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Absence of suitable land law and land use policy is arresting development of hill areas

Last Updated on February 17, 2023 by SPN Editor

The land is the basis of all economic activity in any State, and a sound land use policy – updated to current requirements – is imperative for the development of hill areas in Manipur. Here, reforms are needed across the board – in regulation, ownership, operation, sale, leasing, and inheritance of land.

A suitable Land law or Land Use Policy in the hills of Manipur must primarily aim at helping the common people residing in the hills and improving their economic conditions. Even after 75 years of getting Constitutional safeguards and special provisions, the majority of hill people are not empowered in terms of land ownership and rights.

The land they have been claiming to be their ancestral property is someone else’s private property for generations.  A land use policy must be implemented for improving the socio-economic conditions of the poor people living in the hills. When the British left India, the country was infested with the Zamindari system, a land holding which holds the record for maximum exploitation of the poor people.

The same Zamindari system was abolished and new land reform was introduced which got rid of the feudalistic exploitation of the powerful land owners. When such a system can be reformed, why can’t the government introduce a new land use policy to give more power to the common people?

The outdated and unreformed land use system is one of the major causes of underdeveloped hills in the State. Those who voiced against the proposal for a land use policy of the hills are those who want to keep the poor hill people under their control. In the name of Tribal land rights and ownership, they have been discriminating against the common people, exploiting the generations in the name of protecting lands that must be used judiciary for developments.

Outdated Land Use Policy in the Hills

Most traditional land laws are based on clan, community-based, and individual ownership. Defective land use policy led to low farm production which directly or indirectly leads to acute poverty, illiteracy, and of course, the stagnation of the economic development of the region, sometimes conflict arises among the kinsman on the issue of who will be the rightful heir of the lands as well.

For instance, when the conflict of ownership sometimes arises between the Village Owner (or Chief) and the Landowners, the common people who are landless depend on the mercy of both. They have to rely on them for gathering even the firewoods, grazing cattle, or collecting water. The poor and landless are always at the mercy of the Chiefs.

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A paddy field belonging to a Village chief in the hill.

Similarly, clash takes place during elections or leadership in the Church which forced people to leave the village and settle in another land. Such shifting of the village led to extreme poverty and creates untold miseries for the people. The main cause for such an issue is the unregulated and unchecked land laws in the hills. The Village head can expel anyone whom he doesn’t want to see in his land.

Another concern of unregulated land use policy in the hill at present is the privatization of land, without proper channel and government intervention.  Several tribal lands have been converted to private lands. This system is against the safeguarding of tribal ancestral lands.

Development Agenda in the Hills of Manipur

Train to Manipur will soon attract investors and manufacturers, who wish to explore the South East Asian corridors. The unregulated land law or land use policy in the hills will miss the opportunities for development as well.  Land, which is the basis of all economic activity in any state is underutilized and restricted from infrastructure projects in Manipur due to separate Hill Valley politics and the Constitutional divide. 

A sound land use policy – updated to current requirements from the traditional ownerships– is imperative for developing States like Manipur which is ready for Act East Policy towards the Far eastern economy of the Country.

A lot of manufacturing companies from Japan, the US, Switzerland, and Germany are actively looking to shift their base out of China and explore options in Countries like India. Such new opportunities can be effectively harnessed by making land laws more attractive for companies, without unduly compromising the interests of landowners in the hills of Manipur. 

The State government must, therefore, devise a land reform that is the need of the hour.  While drafting and formulating a land law or land use policy, special attention must be given to regulation, ownership, sale, leasing, and inheritance of land too.

Hurdles in implementing Land law

Most of the tribal states are of the opinion of reformed land law and land use policy will promote developmental activities. Manipur too needs a reform law for inclusive development of the State.  The absence of suitable land law and land use policy in Manipur is arresting the development of hill areas.

The idea of separate land law for the hills and another one for the valley will never narrow the gap of unequal development; rather it will continue to divide the State further. The changing transformation of development requires a unified land law and land use policy to protect the lands, irrespective of valley or hills.

Politicians, Civil Society Organizations, and research scholars have never stopped blaming the valley people and the government for unequal development in the Hills and valleys.  They have never told the world that their underdevelopment and the failed socio-economic system are due to the absence of reform land law and land use policy. A reformed land policy will definitely free themselves from the customary rule which only gives privileged to a few selected chiefs and those in the higher authority.

