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Land Rights Of Tribal And State Land Laws: Manipur

Hills of Manipur.

Introduction:

The State of Manipur is divided into two regions viz. the hills and valley. Its physical area measures 22, 327 sq. km. of which the valley portion covers 2,248 sq. km. whereas hill areas cover 20,089 sq. km. The valley area is surrounded by hill and this central plain portion covers about 10% of the total geographical area of the State. The remaining 90% area is under hill regions. Different tribal communities occupy this hill region (P. Binodini Devi ‘“ Tribal Land System of Manipur). The central region of the State is inhabited by the general people Meiteis including Muslims and some tribals.

There are about 37 tribal communities, out of which 33 had been specified as Scheduled Tribes under the Constitution of India. These different tribal communities occupy the hill region of the State and the region is divided into five revenue districts and the plain region has 4 (four) districts. The tribals’ representation to the State population, according to 2001 census is 38.43%. This figure does not include the population of three TD Blocks because of some controversy in enumeration.

The State Legislative Assembly has a strength of 60 M.L.A.s. 40 M.L.A.s represent 4 (four) valley districts of Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur, whereas 5 (five) hill districts of Churachandpur, Chandel, Ukhrul, Senapati and Tamenglong districts are represented by 20 M.L.A.s of which one is dereserved seat.

Land holding pattern in tribal areas

The tribals have their own system of land holding based on customary and traditional practices. The founder of the village took all risk and responsibility to establish a village and as such he earned the title ‘˜Founder’. Later on he became the chief of the village and the first owner of the entire village territory in respect of the Naga tribals. He had parceled out the territory from the vast area after proper or due rites performance and appeased the spirits of evil world in and around the area.

They got and occupied the land from the powers of unseen forces as they believed. They claimed absolute authority over their land. Tribals considered that the land they possessed and occupied are out of their merit. Interference to their land is therefore, opposed with tooth and nail. They are the first settler of the land. Every tribal village was independent republic without outside interference.

Land ownership

Tribals claimed absolute ownership over their land. The one who established the village is the first owner in Naga society. There was two to three tire system of ownership among some Naga tribes. The first owner i.e. the founder of the village had to dole out some portion of land to any of his villagers in exchange of animals like dog, pig, mithun, rice-beer, for use in his ritual performance. The one who could offer his domesticated animals, food and other goods against a piece of land etc. become the owner of that portion of land. That person becomes the second owner.

There were some chiefs who liberally shared the land on clan basis. The third owner was the one who claimed the cultivating plots within the portion of land given to the second owner by the chief or founder. He may get it by paying a price or by barter. In this way the existence of the third owner came into Naga society. There may be some minor variations in the system even among the Naga tribals. Those villages whose cultivation is of jhuming or shifting practice do have second and third ownership system. Even in the village where settled or terrace cultivation is practiced, the same system exist. So Naga society has at least two tier system of land ownership, the first being the founder of chief and the second owner is that of cultivating plot.

As regard to Kuki system of land ownership, the chief is all in all. He is the supreme authority in the village affairs. He owns the entire land within his jurisdiction. There is neither clan land nor individual. It is unlikely of the Naga system. He distributes land for cultivation and plot for dwelling house construction. The Kuki chief has the authority to expel any villager from the village. Villagers live at the pleasure of the chief. The Kuki administration is autocratic and the chief is the autocrat.

The tribals as a whole have their own time tested land holding system based on traditional practices by which they are governed. They consider that the lands they possess are acquired from the nature. As such the tribals do not have any land laws except that of traditional and customary base practices.

Before application of any land law in Manipur, the Raja of Manipur claimed absolute ownership of all lands within his territory i.e. the valley area from the earliest time and collect land revenue. On the other hand, during the British period, the administration of the entire hill area of Manipur State was under the responsibility of the President of Manipur State Durbar who was a British ICS officer. The hill areas were separately administered as per a set of rules known as Hill Peoples’ Regulation Act. The hill areas were at no point of time under the administration of the Raja of Manipur. The administration was carried on to the tune of the Hill Peoples’ aspirations and their age old traditional practices. While such was the considered administration for hill/tribal people, a land act was enacted in 1960, which had rather frightened the tribals with the land being alienated from them.

The Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reform Act, 1960 (MLR & LR Act, 1960)

The Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reform Act, 1960 (MLR & LR Act, 1960) was enacted by the Parliament to consolidate and amend the law relating to land revenue in the State of Manipur and to provide certain measures of land reform. Before the enactment of the State land laws, the Assam Land & Revenue Regulation Act, 1886 was applied to Manipur by a State Durbar Resolution.

The MLR & LR Act, 1960 intends to bring about uniformity in distribution of land throughout the State. However, Section 2 of the Act says, ‘It extends to the whole of the State of Manipur except the hill areas thereof’. Thus the Act did not apply to the hill areas of the State. Under the Act, hill districts do not automatically mean hill areas. They Act assigned a special meaning to it. According to Section 2(1) of the Act, hill area means such areas in the hill tracts of the State of Manipur as the State Government by notification in the official Gazette declared to be hill areas. The State Government under different notifications Nos. had notified 1161 villages as hill areas in the 5 (five) Hill Districts for the purpose of this Act.

Though Section 2, of the Act says that if does not apply to the hill areas of the State, it again says, ‘Provided that the State Government may, by notification in the official Gazette, extend the whole or part or any section of this Act to any hill areas of Manipur also as may be specified in such notification’. The provisions for protection of the tribals had been curtailed off. The State Government under different notification Nos. had extended the provision of the Act to tribal areas. To the tribals, the extension of the Act to their areas is encroachment into their territory. The tussle between the State Government and the tribal chiefs, civil organizations etc. possess a grave situation. So far 89 villages of Churachandpur district and 14 villages each of Tamenglong and Senapati districts had also been covered by the Act (P. Binodini Devi ‘“ Tribal Land System of Manipur).

There is a special protective provision of the Act on the transfer of land belonging to a tribal to non-tribal. Section 158 says, ‘No transfer of land by a person who is a member of Scheduled tribes shall be valid unless ‘“

The transfer is to another member of Schedule tribes; or Where the transfer is to another person who is not a member of any such tribes, it is made with the previous permission in writing of Deputy Commissioner provided that the Deputy Commissioner shall not give such permission unless he has secured the consent thereto of the District Council within whose jurisdiction the land lies; or the transfer is by way of mortgage to a co-operative society.

The State Government had made an exceptional provision of the Act to the restriction of land transfer. This is the fear of the tribal population i.e. if the transfer is made by way of mortgage to a co-operative society, the consent of the District Council and written permission of the Deputy Commissioner is not required. This provision is a grave threat to the innocent tribals.

The co-operative society to whom the land is to be transferred is not clearly identified. It is understood that the society would certainly be of general class/people. Taking advantage of this exceptional provision, some valley based co-operative societies had lured tribals with a fat dividend to mortgage their land. They had easily fallen prey to the societies approach.

One such example is that the Chairman of the Tharon Village Authority in Tamenglong hill district had been lured to offer some areas of land to non-tribal individuals and co-operative farming societies on contractual farming.

The agreement goes like this:

The non-tribal Co-operative Farming Societies, taking advantage of the provision of the Section 158C of MLR & LR Act, 1960 had encroached on the land of innocent and ignorant tribals living in far flung remote villages with a sweet promise of sharing the dividend. It is the fear of the tribals that their land would be alienated in the long run. The above cited agreement for contractual farming in the abandoned jhum plots will certainly create problems and caused disputes, for the abandoned jhum areas will be cultivated again after 6/7 years according to its cycle. They use of the term ‘˜community land’. This term cannot apply to every village. There are villages which do not have community land. Every piece of land is owned by individuals. Selling out or mortgaging of areas of land may not be in the knowledge of the villagers. The village, Tharon who had doled out lands for contractual farming with the outsiders does not have community land. There is no khas land in hill areas. Every inch of land is owned by individual or clan. Abandonment of jhum plot is just 6/7 years period left for retention of manure for next cycle of cultivation.

