By Dr Rusievan Shangpliang
The problem of land acquisition and land alienation is not new but has arisen since the time Meghalaya attained its statehood and continues to persist even to date. There are plenty of incidences that indicate that the customary land-holding system of the Khasi is currently in danger and it is this concern that prompted the Voice of the People Party (VPP) MLA, Ardent M. Basaiawmoit to submit a Resolution in the Autumn Session of the Meghalaya Legislative Assembly 2023 to strengthen the Meghalaya Transfer of Land Act (Regulation) 1971 and to stop its rampant violation.
In his resolution, Ardent points out that the insertion of Section 4 (1) (e) & (f) in the 1971 Act, brought by the 1991 Amendment, enabled religious societies to transfer land in their name and the land can be used as burial or cremation ground by any community and hence they provide the opportunity for non-tribals to purchase land in Meghalaya, which is a departure from the inherent character of the Act. Such alienation of land by the government cannot be stopped by the locals since it operates under the above sections. It is clear that the Act of 1971 and its subsequent amendments could not seal the leakages that existed in the exceptions and hence it became hitherto inadequate to protect the property, identity and interest of the indigenous people of the state. Hence it needed to be strengthened.
In addition, the Resolution talks about the illegality that exists in the transfer of land and complete violation of the Act of 1971 such as the allotment of land to professionals, bureaucrats, etc. at the rate of one rupee per square foot and the lease of government land in New Shillong Township to the Civil Services Officers Housing Cooperative Society Limited. Furthermore, he also spoke about the significance of the land in which in addition to its value, the minerals underneath its surface also belonged to the same ownership.
The people of the state must be thankful to the VPP and its MLAs who have brought these crucial matters to the House on behalf of the indigenous people in general and the fate of the landless individuals and families in particular. Despite this effort, an editorial of one daily newspaper in Shillong questions the move of the MLA and paints a doubtful picture of the intention and motive of the Party. Unfortunately, the editorial missed a point when it tried to bring out the move of former Chief Minister BB Lyngdoh to conduct a cadastral survey of the state without giving its report or outcome of the mentioned survey. I agree that if such a survey is conducted, it will certainly help in laying out the foundation required for land ceiling, but the million-dollar question is, will this government carry out this vital move when its top brass from its coalition partners are themselves owning more than what their salaries could afford? We must seek justice for the sake of the landless tribal in the state, but one cannot point fingers when Ardent Basaiawmoit as an MLA tries to bring the attention of the Legislative House to this matter or question his past as the MDC in the Autonomous District Council. Instead, we should appreciate and encourage him to take the matter to the people and seek their full support in resolving the issue which has a deep sense of cultural and historical connection.
It would be reasonable if one would also question why the Resolution brought by him was defeated in the Assembly when the cries of sections of the middle and below middle class are very much aloud these days since the cost of land is more than their earnings in two or three lifetimes. Perhaps this question should be directed to the rest of the 56 members of the Legislative Assembly who have decided that they do not want to partake in safeguarding the primary and most important rights of the people of the state by refusing to support the resolution of Ardent and also to the majority of the MDCs who have been constantly failing to highlight and discuss this vital issue in the Council.
The accusation that Ardent overlooked the case of the landless tribal is uncalled for. Since, as an indigenous lawmaker it is his duty and it becomes his priority to put the protection of his people from land alienation by non-tribals first and deal with the merciless accumulation of landed property by the rich locals later. Therefore, according to the Resolution that he brought, he proposes a land ceiling which is required to reduce economic disparities, to ensure that wealth is not concentrated in few individuals and to guarantee that tribals are not left behind but should have access to available means of subsistence and an adequate piece of land.
Before anyone jumps to conclusions, we must first find out what causes land alienation. I must agree with the editor of the same newspaper when she rightly mentioned in one of her published articles that poverty is the main cause of land alienation. But what causes this poverty and how do we measure it? Why are certain groups of people (both local and non-local) accumulating enormous amounts of wealth enough to buy ten or hundred acres of land while others cannot even afford to pay regular rent? Isn’t this visible especially among the ones who are hand in glove with the government ministers and front party workers? Isn’t it obvious that a government servant is able to buy land worth crores of rupees within a short span of service? Isn’t it corruption and money laundering and daylight robbery of the state treasury before our very eyes?
The unemployment problem, economic hardships and many other issues compelled the primary landowners to sell their land for a throwaway price only to regret it later. Aren’t these practical problems that require practical solutions? According to Khasi customs, The Dorbar of the Syiem, the Raid, or the Shnong has no right to either create Ri Kynti or to convert the Ri Raid to Ri Kynti or sell it. This is practice in theory while in reality both Ri Raid and Ri Kynti are being converted into registered private ownership, and if customs are being trampled and disregarded by the modern political administration then we are bound to have more landless tribals.
It should be placed on record that most of the land in Meghalaya is privately owned. Out of the 4,85,913 households, there are only 1,16,723(24 percent) households with land. This is alarming and highly sensitive since the population is growing and the overall performance of the state is not in a condition to help the landless to acquire land for their necessity. The District Council has the right to exercise its powers conferred by the provisions of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution of India, and rules and regulations have to be made to safeguard the rights of the people in all aspects. This is not a one-man job but the members of the Council have to jointly agree without a doubt to come up with stringent laws to strengthen the Land Acts vis a vis the rights of the tribals in the state. Time will tell whether the District Council will see an administration that will provide justice to the landless and curb the power of the landed ones. And as to which party will lead that kind of administration, only the indigenous voters will decide.
We must remember that the VPP stands firmly on the ground of clean politics and clean governance. Corruption is a disease that most people and those at the helm of affairs have considered and casually accepted as a normal practice and this is a dangerous precedent, especially for our state. It is also not illogical to say that as one of the factors of economic stagnation, corruption or the misuse and misappropriation of public funds has also led to the state of under-development, rural economic deprivation and shoddy constructions of certain vital physical infrastructure (assets). Again, we must also consider that there are certain classes of people who through their ill-gotten wealth have amassed and accumulated more land in the urban and rural hinterlands, which is also one of the main factors of land alienation.