Bihar's landless landlords die watching others reap the harvest

Indian Express
2nd Sept. 20000

NAMKOM, SEPT 1: Koka Tirkey, a tribal in Bargawan village in south Bihar, `owns' half an acre of land. That should automatically strike him off the list of the countless landless tribals of Bihar, but Tirkey is a landless landlord. He has owned the plot for 16 years but has not been able to take possession of it.

Tirkey has the land deeds and all other documents in place to prove his possession, but his land is mired in litigation. He was among 22 landless tribals who, on August 8, 1984, were given land deeds for up to 2.25 acres. This was in keeping with the spirit of the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950 and the Bihar Land Ceiling Act, 1961. Till 1991, the state of Bihar had distributed land deeds vesting the right of ownership in 2.49 lakh landless people belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections, according to the Bihar Directorate of Statistics and Evaluation carried out in 1997.

Having taken one step towards land reform, the government stopped in its tracks: Documents in possession of The Indian Express reveal that the land originally belonged to one Sheikh Hafiz, who, soon after the land deeds were distributed to the tribals, sold these plots to Ram Swaroop Bharatiya, owner of the iron forging factory Spriha Steel Private Ltd, Sawarmal Budhiya, owner of Vikki Managing Corporation Private Ltd, and Junus Bhengraj, a former government employee. Sure enough, when the Namkom Collectorate served notices on the three men, asking them to vacate the land in 1989, each of them moved court, and litigation on the case continues.

Almost 16 years later, the value of the plots, located along the Ranchi-Jamshedpur highway near Chai Bagan 10 km away from Ranchi, has shot up. The market rates for the plots swing between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 1.25 crore, but it's nothing that the tribals can cash in on.

The issue came to light after the state Revenue Secretary D.P. Maheshwari sent out a letter dated April 12, 2000, to the District Collectors seeking to know whether the lands that were settled in favour of the poorest of the poor were actually in their possession. When the Namkom Circle officer Gurdur Bhagat checked his records, he found that not one of the 22 adivasis of Baragawan had utilised the plots. Five of them -- Chakra Lohar, Budhwa Lohara, Bandhu Oraon, Khiru Lakra and Somra Bhengraj -- had died during the wait.

Bhagat said, ``We are not to be blamed for this.'' His superior, Ranchi Deputy Commissioner Sukhdeo Singh, said: ``It's a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.''

It's a situation that is mirrored elsewhere in Bihar. About 20,000 Dalit families in Gaya, Jehanabad, Aurangabad, Bhojpur, Chatra, Hazaribagh, Giridih, Palamau and Buxar who were given land deeds are also facing the same problem, according to a report. ``Due to corruption and the nexus between former landlords, ministers and officials, the goal of land reforms remains unimplemented,'' said Deepankar Murmu, a Ranchi-based activist.

B.D. Gupta, a former judge of the Patna High Court, pins the blame on the government authorities. ``This is a fallout of bad administration. Had they done their spadework and provided the land deeds along with providing physical possession of these plots to the beneficiaries, things would not have remained unchanged even after 16 years,'' Gupta said.

B.K. Sahay, a retired IAS officer, adds, ``A land bank for the purpose of land reforms implementation should be set up with the surplus land bought from former landlords if the government is keen to ensure that history does not repeat itself.''

For Tirkey, who pulls a rickshaw to keep himself going, the wait for his land has been a long one. He cannot even afford to contest the cse. ``I don't know if I will possess the land before my death,'' he said.

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