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Landless in their homelands

Patricia Mukhim |

The Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 2011, released in July this year, gives a grim picture of the rural landlessness in North-east India which stands at 60 per cent. But what should worry the governments of Meghalaya, Mizoram and all those who call themselves the custodians of tradition here is that of 485,913 households in Meghalaya only 116,723 (24 per cent) own land, leaving as much as 76 per cent or 369,190 households landless. Meghalaya is second only to Mizoram, which has 111,626 households of which only 22,869 own land while the rest (80 per cent) are landless. 

These statistics should have given sleepless nights to those who proclaim unabashedly that they are the sole custodians of culture and heritage (of which land is a critical element). But even after this shocking piece of news was published in The Telegraph (5 July) there has not been even a whimper from any of those who even go on a fast unto death to defend tradition. So what happened to the traditional practice of land holding among the so-called egalitarian Khasi-Jaintia community where privatisation of community land today is the highest? Is this not a matter of concern for the District Councils that are offshoots of the Sixth Schedule and whose remit it is to safeguard the tribes for whom land is a critical resource? 

This is not a new phenomenon for Meghalaya. In 1998-99, I had done a joint study with the International Fund for Agricultural Development on land holdings in the West Khasi Hills of the state and found out even then that many people were not owners of the land they were farming. Ifad programme staff found to their dismay that these people were actually improving the farmland and crops of the affluent landowners who had given their land on short leases. Ifad tried to facilitate a few landless people to buy back their land but since the defined project area is small, the impact is not widely felt. I had the experience of listening to villagers in the project areas of the West Khasi Hills narrating how they had managed to buy back land with the help of the project. 

The question we refuse to pose to ourselves is how and why community land suddenly got privatised to the point that even water sources, rivers, forests and land from which coal and limestone is mined is privately owned. There are some who blame the British for commodifying land and putting a cost to it. The same people don’t blame the custodians of culture for allowing that to happen. 

Recently, the “Movement for Indigenous People&’s Rights and Livelihoods”in Meghalaya,led by a lawyer who has been at the forefront in condemning the National Green Tribunal for its ban on coal mining, has called upon the state government to intervene in Delhi&’s proposed amendments to the Sixth Schedule “in a way that will empower the tribals”. But the same spokesperson refuses to admit that coal mining as an activity has benefited only a section of the tribal elite and has disempowered the rest of the tribe because their fish farming and agricultural activities are affected by the poisoning of the primary rivers of the Jaintia Hills. Not once have we heard the spokesperson speak of the degradation of the environment and how he and the coal lobby propose to rejuvenate the landscape. 

Recently, Phrang Roy, former Ifad vice-president who has been an active campaigner for indigenous people&’s rights, stated that culture, landscape and food were inter-related. In Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, all three are completely disconnected. The culture of collective ownership of resources and a value system based on equity and righteousness, which is the matrixfor our claims to be indigenous peoples/tribals, is no longer visible. The landscape in the mining areas of Meghalaya is so degraded that it will take decades to rejuvenate. Naturally, food production is on the decline. But we don’t talk about these things at our public gatherings and seminars because these are tough issues. The only way to redress this inequity is though redistribution of land and recasting the very idea of land ownership. This in turn would mean that the amount of land a person owns would be capped by the introduction of a Land Ceiling Act. Land reforms in the manner that they have happened in West Bengal and Kerala are long overdue in Meghalaya. Recently, an organisation calling itself the Khasi Authors and Allied Publishers organised a seminar titled “Instrument of Accession, Sixth Schedule and the Khasi-Jaintia people”. They invited a select audience of which about 95 per cent were men. The seminar generated a heated debate after the paper presenters had made their points. As expected, the spokesperson for the Grand Council of Chiefs waxed eloquent on the unfinished agenda of the Khasi chieftains since they only signed the Instrument of Accession in 1948 but never signed the Instrument of Merger, thereby leaving a loophole the chieftains could revisit and wrest their pound of flesh from the Indian government (which, in this case, is seen as the errant party). They could demand an upper house in the legislature where the chieftains could come in through a party-less system. 

Some enthusiasts even suggested that the Khasi chiefs under the umbrella of the Grand Council of Chiefs, which now includes even the Dollois of the Jaintia Hills and Nokmas of the Garo Hills, could approach the United Nations to renew their claims that the Khasi states never signed away their rights to be governed by the Indian Constitution. 

This is a broad hint that the Acts of Parliament, including the supreme judiciary, should not intrude into the affairs of Meghalaya. A church elder who presented a paper on the history of the Sixth Schedule believes that the Khasi people have a case and should approach the UN to address past wrongs.I would say “aye” to that proposal if these patriarchs showed me a model of how they propose to devolve power to the lowest common denominator — that section which does not understand all the high faluting discussions happening in seminar rooms but are groaning under the weight of poverty. Will those 76 per cent of landless Khasi-Jaintia Hill people who have lost out to their more powerful brethren be re-empowered to claim what they have lost? Is that what the UN would confer on them should it take up their case? Will the Grand Council of Chiefs speak on behalf of the ordinary, destitute Khasi man and woman who is not even remotely connected to this new found royalty? Is that why there is an uncanny bonhomie between the MIPRL and the GCC, which was evident at the seminar? 

Frankly, this is a society of double standards. Mexican agro-ecologist Dr Rosada May, who addressed an audience in Shillong, very implicitly stated that land alienation among indigenous peoples was a serious issue that needed to be addressed by governments, political parties, civil society groups and academicians! The reason I put the last group in italics is because they are supposed to be advocates of society and not be confined to their laboratories. Dr May in fact pointed out that the education system often turned those who entered universities into misfits who could not return to their societies. The fact that the learned economists and sociologists (including those with a stake in Meghalaya because they are indigenous scholars) of the oldest university here — the North Eastern Hill University — are not shocked and propelled into action by the Socio-Economic Caste Census showing that 76 per cent of the people of Meghalaya are landless tells us how difficult it is for the tribal elite to come out of their comfort zones and ivory towers. 

I spoke to a government official last Friday and asked him what he thought of the latest SECC. His response was, “The 76 per cent landless must take the bull by the horns. They must create a ripple effect that will ultimately affect the voting pattern. But will that happen or will we have another armed conflict?” 

The latter seems a greater possibility. Injustice always breeds violence and those we have empowered to be the custodians of our land and assets have actually taken away what we owned by virtue of tradition. So what tradition are the Khasi elites like the GCC and the MIPLR talking about? 

(The author is Editor, Shillong Times, and member, National Security Advisory Board.)