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Land Question in Assam

The right to land was once deemed an inalienable right of the people. The colonial dispensation altered this equation, a practice that the postcolonial state persisted with. But threatened by the twin ravages of nature and the "acquisitive" forces of industrial capitalism, those dispossessed are beginning to fight back. In Assam, there has been a small beginning towards this.

Land Question in Assam

A Short Note

The right to land was once deemed an inalienable right of the people. The colonial dispensation altered this equation, a practice that the postcolonial state persisted with. But threatened by the twin ravages of nature and the “acquisitive” forces of industrial capitalism, those dispossessed are beginning to fight back. In Assam, there has been a small beginning towards this.

HIREN GOHAIN

R
ecent events in Assam, and for that matter in India, have brought out from the shadows a question of pre-eminent significance for the people: Who owns the land within the territorial jurisdiction of the Indian state? Of course there is the ready answer, “to be sure the state”. But the matter is perhaps not so simple.

If the state is the organ of the people with delegated sovereignty, then unlike the Nazi state, it cannot claim to abolish the right of the people to life and livelihood within the territory of the state. But what has happened ever since independence is that the Indian state, represented by the government of the moment, has virtually dispossessed its people of immemorial and basic human rights to the natural resources of the country by gradual steps, and it has further handed over their possession and exploitation to businessmen and industrialists, and also the defence services that seek to serve the military aims of such capitalists. Hence we hear of the eviction of tribals in their thousands, from forests that have been their home for decades; these forests are now to be leased to mining companies. The instances of poor and dispossessed farmers driven out of their ancestral and once prosperous villages to make room for dams and coastal fishermen being bundled out of their settlements so that industries and/or secret military installations can be established are equally numerous. No thought is spared for the dispossessed people’s rights to life and livelihood. It is as though they have relinquished their rights absolutely and totally for the glory of the state in whose formation they too had a role to play, along with other citizens. Such an assumption seems a cruel joke; and moves currently afoot towards depriving vast sections of our populace of the right to their own land ought to be challenged by radical constitutional experts.

In Assam, cruel and tragic evictions and other forms of denial of such existing rights of the people have taken place without attracting the notice of correspondents of metropolitan newspapers, who seem to adopt the state government’s position that it is a matter of law and order. There are several thousands who have become victims of the turbulent and wayward course of the river. The system of embankments designed to hold back the mighty river has been rendered totally useless and inefficient and is responsible for causing grievous damage resulting from the largescale erosion of land. Four hundred and fifty villages, and vast stretches of grazing land and forests have been washed away in the last 20 years. Yet the method of flood control remains unchanged because construction of new embankments with poor and substandard material and annual repairs that on paper cost hundreds of crores of rupees provide a never-ending bonanza for ministers, state legislators, contractors and engineers. Earlier floods used to replenish the fertility of the land, supplement the fish stock available, and would then recede, putting people to some minor inconvenience. Some social workers in the river island of Majuli told me during a recent visit (about a year ago) that earlier they used to store foodstuff on raised shelves on the bamboo walls of their houses that rose with the rising levels of water; so they traditionally lived with the floods.

Denial of Traditional Rights

During pre-colonial times, various modes of production that existed in the country were by and large lumped under the universal rubric of “feudalism” but though the land belonged to the king as did the total

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006 manpower available in the kingdom, the people were not prevented from using the natural resources for subsistence. Besides, the strictly distributed plough-land, waste land, temporary but fertile sandbanks, pasture and land unsuitable for cultivation were also available for their use. British colonial law and regulations deprived them of such customary rights at one stroke. It is strange that independent India carried on these colonial traditions and has spent little thought on the rights to life and livelihood that were practically if not legally guaranteed to them even by regimes known for abuse and oppression of the people. If the people have now been freed of the servitude imposed by the colonial regime, and if they now have the liberty to determine their own destiny, then why is their primary right to land as a source of livelihood simply ignored?

Peasants left landless by the heavy erosion, the changes in the courses of the Brahmaputra’s tributaries and by eviction in the name of development and industrialisation, can hardly expect that the government would somehow assume responsibility for their rehabilitation. In a region called Rahmoria in Assam’s Sibsagar district, thousands have been rendered landless by the prolonged erosion of the riverbank apparently caused by ill-planned embankments, and people have been agitating and appealing for decades for redress or rehabilitation without any success. The leader of the peasant movement, one Baloram Gohain, lost his life trying to block a breach in an embankment. Thousands of such families reduced to destitution by flood and erosion had taken shelter in the forests on the border between the Golaghat district of Assam and Nagaland. The Doiyang reserve forest mentioned in native chronicles as belonging to the old Assam kingdom had been dereserved in 1978 during the brief Janata Dal government in Assam to make room for these hapless peasants, but things were hanging fire owing to protests from Nagaland. Yet another village called Tengani has a similar history. When attempts were made by the state to evict the villagers by force the peasants organised themselves under a youthful leadership and took out a procession to the district headquarters. The subsequent police atrocities left dozens injured and several more were hospitalised. The incident outraged even the middle classes and the movement became a symbol of resistance.

Recently the chief minister, Tarun Gogoi, accompanied by two other ministers and senior bureaucrats met the leaders of the movement, which could grow into a bigger threat as it has now spread to other parts of the state. He assured them of right to land in places where the displaced people have been settled “if law permits”. There are still other hurdles including ambiguities in interpreting various central government directives and Lok Sabha resolutions.

The process of liberalisation and the current upsurge in industrial production have increased the hunger for land among investors and entrepreneurs. Land was first shifted to the concurrent list of the Constitution, and then forests were made the exclusive domain of the centre. The states did not register any protest perhaps because the far-reaching implications of that move did not dawn on them, or may be it was because their politicians had already colluded with contractors and timber merchants to ravage their land and the appearance of bigger all-India mafia made them beat a hasty retreat. The question of the people’s right to land in their own country has gained an extraordinary importance today. Pity even the progressive forces of the Left has not faced the question squarely.

EPW

Email: hngohain@yahoo.com

Economic and Political Weekly August 12, 2006

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