India's indigenous people assert right to land with burial ritual

In about 200 villages across the state, indigenous people have placed ‘pathalgadi’, or large stone plaques, at the entrance of their hamlets, painted with portions of the constitution and laws they say officials are failing to uphold.

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The state recently amended a benchmark 2013 land acquisition law to waive mandatory social impact assessments for projects of “public interest”, including those that require tribal land.

Officials say this will speed up development in one of India’s poorest states, while activists say it will hurt indigenous people, who make up more than a fourth of Jharkhand’s population.

“Pathalgadi is a form of assertion against the dilution of rights by the state,” said Tushar Dash, a campaigner at advocacy group Community Forest Rights.

“The tribal people are highlighting the laws that protect their land and gives them the right of self-governance,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

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India has enacted numerous laws to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people, including a 1996 law that gives village councils the right to govern, and a 2013 land acquisition law that makes consent of farmers mandatory.

The 2013 law, passed by the previous government, also introduced a social impact assessment, support for those displaced by projects, and compensation of up to four times the market value of their homes. Several states have since amended the legislation by removing the need for consent and a social impact assessment.

“Social impact assessment takes time; the amendment has been done to expedite the pace of development,” said Jharkhand Advocate General Ajit Kumar.

“The acquisition process has been simplified only for government schemes. This would also facilitate getting compensation quickly,” he said.

Tensions over land have risen in resource-rich Jharkhand after two colonial-era laws were amended in 2016 to allow leasing of tribal land to investors, and the use of farm land for non-agricultural purposes.

A statewide shutdown to protest amendments to the 2013 law ended peacefully on Thursday, officials said. Campaigners have vowed to continue their protest with stone plaques, which mimic the ritual of placing a large stone in the ground after a person has been buried.

“They are not in favour of a development model that takes away their land,” said George Monippally, a rights campaigner. “It is akin to killing them.”

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