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Dispossession and Resistance in India and Mexico

‘Be a patriot and give me your land’: Army, Land Acquisition and Dispossession in Arunachal Pradesh, India

, by CHAKRAVARTTY Anupam

For Sojee Meyor, 46, a resident of Namti village on the banks of Lohit River in Anjaw district of Arunachal Pradesh, the mere mention of Sino India War of 1962 makes him nervous. Albeit for different reasons. Meyor wasn’t even born when his deceased father, K-ring Meyor, started his long battle with Indian Army that promised him to pay full rent for setting up an Army camp ahead of the war in 1962. It has been more than 55 years since the war and thousands of people in the frontier state of Arunachal Pradesh have not been paid any compensation.

With more than 70 percent of the land covered by forests, agricultural land is scarce not just in Anjaw but across Arunachal Pradesh. In such conditions even 1.5 acres is a fairly large landholding that can support several families. However, for this piece of land, Sojee’s father, K-ring Meyor started a long and a protracted battle that would out last his lifetime. Sojee says this was all that he inherited from his father. In 1963, K-ring Meyor approached the Circle Officer claiming compensation from the Indian Army. It yielded no results. Instead, the Army camp kept increasing in size by the day. By 1990s, after Meyor passed away, the pressure on land increased as Walong and several other villages witnessed a positive population growth.

In 2007, Arunachal Pradesh government issued a preliminary notification under Land Acquisition Act, 1894 to acquire lands for defence purposes in Walong and neighbouring Kibithoo circles. According to Sojee, this was a promising development as Government would formalize land acquisition retrospectively for which Sojee and his family will get a compensation. “However, things were changing fast. As soon as everyone learnt about this notification, people started claiming various Army occupied land as theirs, disputing ownership in many places,” says Sojee. In 2010, Sojee found out that the same piece of land, which was acquired from his father, has been claimed by Mishmi community too. “Earlier, Mishmis and Meyors lived in harmony but as land related issues started getting formalized, conflicts started growing members of both the communities. Unfortunately, our land was also in the middle of this controversy,” rues Sojee.

Long wait in the difficult terrains

Finding no other alternative, Sojee wrote to the then President of India, Pranab Mukherjee in 2012. The President’s office directed the Defence Ministry to look into the matter. In December 2012, Sojee received a letter in which Indian Army formally admitted after 50 years since the Sino Indian war that Meyor’s land was indeed being taken over by them. The letter stated that 1872 acres of land was under the possession of Indian Army in Walong and Kibuthoo circle. Waiting for two years for the committee constituted under the Deputy Commissioner to resolve the dispute and finding no resolution, in 2014 Sojee knocked the doors of Gauhati High Court, situated 800 kilometres away. Organizing fees for a battery of lawyers with money borrowed from relatives and members of Meyor community, who also wanted to resolve their differences with the Mishmi clan, Sojee travelled to Guwahati city innumerable times through one of the most treacherous terrains of the world, even during monsoon season when roads would be washed away.

Meanwhile, a large portion of his land became unusable for agriculture as Border Roads Organization, an arm of the Ministry of Defence that builds roads in frontier regions, expanding the road network in the state erected a large quarry for stone processing. In another part, a BSNL tower looms over his plot. After two years, in April 2016, the court came up with a verdict. The court did not even consider him as the owner in its judgement and ordered the constitution of a committee within six months of judgement to first decide on the dispute between Mishmis and Meyors. The dispute is yet to be resolved.

Technically the court was right. Meyor did not possess any land documents just like several other tribes in this frontier state of India. Unlike other hill states, there is no formal land tenure system in Arunachal Pradesh. The people exercise traditional rights on land for jhuming (a form of shifting cultivation that uses the slash and burn technique), hunting, fishing or collection of forest produce. With land reforms beginning only in 1988 with state government issuing Land Possession Certificates (LPCs) for the first time, Sojee and several others whose lands were under Army occupation could not avail this benefit.

Apart from the letter issued by the Defence estates department in 2012, Sojee had no other document to prove the ownership of his land. The preliminary notification issued in 2007 by Arunachal Pradesh government to acquire land for Indian Army, on which it already had a camp, also did not bear any fruits for Sojee. The notification for acquisition lapsed as the land remained disputed between two communities.

Acquire at all cost

While the compensation for land occupied by Indian Army battalions are yet to be disbursed, it was only in September 2017 that an amount of Rs. 158 crores was sanctioned by Defence Ministry to pay land acquired during 1962 Sino-India war [1]. However, according to various news reports and Defence Ministry releases, this may reach up to the tune of Rs. 3,000 crores for pending cases of land acquisition. Union Home Minister (State), Kiren Rijuju, who happens to be from East Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh in a press meeting stated, “Although the people of Arunachal Pradesh can be branded as ultra-patriotic Indians but of late a sense of resentment has been brewing among them due to non-payment of compensation for huge areas of land occupied by the Army.” [2]

It is January 2018; neither Arunachal Pradesh Government nor the Union government has come up with any plan to disburse the compensation. To make the matters even more complicated, defence land acquisition continued surreptitiously until early 2000s, many years after the war.

