Sunday, July 29, 2007

Farmers Fight For Farmland

By Namaram Kishalaya
Over the past 50 years, the people of the North-East Region are being coerced on an unprecedented scale, into surrendering their only real resource --- their land, to the State.The proposed Indian Forest Bill (1995) is one such legislation under consideration, which will only heighten this sort of exploitation. More and more people are being displaced in the last one and a half years.

Even worse, Kamal Nath, the former Minister of Environment and Forest (MEF) had put forth a proposal to accord permission to the corporate sector to exploit "degraded forest land" under the garb of developing them. This means, displacing more poor people, tribals and other sections of the rural community" who depend on these lands for their basic needs of fuel, fodder, and other bio-mass materials.

In response, displaced persons and representatives of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) from all over India had gone through a yearlong debate, which was eventually presented to Kamal Nath on August 23, 1995. The Bill seeks to concretize directives of the National Policy of 1986, which recognizes forest dwellings and the preservers of the forest and thus those who have some indisputable rights to livelihood and support.

When land is acquired for a project not only those who possess land and have dwelling homes, etc. are displaced, but its consequences extend equally to the co-dependants of the system i.e. tenants, sharecroppers and landless laborers. All such persons are deprived of their livelihood. Thus, the extent of displacement is much wider than the loss of land reflected in the process of acquisition.
Moreover, in its present form, the National Policy for Resettlement and Rehabilitation has its origin from a premise in which displacements appear only as a subjugated appendix to development. The developmental projects raise questions of equity and equality before law in the matter of distribution, of benefits and burdens.

It may be recalled that landlords and tenants vehemently objected to the order issued by the Revenue Department, Secretariat, Govt. of Manipur on which it was stated to the effect that a housing complex will be constructed in the paddy fields (still being cultivated) in the name of National Games Village.

The people residing around the proposed site-Shangakpham area (107 acres of agricultural land) could not forget the fate of the people of Thanga area, where in exchange for a water sports complex, the local fisher folks' rights of habitation and income generation on the lake, which have been held by the fisher-folks for ages on a kinship or community basis, have vanished.

On September 16, Dr. W Thoiba, the then MLA from Heingang Kendra brought out the issue at the Assembly where the then Revenue Minister, Md. Helaluddin informed the House that the Government could acquire any land anywhere with due compensations. Though there is a provision under the Land Acquisition Act for grant of land in lieu of monetary compensation, it has seldom been used, even to the patta holders. Cash compensation is unacceptable to a majority of displaced persons e specially the tribals and the poor rural population since the compensation paid is inadequately worked out. The process of getting compensation is torturous and sometimes result in conflicts among the descendants of title holder. Besides market value and not replacement value is the criterion for calculating compensation. Past experiences have proved that development projects benefit primarily a few, while lakhs make sacrifices.

So there is no question how these proposed developmental projects in certain fertile area can contribute in promoting an even and holistic development of society, but from the way things are it will only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots and thus promote widespread extensive socio-environmental crisis. In the North East, the inhabitants have an intimate relationship with land, as common to all tribal people. A wide spectrum of social and political institutions have developed with however a common basis; to ensure the survival of the community and the preservation of its natural resources.

There has always been an effective check on monopolization of resources in the form of a complex system of moral values, social practice counterbalancing institutions and appropriate life-styles, all enforceable by the community in different ways. It's a fact that there is little or no familiarity with North-Eastern cultures, terrain or situation in mainstream India, even among the NGOs and activists, let alone the lawmakers. The physical distance, poor transportation, communication and racial-cultural differences all contribute to this ignorance. The introduction of the systems without understanding the region has eroded the indigenous norms and institutions of this region.

In the valleys, for instance, private pattas have been issued giving individuals "ownership" rights over aggregately smaller areas and claiming the rest of community owned lands as public or government property. Then in the hills, indirect pressure in the form of refusal of loans, IRDP funds, forcible 'pattaisation' of cultivatable lands and outright force by the military in the guise of "security" or "development" and incited or even fabricated ethnic clashes are used in many areas, open or covert, for settlement of refugees from non-tribal areas/ groups, such as in Meghalaya and Tripura. These are being used to erode tribal community land rights.
Of late, there is a growing protest movement and the creation of a national awareness of the problem. The Press, NGOs and the Judiciary have combined together, not only to educate the masses but also to build up a national consciousness. An important reason for the protest is that displacement is taken for granted and the displaced persons are not involved in decisions concerning their lives. Rehabilitation is negligible and even many existing provisions have been diluted.

There is an immediate need for a debate on the necessity and appropriateness of any proposed projects; so that, it should be scrutinized amongst others by potential displaced persons to be affected by the project. It should be made public so that an alternative that displaces none or the least number is chosen. It should however be remembered that the moral and constitutional responsibility of rehabilitating the displaced persons who have already sacrificed for the nation's development must form the raison d'etre for a national policy. This will achieve dual objectives of rural development as well as agro-industrial growth of the 35 million hectares of uncultivated land but farmer owned land. Given the right incentives and viable technology, farmers will surely grow whatever the corporate world needs.
(Courtesy: Manipur Online)

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