The common people have been exploited by the outdated land policy which gives more power and autonomy to the village chiefs or influential ones. Those in power misguided the common people in the hills and blamed everything on the valley people. Whenever any development project is announced for the hill districts, they will shout that their tribal customary law was challenged by the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act,(MLR &LR Act)  1960.

Quite often, a few Tribal leaders and CSO challenged that their customary rights have been violated by the Land reforms and Act implemented in the State. They act as if they are victimized by people who are staying in the 6 percent valley region. 90 percent of the State area is occupied by hills, which comprise around 40 percent of the total population while the Valley population which also includes the hill people is 60 percent.

Even though Manipur is 90 percent hill, 4 percent water bodies, and only 6 percent valley (mainly Imphal valley), the Indian lawmakers have treated that 6 percent of people staying in the Imphal valley will discriminate and exploit the majority 90 percent. With this view, they have provided special provisions and rights for those staying in 90 percent of the total land area which is not left far behind from the development.  People are suffering and only the rich and those in power are enjoying the benefits.

Whenever the state government introduced a bill to empower the hill people and protect their rights and bring the development of hill areas, some vested interest groups instigated the common people to project the move as anti-tribal. When there is any reformed policy or Constitutional amendments introduced for the welfare of the State, the hill and valley issue resurfaced and was unable to bring a unified law or policy to the State.

Benefits of having a proper land use policy

 The unprotected and unguarded valley has developed from town to city level. While the hills have not seen any significant development even after enjoying a plethora of Constitutional rights and benefits all these years.

Despite the protest, the MLR & LR Act 1960 was extended in Churachandpur and Moreh in the 1980s. Due to this, Moreh and Churachandpur town is fastest developed towns in Manipur today, showing an example of the development of hill areas. If the  Act was not extended to these two areas, then we will never see the charms of Moreh and Churachandpur. It will be another Senapati or Ukhrul without much development.

In Manipur, the development of hill areas is arrested and slow-paced due to certain customary and traditional rights. Even after crores of investment in the hills, no significant development is seen.

More surprising is that 6 percent of the total geographical land is contributing Rs 11 crores as Land revenue to the State Exchequers while the remaining 90 percent contributed only 25 lakhs as house tax annually.

During the tenure of Chief Minister RK Jaichandra in 1988, the Manipur government had introduced an amendment bill of the Act of 1960 seeking to extend the provisions of the Act to the entire state of Manipur including the hill areas to enable the Revenue department to make a survey and prepare records of rights in respect of the permanently settled areas.

However, the bill was fervently opposed by MLAs from the hill areas in the Manipur Legislative Assembly, projecting the said bill as an anti-tribal bill. The same protest repeats in 2015 when the Okram Ibobi-led government tried to bring a reformed bill to bring equal development in the State.

Traditional Land Law in Hills

In Kuki-dominated areas,  every village land is owned by the chief and the villagers are his tenants living under his mercy and they are given temporary rights to stay. In Naga-dominated areas,  both community land ownership and individual land ownership exist. However, the owner is not documented and is valid for official documents. Therefore hill people are not entitled to have their own lands and are not enjoying certain benefits and rights compared to their leaders.

They must be given the privileged and the benefits enjoyed by land owners, for this either the MLR & LR Act must be extended to the entire state of Manipur or to introduce a new land law to give them the rights.

Neither the State government nor the valley people will snatch their lands in the hills, but the new land use policy will certainly provide them the benefits of having their own land which is long overdue for the common people in the hills. The idea of safeguarding ancestral lands or traditional land is null and void until and unless the common people in the hills have their rights and ownership of the land they are currently guarding as tenants of village chiefs. When they cannot have ownership of the land they are residing for generations, how can they claim their ancestral lands?

Vested interest groups do not want the development of hill areas

When a tribal state like Mizoram can reform their traditional and customary land rights in the larger interest of their people, why the tribal leaders and politicians in Manipur are clinging to the outdated village-level land ownerships and ready to blame every move on the State government as snatching their ancestral lands?

Even though the hills of Manipur have been safeguarded by the Constitutional provisions and provided every benefit enshrined in the Constitution, Why there is uneven development between the hills and valley in Manipur? Whenever any new law or Act is reviewed to be implemented for the benefit of hill people, the hill leaders will play victim cards and blame the government’s sincere effort as a ploy to encroach on the tribal lands.

Mizoram land law and model of development

Among tribal states of the Northeast, Mizoram is one of the fastest developed states. All this is due to their reformed land laws which leave behind the traditional chief or individual ownership of lands.

