The recent assertion by Chief Minister N Biren Singh that all land belongs to the state is indeed timely in the backdrop of claims of certain chieftains over forest reserve lands and consistent resistance to road development and other developmental projects coupled with high compensation claims. The question of land ownership in the hills and of vexing compensation issues have long been a hindrance to swift implementation of development of roads and other projects and in fact, long pending cases in the courts have added to the delay. The present delay in implementation construction of a bypass in the Asian Highway in Kangpokpi district due to land compensation troubles is a case in point. It is mainly the village chiefs who are protesting over the compensation rates, as they stand to gain most if the government accepts their proposal, and they are using the simple village folks who are basically tenants of the land they are allowed to till and cultivate. It is indeed sad that the state government and the district administration has failed to act according to the established law. As the Chief Minister said, all lands in the state belong 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 its people, under the Land Acquisition Act. Now, the implementation of the Asian Highway is being held up and already one work season had gone by due to non-resolution of the compensation and the NHIDCL is crying foul over it. There are even rumours that, NHIDCL has threatened to back off from the highway project.
As we said before, the issue of land reforms in the hills had been made very complicated over the years by some powerful lobbies 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. Perhaps, Manipur must be the only state in India which has more than one land-holding system in practice. While the whole of valley area and some parts in the hill districts are covered by the Manipur Land Revenue & Land Reforms Act 1960, there are two land ownership systems in the hills. In the Kuki areas, all of the village land is owned by the chief and the villagers are his tenants living under his patronage, who are given temporary rights for tilling the land on the condition that a portion of the produce should be given to the chief, the landowner. While there is both community and individual ownership in most of the Naga areas, the ownership is not a part of the state land records system. In the lack of collateral in terms of official individual land ownership, banks are often reluctant to give loans to individuals or infrastructural support to hill based entrepreneurs, thereby stunting individual growth and development. Besides the absence of individual ownership rights had generated a general lack of responsibility among the hill people towards the upkeep of the land they till and toil in year after year, thereby leading to rapid land degradation and fertility.
In 1988, the then Chief Minister RK Jaichandra had introduced an amendment bill of the Act of 1960 seeking to extend the provisions of the Act to the entire state of Manipur including the hill areas to enable the Revenue department to make survey and prepare records of rights in respect of the permanently settled areas, wetland rice cultivated areas. The bill was vehemently opposed by the representatives of the hill areas in the Manipur Legislative Assembly. It was projected as an anti-tribal bill by the powerful lobbies active in the hills, which are basically composed of the tribal elite and the powerful chiefs.