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“No One Can Take Tribal Land”, Really Mr. PM? Not Even For Your Pet ‘Development’?

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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.

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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.

Also read: How Modi Govt. Betrayed The People From North East India With A U-Turn On Building Of Big Dams

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  1. Voice of reason

    So Miss Rynjah, please enlighten all of us with what do you think is development. If development does not mean economic and financial stability, then what does it mean. I come from the North Eastern State of Meghalaya , from Shillong to be precise ( i think from your surname i guess , you are a from the same place), let we look at Shilliong, where do you see development, there is not even a single industry properly functioning, young students ( non tribals esp) have to leave the state right after class 12th, as there are no avenues in the state and what ever little avenues we have are strictly reserved for the “indegenious” people, under quotes as i think we are all Indians.

    now coming to electricity, people in Shillong still get electricity, but what about the people living in Garo hills or Jaintia hills or for that matter Assam, isn’t it a bit strange that in spite of NE region being blessed with so many hilly rivers we are facing huge power crisis, but no don’t build dams the indigenous will be displaced. When Uranium was discovered in Meghalaya, it was a golden opportunity for the cash starved state to get some real cash flow, but no people like yourself stopped that as well. So please enlighten me as to what do you want, development and land protection cannot go hand in hand, i agree that nature should be protected and every one has the right to their land, but if collectively a society does not make sacrifices, then that society cannot progress, and this lack of progress is rampant in north east, as we do not want change. Our ancestral property is more important to us then better living standards of the entire community at large. we do not realize that our population has increased but the land area has remained the same, hence what worked 200 years back, will not work now…

    1. Ezra Rynjah

      Dear “Voice of Reason”, i’m sorry for taking so long to reply to your important observations. If you had read the article carefully you would have noticed that I am not against “development” per se. Please don’t mistake me for dismissing the points that you have made. What I am trying to say is that the contradictions of these claims by anyone in power for bringing “development” to a region are quite similar.

      If you would like to know what I understand by “development”, I mentioned it in the article as a first definition. By saying that it is an improvement in the quality of life, it may mean several things. One of them maybe to provide electricity, another to provide jobs and another may be to enjoy seeing one’s grandchildren playing in uncontaminated soil. At the same time, we must not join the bandwagon on a narrow-minded quest for the same. That is what has brought us to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in at the moment. I would like to emphasize that this is an ongoing debate and only when concerns such as yours and mine can communicate can we find the best approaches to these problems. Please do let me know what you think.

    2. Voice of reason

      Dear Ezra, while i partly agree with you, we need to draw a line in everything. May be happiness can be defined by grand parents seeing children s playing in un contaminated fields, but think about it, if the people do not have proper jobs, if there is no health care, there is paucity of basic amenities, but only un contaminated land, can the children really play? can they play when their parents are finding it difficult to make both ends meet, can they play with an empty stomach, No my friend, NO. I appreciate your emotions and similar run deep in most people from North east ( esp the ingenious tribes), but think about it, can we really do without development. The population of North east is increasing at a break neck speed, ( not the non tribals, most of them have fled) and jobs are not getting generated in the same speed. Think of it this way earlier one Ba from a village had lets say 100 acres of land, it was more then enough for him, now he had 10 kids, so each now have 10 acres, that is not enough for survival so please tell me how do you exoect the kids to play in the un contaminated soil, while he might be taking pride in still having the soil intact, but i am sure he must be worried that his sons do not have good living, and now imagine when these sons have kids – where do they go. All i am saying is we should not go against the government because it is building dams, that is the need of the hour. It must be mentioned that the farmers who stand a chance of loosing the most in this construction should be properly reimbursed, but that should not be an impediment for growth.

      I would like to mention a few more points -0
      Tourism – The potetial that Meghalaya has in terms of Tourism is huge, but unrest and lack of proper infrastructure coupled an inherent hatred towards out sliders has really ensured that we do not have a good growth in tourism.

      Uranium – In a cash starved and energy starved State like ours imagine what Uranium could do, all villages would have 24 hrs electricity and clean water. The state could export Raw Uranium or electricity ( which ever) and earn millions, which could do so much for social welfare.

