Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh: Based on Nyishi tribe member R. Teli’s logic, his people own all of the land and nature that surrounds them—or none of it.
“We build homes from bamboo in forests, eat fish from the river, hunt animals in the jungles and grow rice in the jungle,” he explains matter-of- factly, displaying the bowand arrow his family uses for hunting. “Our life is simple. We share. All of this is ours. Why do we need paper saying that?”
The question resonates with one million tribals in a state with no land records, whose residents do not understand the concept of land ownership and have traditionallyshared land and its natural resources.
But now, with massive development projects coming to the state—Arunachal Pradesh is embarking on a makeover with mega projects such as four-lane highways, airports, big dams to fuel the country’s growing power needs (104 dams to generate 55,556MW of electricity)—land rights and ownership matter more than ever.
In the chaos, there are reports of government officials asking gullible tribals to sign away their community land without anything in return. Observers and the tribals themselves say that once the reality of the situation sinks in, the government will have a crisis on their hands.
Arunachal Pradesh has an 82% forest cover and half of these are protected forests, reserved forests or national parks that cannot be used for development.
There lies the problem. Despite an 82% forest cover on 84,000 sq. km, there just isn’t enough usable land available. Everything that has to be done—the projects, rehabilitation and resettlement—has to be done on the roughly one-third of state owned by the tribal community right now. And even though their lives depend on the land and forests, they have no land records, no legal documentation to prove the community’s ownership.
In addition, when the projects are done, the companies will have to comply with the terms of the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, that requires companies to plant compensatory forests to make up for the trees they cut down; this reforestation has to be done in the same state.
“It requires us to plant trees on twice the area that we deforest while building this dam,” explains Shashank Bhatnagar, general manager and geologist at NHPC Ltd in charge of a 3,000MW Dibang valley project. “If the forest officer says there is empty land in the reserve forests, then we can plant there. If not, we have to buy land from the villagers and give it over to the forest department.”
This requirement has left the state government scrambling to find land not just for industry but also for the compensatory forests.
“How do you buy land from those who do not legally own it? They are resorting to devious means to wrestle land away from traditional tribal control. They are lying and making false promises to illiterate tribals and making them sign away their land for nothing in return,” accuses Souprana Lahiri, an associate at the National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers, an organization that works on issues of forest people and advocates their rights.
For instance, in 2006, tribal elders in Bomja village in the western district of Tawang, decided to give 226 hectares of community land to forest officials for five years.
K. Monpa used to own a tract of forestland, along with 118 other villagers of his hamlet here. But in keeping with traditions, Monpa and all other villagers accepted the decision of their gaonbora, or tribal chieftain. Now, they occasionally work as day labourers, planting trees on the same land.
These 226 hectares of land that the gaonbora has given away belong to 31 families of Bomja, all of whom live below the poverty line, according to a government survey of 2003. Most are illiterate; only 10 of 118 people here have been to primary school.
Since this deed is written in English and the gaonbora also has no education, he depended on the forest officials to translate the document to him during the negotiations.
“Although it is written there that this land will become a protected forest when we take over, we do not tell the gaonboras that. We do not tell them that they will lose their rights on this land. We are told not to tell them this,” said a forest officer in Tawang, who says his conscience weighs heavy on him because he knows the tribals are being cheated, but cannot be named because he will lose his job due to this.
“We are told not to notify the land as protected forest immediately because the tribals will protest. We have been told to wait until they forget and do the notification quietly,” this officer said. “They think they will get to use these forests and forest produce and will get this land back as well. In reality, they are never going to get their land back.”
Chief minister Dorjee Khandu, who is from the same district of Tawang, did not return calls for comment.
At the 3,000MW Dibang valley dam alone, 5,000 acres (2.47 acres equal 1 hectare) of forests will be submerged and NHPC will have to plant trees in 10,000 acres as compensation. “This is for just one project. Think about it. There are 103 more. When you think about the big picture, the magnitude of the problem begins to hit you,” said Lahiri.
G.N. Singh, director of the state’s Forest Research Institute at Itanagar, said that the change of classification from unclassed forestland under tribal control to a “protected forest” under state control is critical because it defines what the tribes can and cannot do on that land.
“That means that the tribals will still be able to do some hunting and gathering in these forests,” he said. “But that will change from a right to a privilege.”
Even as battles over land wage throughout India, Arunachal represents a unique case because few places like this remain in the country, lands where ownership rests with the community even though the government controls the land, said Lahiri. “In fact, the only place left outside of Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, is in some parts of Jharkhand. It is worse here in this state because there are absolutely no land records here,” he said.
When the government makes these development decisions in New Delhi, they think displacement is not an issue because just one million people live in this huge state, explained Neeraj Vagholikar, an environment expert at not-for-profit organization Kalpavriksh.
“But these tribes also have their traditional demarcations. They know this ridge belongs to the Galos; beyond it is land of the Nyishis. You have to rehabilitate them in their own land as well,” said Vagholikar.
The state government has appointed a three-member committee to assess this problem. K.D. Singh, one of the members on the committee of land rights, says his team is only examining the problem. “Our mandate is not to give solutions. Our mandate is look at the problem and pave way for the mega projects coming in the state,” he said.
He admits it is vexing: How do you acquire land fromthose who are completely dependent on it to survive but do not really possess it? “Their whole lives depend on this forest. Traditionally, it is their land. But the law does not recognize this as their land. We are trying to find a way to protect their interests, make sure they do not lose everything when the big projects come here.”
Vagholikar says it might be a better idea to first determine the rights of the forest people under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006 before allocatingland for projects. “Once that is done, the tribals will at least know what their rights are,” he said.
In Durpai village, 70-year-old village elder Yum Jum Tapipodia says tribes have always had their own informal laws. “We had our own system of land sharing and if there were differences, the gaonbora used to resolve the conflict according to tribal laws,” he said. “But all forests have always belonged to all the tribals living in them. There was never a need to say—this land is mine.”
This is the second in a series of articles on Arunachal Pradesh. Part 3 will look at the environmental and sociological issues of the projects and how the government has not followed norms and procedures in clearing these projects.