By Ezra Rynjah:
In the words of our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, “no one can usurp tribal land”. This statement was made in Jharkhand at an election rally in response to allegations that the BJP would change the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts that are in place for the protection of indigenous land in central India.
On the face of it, this is an important promise for the people of central India where insurgency in response to land acquisition is a known secret that no one has attempted to address seriously. However, in an age of social media, one would be expected to take such claims with a pinch of salt. Where, for example, does this statement stand in relation to the environmental clearance given for the mega dam on the Dibang river in Arunachal Pradesh?
This instance of possible displacement has come from the same government that is positioning itself as a defender of indigenous rights. In fact the same report that mentions this statement also quotes the Prime Minister as saying that despite the amount of coal available in Jharkhand, the state was “itself in darkness”. The implication of the statement is very clear: locally-mined coal would be used to illuminate and electrify the state. I’m not against providing electricity to people but where does this coal sit under if not under indigenous land?
This perspective may also be observed against the backdrop of the recent debate on the Forest Rights Act. With the dilution of the Act vis-à-vis ‘development’ projects, there is a greater likelihood of indigenous land being acquired by the state or its corporate allies in extractive industries. This goes against the very protective nature of what the PM seems to be loudly proclaiming at every given opportunity.
The nature of these promises therefore must be judged against other claims that are being made at the same time. With the thrust of the government being a ‘development’ agenda, the contradictions in proclaiming one’s observation of indigenous rights become obvious. The word ‘development’, as one may have noticed, has been put in quotes. The reason for this is that it may mean one of several things – on one hand, one could say that it means an improvement of the quality of life for people. But on the other, this word has been appropriated by those who believe in the idea that economic growth would lead to this improvement, and therefore seek to implement projects that would increase the Gross Domestic Product of a country. However, as Thomas Piketty has so succinctly shown in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, this notion of increasing the capital of a nation has in fact led to an increase in the disparity in the distribution of wealth across the globe.
This latter understanding of the word ‘development’ is precisely the one that we are currently very keen on accepting as a nation. In pursuit of this, the rights of indigenous people are often overlooked. It is therefore difficult to accept the obvious contradictions that are implicit in what our PM seems to be saying.