      I am not in favor of cutting trees etc, but one needs to be practical, and while environment is important, if you want your future generations to have a good and satisfied life you need to make sacrifices, hope you agree with me

    3. Ezra Rynjah

      Dear Voice of Reason,

      For some reason, I am unable to reply directly to your reply dated the 2nd of January so I will do so here.

      Once again, I must reiterate that I am not against the idea of “development”. All that I am asking for is that one should question why we need such things in the first place. For example, you talk about jobs, health and empty stomachs – all very important aspects to be dealt with – but how does the building of a dam cater to this. The argument given is that it will provide more energy to the region and as a result there will be more jobs. Well, please do prove this to me and I will resign my position. Do you honestly believe that people who are displaced in such scenarios are given adequate compensation? Where have all the people from the Sardar Sarovar Dam gone? Where have people from Tehri Dam gone? I must appreciate the amount of faith that you have in those who have power and all the stories they tell us about development.

    4. Voice of reason

      Dear Erza, i was talking in a general sense not specific to a dam, but since you asked, i will clarify your doubts.

      First of all, a dam will definitely improve the energy situation in the energy starved North east ( if you had visited that place you would know), the Assam government is trying hard to get industries to set up in its state, now is that possible without power. Once power is adequately available, more industries will set up, hence more employment to the local population, as people from outside the state will also move in , more shops will open ( again by locals), more hotels and restaurants ( again with local employment, I do not think i need to explain how more industries will result in more employment opportunities for the locals), and this is just one aspect, with adequate power, more pumps can be set up to help in irrigation and also displace flood waters that impact Assam ( if you read news papers you will know) . Now that i have clearly justified my stance, awaiting resignation from your end ( not that anyone really cares !)

      Coming to the part of compensations, where have i said that people should not be given compensation , also i definitely agree that in many cases people have not been given fair compensation, but just because it did not happen in the past does not mean it will not happen in the future. Instead of writing ridiculous pieces of articles on government bashing , why don’t intellectuals like you spend time in ensuring that compensations are provided.

      What really is saddening, is that educated people ( i assume you are) like you do not understand one basic issue. Lets say i do nothing about the power situation of the region, i do not build dams, you keep your land. As the power situation worsens industries will not come ( for obvious reasons), job creation will be very poor, where as population will grow, under such situations what will the future generation ( and even the current generation) do?, how will you solve the job crisis. In my previous rebuttal i have clearly demonstrated how a piece of land no matter how huge it is, may be sufficient today but will not be in future, yet you do not understand the situation.

      You please explain to me how do we solve the energy crisis without dams or nuclear power stations. How do we improve the job situations and the crisis of the manufacturing sector of India, without providing them land. Provide me a solution and i will resign my position.

      Education in India has really not made any real impact and it is writ large on the level of pessimism that intellectuals like you blatantly display on a public forum….

    5. Ezra Rynjah

      Dear Voice of Reason,

      I see you like to get personal. Quite interesting. Anyway, I picked the issue of a dam as an example as you had brought it up and was using it as a case in point.

      Coming to the “evidence” that you have given me for the benefits of dams, I must say that you have very strong opinions and I must salute you for engaging in this conversation even after being disheartened at the supposed level to which education has sunk in this country. However, I did ask for evidence and not rhetorical opinions from your part. In fact, I must say that I expected actual evidence from a person who calls themselves “Voice of Reason”.

      Industries, for your information, require skilled labour which implies that people will not be employed at a local level, if they are not skilled. That is why industrial towns are setup. At the same time, there have been several problems with industrial work as the case of the Maruti Suzuki workers will prove. Wages are badly defined, as are benefits. This is what I mean when I say that one should question “development” – there are intricacies that appear when one delves into the details.

      In any case, with respect to your argument that industries create more jobs, I would recommend Amit Bhaduri’s “Development with Dignity” where he provides evidence for an actual decrease in employment growth since the liberalization of the economy.

      With respect to the floods in Assam, they are complex problems that cannot be solved by just having more pumps! Firstly, heavy rainfall events are expected (if you were to read into hydrology) and should be catered to in a more holistic manner. (why do we always look for a quick solution like “development”?) In Guwahati, for example, flood plains such as those found near the airport have been “reclaimed” for “development” projects and this has prevented excess rainwater from dispersing peacefully into wetlands. Instead, the same water remains overground and floods the city every year! How does “development” help in this case?

