"I have asked the government to re-examine amendments to land laws"

Jharkhand's first tribal governor, Droupadi Murmu, has been featured in the news more than Raghubar Das, the state's first non-tribal chief minister. Murmu refused to give her assent to two bills approved by the Legislative Assembly seeking amendments to the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1949. The state has witnessed widespread protests against these amendments, which seek to allow the use of tribal lands for commercial purposes. She speaks to Deepanwita Niyogi in Ranchi

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Last Updated: Thursday 17 August 2017

You recently returned amendment bills to two tenancy Acts seeking explanation from the government on whether it would benefit tribals. Do you feel it is a move to grab tribal land from people?

The government should have anticipated the mood of the public. I talked to experts and thoroughly studied the bills. I felt the bills should be reconsidered and a rethinking is needed. There were 192 non-political and political meetings over the bills. Even people from outside the state approached me. The amendment bills have now been returned to the state government, along with 192 memorandums which were received opposing the amendments. I have asked the government to re-examine the amendments afresh in the light of these memorandums.

How would you interpret the relationship between tribals and land?

Three things are needed for development: education, money and power. But tribals only have land. They feel when land is there they can work and will be able to live. But if land is taken away, tribals will not be able to survive. They consider land as God. For centuries, tribal people have been closely linked with their lands, forests and rivers. It has always been their way of life. To alienate them from this ecosystem would be a crime. Development agenda should not lose sight of this fact. Tribal communities should not be alienated from their lands.

Even after 70 years of Independence, tribal populations have not been able to climb the development ladder. What should be done?

Tribal people have not tasted development. Only 7 per cent of tribals have progressed in education across India. Both the Central and state governments need to rethink their strategies to empower tribals with meaningful welfare schemes. I believe quality education can transform society. That’s why I continue to guide the state government to lay maximum emphasis on quality education and healthcare for tribal populations.

What about granting habitat rights to tribal populations in Jharkhand, like the Baigas have got in Madhya Pradesh?

According to the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, tribals should be given patta and houses under the Indira Awas Yojana. Today, more than 50,000 tribal households in Jharkhand have been given land pattas under the FRA. Similarly some 200 community pattas have also been issued.

The government should directly purchase minor forest produce (MFP) from tribal people. They should be allowed to collect mahua and kendu. But the government allows a person to store only 5 kg mahua. I suggested otherwise. We must approach MFP as a source of income for tribal people.

Jharkhand became a separate state to protect the interests of the tribal population. Do you think their interests have been protected?

It has been 17 years since Jharkhand was created. But in all these years the state could not get a stable government, so not much could be done. Earlier, government departments did not formulate policies. After the present government has come to power, agriculture and welfare policies were adopted. Almost 60 per cent of what the current government envisioned has been achieved. Education, health and food security for tribals are on top of the government’s agenda.

You are Jharkhand's first tribal woman governor. Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the expectations? Do you feel the tribal community has more confidence in you than your predecessors?

I do not want to judge my predecessors. Jharkhand is a tribal-dominated state. Since I was appointed the governor, I have tried to understand people’s problems and what ails the state, socially and economically. I have tried to meet every community. A lot has changed since then—court cases have been settled, statuettes have been created and vacancies in schools and colleges have been filled.

But as a governor, I can only suggest to the government. It may be a constitutional position, but there are limitations. Still, I have made it a point to visit public institutions related to health and education and have met members of vulnerable communities to hear their grievances. It is now part of my daily routine. Whenever I am informed about a problem, I always alert the state government.

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