MDA and change of land ownership in Jañtia hills

By H H Mohrmen

Tradition like everything else evolves and changes with time. A case in point is a village called Shnongrim which is under the Nongkhlieh eleka. Till the late 1990’s and early 2000’s people in the area never registered their land. They refused to either register it with the Jañtia Hills Autonomous District Council or the Deputy Commissioner’s office because they reason that according to tradition the land still belongs to the community. Members of the community only have the right to use the land. If it is left un-used for three consecutive years the land reverts to the community.

The fact that the Sixth Schedule which was incorporated in the Constitution as an instrument designed to protect the interests of North Eastern tribals particularly their land, is now open to discussion. Things have changed now and it is fifty years since we have had a state of our own. Meghalaya is a tribal state where the majority of people indigenous to the state are local tribals and almost all the elected representatives to the legislative assembly are also tribals. The question then is, why is this sense of being threatened, persist amongst the indigenous people even after having a state of our own for half a century now?
While many have tried to define the land tenure system in the state, the truth remains that the land holding pattern is not uniform. The land holding system in Meghalaya varies from place to place or from one community to the other. It is therefore wrong to assume that there is one general land holding pattern for the entire state. It cannot be painted with one brush as ownership pattern is different and complex, particularly in the two districts of Jañtia hills. Land ownership in the two districts can be broadly divided into two categories. Traditionally, it is either owned by the community or the clan depending on the region in the district.
Tradition like everything else evolves and changes with time. A case in point is a village called Shnongrim which is under the Nongkhlieh eleka. Till the late 1990’s and early 2000’s people in the area never registered their land. They refused to either register it with the Jañtia Hills Autonomous District Council or the Deputy Commissioner’s office because they reason that according to tradition the land still belongs to the community. Members of the community only have the right to use the land. If it is left un-used for three consecutive years the land reverts to the community. That has of course changed now and people register their land and the tradition has ceased to exist.
In the War Jaiñtia area or a large part of the Amlarem sub division, land is owned by different clans. Again in the different villages, different clans own major parts of the land in the respective villages. In fact the distribution of land in the area is based on the time of the clans arrival in the region. The first settlers or rather the clan or clans which came to settle in the area first, selected and distributed among themselves the greener pastures or the best part of land in the area. They leave the lower grade or un-cultivatable and none arable land for the migrants who come to settle in the village later. Members of clans who came to settle last have to depend on the earlier settlers, who in turn lease the cultivatable land to the late comers for their agriculture use.
In the War Jaiñtia area, to this day, the clans which owned large tracks of land are still called (z) Jamindar and they lease out land they cannot use to farmers in their respective villages. So farmers who have no land have to take on lease land from the clan for use in farming or other purposes. The farmers then have to pay a yearly compensation to the land owner for the land they have taken on lease from the clan. This practice is still prevalent in the War Jañtia area of the Amlarem Sub division. The question here is whether the farmer owns the land in this case? Most of the farmers in this region are landless except the land where their house is located. The land that they use for farming is taken on lease from the clans and they only have the right of use over the land. This is apparent especially when farmers want to avail credit from the bank and they cannot mortgage the land because the ownership is still with the clan.
Of course the good thing about this tradition is that the clan which owns the land cannot just take the land back at their whims and fancy even if the land belongs to the clan. Ownership of land in the uplands like eleka Jowai, Nartiang, Shangpung etc is different from the southern slopes of the district, because in these areas land is owned by the community. Even in the case where the land belongs to the community, the farmers’ rights over the land is only as long as he/she uses it. But even in the area where the community is holding a major portion of the land, some Kur or clan in the community still own large tracts of land.
The sad fact is both these traditions are declining as community and clans lands are fast becoming private lands. The size of the clans’ land decreased from time to time on being divided and subdivided amongst the members of the clans. Similarly due to the exponential growth of the population, community land is also decreasing day by day.
Now to the question whether Khasi Pnar is an egalitarian society? The answer is that despite the Khasi Pnar female being in a much better position when compared to women in other societies, yet gender inequality is apparent in the community. On the other hand, even if there is no caste system in the society, class system exists as some clans are bestowed with rights and positions that were denied to the other. By tradition there is no equality is the social structure of the society as some clans occupy a better position and a higher status than the others.
The threat is that as time goes by community land is distributed for settlement and agricultural use and gradually public land is shrinking. Few years back many villages by tradition provided a plot of land to every new family in the community to start their home, but now very few villages have that luxury. Now many villages do not have common land anymore – not even to provide housing plots for construction of houses for new families.
In Meghalaya, the threat to the people is not from outside but from within the community in the form of the rich grabbing the land of the poor. In the coal mine areas much of the land is now owned by the coal mine owners. In the entire state the elite section of the community which include coal baron, politicians, bureaucrats, policemen own majority of the land now.
The other major threat to land is when there is no restriction of how the land is used. The Autonomous District Councils have no power to regulate how land is used by the public. For instance agriculture land in the district can be converted to commercial land. Anybody can mutate agriculture land or for that matter any kind of land, for housing or commercial purposes. There is absolutely no rule or regulation on how land is used in this state which puts farm land and even forests under threat of being converted to commercial areas.
Even in the case of cement companies at the eleka Narpuh, land grabbing happens and huge areas of tribal land changed hands with the tacit support of the village headman and local representatives of the companies. A large tract of land in the area is now owned by the companies or their representatives who were given a dummy post as local directors. In Narpuh with the tacit support of the former MDCs even the Council land which was considered as un-classed forest was converted to private land and transferred to individuals and later sold to the companies.
In all the above situations, it is the poor people who are being marginalised. When land is continuously being privatised, it is the poor who are at the receiving end of the stick. Rich people and companies continue to own large tracts of land depriving the poor and the farmers of their source of livelihood.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Chief Minister’s tacit support to limestone mining at Brichyrnot by cement companies made it obvious that the MDA is the government of the rich and the powerful. The government does not seem to understand the tradition that land is an essential part of a tribal’s life. This will not only encourage cement companies to grab more land but more importantly the chief minister surrenders the authority of the state over land in a tribal state to the central government. This is not only unprecedented but it will also create a precedent as the right of the State Government over land in a tribal state is jeopardised.
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