It never ceases to surprise that successive governments in Assam since Independence saw no need for surveying land resources in the State. Dispur still gets by with archaic land laws, with the Assam Land Revenue Regulation Act drawn up far back into colonial times in year 1886. So there has been no State government policy in seven decades to protect land rights of indigenous people. Let alone other parts of Assam, within Guwahati itself there have been instances of tribals being induced or forced to sell off their ancestral land for a pittance and migrate to the city’s hills or outskirts. But they have had to relocate again and again with Guwahati expanding rapidly and rapacious land sharks zeroing in on them. Had it not been for occasiol eviction drives conducted in the city’s hills and forested lands, the broad picture of systematic land alietion of indigenous people would never have emerged. The situation is far worse in other parts of the State with illegal migrants on one side and land developers on the other pushing out indigenous people from their land holdings. Governments in Assam have failed to implement various laws for Scheduled Tribes and traditiol forest dwellers to protect their hearths and homes, and the reason is primarily political. For long, most indigenous groups were not politically organised and mobilised into reliable votebanks, so they hardly figured in the radar of political parties. The Congress which ruled this State for the longest period, claimed of giving space to all indigenous groups within the party, but did practically nothing to improve their situation. To the credit of the BJP-led coalition that took over the reins of power last year, it set up a 7-member committee headed by former Chief Election Commissioner Hari Sankar Brahma to recommend changes in existing land laws and rules as well as suggest a uniform policy and measures to protect land rights of indigenous people. Beginning its work in February this year, this panel is learnt to have already discussed issues like task forces for protecting indigenous land rights, allotment of non-ceiling land to landless indigenous people and conversion of agricultural lands for non-agricultural uses.
As to who qualifies to be called ‘indigenous’, Brahma had then clarified before the media that ‘people born and brought up in Assam before March 1971 as per the Assam Accord and are Indian citizens would be considered as indigenous people’. He had then spoken about accessing Revenue and Forest department data as well as satellite imagery to find the extent of land available in the State and levels of encroachment. Given a 3-month timeframe to submit its report by June this year, the Committee on Protection of Land Rights of Indigenous People is touring the districts, discussing with various stakeholders including MLAs, deputy commissioners, local revenue collectors and village headmen, and receiving representations from indigenous groups. These are early days to speculate over the outcome of this survey and fact-finding effort, but Hari Sankar Brahma himself has given an indication of the huge challenges that lie ahead. Speaking to the media recently, he revealed that 90 percent indigenous people in Assam possess no permanent land deeds, that there are 7-8 lakh families without any land whatsoever. While indigenous people seek land deeds for decades in vain, outsiders mage to do so overnight, he rued. In this context, he mentioned gaon district where as much as 70 percent land is already in the hands of non-indigenous people, the highest in the country. According to Brahma, 63 lakh bighas of government land in the State is already encroached upon. Though these are prelimiry figures, these go to show the kind of problem the Sarbanda Sonowal government is faced with. The Chief Minister has earlier assured that land deeds will be given to indigenous people residing on the same plot for decades without such papers, and that the rest will be covered in subsequent phases. The fact that many indigenous people lack land documents came out during the NRC application stage itself, leading to a huge outcry. Once the panel report comes in, Sonowal has to deliver on his promise. After all, the ruling coalition secured the backing of indigenous voters in large numbers with its ‘jati, mati, bheti’ slogan. The hunger for land has been at the root of the Bangladeshi influx problem that has bedevilled Assam since the Thirties. There should be a comprehensive law to ensure that land rights of the indigenous are safeguarded, for only that will ensure their identity and way of life.