World News

Indigenous people in eastern India protest law changes that threaten their land

BHUBANESWAR, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of indigenous people rallied in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, protesting against the government’s proposal to amend decades-old land laws, saying it would deprive them of their rights.

The state government, keen to lure investment to one of the country’s poorest states, has proposed amendments to two pieces of legislation to allow it to buy up protected tribal land to lease to investors for non-agricultural purposes.

“The Jharkhand government is attempting to dilute the rights of tribals guaranteed by the Constitution,” said Premchand Murmu, a protest leader and member of the rights group Adivasi Buddhijeevi Manch, which organized Thursday’s rally.

“We plan to continue our agitation until we achieve our goals,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rally held up traffic and blocked roads in the state capital Ranchi, as people marched in traditional costumes, carrying bows and arrows, as well as placards with anti-government slogans.

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had earlier submitted a report to the federal government advising against the state’s plans to amend the two colonial-era laws - the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act.

State government officials say the move will help provide land to build much-needed infrastructure, and that the interests of indigenous people will be protected.

“The amendment has been proposed after wide consultations and in the interest of the people,” said Revenue Minister Amar Kumar Bauri.

“We have done this to ensure that the construction of critical infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, supply of electricity do not face trouble,” he said.

Conflicts over land in India have increased as the economy expands and more land is sought for industrial use and development projects.

While several laws have been introduced in the past decade to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people, some laws have been diluted in their implementation and not always helped the most vulnerable, activists say.

In Jharkhand, two people were killed and more than 30 injured last month, when villagers protesting the loss of their homes to a power plant clashed with police in Gola.