Raghubar’s Risky Ruse
The CM’s move to amend tenancy laws has tribal politicians worried
When Raghubar Das first talked of revising two key laws— the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy (SNT) Act—governing Adivasi land rights in Jharkhand in July 2016, it seemed like a chancy thing to do for the state’s first non-tribal chief minister. Land, after all, was a touchy topic in the state where 26.3 per cent of the population is tribal and over a third (21 of 81) of the seats in the assembly are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. Both Das and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party knew that tinkering with the laws could potentially spark a raging row amid an Adivasi community already wary of the constant influx of outsiders.
But more than the villagers, it is the tribal politicians—including some within the BJP disingenuously still playing identity politics to remain relevant—who are feeling threatened. They feel a successful implementation of the amended laws may make them irrelevant. The amended CNT and SNT that Das pushed through in the Jharkhand assembly last November seem like a masterstroke. The new provisions allow tribal owners to form business partnerships with government or private players for non-agricultural land use while keeping ownership of the holding inalienable.
If implemented with care and some caution,
the amended provisions could significantly benefit hitherto impoverished tribal landowners who can now lease out their holdings for commercial use. Before this, without the financial wherewithal to plan ventures, tribal owners also found it impossible to procure credit from financial institutions which were chary about advancing loans against holdings that could not legally be mortgaged. Though technical, the revisions now allowing partnership with government or private entrepreneurs have changed the rules of the game.
Confident that tribal residents will see his amendments in a ‘favourable’ light, Das hopes this will help him emerge as a pan-Jharkhand statesman. “No one will be able to touch the land of tribals as long as I am here, whether in power or out of power,” he says.
Waking up to the threat posed by Das, Jharkhand’s tribal chiefs have come together to oppose the amended land laws, calling it a “BJP conspiracy to snatch tribal land”. Jharkand Mukti Morcha (JMM) boss Hemant Soren says “the move will let the government and unscrupulous industrialists take over tribal land”. He and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha chief Babulal Marandi—both former CMs—have buried the hatchet to take on Das. But the sterner challenge for the CM will be his own colleague and three-time chief minister Arjun Munda, a tribal leader who has joined the chorus of protest raised by the Opposition. “Land has always been a very touchy issue in Jharkhand. The majority of the local tribal community members are still gullible, and the Opposition has been using this to brew discontent,” says a senior IAS officer dealing with the issue.
The feisty Das has never been one to fight shy of defying convention. Will the new tenancy laws catapult him to pole position in the state? Or will all blow up in his face?
A BOLD STEP Jharkhand CM Raghubar Das