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Contested grounds? Ongoing land conflicts in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal

By Mukta Joshi*

From March to May 2021, four states and one union territory – Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puduchery – are conducting elections for their respective legislative assemblies. The Bharatiya Janata Party is currently in power in Assam, while Kerala is governed by the Left Front coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Tamil Nadu by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, and West Bengal by the Trinamool Congress.
Land is a finite and highly contested resource. The manner in which conflicts over land play out, especially when the government is involved, is a matter of significance to an election. Issues surrounding land acquisition and land rights have played a large role in shaping party platforms and influencing the outcome of elections in the past. To understand a government’s track record pertaining to land conflicts, it is important to trace patterns in the causes of conflict, nature of the conflicts, and the enforcement of legislation which governs such conflicts.
Using the Land Conflict Watch (LCW) database of nearly 800 ongoing land conflicts in India, we have relied on data from those conflicts in the LCW database which have been reviewed, updated and published along with primary legal analysis. Our sample set consists of 18 conflicts from Assam, 17 from Kerala, 15 from Tamil Nadu and 17 from West Bengal.

Assam

  • Total number of conflicts: 18
  • Number of people affected: 372,262
  • Total land area affected: 427,891 hectares
  • Total investment in crores on the land in conflict: INR 1,290 crore
Out of 18 ongoing conflicts in Assam in our database, six conflicts started under the tenure of the incumbent BJP government, six under the Indian National Congress governments that preceded it, and four conflicts began under the Asom Gana Parishad government.
Dispossession of land and a lack of legal protection over land rights are common trends across the conflicts.
More than half of the conflicts involve forced evictions of families from their homes by labelling them as ‘encroachers’. The incumbent BJP government in the state has assured that the state would be “free” of those who encroach upon land and protect the identity of those in the state. The party has promised to end what it calls ‘land jihad’ in the state – referring to the long standing conflict between the indigenous Assamese population and Bengali Muslim immigrants -- by issuing land pattas to indigenous Assamese communities and evicting immigrants. A number of conflicts in Assam, such as the Sipajhar conflict and the displacement of flood-affected people from riverine areas, have been exacerbated by anti-immigrant sentiment.

Resolved Conflicts

One conflict - the Bodos’ demand for Bodoland - was resolved when a peace accord was signed between the parties - the Centre and the Assam government on one side and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, All Bodo Students Union and United Bodo People's Organisation on the other - in January 2020.

Legal Trends

Eviction drives in Assam are a recurring occurrence. There are three common trends with regards to eviction drives across Assam: First, evictions lead to the uprooting of residential settlements that have existed for long periods of time, some even over a decade.
Second, eviction drives often target indigenous settlements. Several indigenous communities have been termed as encroachers, specifically over forest land and land that comes under National Parks and Sanctuaries. These communities are also rights-holders over the forest land that they are evicted from, thus resulting in a violation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
Third, eviction drives target migrants. Several such migrant communities that have been evicted from their settlements are also communities which were residing there as a consequence of displacement because of natural disasters like floods.
These eviction drives are guided by two main legislations: The Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorized Occupants) Act, 1971, and the Assam Land and Revenue Regulation Act, 1886. Neither of these legislations provide a procedure for the eviction itself. The only procedural safeguard that exists is the eviction notice – and there are several instances of the government violating this requirement as well.
In 2007, the United Nations Human Rights Council acknowledged the Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-Based Evictions and Displacement presented by the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. These guidelines include the procedure that ought to be followed during an eviction - such as the mandatory presence of governmental officials or their representatives on site, allowing access to neutral observers, abiding by the standards of necessity and proportionality to any legal use of force - and after an eviction, such as providing immediate relief and relocation to the evictees. The Delhi High Court has employed these guidelines in its analysis of matters pertaining to housing rights in the past.
However, there is a lacuna in the law with regard to resettlement and rehabilitation of those evicted in Assam. There is no concrete legal obligation on the state to provide evicted individuals with alternate homes. Those who are evicted are rendered landless and homeless with no legal respite.

