Sylvanus Dungdung )Picture Credit: The Telegraph)

Jharkhand Land Laws Amendment (CNT/SPT) – An Exercise In Undue Haste

Jumping into the fray at this stage on an issue that’s simply refusing to die down or to leave the centre stage as the stakeholders (read: political executives, political class and state’s tribal populace in general) continue to be drawn at loggerheads, is aimed at basically to dissecting it to be able to reveal as to where do the truths realistically lie.

Admittedly, this is not for the first time that the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act, 1908 and Santhal Parganas Tenancy (SPT) Act, 1886 read with Santhal Parganas Tenancy (Supplementary Provision) Act, 1949 are being subjected to amendments, and yet why is there so much hue and cry in a manner it’s being witnessed like perhaps never before, is a question that needs to be handled with care and caution.

So, let’s get on with the dissection of this issue straightaway.

Both CNT and SPT Acts are now more than 100 years old. From time to time in the past, amendments have been inserted therein to make them relevant and workable but significantly the basic structures of these Acts were left intact and undisturbed. The two Acts were / are otherwise deemed as protective in so far as providing cover and security to interests of tribal tenants as against their alienation from their holdings were / are concerned. Be that as it may, however, the fact remains that large scale displacement of tribal tenants from their land in and around cities like Ranchi and elsewhere have happened over a period of time since India’s Independence; the same has continued somewhat unabated; and, in fact, it has picked up momentum ever since Jharkhand state was carved out of erstwhile Bihar in November, 2000.

The state government right since early this year has indulged in an exercise aimed at pushing through its all important agenda of amendments in the CNT and SPT Acts. In its eagerness to keep this issue on a fast track, it first took recourse to an Ordinance route. When loud voices of protest stalled the enactment thereof, the state government then switched over its stance and tabled the CNT and SPT Amendment Bills, 2016 in the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly.

CNT and SPT Acts were recently subjected to amendments purportedly in order to be able to step up the pace of developmental efforts on the part of the state administration. The state government continues to maintain that regardless of such amendments the rights of the tribal tenants over their land holdings may remain largely unaffected – a claim that’s being fiercely contested and protested by tribal political leaders of opposition parties (including a few political heavyweights from ruling establishment – Arjun Munda from BJP and Sudesh Mahto from AJSU) and with them have joined the larger chunks of tribal population scattered all over the rural areas in particular. This has inevitably led to a spate of ‘bands’ in recent months in Ranchi and elsewhere; the same was also projected as the sole reason for the near total disruption and wash out of the nearly weeklong winter session of the State legislative Assembly in November, 2016 except that the CNT and SPT Amendment Bills, 2016 were managed to be squeezed through by voice vote in the midst of the din and pandemonium that prevailed in the House.

After the passage of the CNT and SPT Amendment Bills, 2016 the agricultural land can be used for non-agricultural purposes. The state government can acquire land for infrastructure, power plants, roads, canals, Panchayat buildings and for other purposes.

Provision for conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes is the main issue that’s being protested vehemently for reasons, like, one, it’s altering the basic structure of the CNT and SPT Acts which is deemed unnecessary; two, it is inconsistent with the provisions of PESA (Panchayat Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996; and three, it is fraught with grave danger of tribal tenants getting uprooted from their homes and hearths once it starts getting implemented.

The way state government has gone about it a tearing hurry – first via an Ordinance and later through Amendment Bills – may give one an impression that but for such measures the state administration is finding itself somewhat stuck up in its plans to launch and speed up the various developmental projects that it may be having in mind.

