On March 12, the Arunachal Pradesh (Land Settlement and Records) (Amendment) Bill, 2018, was passed by the state Assembly. The Bill confers ownership of land for the first time on the state’s citizens.

Previously, under the Arunachal Pradesh (Land Settlement and Records) Act of 2000, residents of the state did not have land titles. The only document the indigenous population received to stake claim to a piece of land was a “land possession certificate” issued by the deputy commissioner of a district, subject to approval by the forest department and the village council. Actual ownership continued to rest with the state.

The amendment will make people with valid land possession certificates owners of their land and allow them to lease it for up to 33 years. At end of this period, the lease can be extended for another 33 years.

A press note issued by the state government announcing the amendment stated that it would go a long way in bringing development to the hill state, which is largely dependent on Central largesse. “With this legislation, huge investments from outside is [sic] expected, which will augment the economy of the state,” it said. Courtesy the amendment, “land can now be mortgaged for obtaining loans from banks as the formal channels of credit has been opened”, the press note added.

The paradox of land

The land tenure system in Arunachal Pradesh, so far, has often been marked by contradictions. Like most other states of the North East, Arunachal Pradesh is home to several Scheduled Tribes: they account for 65% of the state’s population. Each tribe has its own customary laws, according to which it generally manages daily affairs, including land transactions.

However, unlike other tribal states and tribal majority areas in the North East, the Constitution does not provide legal sanctity to this system of local governance by customary laws in Arunachal Pradesh. Still, the state’s tribes continue to give primacy to customary laws. In most cases, the state government refrains from interfering. As social scientist Walter Fernandes put it: “In theory the formal law applies but in practice the customary law holds sway.”

This paradox, however, has often led to confusion in land acquisition exercises for development projects in the state, which has seen hectic infrastructural expansion in the last couple of years. For instance, an important component of tribal life in the North East is community land – shared spaces controlled by tribal administrations. But India’s land acquisition law recognises only individual ownership.

In states like Nagaland and Mizoram, which enjoy special status under Articles 371A and 371G of the Constitution, land acquisitions take into account customary laws and are done in consultation with tribal bodies. In Arunachal Pradesh, where no such special provision exists but customary laws hold sway anyway, land acquisition exercises have often run into troubled waters.

Fernandes explained, “In Arunachal Pradesh, the fact of de facto community ownership has been making acquisition difficult because the state and the Centre are not ready to recognise the reality of the customary law and the people want their rights to be recognised.”

The Subansiri dam project has been stuck since 2011 following protests and a National Green Tribunal order. (Credit: AFP)

More bargaining power?

Tasik Pangkam, general secretary of the Siang Indigenous Farmers’ Forum, said individual ownership would give people more bargaining power in land acquisitions. “Now people will not give away their land to the PSUs [public sector undertaking companies] if they don’t fulfil our demands,” Pangkam said.

Vijay Taram of the Forum of Siang Dialogue, an anti-big dam collective, agreed. He said the amendment would help people economically and empower them to negotiate better with potential land acquirers. “Right now, even if we have hectares and hectares of land, we could not use it to get loans from financial institutions,” he said. “But now we can use it as collateral.”

But opinions are divided among activists. Farmer and social activist Oyar Gao, general secretary of the Siang People’s Forum, an indigenous farmers’ group from the state, denounced the amendment, saying it would lead to more tribal people being dispossessed. “Not everyone will be able to pay for the registration of land,” he said. “And in the absence of registration, all land will be declared as unclassified forests and the government will take over.” He contended that the government’s “main policy” was to give away land for the construction of big dams.

The big dam project

The amendment could be the government’s way of easing bottlenecks and making land acquisition for big infrastructure projects simpler, according to Fernandes. Arunachal Pradesh has been at the heart of India’s hydro-electricity push in the North East over the last few years. There are close to 200 big hydropower projects planned in the region – most of which are yet to be approved.

Of the 1,45,320 megawatts of hydro-electric power potential assessed in the country, Arunachal Pradesh accounts for 46,805 megawatts.

For the few approved projects in the state, the government has acquired land through a rehabilitation process that many experts claim undermines the community land-centric lifestyle of those displaced. For instance, each family uprooted by the controversial Lower Subansiri project – which has been in cold storage for the last couple of years because of protests and a subsequent stay by the National Green Tribunal – was given a hectare of land. But the families, practitioners of traditional itinerant farming methods known as jhuming, had access to much larger tracts of community land prior to the construction of the dam.

In an essay entitled “Land Alienation Due to Large Hydro-Power Projects in Arunachal Pradesh”, researcher and activist Manju Menon pointed out how these rehabilitation packages fell short: “One should also note that besides using jhum lands for agriculture, forest fallows too are important for medicinal plants, wild foods and other forest produce. None of this would be available to the displaced population.”

Fernandes contends that such acquisitions would now have legal sanction and become more commonplace. “The present legislation seems to be an effort to remove resistance to land acquisition by seeming to give the people rights over land,” he said. “In reality it will be similar to the rehabilitation policy of giving the families some individual land and then forgetting them. In practice, most community land will thus be turned into state property through the back door and then handed over to private companies for many of these projects”

The traditional practice of jhum cultivation in Arunachal Pradesh gives families access to large tracts of community land. (Credit: Rohit Naniwadekar / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)