Land banks in Jharkhand may become a recipe for conflicts

  • The allocation of lands for new commercial coal mines is likely to renew issues related to the creation of land banks in Jharkhand.
  • Common lands that people use have been transferred to land banks over the years, and physical surveys to record actual rights aren’t complete yet.
  • Lack of effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006 on forest land (also part of land banks) has been a major point of concern for the affected community.

“Adani company go back,” residents of Jharkhand’s Gondalpura declared in a public hearing organised on July 15, 2022, by the Hazaribagh District Collector’s office to discuss issues surrounding impending land acquisition for an upcoming mine. The Gondalpura block in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh was sold to Adani Enterprises Limited (AEL), following the 2020 commercial coal auctions by the government of India. As part of the auctions, several mines across states were auctioned to various big and small industries, including many that had not mined coal before.

In the mining plan for Gondalpura block, the non-forest land was 176 hectares while forest land was 224 hectares. However, while applying for forest clearance in March 2021, AEL sought more land – 293.53 ha of non-forest land and 219.65 ha of forest land. The private company also asked the state for land from the land banks for compensatory afforestation – a statutory process meant to compensate for the loss of forests to mining, industries, infrastructure, and all non-forest use by raising plantations on an equivalent area of non-forest land or double the area of degraded forests. Residents of five villages, Gondalpura, Gali, Balodar, Hahe and Phulang, are likely to be displaced in this land acquisition process.

Land is a complex and contentious issue in tribal-dominated Jharkhand, a central Indian state. It has 23,605 square kilometres (about 2 million hectares) of Recorded Forest Area (RFA) which is about 29.6 percent of the total geographical land of the state. A land bank includes large tracts of land kept under the control of governments or private organisations for future development.

The process of acquiring land of different types is governed by several legislations in India such as the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the Forest Rights Act 2006 for forest land, respective tenancy acts of different areas such state laws like the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, (CNT), which has been in existence since 1908 and Santhal Paragana Tenancy Act, (SPT) and also the Jharkhand Land Reforms Act, The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Jharkhand Amendment) Act, 2017, Jharkhand Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Rules, 2015.

The CNT Act in Jharkhand provided not only for the creation and maintenance of land records but also created a special tenure category “Mundari Khuntkattidar”- original settlers of land among the Mundas and restricted the transfer of land to non-Adivasis. However, with the upcoming mining projects such as the one at Gondalpura, locals are worried about what will happen to their lands.

As the land in question comprised of forest land, a lot of other land, also known as rayyati land also came into the ambit. Rayyati land is the land which was cultivated by the local farmers and villagers when the zamindari system (land was held by a land owner and leased out to farmers) existed in India. Many times, even barren lands would be turned fertile by the labour of the people who ploughed these.

Rayyati land is the land on which people have got the titles. On the other hand are gair majarua lands on which people don’t have titles and once they receive the titles, these aren’t transferrable.

An important part of differentiating rayyati and gair majarua lands is that rayyati lands were taxable and people would receive a receipt on paying taxes (known as raseed katna in local parlance); these receipts became important evidence that the particular residents were indeed utilising these lands and were akin to the owners. On the other hand, there was no tax levied on common lands, giving an impression that the land solely belongs to the government, when in fact the lands in question are being used by people for various purposes.

Seventy-seven-year-old Devnath Mahto, a former school teacher, and also a veteran leader from the area, said, “The land titles we had received as gair majarua, and also had receipts, but the former BJP government had created land banks and taken the land under these land banks.” He told Mongabay-India that rayyati and khatiyan land is very less in this block. “But gair majarua land is expansive, the land on which we have rights,” he adds.

The issue of common lands

Senior lawyer Rashmi Katyayan, also a consultant to the departments of Land and Revenue in Jharkhand highlights that, “Even within the gair majarua lands, there are different kinds of land, one is the gair majarua aam that is considered as part of the commons, and gair majarua khas that has vested with the State as per Section 3 of the Jharkhand Land Reforms Act, 1950, and that too without any encumbrances”.

This means that common lands in villages which were known by the name of gair majarua lands, which were earlier recorded in the name of munda/manki or pradhan (head) got recorded as government lands in land records namely khatians. The khatian was made in three parts – one with the record of rights showing rights in each plot of land, second a record of customary rights and third a village note providing the social and economic organisation of each village, while settling the rights, the latter two khatians were overlooked.

Through this process, the government obtained the right to settle this land for cultivation or any other purpose. Although the settlement reports stated that this land belonged to “the inhabitants of a village as a whole or to a certain section of those inhabitants collectively”, it lacked clarity and the community rights weren’t recorded as before. The process of vesting of rights deprived the people of their customary rights. Father George Monipally, working on forest and land rights in the state said, “Though the people may have been cultivating the land, influential or elite persons got the lands recorded in their names. So the actual owners of the land are usually dispossessed despite having cultivated the land for long.”