Today, Mizoram is an example of development. The land reform in Mizoram clearly states that all lands, public roads, streets, lanes and paths, bridges, ditches,  rivers beds, streams, lakes and tanks, and all canals and water sources and flowing water are not the property of any individual and all land including notified and surveyed forest area shall be the property of the State Government. 

Besides, the right to mines, quarries, minerals, and mineral products including mineral oil, natural gas, and petroleum shall vest in the State Government.

The enactment of the Mizoram Land Revenue Act, 2013 along with its Rules 2013 supports the regime of private property, and the Land Revenue Act 2013 shifts power from the community in favour of the state government. This represents a shift from community ownership based on customary rights (sanctioned by the 6th Schedule of the Constitution) and largely administered by the Village Council to individual private property rights. These statutory changes that have privileged private property have led to Mizoram achieving full scores for this reform in terms of developing the State into one of the biggest cities in Northeast India.

Land in Mizoram has been classified into two types, non-farm, and farmland. The non-farm land constituted house sites and trade sites and allotment was done either by the Village Council issuing a house pass or by applying to the LR&S Department for a Land Settlement certificate.

The Land Settlement Certificate pass holder has only restricted rights for the time period and the specific usage permitted whereas the Land Settlement Certificate holder has inheritable and transferable rights derived from the regime of private property.

Through the  Act, LR&S officials aimed to transfer private land to the state government and this is urgently needed for development purposes.

New land Law in Nagaland

Another Tribal State, Nagaland takes serious land issues and is drafting a new land law to protect the land. Nagaland government is concerned about the low ranking of the state in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) index where land ownership in the state has been highlighted as a major issue hindering and delaying developmental activities.

So far, the State was implementing the Assam land Law. The Nagaland government is drafting a Nagaland Land Law Act which will be inclined toward an easier land acquisition system for the development of the State that is of public interest and also pave the way to speed up other development projects. The government is concerned about the problems created by the traditional and customary rights over land. They are of the opinion that their land ownership system has always created stumbling blocks when people want infrastructures like health care systems, schools, stadiums, roads, water supply, and industries.

Existing Manipur Land Revenue Act

In 1960, the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act were passed which extends to the whole of the State of Manipur except the hill areas. This MLR Act of 1960 Provided that the  State Government may, by notification in the official  Gazette, extend the whole or any part of any section of this Act to any of the hill areas of Manipur also as may be specified in such notification.

Whenever any development project is proposed in the hills by the State government, MLR and Land Reform Act 1960 and the HAC  1972 as well as the Manipur (Hill Areas) District Council Act 2008 prevented the development projects.

However, the sub-Section (2) of Section 1 of the MLR & LR Act, 1960 clearly provides that the State Government may, by notification in the Official Gazette, extend the whole or any part of any Section of the MLR & LR Act, 1960 to any of hill areas of Manipur as may be specified in such notification.

State government vouching for separate land law for the hills

Raising concerns that no equal development could be made between the hills and valley due to a lack of policies, CM N Biren’s government has been considering a separate land use policy for the hill districts. He started consulting hill leaders to enact a separate land law for the hill districts which would not overlap with the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms (MLR&LR) Act, 1960.

Through the  ‘Manipur Vision 2047’, various developmental works, including roads connecting border areas of Manipur by passing through the entire headquarters of hill districts will be taken up. Existing tribal and customary land rights should not hamper the development of the hills.

When the Village chief or the highly influential people staying in the hills are getting crores of rupees in terms of compensation for the Railways, Trans Asian Highways, and Dams in the Hills, what do you as a common people living in the hills got? You don’t have a land ownership certificate, yet you are ready to shout for those lands which have another owner, not you!

Several CSO leaders shout, “For us Tribals, the land is our identity.” Do these CSO leaders have their own land in the hills to claim their identity?  Never, they don’t any lands, yet claiming it to hinder the development which must be stopped at once.

Let those staying in the 90 percent of Manipur’s hill areas have the opportunity to town their lands and help them to use their lands into monetized relations of exchange, where land is viewed as homogenous units of exchange value.

When tribal-dominated states like Nagaland and Mizoram adopted suitable land laws and land use policies for the development of hill areas, why can’t our leaders in the hills welcome the move by CM N Biren for a suitable land law for the hills? In Manipur, the absence of land reforms in the hills had always been an obstacle to proper land-use policy, developmental activities, and the welfare of the common people due to the lack of individual land ownership rights. Therefore, proper land law is a must for the future and development of hill areas of Manipur.

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