Is Assam Govt. Trying to Dispossess People of their Land?

Way back in 1937, Axomiya Sangrakhyani Sabha [Society for the Protection of Assamese], a group within the Assam Pradesh Congress Committee raised the issue of land alienation of indigenous people of the state by submitting a representation to the then president of the All India Congress Committee, Jawaharlal Nehru. Through their representation they expressed their resentment to the British policy of granting lease of huge tracts of fertile land to European tea cultivators. By the same memorandum this motley, but influential group of leaders raised their apprehension about continuous British sponsored migration of Bengali settlers from East Bengal (present Bangladesh) which, according to them had resulted in alienation of land of indigenous tribal communities in Assam. Without delving much into the historical background, it can just be said that these apprehensions led to the creation of line system in Assam and finally culminated in the creation of tribal belts and blocks under Chapter X of the Assam Land and Revenue Regulations, which allows only the exempted classes of people to purchase land within tribal belts and blocks.

Another important legislative measure for protection of agricultural land of the locals from speculative traders was the Executive Instruction No. 6 issued under the Assam Land and Revenue Regulations, 1886. The Executive Instruction No. 6 issued on 2 August 1948 reads as follows: “Restriction on Transfer of Periodic Khiraj Leases: Periodic Khiraj leases issued after the 27th September 1919 contain a clause which forbids transfer, if the holder is a professional cultivator, to a person who is not a professional cultivator, without the previous sanction of the Deputy Commissioner.” A note was added that reads: “After considering all circumstances, Government has consented to the enforcement of the clause in all districts where the Assam Land and Revenue Regulations is in force to prevent land passing on a large scale from cultivators to speculators and non-cultivators.”

The purport behind such a measure can be gauged from the language of the instruction itself. Firstly, the instruction uses the phrase “land passing on a large scale” and secondly, it uses the term “speculators.” We don’t need to elaborate on who the speculative traders were, as at that point of time it was only the non-Assamese or the non-indigenous traders who had the financial capacity to indulge in speculative trading of land. Thus, clearly the purpose behind the said instruction is to protect the land belonging to the locals.

In spite of there being such provisions in the law, the transfer of land, more particularly of agricultural land, mostly from indigenous communities to others in violation of the law continued. Flouting the law continued with active connivance of local level revenue officials and politicians. Such transfer of land has reached alarming levels during the fifteen years of Congress government in Assam. Facing wide spread criticism and because of unrelenting protests by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), a mass peasant organisation led by Akhil Gogoi, the then Tarun Gogoi led Congress government of Assam brought the Assam Agricultural Land (Regulation of Reclassification and Transfer for Non-Agriculture Purpose) Act, 2015. The said Act, while prohibiting transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural purpose laid down the circumstances under which such transfer can be effected. One of the important circumstances laid down by the law is that such land should not be used for agricultural purposes at least for ten years.

Now, the present regime led by the BJP is seeking to amend this piece of legislation by bringing an ordinance, and thereby ensuring automatic reclassification of agricultural land once the purchaser makes a self-declaration to the effect that the land is purchased for establishing an industry. The Cabinet decision on the proposed ordinance was disclosed by the State Industry Minister, Chandra Mohan Patowary through a tweet that reads as follows: “In a historic and far reaching decision to ease out the process of setting up industries in Assam, state cabinet has approved an ordinance today. Now any one will be able to set up industries in Assam just by submitting one self-declaration. No permission, clearance or licence will be required for three years. Land will also be deemed converted for industrial purpose. Such bold and advantageous change is expected to accelerate the industrialisation process in Assam.” This tweet of the Minister created furore in the state. One can have a fair idea about the proposed ordinance even by going through the tweet itself and can at once conclude that the proposed ordinance is an ominous sign for the state and its people. But how?

The word ‘industry’ is a generic term. A car producing unit is an industry and under pollution control statutes, a ‘rice mill’ or a ‘stone crusher unit’ is also an industry. Now, any one by declaring that they are going to set up a rice mill or stone crusher unit will be able to purchase agricultural land and then got it reclassified. Once this is done, after one or two years they can declare the business bankrupt and use the land for speculative profit. Once this ordinance is passed this will be the norm. Moreover, huge tracts of agricultural land by the side of the National Highways in Assam had already got transferred to non-Assamese or non-indigenous traders. The verification of revenue records will make it crystal clear. These traders have been waiting for an opportunity to regularise their irregularity and the proposed ordinance will be giving them a legal route to do this. The mainstream Assamese speaking and the tribal people will be the worst sufferers of this decision. The migrant population of the state also known as the na-asomiya [new Assamese] or pamuas have their life embedded in agricultural economy and they are not going to sale their land to anyone. It can be taken away from them only through coercive measures. But so far as the rest of the population, particularly the tribal people and the Assamese speaking communities are concerned, they are still being fascinated by “the cash money” and will definitely transfer their land even for a paltry amount of cash. We have been witness to such transfers. I leave it to experts to analyse this fascination for cash, but suffice to say that ultimately because of this decision the precious piece of land which binds us to the root is going to slip away from us.

Secondly, the issue of land protection to the Assamese and indigenous communities of the state is part of the report of the Expert Committee constituted for implementation of Clause 6 of the Assam Accord. The Committee has already submitted its report but no one has any idea about its fate till date. The Home Minister of the country made public declaration about implementing the recommendations of the Committee without any change. Although people do not know whether the Home Minister could spare some time to go through the recommendations of the Committee, yet in absence of any declaration rejecting the recommendations, it has to be presumed that it is under consideration of the Central Government. Why, then so much hurry on part of the state government to promulgate this ordinance? Is it to pre-empt the recommendations of the Committee at the behest of certain quarters with vested interests?

The third important point relates to the right of workers of industry proposed to be set up. As per the tweet of the Minister for setting up industry, no licence, permission etc. will be required. This means that these industries will be allowed to operate without any compliance of the labour laws. During the time of pandemic we have already seen attempts by various state governments to tinker with the labour laws and the proposed ordinance is undoubtedly a part of the same agenda. In their jest for attracting industries the government is going to make the labour laws and the labourers the scapegoat. It is part of the war unleashed by the ruling elite on labour. The manner in which the government is proposing to frame the ordinance will surely lead to primitive accumulation resulting in benefits for a select few elites and doom for many.

Fourthly, why this route of an ordinance? And why this hurry? This is a decision which is going to have impact on the state’s future and therefore the government cannot be the only stakeholder. Before taking such a major policy decision, it is incumbent upon the government to go for public debate and discussion. Leave aside the common public, the present regime even avoided discussion in the Assembly, although this is purely a legislative measure. Article 213 of the Constitution of India relates to power of the Governor to promulgate an ordinance, and it says that before promulgation of an ordinance there must be satisfaction about existence of circumstances which render it necessary to take immediate action. Thus it is clear that the ordinance route can be taken only in cases of emergency and not otherwise. But the present regime in Assam taking cue from their leaders in Delhi has adopted this ordinance route just to thwart a public discussion on the issue. This is nothing but subterfuge of constitutional mechanism.

In Assam, indigenous communities are living under constant threat of eviction. Even after living for generations they are still not getting settlement for their land. Landless farmers are demanding land. But this government which stormed to power by promising to protect indigenous interests are now becoming the major threat to the indigenous people. From bringing in the CAA to the Ordinance for Automatic Reclassification of Land, we are witnessing a series of decisions by the present regime which will ultimately destroy our collective existence.



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Santanu Borthakur Written by:

The writer is an advocate practising in Gauhati High Court.

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