Punjab reserves 33 per cent of cultivable shamlat land for Dalit households, who can lease it for a year through competitive bidding. In reality, the community is locked in a constant struggle to excercise their rights to the commons
Despite legal entitlement, Dalit communities in Punjab are locked in a constant struggle to exercise their rights over village common land or shamlat. Down To Earth spoke to Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal, Minister for Rural Development and Panchayats, Punjab, on the issue. Punjab has freed 4,000 hectares of shamlat or village common land from encroachment, he said. Edited excerpts:
Bhagirath Srivas: Dalit communities in several villages say that there are irregularities in the auction of shamlat land reserved for them. What steps will the government take to ensure this process gains more transparency?
Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal: We have rectified problems in many villages. Last year, 90 per cent of the auctions in Punjab were conducted correctly, with photography and videography. This year, 100 per cent of the auctions in Punjab will be accurate. The government does not decide the bid price, rather, the people do.
However, we will ensure that the Dalit communities will not have to pay the entire bid amount at once. The government is giving Dalits time from the when the auction is conducted to the sowing of the crop. In many cases, the government has taken Rs 50,000 at the time of bidding and provided people a month to pay the balance.
BS: The previous Congress government initiated allocation of 5-marla plots (0.012 ha) to landless Dalit people and in some cases, certificates were issued but withdrawn later. Will the current government continue this process?
KSD: The Charanjit Singh Channi-led Congress government made this announcement to garner votes, but did not give lands to people. After voting concluded, Congress workers withdrew most of the certificates, even before our government was formed.
Our government will provide land to poor labourers who need a plot to build a house. While this can be done in villages where land is available, it will prove difficult in areas with no land.
BS: The Punjab Aam Aadmi Party government launched a shamlat cell in 2022 to address encroachment in village common land. What has the cell achieved so far?
KSD: The campaign began by identifying where and how much land is under encroachment. Initially, we thought about 20,234 hectares (ha) was encroached upon, but after launching the shamlat cell, we found that the figure is 52,609 ha.
Many of these areas are under litigation in courts, but we have freed about 4,046 ha which was not under legal proceedings. It may take time to do the same for the rest.
BS: What does the government plan to do with the land freed from encroachment?
KSD: We have three types of land; first is village land, which will be useful for agriculture. This land will be returned to the panchayats and will be included in auctions. Then there is land that falls on roads near cities. This will be used commercially. The third kind is barren land, which will be used for environmental measures.
BS: The government has brought jumla mushtarka malkan land (acquired by the government during post-Independence land consolidation) under shamlat land. What are the objectives of this amendment?
KSD: There is 80,000-110,000 ha of jumla mushtarka malkan in Punjab. Until now, the panchayat has been managing such land and auctioning it, but it could not be transferred. The government needs land to build stadiums, hospitals and schools in the villages. Jumla mushtarka malkan will be used to meet all such needs. After passing panchayat resolution, these lands will be given for village development.
BS: There is suspicion among people that the land the government is acquiring may be given to industries.
KSD: This is all propaganda. There is no industry that can be set up on such small areas; all require at least 40-60 ha.
BS: In December 2021, the Amarinder Singh government gave in-principle approval to insert Rule 12 (b) to the Punjab Village Common Land (Regulation) Rules, 1964, to allow shamlat land to be sold to industries. What is your view on such measures?
KSD: People’s participation is necessary in making laws. The Bhagwant Mann government will ensure their participation in any law, and whenever there is a need to give land to industries, we will not do so without the consent of the farmers.
This was first published in the 1-15 March, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth
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