      Now onto the problem that you say I don’t understand which is the ever increasing population and the resultant lack of jobs. As you have mentioned that the way to tackle this is to create more jobs by bringing in industries, yes? Well, I agree that it certainly is something that shouldn’t be ignored. For one, I am not saying that we should overlook this nor should we say no to industry. (Let’s not get into nuclear energy as that is for another debate altogether. If you like you can contact me on my email id.) All I am saying is that your stated problems of a growing population and a deficiency in energy and jobs will not be fixed simply by “bringing in industry” or making more dams! In such a case, we will be stuck in a perpetual loop. What I am arguing for is that there are other ways of employing someone if the aim is for a better, more wholesome life rather than one with just money as an end in itself. We could, for example, look for local forms of livelihood like cottage industries. At the same time, we can look for a way to curb population growth through understanding local contexts and dealing with it on that level. In fact, all that you are asking for, I’m asking the same but on a level that is smaller and more relevant to a local context for then we can have solutions that are not blanket impositions such as the ones you’re suggesting but ones that really fit the situations. For more examples of this, please look up the Buen Vivir movement in South America. You must have noticed that our present understanding of development has caused a lot of ecological damage which if you ignore will lead to a loss in that same quality of life that we are striving for.

      I’m saddened to hear that you view my position as one that is pessimistic. On the contrary, what I’m arguing for is a form of “development” that is local, that is dignified, that caters to the needs of people without just catering to the demands of a society driven by blind consumer wants. Isn’t that a brighter outlook than what we find ourselves in right now?

    6. Voice of reason

      Erza, you are contradicting yourself and let me show how…

      in the first stanza you mention that if industries move in, only skilled workers will get jobs and hence no benefit for the local population. However when it came to providing solutions all you could come up with was cottage industries….. Do you really think that you can set up cottage industries without providing industrial training to the intended audience, and if training can be provided for cottage industries, the same can be done for industrial workers ( do you see how you contradict yourself).Also my friend be it cottage industry or a multi-national plant, you need energy!

      You want examples, i will give you. I do not know if you have visited Gujrat, go to that state and see for yourself ( as i part of what i do i frequently need to travel to industrial estates across the country) the help industrial development has done to the state. Across the state there are many small scale and medium sized industries which is predominantly hiring local work force, the people of that state really do not need to go out for jobs, and similar is the case with many other SEZs across the country.

      Are you trying to imply that Guwahati should not have had an airport??

      the problem with people like you is that you want to blatantly ignore facts, you are saying that we should not be demand driven, tell me something how many times have you personally bought something from the market, something you really did not need just so that it can support a cottage industry? , if the govt were to set us a cottage industry with a product with no demand for the same, it will never work, i would request you to see what happened to the girls in Maharashtra villages, whom the govt had provided training for air hostesses, no one got a job as they lacked many skills. The point that i am trying to explain you is that, opening up a cottage industry done not make any sense unless you manufacture something that is of good demand, the govt can at best provide training, fully finance the set up but cant force people to buy your products, right?

      Also Erza i had asked you to provide a solution to the problems of increasing population and decreasing job options, without rapid industrialization and all you could cough up with is “Cottage Industries”, pretty sad for a person who writes big articles bashing the government, right? Awaiting your solutions which are practical and can improve the job situation in the country.

      You may be disappointed by my rhetorical response but not like you could really come up with a practical and amazing solution which does not involve building dams and giving lands to industries. And you know what is actually sickening, the fact that intellectuals like you have zero practical knowledge, no on the ground experience and most importantly, you have no idea of what should be the solution, all you can do is bash the policies,so till the time you provide real time solution, things like development with dignity can be buried and forgotten.

      One more option does exist for people of your breed, stop the government from building dams, do not let any industry move into North east ( or anywhere else) in the name of dignity and keep the under developed parts of India under developed. Let the people hold on to their piece of land and not have electricity, let people live with dignity but with constant fear that their next generation might be job less. Dont let govt do any thing, agitate – while the youth of the entire region relocates to better places, leaving their home land impoverished.