Attempts to remove Restriction on Transfer of Land

The State Government had made a number of attempts to remove restriction on transfer of land belonging to a member of scheduled tribes to non-tribals through the amendments of the Act. The State Legislative Assembly in one of its sittings had voted to amend Section 2 of the Principal Act of 1960 so as to extend the entire provision of the Act to the whole State of Manipur including hill areas. The Hill Area Committee which is a Constitutional body under Article 371C and other civil societies had strongly opposed to the amendment proposal. The State Governor had other dignitaries were urged not to give assent to the Bill passed by the State Assembly. Another attempt was also made to restrict new settlement in tribal areas even by the tribals themselves under Section 158C of the Act. The amendment proposal sought that there shall be no new settlement of formation of hamlet (machete) in the hill areas without the permission of the State Government and no such permission for new settlement of formation of any machete is allowed unless the proposed formation has 75-50 families. The said proposal also attempted to amend Section 158B that no land shall be transferred in favor of any person unless he has been ordinarily resident in the State.

The Deputy Commissioner may permit transfer of land in favor of a person who has not been ordinarily resident in the State, if he has been resident for not less than 30 years. If these amendments come into effect, all the restrictions given by Section 158 of the Principal Act shall be removed and the provisions of restriction shall have been diluted. A person who had been residing in the State for more than 30 years can easily obtain residential certificate from the Deputy Commissioner.

The attempts to remove restriction on transfer of land to another member of non-tribals came in the disguise of bringing development for tribals in the form of bank land facilities and others. The tribals being underprivileged section of the society are easily tempted to mortgage their land. The question of land alienation among the tribals and be related to the incidents of indebtness. They had to borrow money for their children education, consumption and other unforeseen expenses. To get the required amount, they have to mortgage their land which is the only available resource at their disposal. During the mortgaged period, the mortgagee has the right to cultivate the land. Naturally, the income of the mortgager declines if he does not have any other compensatory resources. As his income goes on declining year after year, he would not be able to recover his mortgaged land and at last he has to part with his land. This is the fate of the poor tribals in the wake of the extension of MLR & LR Act, 1960.

Effects of the extension of MLR & LR Act, 1960

The hill tribals have been pushed into a peculiar situation by the extension of MLR & LR Act, 1960. We may examine the position of the affected villages and people as below:

Saikot village

The village, Saikot in Churachandpur district was established in 1920 (as per record available) by the great grandfather of the present chief. Before the independence, the villagers got settled in the village with the permission of the chief. The chief is the owner of the entire village land and allotted land to his subjects. Now with the extension of the Act, even the chief had to pay premium for obtaining allotment of the land which he had customarily owned and cultivated for years together. If he had not done so, he should have been treated as encroacher in his own land. A development project had been taken up in Khuga Dam (multi-purpose project). In the construction of the Dam, many villages and households had been affected and displaced. The people, who had been allotted land under the provision of the MLR & LR Act 1960, are made genuine land owners. Such people only got land compensation. The tribals who had been living there even before the framing of the land laws and owned the land on the basis of the traditional and customary laws are made encroachers in their own land. The extension of the Act had deprived the people of ownership of land based on traditional and customary practices.

No Khas Land in Hill Areas

The landmark ruling of the Hon’ble Guwahati High Court in Imphal permanent Bench under Civil Rule No. 132/90/91, between the North-East Council, Shillong, the State of Manipur and the Deputy Commissioner, Ukhrul versus the Hundung Victims of Development Project, the judgment was in favor of the petitioners whose land had been acquisitioned by the North-East Council through the Government of Manipur. The acquisition of land was meant for (i) Construction of Mini Cement Factory with an approach road, (ii) Construction of Imphal-Ukhrul road and (iii) Construction of Nungshangkhong Mini-Hydro Electricity Power Project. In the judgment order as noted at Sl. No. 25 says’”

‘We are here concerned with Hill areas of Ukhrul’¦that there is no Government Khas Land in the hill areas of Ukhrul. The ownership of land situated in the hill villages of Manipur vests in the villagers. They do not hold the land under the pleasure of the Government.’

