Protests Flare in Eastern India After Changes to Decades-Old Land Laws

A vegetable seller waits for customers at a wholesale market in Manchar village in the western state of Maharashtra, India, November 16, 2016. Picture taken November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Shailesh Andrade

By Jatindra Dash

BHUBANESWAR, India, Nov 24 – Protests over land rights flared for a second day in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, as activists and indigenous people took to the streets after the state assembly approved amendments to colonial-era land laws despite strong opposition.

The state assembly on Wednesday approved changes to two laws that will allow the state to buy protected tribal land to lease to investors, as well as use agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

Unruly scenes unfolded in the assembly in state capital Ranchi, with an opposition member hurling a shoe at the speaker, while police used teargas and water cannons to disperse protesters outside.

State government officials say amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act will help lure investment to one of the country’s poorest states.

Easier access to land in the resource-rich state will also help create critical infrastructure including roads, hospitals and schools, state officials said.

“The changes to the laws will help people use the land for commercial purposes; it will benefit them,” Revenue Minister Amar Kumar Bauri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We did it after wide consultations,” he said, denying the opposition parties’ charge that consultations were not held.

Conflicts over land in India have increased as the economy expands and more land is sought for industrial use and development projects.

While several laws have been introduced in the past decade to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people, some laws have been diluted in their implementation and not always helped the most vulnerable, activists say.

Those opposed to the changes to the Jharkhand laws say they will deprive tribal people of their rights and leave them with fewer resources. More than a quarter of the state’s population belong to indigenous, tribal communities, and protests have raged for months, with one person killed in Saiko last month in clashes with police.

Former chief minister Babulal Marandi, head of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha party, said opposition parties have called for a state-wide strike on Friday, and that protests will continue.

“There was no demand for a change in these laws from the people. A large number of industries were set up even with the old laws,” he said.

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