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Land Alienation And Self-Government In The Hill Areas Of Manipur

Hmar Hills on the Manipur-Mizoram border is one of the most neglected regions in the country. Image Credit: Robert L Sungte.

Following India’s Independence in 1947, the Government of India placed Manipur, then a princely state with mixed populations (tribal people constituting about 36 p.c. of the total state population) under the Fifth Schedule on the basis of the A.V.Thakkar Subcommittee’s report. That means that the tribal peoples of Manipur do not have the constitutional safeguard which aims at maintaining the traditional pattern of self-governance by giving the tribal areas concerned, certain degree of autonomy to deal with and preserve their way of life, their land, their customary law, etc. through the Sixth Schedule Autonomous District Council. Recently the Government of Manipur passed two acts: the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act (MLR&LRA), 1960 and the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Councils Act, (MHADCA) 1971.

The MLR&LRA is meant for the four valley districts of Manipur, but there have been consistent attempts to extend the act in the hills thereby causing a lot of tension among the tribal peoples.

To whom the land belongs? To the Manipur maharaja/tribal chiefs during the colonial period or the succeeding Manipur state in the post-independence period? During the colonial period, J.Shakespeare, political agent, issued what is popularly known as the ’boundary paper’ to the tribal chiefs in the name of the maharaja. This is to imply that at least theoretically that the whole land within the boundary of Manipur belonged to the maharaja.

In course of time, with the recognition and incorporation of the tribal chiefs with the colonial establishment for the purpose of collecting hill house tax and for administering simple justice in their respective chiefdoms, some sort of semi-landlordism had been allowed to grow in the hill areas of Manipur thereby pushing the poor villagers to the status of some kind of tenants who paid certain fixed amount of paddy and every front leg of any animal shot or killed (some kind of feudal practice called busung-sadar) to the chiefs annually.

Soon after independence, the Government of India abolished the Privy Purse, and the Manipur State Legislative Assembly also passed the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chiefs Rights) Act on 14 June, 1967 which authorized the state government to acquire the rights, titles and interests of the chiefs in the hill areas of Manipur. According to the Act, the chiefs were to be compensated on the basis of the following criteria: (1) the area of land under chiefs; (2) total number of households within each chiefdom; and, (3) compensation in installment or lump sum. But because of the objection raised mainly by the Chiefs’ Union (CU) among the tribal chiefs, the Act could not be implemented till today. Almost all the tribal chiefs still talk about retention or reform of the institution of chieftainship even though the institution of Privy Purse was abolished in the valley of Manipur since 1967…

The institution of tribal chieftainship could not protect indigenous tribal lands. One clear example is the accelerated processes of tribal land alienation consequent upon the introduction of the Manipur Land Reform and Land Revenue Act (MLR&LRA), 1960 which is amended from time to time. Despite the opposition from tribal leaders, as we are all aware, the act is extended to (1) 89 villages of Churachandpur district in 1962, vide notification no.142/12/60, dated 22-2-1962; (2) 14 villages in Sadar Hills of Senapati district, vide notification no. 138/4/64, dated 25-2-1965; (3) 14 villages in Khoupum valley of Tamenglong district, vide notification no. 3/12/83, dated 14-11-1987.

One serious complicacy is that under section 14 of the said Act, a person in a tribal village can be treated as trespasser or encroacher if he does not apply for allotment of the land which he has possessed or occupied for generations without any hitch. This is what had actually happened in Saikot village of Churachandpur district. The MLR&LRA is solely meant for the valley of the 4 plain districts of Manipur. In other words, the MLR&LRA does not suit the topography of hill areas and is against the traditional tribal land use. So the immediate need of the hour is the introduction of new separate land law for the hills. Right now there is no record of land rights and no land in the hills is a mortgageable commodity. As a result, no tribal farmer can apply for loan from financial institutions for improvement of his agricultural activities.