That the state government is persisting with an awfully wrong notion and is pursuing a rather ill conceived idea may perhaps be evident from the following facts and illustrations:

As it is, both at the central and state levels the governments have committed themselves and are planning and targeting in terms of increasing agriculture production to be able to feed millions of its own citizens; thereby, also proposing for more thrust and increase in budgets for agriculture sector; and more importantly, also talking in terms of raising the incomes of the farmers to a level that’s doubled by 2022 from its present level. Given this scenario, rather interestingly, on one hand, venturing to open up a possibility hitherto unavailable in the CNT and SPT Acts for an easy convertibility option of agricultural land, and yet on the other, sort of boasting of bettering the lot of the farm sector, can easily be termed as inherent contradiction on the part of the government establishment. Nothing can be more farcical than this – earmarking of a provision to allow shrinking of the farm land and talking in the same breath, the boosting of the farm produce and helping the farmers in increasing their incomes exponentially. A very unrealistic and an impractical scenario indeed!

Take another view that’s specific to agricultural land in Chotanagpur and Santhal Parganas of Jharkhand state to be able to have a better appreciation of the issue at hand. The state being largely a plateau, a tableland, the undulated land areas, traditionally, in land record terms, are broadly categorised and described as ‘Tanr’ land (up-land) and ‘Don’ land (low-land) depending on their suitability or otherwise for cultivation of kharif crops under rain-fed conditions. Devoid of irrigation facilities to a very large extent (despite State Water Resources Development Department having pumped in huge sums of money in thousands of crores of Rupees since Jharkhand state came into being) such land mass produces only one major kharif crop (that is, paddy) every year relying solely on monsoon rains. Tanr land is further categorised as Tanr-I, Tanr-II and Tanr-III depending on their ability to support cultivation of crops during the kharif season; Tanr –I being held as better of this lot. Likewise, Don land is categorised as Don-I, Don-II and Don-III depending on their potential to support the cultivation of paddy crop during monsoon – Don-I being held as best of the lot.

The soil profile here, in general, is characterised by its porosity and its low and poor water holding ability that makes the job of the Jharkhand farmers toiling hard and truly struggling while carrying out farm operations on their land.

That being the position, years ago I had attempted to compile a data base of the state’s arable land areas – that of Tanr and Don land separately – during closing years of my active service career in the IAS as Relief Commissioner, Jharkhand in 2002-03. This was primarily aimed at working out a strategy for drought-management and for preparedness for relief-measures should the monsoon rains, largely or partly, fail to adequately support the cultivation of kharif paddy crop in different parts of the state. The Deputy Commissioners of all the districts were requested to extract such data from Land Revenue Anchal (Circle) offices under their jurisdiction. It took nearly a couple of months to get the required data from all the districts. On having a look at that it was interesting to note that nearly 40% of the agricultural land areas of this state fell in the category of Tanr land which meant that this lot of land mass was otherwise unsuitable for kharif paddy cultivation even under rain-fed condition. Given the favourable monsoon rains, however, this land mass could otherwise support cultivation of pulses, millets, maize, oilseeds and coarse variety of paddy.

The reason why I have preferred to lean on description of the diverse nature of the available arable land in the state and the specific character of the soil profile, is merely to draw the attention of the powers that be towards having a rather holistic and flexible approach while intending to acquire the agricultural land for the sake of launching the developmental projects. If at all, therefore, the need of the hour is to go for acquisition of land in the state in a big way, the first charge should be restricted to the Tanr land, leaving aside from acquisition the Don land, to the extent possible. This may, at least, lessen the misery of the land losers while swapping their Tanr land for the attractive compensation money in return, the government has been promising for, lately.

