TODAY -

From communal land ownership to private landlordism

Roluahpuia *



In India and elsewhere, land as been the bone of contention particularly for groups and communities who are classified as tribes (as in the case of India) and indigenous, natives across the globe. The problem of land alienation has been one of the most serious problems that these communities are confronting with in today's world. As a community who have distinct culture and whose ways of living are embedded in land ownership pattern and its mode of utilization, even a slight change in the ownership pattern through external intervention (example can be of state or government) is bound to have a serious or immeasurable consequences.

Tribes in India and elsewhere have a distinct pattern of land ownership. The land ownership is characterized by communal system and in many cases; there is no system of private land ownership. In many cases, it is the chief or the community which owns the land. What this entail is that lands are not transferable nor are they a commodity. Another feature which characterizes this is that lands are owned on the basis of customary practices which however are not always put in written form. As such, demarcation of land or a village are based on streams, mountains, or lakes which found there expressions in their traditional songs.

However, such pattern of land ownership changes from the period of colonialism with the introduction of new laws and regulations. In the case of North East in particular, while majority of the tribals still practiced their customary laws in relation to land ownership and its utilization, despite this, numerous changes can be seen within themselves. One is due to the increasing pressure on the part of the State to make changes while at the same time, the neo-tribal elites favor the changing of land ownership pattern for their personal benefit.

This process therefore will be illustrated in the following paragraph by taking the case of Manipur with a special reference to Churachandpur District. Meanwhile, what this paper intends to highlight is the changing land relation within the tribes themselves by highlighting how lands are being appropriated (il)legally by the emerging elites which led to the rise of 'tribal landlordism'.

Manipur provides a rather interesting case when it comes to the issue of land. Land as a territory has been one of the main bone of contention in Manipur and in the North East in general. While numerous hill tribes are busy to carve out their own territorial homeland (mention can be made of Nagalim, Zalengam and Zogam), on the other hand are the Meiteis who are staunchly opposing such demands tooth and nail. The tribal consider the Manipur government as a Meitei government, a government which is oppressive and discriminatory against the tribals. These claims to a large extent may be true if one takes the case of autonomous councils in the hills which is out of the purview of the Sixth Schedule, land laws such as Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms (MLR&LR) Act, and the development laggards that the hill districts are today as compared to the valley areas.

If one takes a specific look at the MLR&LR Act, this law has the potential to alter tribal land ownership by bringing a uniform land laws in the state and allowing the transferring of land from tribal to non-tribal. This will result into increasing privatization of land which subsequently will cause land alienation and deprivation. It is due to this reason that the implementation of the law has been staunchly resisted by the hill tribes. The law therefore can be seen as a move of the Government of Manipur (GoM) infringing upon the rights of the tribals. Despite of such resistance, the law has been extended in many parts of the hills.

At the same time, the overriding issue of looking upon the State only as a source of oppression misses out the other side of the problem. As much as there is a fear of land alienation or to put in legal terms, transferring of land from a 'tribal to a non-tribe', however, what has been completely overlooked is the concentration of lands in the hands of few individuals. To put it in more clear terms, there is a progressive concentration of vast lands in the form of private ownership in hands of the emerging local tribal elites or a handful of individuals who comes from the ranks of big businessmen, contractors, professionals, social leaders, etc.

The problem takes place when the chief of a village sold a vast tract of land or sometimes the village itself to an individual hand. Such instances are on the rise from the last few years. In actual, it is said that such selling and buying of land is not allowed under the law. Yet, individual creed for land on the one hand and the government attempt to always dismantle the tribal land ownership pattern make it easy for such thing to occur.

This results into the formation of 'neo-tribal elites' or emergence of class formation among this once much egalitarian society. As the land ownership is one of the factor of the egalitarian nature of a tribal society, changes in the ownership pattern leads to the breakdown of the egalitarian aspect on the one hand, while on the other hand, it reflects that the ethos of the tribal society itself degenerating.

As more and more lands fall in the hands of few individuals, it not only changes the land ownership pattern rather has an impact in the utilization of it as well.

Therefore, we now see the shift from a subsistence economy to a commercialized economy. This can be seen from the increasing cultivation of commercial crops or a shift to cash crops. This further leads to the 'commodification of land' and it is no longer valid to say that private property is absent among the hill tribes of Manipur. This has further aggravated the situation by pushing a large chunk of the rural masses into the ranks of landless peasants, share croppers, or laborers itself.

Thus, in this process, another class formation arise which is the 'working class'. The emergence of these two classes transforms the once un-exploitative tribal relationship into an exploitative relation the outcome of which is the increasing disparity in terms of income, wealth and asset. Inequalities of all sorts arise in these processes which are followed by its associated problems such as marginalization, oppression, discrimination.

In the towns such as in Lamka located in Churachandpur District, communal lands are negligible except in nearby villages of the town. In such villages also, there is less dependency on such lands as more and more lands are getting privatized. Individual families prefer to have their own personal land holdings and there is a marathon among everyone to have private landholdings. In the process, the economically poor are the most disadvantaged and the worst casualty of it as it leads to loss of livelihood and increasing landlessness.

In this process, labor gradually becomes commoditized as more and more are working as wage laborers. Thus, this transformation resembled to what Karl Polyani refers to in his much acclaimed book 'The Great Transformation' where the commodification of land, labor and market are fundamental to the transformation of a society which he brilliantly highlight in his book.

Such changes in land ownership is already having much impact than one thought. While the ethos of tribal society are in the process of getting wane away, the consequent of this is the movement from a horizontal to a vertical caste based type hierarchy. Social status are now determined by one's size of landholdings, wealth and income and no longer by the spirit of sacrifice, chivalry etc. and it is here that Polyani comes in again where he puts 'social relations and status are now determined on economic basis'.

Under such circumstances, how great the transformation will be is a serious matter of concern. By way of conclusion, such development needs immediate attention if tribal culture is to be protected and made alive. At the same time, there is also a deep sense of fear that the tribals may end up turning themselves from an oppressed groups to an oppressor itself. Or maybe they already are, however, time has not run out and the issue can still be addressed. As the saying goes, 'better late than never'.


* Roluahpuia wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is a Research Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati
This article was posted on June 21, 2013.



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