How tribals land themselves in and out of trouble

ARGORA (RANCHI): When Dilip Singh bought ten katthas (around half an acre) of land from Dibdihnanku Bhagat, a tribal from Dibdih basti in Argora village, Chotanagpur, he knew he was breaking the rules. After all, it's enshrined in the law way back since 1908 that tribal land can't be transferred to non-tribals. But Singh and Bhagat profitted eminently from the deal struck on April 20: Singh paid Bhagat three lakh for land worth at least Rs 10 lakh.

What Singh didn't reckon for was the presence of the Sarna Samiti, a group that keeps tabs of land sales to non-tribals and then steps in for its share. Just eight days after the transaction, Jhibra Oraon and Sukra Oraon pitched a tell-tale red and white flag on the land. They demanded Rs two lakh from Singh before allowing him to proceed with construction of a hostel on the land. ``Once we received the money, we let him build the hostel. Not before that,'' said Oraon. They used the money to buy Hero Honda motorbikes.

The Chotanagpur Land Tenancy Act 1908 bans the sale and transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. But illegal sale and purchase of tribal land as well as red-white flags are common in the 15 districts of Chotanagpur, including Ranchi, Dhanbad, Bokaro, Giridih, Hazaribagh and Palamau. A booklet published by the Tribal Research Institute, a government body, last month said: ``Land in possession of tribals has been shown to be 8,08,000 acres, out of which 65,02,71 acres had been alienated.''

For the tribals, poverty overshadows compliance with the law. Except for the land, Bhagat had no way of mobilising money to conduct his daughter's marriage. If he had abided by the act, he would have sold his land to tribals in Argora who couldn't have paid him what Singh did. ``What could I have done?'' he asks. ``I urgently needed the money. Singhji offered the maximum amount and I handed it over to him.''

Singh feels the deal was ``profitable''. But since it was also illegal, he frets about getting evicted. ``Apart from paying Bhagat and the samiti members, I have greased the palms of police and civil officials to ward off any legal action,'' he grumbles.

Singh needn't have feared. Legal action in such cases is a rarity. And when samiti members aren't pitching flags, they're tweaking the law. After the non-tribal buyer and tribal seller reach a verbal agreement, the tribal moves court, alleging he was tricked into the deal. But during the trial, the tribal retracts his testimony. In view of Section 71 A, which empowers the court of the Deputy Commissioner (District Collector) to `validate' such transfers where the buyer ``either makes available to the seller an alternative holding...or pays adequate compensation,'' the tribal then ``settles'' the matter with the non-tribal.

Mani Babu, an advocate who authored a book on the fallacies of the Act, says, ``This U-turn often surprised the court, compelling it to side with the tribal owner and settling the land title in favour of the non-tribal after awarding him adequate compensation.''

Of 807 cases registered in the Ranchi DC's three courts under the Act during 1999-2000, 406 cases were disposed of with decrees awarding compensation to tribals for their land. Although there are no records establishing how many pieces of tribal land were actually acquired by non-tribals, after Jharkhand was constituted on November 15 last year, the Sarna Samiti's red-white flags are cropping up on several plots in Chotanagpur.

There are some who argue for amendments to the Act. ``Tribal land is like smuggled gold which can't be openly sold. This doesn't serve the interests of the tribal owner. The act must be amended to make land sale and purchase more competitive,'' says Rajiv Buddhia, a Chotanagpur Chamber of Commerce and Industries member.

Though State Revenue Minister Madhu Singh initially favoured amendments to the act, after vociferous protests by organisations such as Janadhikar Manch and parties like the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Jharkhand Vikas Party and Jharkhand Party, he withdrew his statement. ``There is no need to amend the act,'' he now says.

Former union secretary (land reforms) B.S. Yugandhar and B.K. Sinha, members of a committee set up by the Union Rural Development Ministry last year to study the problem of land alienation among tribals, argue that the government should amend the Act to provide for a land bank. ``This bank will give the tribal owner the right to dispose of his land if he so desires to the government at market rates. It will also enable the government to have surplus land for development purposes,'' Sinha told this website's newspaper.

Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: May 9, 2001
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