One of the placards of the Tribal Solidarity Rally on May 3 had read ‘There is no government land in the hill areas’, which is simply ridiculous. It is as if they do not recognise the state and its laws. Time and again, the Chief Minister N Biren Singh had asserted that, all land belongs to the state and the state can take over any land for purposes of development and welfare projects in the larger interests of the state and its people, under the Land Acquisition Act. This is the law of the land and everyone needs to respect that.
The government had notified that no new recognition would be given to villages having less than 50 households, as new villages keep springing up. The question of land reforms has always been a problem in the state of Manipur, with certain groups always raising hell over the extension of Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act, 1960 in the hill areas. The lack of land reforms in the hills had always been an obstacle to proper land-use policy and the overall development and welfare of the common people for lack of individual land ownership rights. Even then, the absence of a land tenure system in the hill areas does not negate the rights of the state.
However, tribal chieftains, particularly the kukis backed by SoO groups, had been opposing the state’s policy on land resources and forests. Their stated objective is to protect land and forests from ‘external’ forces. The external forces they are talking about are the state government and forest laws of the country. They seek to challenge the state government’s intent to rationalise the overlapping boundaries of districts in terms of both revenue and police jurisdiction besides the laws of the nation governing forest land including reserve forests and protected forests. They had earlier claimed ownership rights over whole mountain ranges including reserved and protected forest areas. The claim of ownership over mountains started in Sadar Hills and repeated in Thangjing hills in which villagers tried to prevent forest officials from afforestation drives.
As we said, one of the basic root causes of the recent outburst from Kuki-Chin groups is against the strict implementation of forest laws and campaign against poppy cultivation in the hills areas. We sometimes doubt whether they have a love of the land on which they are claiming their rights. It is an open secret that they slash and burn the hill-sides and plant poppies spoil the fertility of the land with chemical fertilizers.
In short, they waste the land and its fertility for short-term gains. The rapid deterioration of forest cover and degradation in recent times has somehow hastened the process of climate change and its overall impact on the environment of the state.
Mudslides and floods in the hill areas during torrential rain is just one of the symptoms of rapid deterioration. As compared to hill areas inhabited by the Naga tribes, the land degradation is more in the Kuki areas. So, it is but natural to raise the question as to what they intend to do with the land after ‘separation’ and what they have done so far for conservation and upkeep of the land or mountains or rivers they are claiming to own. So far, it has been about land degradation and wanton destruction of forests to establish new villages and cultivate poppy.
The valley dwellers have every right to raise objections against such land degradation as it affects the overall ecological balance of the state and region. Not only in the case of Manipur or the Northeast, destruction of forests and widespread timber felling in neighbouring Myanmar affects the region. The issue of land reforms in the hills had been made very complicated over the years by some powerful lobbies particularly the Kuki chieftains by spicing it with wrong notions of indigenous land rights, an imagined threat perception of the valley people coming to settle in the hills, and of course flavours of sentiment while all the time side-lining the rights of common people in the hills with regard to individual land ownership.