Tribal Land Rights: No Khas land in the hill areas of Manipur
Credit: Chandan Borgohain

As the world prepares to welcome 2021, Lakhiram Mardi (36), a father of three daughters hailing from Mikir Bamuni cluster of villages, will be spending the night with three other farmers in Nagaon Jail.

This will be his second time in jail in the last six months. Mardi, with Sikari Rongpi, Buku Mardi, and Bhaity Timung, who belong to the Karbi and Adivasi communities, is accused of manhandling the Assam police. The day before their arrest, locals alleged that police and paramilitary beat up the women. The residents of Mikir Bamuni allege that the Nagaon district administration and the police, helped by paramilitary forces, tried to evict them illegally for an upcoming solar power plant to be run by a New Delhi-based multinational company.

Surrounded by meandering streams emerging from the Karbi hills in the vicinity, 287 bighas (38.4 hectares) of prime agricultural land of Mikir Bamuni and Lalung Gaon was selected by the Assam Power Development Corporation Limited (APDCL), the state-owned electricity distribution in 2018. Azure Power, the solar company, won the bidding with Rs 3 per unit in 2019 for the plant following which, the process of land acquisition started in March 2020, days before the lockdown started due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bulldozers were run over paddy fields damaging ripened crops of the farmers

Lockdown Surprise

This also started the long ordeal for Mardi’s and 36 other families from Mikir Bamuni which led to several violent altercations between police and the village residents. “On March 12, we received a notice from the Samuguri Circle Officer to present our case before the administration on March 13. We could not even issue a written objection because the time was too short,” said Mardi, a few days before his arrest.

On May 28, the Circle officer and a posse of police and paramilitary personnel reached Mikir Bamuni. “It was a surprise. When the world was in lockdown, they came with pillars and barbed wires to make a boundary in our land,” said Sikari Rongpi. “Our people resisted, but we could only do so much. We had to prepare for a legal battle,” Rongpi added.

With the help of the local unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), these families approached the Gauhati High Court with a writ petition demanding a stay on the eviction and cancellation of the notice issued by the Samuguri Circle Officer. On June 24, a single judge bench presided by Justice Sanjay Kumar Medhi termed the entire process of issuing a notice, granting a day and then erecting posts as arbitrary and unreasonable. Justice Medhi put a stay on the land acquisition and asked the Samuguri Circle Officer to issue a fresh notice to the people of Mikir Bamuni and Lalung Gaon.

The court victory was short-lived. Azure Power appealed against the Gauhati High Court order and a fresh notice issued by the Circle Officer of Samuguri on July 15. On September 30, the Court asked the Nagaon administration to hand over the land to Azure Power. The District administration supported the company’s contention in stating that the land had not been cultivated for a decade, which was opposed by Mardi and others. The farmers immediately filed a review petition at the Gauhati High Court, following which the Court asked Mikir Bamuni residents to appeal to the lower courts to resolve the dispute.

Incidentally, the Court also directed the district administration to resolve the dispute amicably if people oppose the handover. On October 6, a lower court in Nagaon directed the District administration and the local police to not interfere since land acquisition had become a civil dispute. Nagaon Court is yet to pass an order in the matter.

Within two days of Nagaon Court’s order, Azure Power’s security personnel and police officials reached the spot with bulldozers, razed the freshly sown crops of 36 families. Take Mohan Kro’s fields, for instance. “My entire 19 bigha land where I had sowed Aaho rice was ransacked by the bulldozers on October 8. If that was not enough, they drained the entire water from the area which is good for Xali (Rabi) crops,” said Kro.

On that same October afternoon, the residents got into a scuffle with the company security and some locals who supported the project. “Seeing their might, some of our people took the bait and settled for jobs as security personnel. One of them was also given space by the company to operate an eatery. We were accused of attacking some of them. But the truth is we only called for the boycott of such traitors from the village,” said Mardi.

After a police complaint against Mardi and others, they were summoned to the Puranigudam Police Outpost. “Nagaon Police arrested us in the police station for allegedly beating up someone who settled for the company’s offer,” Mardi says. Mardi stayed locked up along with 13 others from the same village while Karbi and Adivasi women took up the task of resisting the company’s land acquisition bids.

Malini Doloi, Sarumai Murmu, Makoni Mardi and Rupta Sing Narpi were badly injured during the scuffle with the policemen after most men were arrested on October 9. “They almost broke my hip with the sticks. Not a single policewoman was present there,” said Malini.

