Offices and markets remained shut in Jharkhand on Friday after protests broke out over the amendments to land tenancy laws governing predominantly Adivasi regions in the state by the Raghuvar Das-led government.

As hundreds of youth came out on the streets in Dumka, the largest urban centre in Santhal Pargana region, and in the capital Ranchi, the police baton charged, and used water cannons on the protestors.

Protestors clashed with police in Ranchi. Image credit: Manob Chowdhury

On November 23, the Bharatiya Janta Party government had amended the land tenancy laws to allow use of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes.

Vinod Singh, Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) MLA explained the reasons for protest. “The government argues that this was necessary to bring ‘industrial development’ here,” Singh said. “But Jharkhand has been the site of large-scale coal and iron-ore mining by Coal India and others since the 1960s. So, what do they mean when they say ‘development’? And who will it benefit?”

The state government had passed an ordinance to make the changes in June, but this ordinance is still pending with the President.

The government then amended the laws by introducing a Bill on Friday.

Singh criticised the manner in which the amendments were passed. He said the Jharkhand legislative assembly rules required at least seven days notice for tabling and discussion of such a Bill. “But in this instance, the government introduced and passed the Bill in merely three minutes without permitting any discussion,” he said.

There were large scale protests in Ranchi on Friday. Image credit: Manob Chowdhury

The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act was enacted in 1908 after a revolt led by Birsa Munda, an Adivasi peasant. The law restricts the sale of tribal land to non-Adivasis in 16 of Jharkhand’s 24 districts in central and western region.

Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act enacted in 1876 had been passed following the Santhal rebellion in 1855 against feudal land tenure systems of the colonial government. The 1876 Act prohibits sale of Adivasi land to non-adivasis in Santhal Pargana region along Jharkhand’s border with Bengal.

Professor Ramesh Sharan, an economist at Ranchi University said the laws had been amended earlier in 1990s to permit use of land for pubic sector mining and industry, but agricultural land was not yet permitted to be used for non-agricultural purposes. “This new amendment may benefit a few high income Adivasis, but it may lead to agree scale alienation of land from Adivasi farmers,” he said.

Dayamani Barla, a Munda Adivasi activist, said the new amendments, to section 49 and 21 of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and section of 13 of Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, benefit only corporate interests.

“Raghuvas Das has said that this will permit Adivasi to open shops etc. on their land,” said Barla. “But Adivasis are already able to set up small shops on their homestead land. This change will simply ease transfer of our land to large corporates.”

She said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was speaking of ending corruption, while at the same time allowing corporates to take over Adivasis access to land protected under the Constitution.

Barla added that the amendments will affect not just 22 Adivasi communities living in Jharkhand, but other economically poor social groups. “Manjhi, Nai, Barik – where will all communities who live off the land go?” she asked.

Opposition parties, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) also joined the protesters on Friday.

Protestors set fire to vehicles in Dumka. Image credit: Manob Chowdhury
Former chief minister Hemant Soren of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha joined the protestors in Ranchi. Image credit: Manob Chowdhury