“Before 1950, the ex-zamindars held such lands so that they could settle tenants on them for the purposes of agriculture. The CNT act has two special tenures known as Bhuinhari in 2482 villages and Mundari Khuntkatti in around 150 villages, and these are exempted from the provisions of the land reforms act. Thus the gair majarua lands of these tenures have not vested in the state,” explained Katyayan.

The process of settling land in the actual land owners’ name (Adivasis and marginal farmers in many cases) was fraught with irregularities. “Since there was money charged to settle the land, rich people would get this settled. Despite there being a requirement of a public notice to be served, this was managed internally, wherein the notice/s wouldn’t reach the actual owners of the land,” Monipally said.

A women works in vegetable garden adjoining agricultural fields and houses in Gondalpura. Photo by Sushmita Verma.
A woman works in a vegetable garden in Gondalpura. Photo by Sushmita.

Gair majarua aam lands are under the control of the state government, and on such land every common person has rights. However, because of the encroachment by influential persons, the entries in land records may not reflect the actual possession, as highlighted in the Report on Land Governance Assessment Framework, Jharkhand. The report was prepared by the Ranchi-based National Institute of Study and Research in Law, which undertook the study as per request by the Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India by requesting the World Bank to support the assessment of land governance using an LGAF approach.

Katyayan highlights that another provision of the CNT act is a statutory right, governed by a village custom called korkar. This could be exercised only on the gair majarua lands within the village. This has been recorded under a village commons record of rights entitled Khatian Part 2, issued in the name of the village. Mahto says that their korkar rights were finished off by the previous government, essentially rendering them “slaves” on their own lands.

Read more: Land banks could deny land communities rights over land, says report

How land banks were pushed

Though the mines were only auctioned in 2020, the groundwork for the “easy” acquisition of land has been in progress for several years. As part of this process, the central government facilitated the creation of land banks in several states. These land banks were supposed to expedite the process of acquiring land by having ready parcels of land which could be traded in lieu of the land that was being acquired. Several state governments also pushed and actively pursued this idea, including the then Jharkhand state government.

In 2016, the Jharkhand government under the leadership of then Chief Minister Raghubar Das started the creation of these banks. This was preceded by the launch of the initiative Momentum Jharkhand where MoUs (Memorandum of Understanding) worth a whopping Rs. three trillion (300,000 crores) were signed with industries. However, the creation of land banks wasn’t done in consultation with people, nor were physical surveys of land conducted beforehand.

Much of the land whose actual status had changed since the pre-independence surveys, was also included in the land bank. “Only after 1948, the permission of the district collector was required to convert the village gair majarua lands into paddy fields by exercising Korkar rights. So those GM lands already brought into cultivation before 1948, stood recorded in the RoR (record of Rights) as GM lands, and ignoring this fact when these records were digitised for the first time, by simply pressing a button, the Raghubar Das Government put all these zamindari as well as Bhuinhari, Mundari, Khuntkatti, gair majarua lands in the land banks,” Katyayan said.

77-year-old retired school teacher Devnath Mahto of Gondalpura who highlighted how land banks were created by the previous state governments. Photo by Sushmita Verma.
77-year-old retired school teacher Devnath Mahto of Gondalpura who highlighted how land banks were created by the previous state governments. Photo by Sushmita.

Additionally, “when the Raghubar Das government was in power in the state, receipts weren’t collected since 2015,” noted Monipally. However, when the new government came into power, they gave power to the district collectors to conduct land-based surveys to identify the latest status of the lands. These surveys have not taken place in many areas and the process of recording existing rights remains unfinished.

Katyayan says that lands which were made into agricultural lands were put into the land bank. “A dispute is also that various other types of lands (under customary use) such as the Sarna, Jaher, Hargari, Masna and other communitarian tribal non-agricultural lands (gair majarua) were all put in the land bank,” he added.

Implementation of the Forest Rights Act remains a mirage

A report by the National Institute of Study and Research in Law further commented on the process of digitisation of land records and its associated fall outs, “However one of the major drawbacks is that registration offices still do not have up-to-date land records and land maps because fresh revisional surveys of land records have not been completed except in Lohardaga and Latehar districts. There is a lack of coordination between the registration office and local revenue offices which leads fraudulent transfer of land.”

Moreover, close to half of the land in the land banks is forest land (known as gair majarua jungle jhaari land). The Forest Rights Act 2006 is applicable on such land, so that the people residing in the region, especially indigenous people and other traditional forest dwellers, can claim individual and community forest resource rights.

“After zamindari was abolished, many communities especially Adivasis (who may have been cultivating these lands and residing nearby) were labelled as encroachers because of the Indian Forest Act. However, the FRA said that they weren’t encroachers but were occupying the forest land,” Monipally pointed out.

But despite the enactment of the FRA in 2006, its implementation in these areas has remained abysmal. “There have been no initiatives taken by subsequent governments to implement the FRA in Gondalpura. Some years back, in 2018-19, a camp was organised in Kheerageda block, and some titles were distributed. We are not aware what happened to the claims that we had filed – both under Individual Forest Rights and Community Forest Resource rights,” Mahto claimed.

