regulate regularised holdings of the poor and the marginal peasantry. It also asked for setting up of fast track courts to settle past and present conflicts and disputes related to land.

In mid-November, representatives of the Dongria kondhs, a primitive community, with a total population of 12,000 residing in Niyamgiri mountains in Orissa had come to New Delhi with a mission. They wanted to ensure that the government does not give permission to an non-resident Indian (NRI) owned company to mine bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills. They were trying to meet senior politicians in pursuit of their demands.

The Supreme Court (SC) that has been hearing the case since 2004, has decided to reserve the judgment for now. The SC bench comprising Chief Justice, K G Balakrishnan and justices Arijit Pasayat and SH Kapadia had concluded the hearing of the case by asking the company to give a written undertaking that it would set aside five per cent of its net profits for tribal welfare. These tribal representatives are sore on the fact that their arguments were not heard in the last hearing in SC. The clearance, if granted will negate the findings of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) appointed by the court. They had pointed out that the forest land was cleared in violation of the forest conservation Act for the private sector NRI refinery. The hills were also repository of rich bio-diversity and should not be destroyed for mining. Alternative sources could be found for the refinery, they had contended.

Based on the CEC report, earlier in the month, Norway Pension Fund decided to withdraw investments in the UK listed company for alleged environmental and human rights violations. Rallying under the banner of Kashipur Solidarity Group, the representatives of the tribals said in New Delhi, allowing the company to mine Niyamgiri hills would open the floodgates for several mining projects and reinforce the view that adivasis can be sacrificed for projects whose gains for the people at large will be minimum or even non-existent.

These two instances have shown how complex the problem of land ownership and tribal rights is, the objective of which is poverty reduction. The congress led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has promised to look into the very real, genuine problem and set up a committee under chairmanship of rural development minister, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh of Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD).

The social activists do not fail to point out that land ownership and livelihood issues are far too complex to be resolved by different departments that work in their own typical patterns. Therefore, there is a crying and immediate need to set up an administrative structure and systems geared to address these issues. Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI - M) MP in Rajya Sabha, Brinda Karat is foremost and vocal in demanding the notification of the Tribal Act, which has been passed by the Parliament last December, and yet not implemented. It is aimed at ensuring right over forest land to tribals. At present, there are still huge gaps in dealing with the land ownership issues.

The Janadesh rally had consisted of marchers whose lands had been stolen by powerful landlords, those displaced by industrial projects with little or no compensation as they did not have registration papers. Also on the casualty list are a large number of those who live in the vicinity of national wildlife reserves, but they have been denied access to traditional sources of livelihood such as forest produce or fishing rights. One cannot, at this stage, forget to mention the trials and tribulations of West Bengal’s Nandigram and Singur, which for allied reasons have borne the brunt of violence, bloodshed and killing of innocent rural people. Added to the question of land acquisition for industrialisation in the state has been the highly emotive issue of political nature. For over 11 months, agrarian villagers have been at the receiving end of a cocktail of political vendetta while the promised magic of industrial and economic development has all, but disappeared. Fortunately for the Orissa, Niyamgiri people and the Janadesh participants, the poison of politics and political interference has not yet made its debut in their issues.

The Manmohan Singh government has sought time to examine the issue and has not yet articulated its responses, but for sure there is not too much time at its disposal before it becomes an explosive issue. It is time to get ready, get set and go.


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