Evolution of tribal land management

In 1895-99, the Santhals, under the leadership of ‘Bhagwan’ Birsa Munda, took up arms and cried ‘Ulgulan’ (revolution) to protect jal, jangal aur zameen (water, forest and land), the necessary elements shaping their identity.
Numerous tribal uprisings had taken place before Ulgulan that was followed by several more. The struggle to save identity, land and other natural resources is still alive in many tribal pockets of India, including the North East.
A new book puts the microscope on the country’s northeastern region and its history of conflict with a class of people who have many faces — encroachers, outsiders, intruders etc.
Ownership, Management and Alienation: Tribal Land in Northeast India — born out of a partnership between North Eastern Social Research Centre and Omeo Kumar Das Institute of Social Change and Development — is an intensive study on the socio-economic changes surrounding land in tribal societies of the region.
Authors Walter Fernandes, Joydeep Baruah and Augustin Millik identify the land-related issues of a few tribes and meticulously study the causes and effects of these.
“The importance of land in the lives of the people of the region shows the need to understand the processes that result in its alienation and the conflicts that follow from it,” the authors say while describing the rationale of the vast and vivid study.
The study is based on lengthy interviews with members of six tribes — Ao, Bodo, Khasi, Lotha, Nocte and Tangsa — from across the North East. It points out that “people in hilly terrain resort to jhum” and most hill tribes follow common property resource though they have different land management rules.
The three common types of traditional land management in the sample tribes are community land, individual land and clan lands. However, over the years, there has been a conceivable change in tribal land management.
“The first change is the privatisation of community land which began in the colonial age… In Assam, the tools the British used for getting control over land were the Assam Land Act 1834 and the Assam Wasteland Rules 1838,” the study mentions and points out that “among the external factors of changing land relations are the policies introduced after independence”.
The researchers have divided the sample members into various age groups to get a thorough knowledge of the past practices and the current trends. Various factors — historical, political and socio-economic — spur land alienation and the study delves into every aspect. The processes that lead to land alienation have been classified into four types — transfer to non-tribals, encroachment by immigrants, acquisition for development projects and monopolisation by the tribal elite.
The authors dedicate a chapter to describing the methodology of the study on transformation of tribal land management so that readers have a clear idea about the statistical procedure adopted by field workers. They explain immaculately how and why the sample members, belonging to different age groups, were chosen and which are the areas of focus.
Inheritance of land in each tribe depending on its lineality has been explained to make the study of land management lucid for non-academic readers.
Among other things, the study also points out how transition from one crop to the other impacts ownership of land and how traditional crops alter less. “For example, Coffee, Tea and Rubber Boards insist on individual ownership for loans and subsidies for those crops… many crops that are today grown as commercial were part of jhum cultivation in the last generation. So they would not have caused a major change in the land generation,” it says.
The tabulation of data in each chapter helps readers get a precise idea about the facts and data stated in that particular chapter.
The researchers, in their concluding chapter, explain why the term ‘ land management’ has been used and that it is “need-based, not profit oriented” in case of tribals.
Based on the findings of the study, the researchers pin-point the problems and their possible solutions. Imposition of modernisation on the northeastern tribes has created anomaly in the land system and the authors raise the question of what kind of modernisation needs to be implemented. It also shows the example of the Khasi society that has been able to make the best of modernisation by wisely marrying tradition with new-age demands.
The book is of much academic value for its clarity in data collection. For those not into academics, it is an insight into a part of tribal lifestyle that helps in understanding the present politico-social-economic condition of the region.

~ NM

Book: Ownership,
Management and Alienation: Tribal Land in Northeast India; Authors: Walter Fernandes, Joydeep Baruah and August Millik;  Publishers: North Eastern Social Research Center and OKD Institute of Social Change and Development; Pages: 174; Price: Rs 300 (hardbound)

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