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The Land War Looms


Protests have been raging across Jharkhand on the issue of the amendment in CNT/SPT Act, the very identity of the tribals in Jharkhand. Mahendra Karma explains how it has landed the government in soup.
MAHENDRA KARMA | Issue Dated: January 5, 2017, New Delhi
Tags : Jharkhand | AJSU | JMM | Congress | Left Parties |

Jharkhand is simmering. But if you are watching mainstream news channels, you would not know it. The issue in the eye of storm is the possible amendment of the Chotanagpur Tenancy/Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. The ruling dispensation under CM Raghuvar Das is all set to introduce the amendment in the current session. The announcement in this regard has already been made. The decision has brought the state to a  boil. For the first time, the opposition is united in its protest. What once looked like a cakewalk has suddenly become a minefield. It has split society down the middle.

The Chotanagpur and Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand has always been a tribal populated area. During the British era, Mahajans and Zamindars were appointed to collect taxes and revenue. It was because of the cruelty involved in the process that led to the famous revolts by Sidho-Kanho and Birsa Munda. After supressing the revolt, the British administration enacted two separate tenancy laws – the CNT Act and the SPT Act – to mollify the locals. It is noteworthy that these acts was not meant to safeguard the rights of tribals only, but of all the locals. Since this is an old law, several amendments were made in between. However, none of these amendments were as sweeping as the proposed one.

The CNT Act came into force in 1908. The mainstay of this act was that non-tribals could not buy lands from tribals. Land was the basis of the livelihood of the tribals, and it still is. The act protected their interest solidly. However, it also had its drawbacks. For example, no bank gives loan against land to the tribals. This makes the land only useful for agriculture, forcing generations of tribals to continue tilling the lands to save them from turning nonarable. Having said that, there are provisions that has led to transfer of land in the past, but this significantly lowers the rate.

Those opposing the amendment link the act with the very identity of the tribals, and maintain that amending it would harm the identity itself. They also maintain that it is the duty of the government to force the banks to give loan against these lands. The government should become the guarantor of such a loan. In the case of non-payment, the land will go back to the government. This is only fair.

The amendment will change the land use policy where the owner can use the land for non-agricultural purposes as well. They can build marriage halls and hotels but they will have to pay a non-agriculture tax. The amendment will decide the amount of tax.

Article 49(1) and 49(2) of the CNT Act state that any Rayyat or Bhuinhari family can transfer the land for mining or industrial purposes after seeking due permission from the Deputy Commissioner. But these lands cannot be used or anything else.

The state government has put in the provision that the land can be used or infrastructural development and related purposes such as roads, canals, railway line, communication cables, electricity distribution, sanitation, school, colleges etc. However this has to be done within five years of the acquiring of the land. If the project is not initiated by then, the land will go back to its owner, and he’ll not be liable to return the compensation money.

Article 21 of CNT Act states that Rayyats can use the land for agriculture and allied activities including construction of godowns, pump house, houses and ponds. However, they need to pay tax on these facilities. Similar provisions are there in SPT Act as well.

The Jharkhand cabinet has already approved the amendment bill. It was openly opposed by several ministers. Water and Sanitation minister CP Chaudhary questioned the logic of the amendment saying “Appropriate provisions are already in place.” He also added that the amendment is playing with the sentiments of the tribals. He was not alone in opposing the bill. 

JMM, Congress, and Left parties have started a state wide agitation. The parties have also rocked the winter session. Among those who are opposing are coalition partner AJSU. Both sides had prepared their strategy before the start of the session. The opposition has maintained that they will not support the amendment. State Congress chief, Sukhdev Bhagat, has promised that the agitation will be further intensified. Jvm’s pradeep yadav has also threatened mass agitation, and maintained the entire move as a “conspiracy to snatch the lands for their owner and give it to the capitalists.”

The opposition parties joined ranks inside the house as well. In a hurriedly called meeting, the decision was taken to oppose the bill in every way available. Hemant Soren, leader of the opposition, says, “The government is not God and must stop acting like one.”

“The government should have gone to the people for their opinion before bringing in the amendment,” he adds. On the other hand Pradeep Yadav alleges that the government is forcing people to resort to violent protests. CPI ML MLA Rajkumar Yadav also opposes the amendment and termed it anti-poor.

On the other hand, the ruling dispensation has dug its heels in and wants to go on with the amendment. It insists, however, that constructive changes can be introduced during the debate. 

Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Saryu Rai, has maintained that the government will indeed present the bill. However, he adds that misconceptions about the bill would be done away with. It is important to mention here that at this point all the MLAs of BJP appear to be with the decision. BJP’s chief Whip, Radhakishna Kishore, has insisted that the party will issue the whip before the vote.

However NDA’s constituent AJSU has insisted that it will not support the bill in its current form. All the four MLAs of the party have written to the Chief Minister insisting that they will not compromise on the ideals and memories of Sidho-Kanho, Birsa Munda and Tilka Manjhi. They also added that the act was made keeping in mind the interest of the Tribals for centuries to come, and the bill is trying to dilute it. “It was necessary to study the economic and social fallout of such a move before trying to muscle it through the Assembly. Tribals have never been money-minded. How will this bill protect the interest of the people who are not business minded and are hence vulnerable?” they questioned.  

The issue has brought Jharkhand into the focus of entire India. The debate is going to be lively, not to mention colourful. The fireworks will definitely start to fly once the debate starts. The backdoor negotiations have started as well. The number game will be supreme.

The Jharkhand Assembly has 81 seats. One MLA is nominated. The ruling dispensation has 48 MLAs including six rebel MLAs, one nominated MLA and four from AJSU. If AJSU opposes the bill, it will come down to 44 MLAs. This makes the situation of independents such as Jai Bharat Samanta Party’s Geeta Koda, Jharkhand Party’s Anos Ekka, Naujawan Sangharsh Morch’s Bhanu Pratap Shahi and BSP’s Shivpoojan Mehta very interesting.

On the face of it, the government can pass the bill without AJSU’s help. But, this will bring the role of Tribal MLAs rom BJP into focus. It’s not over before the fat lady has sung.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017