Had it not been for a survey to acquire 750 hectares of land in 2002, villagers of Bodaru, Chittangam, Dibanggam, Dinningam, Chepailang, Loilang, Chetangam and Lohitpur villages in Lohit district would not have known that their land was acquired 32 years back in 1973. The precursor to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, North East Frontier Agency, which had its headquarters in Shillong in the 1970s, decided to accord reserve forest status to 21,700 hectares of land in Lohit district even as some of the older villages belonging to the Mishmi tribes thrived inside these forests. When Nuney Tayang and 42 other villagers discovered a team of surveyors inside their ancestral forest groves, they were taken by surprise. They were told that the land on which they had their orange farms and paddy fields were going to be acquired by Indian Army for a Key Location Point (KLP) camp.

Soon the villages started protesting, halting the land acquisition by the Army and forcing the local authorities to admit that they completely ignored hundreds of residents of these villages. Tayang, one of the few educated lawyers from Bodaru village, reached out to the higher officials and political leaders in the state capital in Itanagar only to be told it was too late for a protest. Indian Army had already paid Rs. 43 crores to the state for 248 hectares of their land.

“We were in a quandary. Officials in Itanagar called us unpatriotic for protesting the decision. We would have given the land to the Army any day but our tussle was with the state government for ignoring our people and handing over the land surreptitiously to the Indian Army. We decided to knock the doors of Gauhati High Court in 2008,” says Tayang. Over a court battle that lasted three years, 700 kilometres away from their homes, the state government could not explain to the judge the arbitrary demarcation of the reserve forest when 12 odd forest villages were counted in both 1961 and 1971 census. A Memorandum of Understanding produced before Justice A.C. Upadhyay by the state government only worked against the favour of the state government as village elders from whom the forest department sought the consent to set up the reserve did not even belong to the region. The villagers, however, had to part with the land despite, according to Tayang, a large number of petitioner being dissatisfied with the Gauhati High Court.

The High Court quashed the forest reserve notification of 1973 keeping in mind that land ownership is communal in Arunachal Pradesh but allowed Indian Army to set up the KLP in 250 hectares of land. Justice Upadhyay ordered that the state government to pay an adequate compensation to the displaced under Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of Arunachal Pradesh government. Tayang, who lead most of his life in his village, has now moved to Tezu, the district headquarter, which no longer offers him warmth of his forest village.

With little data on the kind of displacement due to defence land acquisitions, it is hard to estimate the displaced. Many of the displaced people move to the cities such as Pasighat or Tezu and work as construction or daily wage earners. Being close to the Indo-Myanmar-China, a hotbed of narcotics trafficking, the remaining homesteads have turned to poppy farming and smuggling. Opium addiction is high in these areas. A Finance commission report on problems of border areas in North East India by Ministry of Finance tabled in 2009 states that in Anjaw and Lohit district sale of opium has increased manifold. The report observed poppy growing plot between 0.5 to 4 acres with yield ranging from 50 gm to 2.5 kg which was trafficked through international markets.

Between dams and guns

In other districts bordering China, such as Tawang where massive resistance by local Monpa community has been building up against hydropower dams, defence related land acquisitions are seen as a viable option despite one-fourth of the district under defence installations. “Between dams and an army cantonment, what will you chose?” asks 24-year-old Sonam Tsering from Tawang who volunteers with Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF), an organization formed to raise awareness about hydropower plants planned in the region. Several young people steer clear of the debate around defence land acquisition thinking that their refrain would be mistaken for being unpatriotic towards India. If seen at a glance, Tawang is likely to have 11 mega dams out of 153 projects planned in Arunachal Pradesh, some of which are a direct threat to Monpa community’s religious and cultural sites.

Lama Lobsang Gyatso, a monk who has been protesting against hydropower dams with SMRF says that Monpa community that largely relies on pastoral activity has been pauperized by land acquisitions of all kinds. “We lost some of pastures to the Sino-Indian war of 1962. One cannot doubt our patriotism so don’t complain about giving our land to the soldiers. But now hydropower is taking away our riverine lands. Our people are doomed if such kind of development is unleashed on our people,” he adds.

Conclusion

Arunachal Pradesh, the easternmost frontier of India has had to pay a heavy price for its proximity to a war theatre between India and China with local communities not being paid compensation for the lands acquired from them under the garb of national security and development. After coming to power at the Center in 2014, one of the first changes made by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was to the process of land acquisition in the border areas of the country. The same year the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change diluted the process of environment and social impact for defence projects by completely exempting them from such considerations within 100 kilometres from international borders. In such a scenario, the lands and livelihoods of communities such as Meyors, Mishmis or Monpas, who live close to the borders, are threatened with only a handful of organizations working towards their welfare in India. In a context of the rapid rise of infrastructure development and economic investments in the state, local communities are caught between dams and the imperatives of the nation, rendering them ever more vulnerable to the workings of the dominant development model.

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