If autonomy means for self-rule, then right to autonomy or self-government means internal management of local affairs including culture, religion, education, social welfare, economic activities, land and resources free from outside interference. Immediately after the end of colonial rule, the Government of Manipur enacted the Manipur State Hill Peoples (Administration) Regulation Act, (MSHPAR), 1947 which divided the whole hill territory into circles. In each village of tax-paying 20 households or above, there was a village authority consisting of chiefs and elders.

Above the village authority, there was circle authority comprising one circle officer appointed by the government and a council of 5 members elected by the village authorities falling within the circle. To encourage people’s participation in the local administration, the Manipur (Village Authority in Hill Areas) Act was passed in 1956 which introduced for the first time election of members to the village authority on the basis of adult franchise by repealing the earlier MSHPAR Act, 1947. When Manipur attained statehood in 1972, the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act, 1972 was passed by the state government.

Unlike their counterparts in Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura, no provision under Sixth Schedule was extended to the so-called autonomous district councils in Manipur. The district councils solely depended on the financial support of the state government.

They have no judicial and legislative powers. Because of public demand for extension of the provisions of the Sixth Schedule, the district councils were dissolved since 1988. The 7th Manipur Legislative Assembly had passed the Manipur Hill Areas Autonomous District Council (Amendment) Bill on 25th July, 2000 again without Sixth Schedule provision and elections were held last year. They are just constitutional make-believe…

In the valleys of Manipur, modern panchayat system was introduced since 1960. For the gram panchayats and nagar panchayats, there was the state finance commission which made a comprehensive study for the improvement of funds and resource mobilization. Again for the panchayat bodies, there was also consolidated fund directly funded by the state government and the central government. The district planning committee under panchayats initiated planning right from gram panchayats.

But the district councils in the hills, when in operation, had to make planning in consultation with the planning department of the government. What is conspicuously absent in the district councils and village authority councils are women participation. Under the panchayat bodies, not only 36 per cent seats are reserved for women, but specific quota of pradhans and up-pradhans in the gram panchayats and adhyakshas and up-adhyakshas of zilla parishad are also reserved for elected women. Altogether there are 22 women in the 4 zilla parishads and 2 of the 4 adhyakshas are women. Of the 1556 gram panchayats, 567 are women and of whom 55 are pradhans. But women participation is completely absent both at the district and village level councils in the hill areas.

On the whole, the level of operation of panchayats is much higher than the district councils. Even if Sixth Schedule provisions are extended, the district councils can manage primary schools and dispensaries, whereas the panchayats are entitled to exercise control over higher secondary schools, hospitals and those long list of powers under the 11th schedule of the Indian constitution. In the final analysis, while the district councils are under constant threat of the Democle’s sword of the state, the panchayat bodies have been undergoing a liberalization process of federalism and democratization at the district level.

Besides, the adhyakshas, up-adhyakshas, pradhans and up-pradhans are entitled to monthly salaries and the members of the zilla parishads and gram panchayats also get sitting allowances. The village authorities in the hills do not have such allowances, not to speak of salaries. Deeply aware of the deficiencies in the constitution and functioning of the district councils and village authorities, the Chief Minister’s Advisory Committee on Social Policy was formed in1995–1997 in which I was one of the members. Of our recommendations, only the Manipur State Human Rights was implemented so far… Our other recommendations regarding conceptual draft on tribal land law and village authority councils for the hill areas of Manipur are still kept in the cold storage. I gave the draft copy to our sitting MLAs from Tipaimukh; but no action has taken so far.

To conclude, the North Eastern Region Vision 2020 also puts forward in its plan of action the need for land reforms, distribution, updating of land records and their computerization, codification of customary land tenure system and recognition, laws related to use of forests, maximizing self-governance which means the strengthening of the self-governing institutions and empowerment of the people. In order to protect the age-old tribal customary rights on land and also to ensure maximum people’s participation in the decision-making processes of government at the grassroots level, introduction of separate land law for hills and amendment of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Village Authority Act in the context of the 73rd Amendment of Indian Constitution are long overdue.

*The article is written by Prof. Lal Dena.

*The writer teaches History at Manipur University, Canchipur, Imphal.

(Courtesy: Mizoram Express)

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