Kerala

  • Total number of conflicts: 17
  • Number of people affected: 72,732
  • Total land area affected: 57,115 hectares
  • Total amount of investment pertaining to the land in conflict: INR 56,259 crore
Kerala has seen a number of conflicts surrounding environmental issues. Several conflicts are taking place near the coasts. The Gadgil and Kasturirangan reports, which asked to declare parts of the Western Ghats as eco-sensitive areas, had earlier caused a stir in places like Idukki as residents believed this would impact their access to resources. Now, people there are demanding the amendment of the Kerala Land Assignment Act, 1964 to do away with restrictions on land use, such as a ban on constructing buildings other than houses as per the relevant title deed.
From the LCW database, at least 11 conflicts began under the incumbent Left Front government led by the CPI(M) and six during the tenure of the previous United Development Front government led by the Indian National Congress.

Resolved Conflicts

Two conflicts in Kerala have ended: the KINFRA Industrial Plan land acquisition conflict was resolved when the project was shelved, and the opposition to acquisition for the Edamon-Kochi power line ended when the community’s demands regarding compensation were met.

Legal Trends

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2011 was an attempt to ensure the protection of marine ecology up to 12 nautical miles from the coast and lands up to 500 metres landward from the High Tide Line. Section 3 of the Notification places restrictions on several activities that cannot take place within the CRZ, including those related to constructions, mining, and port/harbor projects. In addition to these restrictions, Section 8 categorizes activities as permissible and non-permissible within CRZs based on their classification as CRZ-I, CRZ-II and CRZ-III.
Despite this, Kerala has a significant number of coastal projects – both private and State funded, that are in violation of the CRZ Notification, 2011. There are several ongoing conflicts that are posing one specific risk: coastal erosion. The construction of apartments and seaports, and sand mining has led to an increased risk of coastal erosion which harms the marine ecology and puts coastal residents at risk of floods and other natural calamities. Many projects that risk coastal erosion are also large scale and block access of the local communities, such as fisherfolk, from accessing the sea for their livelihoods. Several villages have shrunk in size as a result of these activities, and residents have been rendered homeless.
One major contributor to coastal erosion is sand mining. Sand mining is regulated by several laws and guidelines including the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957 and Kerala Minerals (Prevention of Illegal Mining, Storage and Transportation) Rules, 2015. There are also guidelines in place which regulate sand mining. This legal framework provides that a party cannot engage in mining without receiving a license or a lease from the government, and permission from the Kerala Coastal Zone Management Authority (KCZMA) to mine within a CRZ.
While these are meant to be complementary protections, the latter is far easier to circumvent. The KCZMA has granted permission for prohibited activities to take place within the CRZ, despite it being bound to act according to the CRZ Notification, 2011, and failed to respond to the concerns of local citizens and activists regarding the detrimental impacts of the KCZMA’s irregular grant of permission.
Corporate entities are also responsible for circumventing the permission process. Several conflicts in Kerala have arisen because companies did not receive permission from the KCZMA, and yet continued with their construction activities. Thus, the failure of enforcement of regulations in coastal zones is on multiple fronts.

Tamil Nadu

  • Total number of conflicts: 15
  • Number of people affected: 58,964
  • Total land area affected: 9,380 hectares
  • Total amount of investment pertaining to the land in conflict: INR 112,565 crore
With 10 conflicts beginning during its rule, the incumbent AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu has seen several protests during its decade-long term here. Many conflicts were covered widely in mainstream media such as protests against the Adani port expansion at Kattupalli and demonstrations against Sterlite copper smelter plant in Thoothukudi where 13 people were shot dead by police in 2018. The AIADMK has assured people that it would scrap several of these projects, including expansion of the Adani and Kanyakumari ports, if voted back to power.

Resolved Conflicts

Two conflicts have ended – the Madras High Court allowed the takeover of land in Thiruvallur for an Industrial Park, which is now up and running, and the protests in Krishnagiri against land acquisition by SIPCOT have died down.

Legal Trends

As the statistics above show, a number of conflicts in Tamil Nadu pertain to irregularities in land acquired by the state government for purposes of industry and infrastructure. The State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT) is the government entity responsible for the largest number of reported conflicts from Tamil Nadu. Delay in acquisition is also a common trend across conflicts pertaining to both SIPCOT and other government entities such as the Airports Authority of India. Delay in acquisition further delays the payment of compensation to affected persons, which leads to conflict.
In 2014, the state government attempted to bypass the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 in the state by passing an amendment which inserted a Section 105-A to the Act, exempting three state land acquisition legislations from the application of the central Act. This was struck down as unconstitutional by the Madras High Court in 2019. Two weeks after the high court’s decision, the state government passed the Tamil Nadu Land Acquisition Laws Act which sought to revive state land acquisition legislations which had been rendered void on the passage of the 2013 central act. Amongst other things, the 2019 state act effectively excluded the application of a number of stringent requirements under the 2013 act to land acquisition taking place in Tamil Nadu, such as conduction of a Social Impact Assessment prior to acquisition and the requirement of consent of affected parties.
A number of projects had been initiated by the state government under these more lenient acquisition provisions before the Madras High Court struck the Tamil Nadu government’s actions down as illegal. This decision of the High Court is pending appeal before the Supreme Court along with writ petitions challenging the 2019 Act, the ruling of which is anticipated to affect a number of ongoing land conflicts in the state.