The Forest Rights Act 2006 which allows indigenous people and other traditional forest dwellers to claim individual and community forest resource rights has not been implanted in Gondalpura.
The Forest Rights Act 2006 which allows indigenous people and other traditional forest dwellers to claim individual and community forest resource rights have not been implemented in Gondalpura. Photo by Ajay Kumar/Wikimedia Commons.

Apart from lack of implementation, there is misinformation about the act. Parmeswar Mahto, another resident from Gondalpura, the area points to a common notion held across many areas. “Nobody told us about either individual or community forest resource rights, and even when we went to the Anchal (circle office), we were told that this law is only for Adivasis, it’s not for us. Where is it written?” he questioned. Despite the Act being applicable to Adivasis and other Dalit-Bahujan as well as pastoral and nomadic communities, confusion always lurks about their rights, and state governments have been less than proactive in spreading awareness of the Act.

“The intentions of subsequent governments are questionable. If they will recognise rights under the FRA, then how will they invite companies? And then why won’t they create land banks … the land that our ancestors have tilled, that land and they make the rule that the land is government’s? We made this cultivable.” Mahto added.

Katyayan highlighted challenges with the implementation of FRA in the state and said, “In Jharkhand, the situation is different, the forests are not inside the villages, villages are inside the forests, Here CFR rights should be applicable for the common land.”

“However, such lands have also been classified into the land banks, such as the revenue forests within the boundaries of a village and recorded in the Khatian Part 2,” he added.

Shalini Saboo, assistant professor at the Institute of Legal Studies in Ranchi University, emphasised that development projects such as these are likely to further marginalise Adivasi women. Saboo, who has studied customary laws in the state among various indigenous communities, has found that Adivasi women such as from the Munda community, despite contributing more towards household income by engaging in strenuous physical labour, agricultural activities and household activities, are still striving for rights.

These issues make the land banks extremely controversial in the state.

However, the government sees it differently. Uma Shankar Singh, the Director of Land and Revenue Department and previously the District Collector of Dhanbad when questioned about the concerns on land in Gondalpura told Mongabay-India that these issues “haven’t come to the knowledge of our department.”

“It may be a good idea to see where the processes are currently, and see what the concerns of the raiyyats are, and approach accordingly,” he said.

District wise distribution of Gairmajurwa Khas Aam, and Forest land. Photo from Jharbhoomi portal
District-wise distribution of Gairmajurwa Khas Aam, and Forest land. Photo from Jharbhoomi portal.

That being said, and despite the opposition posed by the current party in power to the land banks, the idea of these banks isn’t going away. In fact, the government is looking to reform this area and is more focused on grievance redressal mechanisms.

“As you are aware, our portal, Jharbhoomi is in the public domain and anyone can see it. The portal and the information there have been created on receipt of reports from district headquarters, only the reports certified by the district level headquarters have been uploaded there,” said Singh while replying about the claims of gair majarua land deposited in the land banks.

He says that there are multiple channels for grievance redressal. “Those who have grievances can approach the respective district offices. You must be aware that every day, in the office of Anchaldhikari (circle officers, responsible for revenue collection etc), many people are coming with their complaints. Further, they can lodge their complaint on the online portal also. If nothing works out, they can also write to us.”

But what are the mechanisms through which such elaborate grievance redressal processes may work, in situations where there is an extreme information deficit in these areas?

“It may be true that there is a lack of awareness among many of our Adivasis brothers and sisters on some of these processes. There is also the option of janta durbar, as you are aware. Especially, on the lands which are in dakhal kabza, and people are cultivating for a long time. The concerned persons should immediately approach the junta durbars and lodge their grievances and complaints, they will be heard immediately,” Singh said.

Raiyyats should meet the anchaladhikari or the highest level in such cases, Singh said. There is an elaborate process and set of rules for the lands on which there is dakhal kabza.

Kanchi Kohli of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research notes that “The central government’s jurisdiction on these lands may be exercised in the light of the 1996 Godavarman judgment.”

“First, it is crucial that the state governments clarify and complete the process of recognising and recording deemed forests, which will be able to clarify the applicability of the FCA 1980 on such lands. Second, the central government has repeatedly encouraged state governments to create land banks so that the availability of land does not hinder the forest diversion procedures in favour of both government and public sector companies. State governments have also been willing participants in this practice,” Kohli told Mongabay-India.

As both, the renewable and non-renewable sectors have turned out to be land intensive, it remains to be seen if active efforts are taken by the state and central governments to start resolving land issues for the people of the state otherwise it is a ready recipe for land conflicts.

Read more: Land banks to help economy post lockdown could threaten poor communities


Banner image: A valley taken from Hundru waterfalls in Ranchi district in Jharkhand, India. Photo by Ajay Kumar/Wikimedia Commons.

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