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Adivasis Face-off with Jharkhand Govt over Land Takeover for Industries in West Singhbhum

Ayaskant Das |
Consent of Gram Sabhas was allegedly not obtained before deciding to hand over a parcel of government land – considered sacred by tribal communities – to corporates.
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New Delhi: Local communities in the West Singhbhum district of Jharkhand have put up stiff resistance against the state government anticipating that land considered sacred by Adivasis has been marked for allocation to certain corporate groups. Accusing the Hemant Soren-led coalition state government of having bypassed the consent of local communities while allocating land to industries, large-scale protests were held by people in the district in October.

On October 16, thousands of Adivasis held an armed demonstration in Loharda panchayat in the district’s Khuntpani block against the proposed allocation of land to industrial groups. Disregarding the orders of police and administration, the protesters also blocked the arterial NH-75 thereby blocking traffic movement on the route. The administration had, through a letter issued on October 10, issued orders upon the local communities. It had asked them not to go ahead with their plan to block the arterial highway that connects the district headquarters in Chaibasa with the important town of Chakradharpur.

Local communities in West Singhbhum allege that consultations with traditional village councils were not held before arriving at the decision of corporate takeover of the land. The traditional councils are governed through a system called Manki- Munda, where Munda is the headman of any tribal village and Manki stands for the leader of any particular group of Mundas.

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“The land which is sought to be handed over to industries is sacred for the Ho [a Scheduled Tribe] community. The Jatrabaru hillock located in this area is a community worship place for the Ho community. For centuries hitherto, Ho community members have been performing the annual “Jatra worship” on this hillock on the day following the Maghe festival,” a local tribal leader, Chandan Honhaga, told the NewsClick.

Though the immediate cause of provocation is not exactly clear, tribal communities claim that they held the protests after learning about the state government’s proposal to hand over their sacred land to industries through media reports published in September. In the last week of September, the state cabinet had approved the draft of the Jharkhand Industrial Parks and Logistics Policy, which is aimed at boosting infrastructure development across the state by offering financial subsidies to private players for setting up industrial parks. These parks can be set up either by directly procuring land from landowners or on government land allotted by the Jharkhand Industrial Area Development Authority (JIADA).

Adivasis claim that the contentious area in the Khuntpani block—to be reportedly handed over to industries—is important for them not only from the religious point of view but from other aspects too including their livelihoods.

“The area serves as a grazing ground for our cattle. A traditional graveyard lies to the south of the sacred hillock. In addition, there are several trees and medicinal plants in the area which are sources of livelihood for a substantial section of Adivasis,” added Honhaga.

The area, as per local communities, is dense with huge Mahua [Madhuca longifolia] trees, whose flowers are fermented to brew a heady liquor and at times, dried and ground to make flour for baking flatbreads. The area is also abundant with Kusum [Schleichera oleosa] trees whose seeds are used to extract oil apart from Palash [Butea monosperma] trees which are immensely useful in terms of providing timber, resin, fodder, medicine, and dye. The leaves of the Palash tree are also used to weave disposable food plates.

Tribal communities claim that this is not the first instance that the government has planned to divert this land for industrial purposes. Each attempt at land takeover from this region in the past has been met with stiff resistance from Adivasis. On the other hand, the district administration claims that the land already belongs to the government and a parcel comprising 189.63 hectares had been transferred to the industry department in November 2017.

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Between 2011 and 2013, during the rule of the BJP government in Jharkhand under the then CM Arjun Munda, a proposal to set up the headquarters of an Indian Reserve Battalion, a special armed force aimed at curbing Maoist activities, over 70.82 hectares of land in this region in Khuntpani block had met with stiff resistance from Adivasi communities. Protests and demonstrations had been held against the proposal for the land takeover, which was finally shelved by the government. It was alleged that community land in the region traditionally belonging to Adivasis was being taken over using fraud in connivance with government officials.

However, allegations of land takeover from tribal communities of Jharkhand through fraudulent means are not restricted to the West Singhbhum district alone. There have been numerous allegations in the past about how tribal communities in Jharkhand have been shortchanged by land sharks.

 In the year 2015, the Jharkhand government had set up a probe through a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate alleged instances of land takeover from Adivasi communities using fraud across the state despite Constitutional safeguards. Provisions for the protection of land rights of tribal communities in Jharkhand are included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution of India. The list of laws in the Ninth Schedule includes the Chhottanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy (Supplementary Provisions) Act, 1949, which are crucial for the protection of land rights of Adivasis of Jharkhand.

Nevertheless, in the year 2017, a BJP state government in Jharkhand, headed by the then chief minister Raghubar Das, had floated yet another proposal to develop an industrial park in the Khuntpani block. Senior government officials toured the area to conduct inspections prior to land handover to corporate groups. However, this proposal too had witnessed protests by tribal communities in the form of demonstrations and road blockages.

Officials from the Jharkhand government told NewsClick that the land in question does not belong to tribal communities.

“The transfer of land to the industries department was undertaken in accordance with the prevalent laws. As per these laws, the rights of local communities were not curtailed,” said Deputy Commissioner of West Singhbhum, Ananya Mittal.

The transfer of 189.63 hectares of land to the JIADA had been made in accordance with provisions of a rule that had been issued by the Department of Industries, Mining & Geology of the Jharkhand government on February 6, 2017. This rule, to facilitate land transfer for industrial development, was issued by the state government because JIADA had not been finding ready takers amongst industries for the outright purchase of land at exorbitant rates. The new rule allowed industries to pay land costs to the JIADA through a staggered system of instalments.

However, as per this rule, any land handed over to the industries department had to be mandatorily returned to the Revenue department if JIADA was unable to allocate it to industries within a period of five years. In reply to a query by Dashrath Gagrai, the sitting MLA of Kharsawan Assembly constituency of Jharkhand, the local administration of Khuntpani block has, through a letter dated October 14, 2022, informed that the land had been transferred to JIADA exactly five years ago. Through the letter – a copy of which is with NewsClick – it was informed that the land transfer had taken place vide letter dated November 6, 2017.

As per the Census of India data last released in the year 2011, Scheduled Tribes make up 26.68% of the population in the district of West Singhbhum. It is a district that is enumerated in Schedule V of the Constitution of India owing to its preponderance of Adivasis, thereby conferring upon its population with special rights over land.

 The Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 envisages consultation with Gram Sabhas as mandatory before the takeover of land for any purpose in a district contained in Schedule V.  As per the provisions of this Act, the Gram Sabha, which is the lowest rung of participatory democracy in India comprising all adult members of any village, is “competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution”.

“The question of holding a Gram Sabha or meetings of the local village councils does not arise in this case, because the land belongs to the government in the first place. Moreover, the land that has been taken over does not comprise a contiguous plot but is made of several chunks of plots. None of this land is privately owned,” Prem Ranjan, JIADA’s regional director in Chaibasa, the district headquarters of West Singhbhum, told NewsClick.

West Singhbhum, on the Jharkhand-Odisha border, is a mineral-rich district with deposits of iron ore, limestone, manganese, and gold. The conflict between tribal communities and the government has erupted in an area that is roughly 80 kilometres away from the native village of Droupadi Murmu, the first tribal woman to be elected as the President of India. The area falls under the Khunti Lok Sabha constituency which is currently represented by Union Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, a senior leader of the BJP, who has also been the chief minister of Jharkhand in the past.

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