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Assam's Land Policy 2019: The Debate on Indigenous People

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The politics and policies of Assam have been dominated by the “foreigner issue” and “protection of the Assamese people”, especially since the 1970s. In recent times, the politics of Assam has erupted once again in relation with the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The passing of the Act along with the Assamese apprehension regarding protection of their land and culture has brought the recently approved Land Policy, 2019 under a lot of scrutiny and public debate. But what is in this Policy that makes it a sensitive public debate? Let us understand the Land Policy, 2019, and its possible impact on Assam.

A Brief Commentary On The Land Policy 2019

The Land Policy, 2019, prepared by the Revenue and Disaster Management Department was approved by the Government of Assam on 21st October, 2019, and later released in November by the Chief Minister of Assam Sarbananda Sonowal. It replaces the earlier Land Policy, 1989, and hence Assam gets a new land policy after three decades.

The Land policies are subject to change at regular intervals keeping in mind factors like population growth, erosion, encroachment, industrialisation, urbanisation and natural disasters like flood.

The policy of 2019 states the following problems:

  • Occurrence of flood in every year, rendering the land unfit due to siltation and erosion resulting in loss in alarming quantum of homestead and agricultural land across the State. (eg. The erosion of Majuli over the years has reduced the total area of the region)

Graph 1: Area of Majuli Island 1901-2001

  • Rapid growing urbanisation and industrialisation causing decrease in agricultural land.

Graph 2: Number of Urban Towns in Assam 1971-2001

  • Unauthorised encroachment over Government land resulting in decrease of readily available land for allotment/settlement.

Encroached land near Brahmaputra river.
  • Temptation to sell roadside agricultural land by poor, ignorant and unorganised agriculturists due to variety of reasons has also resulted in the loss of agricultural land.

  • Degradation of land for a variety of man-made factors causing stress on agricultural land.

The policy of 2019 is very much similar to that of 1989 – the major differences being the insertion of the word “Indigenous” and the reduction of the ceiling for newly allotted land. The key changes over the policy of 1989 are as follows:

A. Allotment for ordinary cultivation in rural area

1. The maximum limit of land for the allotment of land to an individual agriculturalist has been fixed at 3 bighas for agricultural and ½ bigha for homestead purpose from the earlier 7+1 bighas.

2. The maximum limit of land for Co-operative Societies formed by the indigenous landless cultivators would be the aggregate of the land entitled for allotment to each individual member of the society or 30 bighas (whichever is less).

In case of registered societies formed by indigenous women, the ceiling is set at 35 bighas.

3. Preference for allotment was earlier also extended to those rendered landless due to acquisition for public purpose. However, now they have been substituted with indigenous widows having no earning son or daughter (excluding married daughters), indigenous single woman, disabled persons, ex-serviceman desirous and capable of taking up agriculture as a means of livelihood.

B. Allotment for homestead purpose in rural areas

1. Landless indigenous families may now be allotted ½ bigha of land which was earlier 1 bigha. Land may be settled on periodic basis if the land has been put to use within 3 years of allotment. However, such settled land shall be non-transferable for 15 years from the date of settlement.

2. Deputy Commissioners are to expedite the process of settlement of land to Tea and Ex-Tea labourers as per the policy.

C. Allotment for allied agricultural purposes in rural areas.

Land in rural areas for pisciculture, dairy, poultry, piggery, sericulture, plantation of herbs and medicinal plants etc., are subject to a maximum limit of 2 bighas per family and 30 bighas for registered Co-operative Societies. This maximum limit was earlier 5 bighas per family and 20 bighas for Co-operative Societies.

D. Allotment of land for Non-Agricultural purposes

Endeavours shall be made to allot land for establishment of required infrastructures/projects in order to preserve the identity, culture, heritage, etc. of the ethnic communities/groups residing in the State.

E. Restriction on transfer of Agricultural land

The Deputy Commissioners with the assistance of the Department of Agriculture shall now carry out surveys to identify the “prime agricultural land” parcels of the districts. Such land shall be digitally mapped and recorded distinctly in the land records.

Besides the aforementioned, a number of other significant steps have been included in the policy for the betterment of land use in Assam.

The Pros of the Policy

1. Keeping in mind the significant rise in the population of Assam since 1991, the ceiling in land allotment seems justified.

Graph 3: Population of Assam 1981-2011 (as per Census of India data)

2. Significant steps have been taken to ensure the safety of prime agricultural lands by means of restrictions on transfer.

3. The endeavour on the part of the government to build infrastructure and projects for the preservation of cultural heritage is a welcome move.

4. The policy has given due importance to women and persons who are physically challenged.

5. The increase in the ceiling of land that may be allotted for allied agricultural purposes is likely to promote the diversification of agricultural activities of the State.

The Cons of the Policy

1. The removal of the people who have been rendered landless due acquisition by the Government for public purposes from the classes of people who shall be given preference for allotment seems unjust.

2. The land policy seems to have an agriculture fixation as the non-agricultural use of land is hardly being emphasised upon.

3. The policy states virtually nothing with respect to allocation of land for the promotion of industrial growth in the State. No steps have been mentioned to ease the setting or expansion of industries by means of lower revenue rates or temporary relaxations or allocation of any special industrial zones.

The “Indigenous People” Debate

Clause 6 of the Assam Accord states “Constitutional, legislative and administrative safeguards, as may be appropriate, shall be provided to protect, preserve and to promote the cultural, social, linguistic identity and heritage of the Assamese people.

Protection also includes protection of land rights. However, it is interesting to note that there is no definition of “Assamese people” anywhere in the Accord. Hence, a committee was formed under the chairmanship of Justice (retd.) Biplab Kumar Sharma to look into the issue. The Committee completed its report, but its content was kept confidential.

In August 2020, a few members of the high-level committee made the contents of the report public which allegedly mentions that "those who were residing in Assam on or before 1951 and their descendants shall be treated as Assamese."

This again brings up the question whether those who settled in Assam after 1951 shall continue to have rights over the land and property in Assam. At this point of time, the only thing that can be stated with certainty is that the people with whom land has already been settled will not be losing their land rights.

The Committee Report is yet to be formally submitted, accepted and implemented. If the Report is accepted with the alleged definition of “Assamese people”, it will most likely affect those with whom land is yet to be settled. The potential difficulty includes providing proof of residence in Assam since before 1951 or that they are the descendants of people who satisfy the criteria. The documentary requirements for proving such a fact is bound to create hardships and is prone to bureaucratic blunders if done on a large scale.

The issue is sensitive and it is best left to the wisdom of the Government, and if need be, the judiciary.

The article is written by Parthajit Dev Choudhury, a Law student from J. B. Law College, Guwahati. Parthajit is a skilled debater who loves poetry and likes to discuss economical, philosophical and social issues.

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