There is no khas land not only in Ukhrul district but in all the hill areas of Manipur. Without realizing the ground reality and proper acquisition of land, the State Government occasionally had instructed the district administration in the hill districts to allot land to any Government Department or individual in accordance with the provision of the Act, whereas the Act has not yet been extended to hill areas except to some plain pockets. This had also caused the issue more complicated.

Observation of the Law Research Institute of Guwahati High Court

The Law Research Institute of Guwahati High Court observed that the extension of the Act to the selected hill villages had created many problems (Das, J.N. cf. 1089: 144). It says:

‘The extension of MLR & LR Act, 1960 to the villages inhabited by the Kuki tribes has created many problems besides that of annual pat-tadars’¦but the customs relating to the land system of these villages are different’¦ The villagers were his tenants and they use to pay regular rents in kinds besides their presents’¦ Without abolishing the ownership rights of the chiefs, how could these be brought direct into contact with state Government? Yet, this was done wrongly in our view’¦’

The State Government does not attempt to bring about amicable solution to the land issues of tribal population. Instead they attempt to extend the provisions of the Act slowly in planned manner. The tribals have their own system of regulating the land holding based on tradition and customs. This conventional system is still effectively found in tribal societies. Extension of the Act to the tribal areas without rectification of the existing traditional and customary practices will certainly bring misunderstanding between tribal and non-tribal communities.

Fear of Tribals for Land Alienation

The crux of the whole problem is the question, whether the extension of MLR & LR Act, 1960 to the hill areas and the land situated therein automatically becomes Government land. According to the Kuki customs, the chiefs are the owners of the entire land within their jurisdiction. As stated above, under Naga system of land ownership, the chief of the founder of the village is the first owner and there is second and third owners. There is no khas land in the hill areas of the State of Manipur. While such is the situation in hill areas, extension of the Act will certainly dislocate the whole system. The one who had owned and cultivated the land for years together under their customs and tradition would be made encroachers on their land. The peculiar situation in the Saikot village was the result of the extension of the MLR & LR Act, 1960 to the hill district villages. Similar situation would be created as it goes on extending to hill villages. Many lands would be alienated from their original owners as the State Government had a policy of extension of the Act slowly in planned manner. The growing consciousness among the different tribals of Manipur is that the members of their communities have been dispossessed off from their land by non-tribals as in the case of Tripura. This may lead to an ugly situation of clashes between tribal and non-tribal communities.

Suggestions

It is a high time for the State Authority to review the situation and feel the pulse of the tribals and see for the best solution to the un-resolved issues of land holding in the State in general and tribal areas in particular. The existing customary and traditional practices of land holding system is not free from defects. It needs a re-look in the system. The following points may be suggested for the improvement to the aged old system of land holding in the tribal society.

Land Laws for the tribals:

A committee to study land holding system and practices of different tribal communities may be constituted and a separate Land Laws for tribals be framed. The committee may comprise representatives from two major tribal groups i.e. Nagas and Kuki-Chin-Mizo and experts in the subject from the State/Central Government.

The State Government should not encroach upon the lands lying within the hill districts except on unavoidable or exceptional cases of acquisition.

The customary rights of ownership over the land should be recognized.

The customary and traditional practices are required to review to suit the changing social environment in which they are living in.

Land holding under the traditional laws should be properly recorded and the laws/practices itself need to be modified for codification.

*The article is written by K Daimai.

*The writer is a Retd Joint Director of Tribal Research Institute, Govt of Manipur.

(Courtesy: The Sangai Express)

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