West Bengal

  • Total number of conflicts: 17
  • Number of people affected: 225,848
  • Total land area affected: 12,646 hectares
  • Total amount of investment pertaining to the land in conflict: INR 76,722 crore
Land conflicts at Nandigram and Singur had helped the incumbent TMC government come to power in 2011. In Nandigram, the previous Left Front government had used violence to curb protests against land acquisition for setting up a Special Economic Zone in the area, leading to more vigorous protests. In Singur, land was acquired by the CPI(M) and allotted to Tata Motors Limited for the Nano plant without the consent of landowners, again leading to widespread protests. Both protests were supported by the TMC, which eventually came to power in 2011. Famously, the TMC government’s period saw the end of the Singur conflict - but the government has seen 8 conflicts emerge during its rule in the state. The TMC government has also seen the resolution of two conflicts, having met the demands of the affected communities.

Resolved Conflicts

Two conflicts in West Bengal ended when the demands of the community were met. The state government has started returning land which was acquired illegally from farmers in Kawakhali, and has changed its contentious power grid plan in Bhangar following people’s protests.

Legal Trends

In West Bengal, there is a trend of large plots of land, often agricultural, being acquired by the state for industrial development. However, the state appears to have a poor record of implementing land acquisition laws and fulfilling promises made to landowners at the time of acquisition. These promises include specific rehabilitation measures and assurance of employment. Persons affected by the acquisition often end up demanding fulfilment of pre-acquisition promises only after they have already lost their land.
Another common contention of project affected communities is violation of the land acquisition procedure, both under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.
The Supreme Court in 2016 gave a landmark decision in the Singur case – Kedar Nath Yadav v State of West Bengal and Ors. – in which land acquired by the state government for Tata Motors Limited was ordered to returned to the original landowners owing to procedural violations during the acquisition, which led the acquisition itself to be deemed illegal and void. This judgment has proven to be a basis for many such affected landowners to continue their struggles in order to demand return of their land.

Conclusion

Each of the four states – Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal – have unique and varied issues causing and escalating land conflicts. Tamil Nadu and Kerala in particular are struggling with serious environmental degradation, further exacerbated by poor implementation of environmental laws. Issues of land acquisition and land rights are especially contentious in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal and feature prominently in poll promises being made by the incumbent parties. Assam is riddled with land conflicts that originate from the idea of the “other” - be it the eviction of forest dwellers termed as encroachers or the targeting of immigrant settlements through eviction drives.
People’s resistance is a common thread across the states. Communities have adopted a number of violent and nonviolent means including written complaints, protests, marches, stone pelting and self-immolation. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, more than 50% of all conflicts went to court for judicial resolution, while in Assam a significant 41% of the conflicts ended up in court. However, court decisions do not appear to resolve conflicts. No state has more than two conflicts which have been resolved, and the cause of resolution is rarely related to a court’s decision. Even in states such as Tamil Nadu where a high number of cases were disposed of by courts, there is little to no correlation to the conflicts being resolved on the ground as can be seen by the negligible number of concluded conflicts.
Reported instances of human rights violations associated with the land conflicts are also common. From a political perspective, it would be important to note the number of instances in which law enforcement mechanisms have been misused by the state, leading to human rights violations such as judicial harassment, arrest, detention, and imprisonment. There are six such reported instances in Assam, four in West Bengal, three in Tamil Nadu and one in Kerala.
Needless to say there is tremendous scope for improvement in each incumbent government with regard to its approach towards land rights and resource conflicts. Concrete policies and dedicated enforcement would go a long way in attempting to resolve these conflicts in the near future, taking into consideration both the political mandate of the parties and the constitutional mandate of the state.
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*With research inputs from: Mrinali Karthick, Vibha Nadig, Vishu Surana. Editing: Nihar Gokhale. This is the abridged version of the original report published in Land Conflict Watch

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