      Again to end waiting for the practical solution to development with dignity without taking lands and building dams ( some thing much more specific then lets have cottage industries)

    7. Voice of reason

      something i forgot to mention, I do not disagree that the govt till this time has not done a good job, rampant corruption among other things have resulted in a lot of inconsistencies. All i am against is a blanket attitude that i will not give my land, i will not relocate etc. If you are from north east then you would know, most of the educated youth of that region now lives, in Delhi, Mumbai Bangalore etc, they are no longer even interested in North east. Please tell me why that happened and how can we stop that.

      there have been mistakes in the past, but that does not mean the future cant be better. And finally for those who want to hold on to their lands at all costs, fine do that but then don’t blame the Govt, if your kids don’t get jobs in your state, if you do not have electricity 24/7, if you are unwilling to make sacrifices then shut up and hold on to your dignity…

    8. Ezra Rynjah

      Dear Voice of Reason,

      Thank you for your example from gujurat. You have just displayed to me an example of what i was referring to: context-specific solutions. However, you seem determined to nit-pick through this debate. It has become apparent that this is not a dialogue you are engaging in but you rather want to deviate from what we’re discussing. You pick on what you want to see and skip entire phrases of what I write. Cottage industries was an example. Cottage industry implies focusing on local skills, not imported ones which imported industries will have. Also, I said that these industries should cater to “needs and not consumer-driven wants”.
      The airport wasn’t what I was referring to in Guwahati.
      Lastly but not least, I began my conversation with you saying that I am not against development, only that we are careful about what it means for us. I am not against the use of land, I only ask that it entail justice for those who depend on the land.

      We agree on several points but you don’t want to see that – the same way you don’t want a blanket rejection of development, I don’t want a blanket acceptance of it. That is all I am saying. If you continue to refuse seeing that, then it is pointless to continue this conversation.

    9. Voice of reason

      I do agree that ultimately we both want India to develop, just that i have heard this movement against industrialization so much that now I have stopped seeing any merit in it. I do agree to many points you have raised and i am sure you agree with mine. We can continue with this discussion but i don’t see any point in it, as you will not understand what i am trying to say and may be i wont understand your point.

      I spoke of cottage industry as you referred to the same, and being in the industry i know that if you want to make these industries successful you can have a need based plan, you need a want based plan to ensure the success and smooth functioning of the industry. Anyways this is as per my limited understanding, also i would want to see a country where more then the focus on local employment, we focus on training to local population to make them skilled workers…

      lets see how things pan out for this country of ours , and lets hope that the development that you are talking about or the one i am talking about, at least one happens, as this country deserves to develop

  2. Zehra Kazmi

    Great article. The hypocrisy of the PM’s statements have been highlighted by you. What kind of development? Who’s development? Development at what cost?
    These are the questions which this current government is unwilling to answer and keeps going back to rhetoric to prove its point.

    1. priy_ankD

      Development at the cost of some sacrifice. Sacrifice for the greater good. Sacrifice of hard work, sacrifice of a piece of land. Development not mired in corruption.

      Take Delhi Metro for an example,

      What kind? The kind that enables lakhs of travelers to commute daily at a reasonable cost. The kind that gives a labourer a means to travel large distances instead of walking. The kind that saves the environment from excessive pollution.

      Who’s development? Public’s. The same development that enables a worker to travel to the railway station for Rs10 instead of an autorickshaw costing Rs80.

      At what cost? At the cost of some land in the city.

      All that you guys do is empty talk.

    2. Ezra Rynjah

      Dear priy-ankD,

      I’m sorry I didn’t see your comments earlier. While I do see the point that you’re making in the context of the Delhi Metro, I would urge you to reconsider your position of the “greater good”. For one, what works in a particular situation (Delhi metro) may not work in another situation.

      In the case of the forceful acquisition of indigenous land, we are not talking about the sacrifice of “only land” – there are people who live and depend on that particular piece of land. Essentially when we make an argument for the “greater good”, we’re saying that some sacrifices are okay to be made. In the context of indigenous land, the “good” that occurs is for someone in some distant region, not for the locals. It comes down to this – would you appreciate it if you were forcibly removed from your home because there’s oil in your neighbourhood and you had no options for livelihood except to become a daily-wage labourer in an unknown city?

    3. Ezra Rynjah

      Thanks Zehra! The government is at times a reflection of the people it governs. Hopefully we can reason enough to make more people question development as a concept!

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