The way the state administration has, however, approached to handle this issue may seem to be suggestive of the kind of its inherent fear it suffers from that its plans for developing infrastructure, power plants, roads and buildings etc were / are perhaps being thwarted on account of restrictive provisions in the CNT and SPT Acts. Frankly speaking, this line of thinking when viewed in the backdrop of government- run projects is sadly misplaced. Had this been the case, in the post- Independence era in 1950s and in the decades that followed, the engineering giant, Heavy Engineering Corporation (HEC), a GoI project, wouldn’t have been able to set up its Plants and establishment at Ranchi and also, in the process, getting under its fold thousands of acres of land of tribal tenants, among others. Likewise, the state-run thermal power plants – Bokaro Thermal Power Station (BTPS), Tenughat Thermal Power Station (TTPS) etc – and huge dams like, Maithan, Tilaiya, Patratu, Konar, and Tenughat etc never encountered problems regarding land acquisition despite CNT and SPT Acts very much in place.  Coalfields in Dhanbad, Bokaro, Giridih, Hazaribagh and elsewhere – all requiring huge tract of land inhabited, among others, by tribal tenants never ever posed much problem when it came to commissioning of mining projects in coal bearing areas and in acquisition of land lying in the closer vicinity of such mines. Developing rail network in the state by the Indian Railways never encountered any problem relating to land acquisition that apparently included large tracts of agricultural land, among others. The recent examples being the Railways firming up the rail links between Koderma- Hazaribagh, Barkakana- Hazaribagh and Lohardaga- Tori (Chandwa).

All these state- run projects have come up notwithstanding the restrictive provisions of the CNT and SPT Acts.

So, why is the need felt now to go in for altering the basic structure of the two Acts? The only plausible answer to this may seem to be the one where state government proposes to enlarge the existing provision of land acquisition for government-run projects to take into its fold the interests and requirements of the private players as well. This is primarily on account of in its anxiety and strong bid to attract the investors – domestic and foreign – to this state for setting up industries and businesses. If that be so, it’s time the state government should shake off this approach altogether and let the private players handle this issue on their own, the state administration may consider limiting its role as catalytic and facilitator in such instances, if need be.

Yet another significant point to ponder over this issue is: ahead of insertion of amendments in CNT and SPT Acts, in a manner the state government seems to have rather wittingly avoided enlisting the support / consent / willingness of the Panchayats / ‘Gram Sabhas’, may only serve to indicate its arrogance towards and disregard for the stakeholders linked with this matter. On a more serious note, it may be stated that the state government, in fact, seems to have violated the provisions of the PESA (Panchayat Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, currently in operation in this state and in accordance whereof it was / is sort of mandatory for the state administration to seek prior concurrence of the Panchayats / Gram Sabhas on an issue as important as the instant one having direct bearing on the interests of tribal tenants.

Section 4 of the PESA Act, 1996 reads as follows:

“Notwithstanding anything contained under Part IX of the Constitution, the Legislature of a State shall not make any law under that Part which is inconsistent with any of the following features, namely:

(i) The Gram Sabhas or the Panchayats at the appropriate level shall be consulted before making the acquisition of land in Scheduled Areas for development projects and before re-settling and rehabilitating persons affected by such projects in Scheduled Areas, the actual planning and implementation of the projects in the Scheduled Areas shall be coordinated at the State level.”

Notably, on earlier occasions in the recent past, the state government had taken abundant precaution and had shown keen desire and initiatives in reaching out to the Panchayats / Gram Sabhas while working out and firming up various schemes, projects etc for rural development work in the state. This was, in a way, apart from conforming to the provisions of PESA Act, 1996, was also typical of ‘bottom-up’ approach (contrary to ‘top-down’ approach hitherto followed) adopted ahead of launching of the projects in rural areas. Likewise, the state government is reportedly following a similar approach while undertaking an exercise relating to preparation of State Budget, 2017-18 and for this it is reaching out, to the extent possible, to all the stakeholders both in the urban centres and in far flung villages.

Apparently, therefore, before this issue gets murkier and further complicated, the state administration may be well advised to retrace its steps; to go back to the drawing board; to involve all stakeholders following its own methodology as adopted in the recent past while handling issues of larger public interest; to conform to the provisions of the PESA Act,1996; and, finally, to make some determined efforts to find a win-win situation for both sides.

Narendra Bhagat

Written by

A retired I.A.S. officer, Mr. Narendra Bhagat spends part of his time to blog and write for our magazine. He has authored two books.

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