Betrayal by leaders

Since Mikir Bamuni is under the Tiwa Autonomous Council, the situation calmed down briefly while political leaders started visiting the area to canvass for the upcoming polls. “They had managed to set up a concrete post for the solar panels in the area after some people agreed to give up their land rights. Leaders started visiting us promising to protect our lands,” Malini said.

On December 17, when the council went to the polls, both Mikir Bamuni and Lalung Gaon boycotted the elections. “We know that a nexus of land agents and political leaders are behind the attempt to take over this land which our ancestors cultivated for more than a century. Trusting them by giving a vote would not solve our problems,” said Kro.

Police and paramilitary forces, aided by the district administration, returned to Mikir Bamuni on December 29 after the elections following a scuffle between the women and the police force. “They were hurling stones at the policewomen. On December 30, we arrested four persons for instigating the attack on our forces,” said Gaurav Abhijeet Dilip, the Superintendent of Police, Nagaon.

(Editor’s update: On January 1, it was confirmed that Champa Timungpi, Sikari Rongpi’s wife, suffered a miscarriage when the police and paramilitary forces tried to occupy their land. She was allegedly kicked by the security personnel.)

When we asked Azure Power about the violence at Mikir Bamuni, they maintained that they are conducting the acquisition fairly. “We are fully compliant with the rules and regulations of the state while developing Assam’s first solar utility project. The land acquisition has been done fairly and lawfully with due consultation with all the stakeholders. Although none of our employees was involved, we are cognisant of the disturbance that occurred at the site and are assisting in an amicable resolution,” said Samita Subba, Vice President, Policy and Communication, Azure Power.

Pillars set by the company to install solar panels

Not-so-environment friendly after all

Solar Power is still nascent in Assam. Last year, Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal had inaugurated the Amguri Solar Plant in Sivasagar district, which is yet to start production. With questions over the land settlement, the Assam government should have specifically firmed up a land policy for solar power generation. According to a new estimate provided by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy on March 31, 2020, 4 to 5 acres of land is needed to produce one MW.

Incidentally, the residents of Mikir Bamuni have also been accusing the company of violating wildlife laws. The forests behind the village are connected to Burha Pahar in West Kaziranga, where herds of 150 to 200 elephants move. “These lands are frequented by elephants. We set aside a portion of our produce because we know that elephants would eat it. If this is an elephant corridor, how are they building a solar plant?” asks Rajen Rongpi.

Villagers point towards the house of Golapi Maji, whose son, Amir Maji was killed by an elephant herd in 2017 while he was guarding the fields at night. Golapi is now solely dependent on her three bigha plot to meet the expenses of her children’s education. Showing her account statement, she alleges that the Kathiatoli Forest Range office only Rs 1 lakh out of the Rs 4 lakhs as compensation for her son’s death.

Sentiments expressed by residents of Mikir Bamuni are a testimony of what several indigenous peasants and farmers have to face in the state. In the 1960s, a massive land movement had taken place against big landowners or zamindars across Assam to provide tenancy to the Ryots or the peasants which led to Assam (Temporarily Settled Extent and Areas) Tenancy Act in 1971. “Under this Act, even if the peasant has not paid any revenue or a portion of his produce to the government, within three years or so, the circle officer of the revenue department should measure the area where they are cultivating and provide them with land titles,” said Ratul Bora, Nagaon District Secretary of the Communist Party of India, which was part of the land rights movement in the 1980s.

As per the land records that Mardi and other peasants have produced before the district administration and the Gauhati High Court, the cultivation rights were awarded to their fathers in 1981.

Bora says that the Assam movement weakened this opportunity for the peasants to secure their rights. “Assam movement on the 80s posed important questions for Indian government concerning Assamese identity, but peasant concerns, and rights, were forgotten. The Ryot never got their share of the land rights,” Bora added.

Krishna Gogoi, the advocate who has been representing the farmers before the Nagaon High Court, says that the next step in the movement would be to secure their land rights. Santanu Borthakur, an advocate at the Gauhati High Court, opined that Ryots in Assam continue to struggle for land rights.

Curiously, this movement has blurred the community lines for Karbi and Adivasi people living in Mikir Bamuni. “We have always been united. But in the face of adversity, we are cultivating food crops together on the land which is being taken over the power company. There is no Adivasi or Karbi land here. We are in this together,” said Rupta Sing Narpi. From the looks of it, 2021 will see the struggle continue.

*This story was updated on January 1 with additional information, which has been marked in Italics.

Footprints of wild elephants.The area is often frequented by wild elephants, which the forest department keeps denying

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