Land Question in Meghalaya

In a market-driven economy land is a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market for the right price with profit accruing at the end of this mundane process. Control over land is thus the ultimate source of supremacy. Those who own or enjoy access to it are guaranteed of prosperity and security of existence; while for those who are kept away from it, destitution and despair is the only outcome. And it is the latter that is the reality of the landless people of our state, whose day to day existence is highly precarious and vulnerable to exploitation. The ones who exploit them are the absentee landlords on whose lands these wretched people work throughout their lives. They toil incessantly year after year, generation after generation with neither any significant rewards nor any tangible rights. The only consolation they get is survival – on bare minimum and deprived of any hope of a better future. Their children either sell kwai and newspapers on the road side or are found toiling in the mines and quarries alongside their parents. Those tiny feet running barefoot on the road wearing torn clothes are a common sight upon the kuccha/unfinished roads strewn across our villages. Tragically, the story of these young lives has already finished before it can even begin. Who cares for them?

How has this come to be? Is our society not egalitarian – based on social and economic equity? Class differences that generate inequality are supposed to be alien to our way of life. For sure these changes must have been brought about by outside forces that have now wreaked havoc on our idyllic existence. Surely our traditional structures and institutions are strong enough to resist it. Most certainly it is they who will protect our people from a possible future mired in misery and hopelessness. Unfortunately the seeds of inequality had always been present in our hallowed traditions itself. It is our traditional system that promotes the conversion of Ri Raid land to Ri Kynti land. By giving the right to private ownership on those who can bring about some permanent construction or improvement on land, the system was always biased to those who already had resources, i.e., the rich. Also within our villages only the Bakhraws and certain clans have the supreme authority creating the phenomenon of insider vs. outsider among a single people. Again only those belonging to the same Kpoh (womb-lineage) have privilege. The system was thus always geared towards creation of an unequal society. Not surprisingly, vast expanses of land are now concentrated in the hands of our neo-tribal elites, i.e., our businessmen, and politicians or businessmen-cum-politicians. Old is gold does not seem a true ideologue anymore. In the light of this, is it not time to interrogate our traditional system?

Land is not only the piece of dirt on which one can stand on. It also includes the forest that grow on it and the rivers that flow through it. The forest and the rivers are the life-source of our people. The forest provides them with wood to build their houses and fuel to cook and warm themselves; it gives them fruit to satiate their hunger; and the herbs, ornamental plants, honey, etc., to ensure their livelihood. Water for drinking, cooking and other domestic activities is the gifts of the rivers that also provide fishes for sustenance and livelihood. It is only when all have rights over them that justice is achieved. Only an economy that respects the rights of common people to these life-saving resources is an economy with a conscience – a moral economy. To cultivate, to collect and to fish is the right of all the people and if we don’t respect it, ours is a society without a soul, but a heartless system that is geared for only one purpose – benefit of the rich through exploitation of the poor. Is this the kind of society we want?

True, our traditional system had the wisdom to make provisions of community land to which everyone had access. Here it was not about short-term profit considerations, but concerns of custodianship for the future; it was not about restrictive ownership but usufruct privileges so that all can benefit from it. Such lands or Common Property Resources are very important for the poor since they provide many valuable items not just for household consumption but for sale as well. In such a manner these Commons supply the various plant and animal products that are a part of daily diet as well as the various herbs, orchids, fruits, fuel wood that are an important part of the people’s livelihood. For poor households that have no resources whatsoever, these Commons are vital for ensuring their day to day survival. But these Commons have been shrinking and in their place enclosures are coming up warning of punishment for those who encroach on them. In an economy that is based on commoditization of all aspects of life, access to such Commons is much more crucial. With no ownership and no access where will the poor go?

There is increasing pressure on our land, for various projects that range from uranium mining to construction of modern townships (NST) with promises of a bright future. But whose future is going to be secured? Those who sell their land for mining but who do not stay at the site leaving behind those with no voices to face the brunt of the harmful effects; or those who are going to be uprooted so that a modern life can be built upon their rustic landscape but who will be compelled to return to the (transformed) modern site again as daily wage labourers since they gained no benefit as they had no claim? Tragically, since the commons have been appropriated for petty profit, their present becomes vulnerable and future insecure. Who are those whose future is actually secured by this commoditization of land? Who else than those big landlords for whom land is just like any other commodity to be bought and sold in the market place! For these great landlords land is not basic survival, it is not a matter of life and death. It is just an object with a price tag to be sold to the highest bidder. But, is land just a commodity to be traded in the market? Is its value nothing more than the numbers on the bank balance of a few people?

In 2012, replying to a question in Rajya Sabha the then Minister of State for Tribal Affairs, Ranee Narah stated that more than 5 percent of the tribals in Meghalaya are landless, i.e., they have no land of their own. It is three years since then and it is quite reasonable to assume that the figure must have increased by a few percentage points. While the relative percentage may not be highly substantial the absolute numbers are staggering – more than one lakh landless people. The comparatively higher number of population under BPL (almost five lakhs) and marginal workers (almost three lakhs) is an indication that the number of landless population could in fact be higher than the figure provided. This is a highly disturbing development and one which has grave consequences for the future. But how do we know the true number of our landless brethren? A very great disadvantage in undertaking any intervention to address the growing problem of landlessness is the lack of micro-level data. That the problem of landlessness is rampant cannot be denied, but the intensity cannot be gauged properly unless data on land ownership is available. Is it not time then to implement a participatory cadastral survey that would bring out the true extent of landlessness?

The Sixth Schedule of the Indian Constitution was enacted to protect the indigenous community from getting alienated in their own land. But the forces of alienation are present within the indigenous community and are getting further intensified. Sadly there is no protection from it; no right for the tiller; and no restriction on hoarding of land. What this will lead to is not hard to guess. Should not changes be deliberated? Only those who wish to hide the wretchedness of the poor for personal benefit will want status quo. Land is not a commodity, it is life and when you take away life from someone, they are dead. Are we going to watch the demise of our people? And more importantly what are we willing to do to stop it – to build a society that is based on conscience, justice and life? Is it not time to do something?

(This article this essay came out of discussions within Thma U Rangli Juki (TUR)
First published in The Shillong Times | June 18 2015

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