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State Repression Forces Adivasis Out of Their Land in Odisha

The PESA law in India makes it mandatory for village councils to be consulted before any land and resource acquisition by higher-level authorities, but it is being blatantly violated in this Adivasi-dominated district of Odisha.  

In the age of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas, bullet trains, dams, amusement parks and shopping malls seem to have become markers of development. Both government and private entities are making a push for such development. But for Parmananda Munda, who is fighting for the land his community has lived on for 50 years, the government must be respectful of the law, if it truly wants sabka vikas or development for all.

By the law, Munda is referring to the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA), which strengthens local self-governance and empowers panchayats to make decisions about land ownership and acquisition, natural resource management, minor forest produce and peace and dispute settlement.

Munda lives in Amatapalli village of Odisha’s Sundergarh district; Sundergarh is a “scheduled area” under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution which means that all villages in the district are PESA villages. But in Amatapalli, the residents are being uprooted from the land they have lived on and developed for the last 50 years. What is worse is that they were not even informed about the decision by any officials, they learnt of it through the newspaper. Under the Act, the village councils “shall be mandatorily involved in all decision relating to land-acquisition”; making the case in Amatapalli a clear violation of the law.  

“They are treating us like migrants”, says Munda. “If we relocate to another place and another project comes up, they will ask us to leave from there also.”

Resisting the government’s move, the residents of Amatapalli have held protest rallies and also given a memorandum to the Sub-Collector whose jurisdiction the village falls under. The residents are also holding meetings within the village to make the community aware of their rights.

A study on the implementation of PESA in Sundergarh found that 47.3 percent of those surveyed, the majority, were unaware of it. Only 18 percent were fully aware and 34.7 percent were partly aware of the functioning of the panchayats as per PESA.

The main criterion for declaring a district as a Scheduled Area is the size of its Adivasi population, and the other is the scale of “economic backwardness”. By giving panchayats the power to decide in matters of land ownership and forest resources, which are inextricably linked to livelihoods, PESA paves the way for economic progress.

But by outrightly violating the provisions of the Act in Amatapalli, the prospects of economic progress are only being cut short. The construction of amusement parks and swimming pools might create jobs in the short-term, but the damage it will do to communities by displacing them will be irreversible.

The residents of Amatapalli have not had any response from the district administration to their rally and memorandum yet. The reluctance of the district administration to devolve power to panchayats or acknowledge and accept the decision of panchayats has been identified as a hurdle to land rights under acts like PESA and the Forest Rights Act (FRA). In Odisha, the other roadblock is that the state does not have PESA rules of its own; a draft bill has been hanging in the Legislative Assembly since 2010. And although the state has made many state subject laws PESA compliant, it is yet to do so with the land acquisition law.

Meanwhile, people’s movements against state repression and land grab are not waning and is only getting a boost with more and more awareness about laws like PESA and FRA. Join the call for justice by calling the Block Development Officer of Lahinupada Sundergarh, Rabindra Pradhan, at +91-9437222882, and apprise him of the land acquisition bid in Amatapalli requesting him to intervene at the earliest.

Video by Community Correspondent Bideshini Patel

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team

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