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Indian Christians hail deferment of move to allow sale of tribal land

The decision by eastern Odisha state was criticized as it would have led to tribals losing their last valuable resource

Eastern Indian state of Odisha has a long history of protest against transnational mining firms. Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy (center) at a demonstration against bauxite mining by Vedanta in 2013.

Eastern Indian state of Odisha has a long history of protest against transnational mining firms. Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy (center) at a demonstration against bauxite mining by Vedanta in 2013. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 21, 2023 11:12 AM GMT

Updated: November 21, 2023 11:55 AM GMT

Christian leaders have lauded an eastern Indian state’s postponement of a decision to allow the sale of land owned by members of the tribal community to non-tribal people.

The eastern Odisha (formerly Orissa) state, home to the largest number of tribal people in the South Asian nation, on Nov. 17 put on hold the decision taken three days ago by the cabinet of ministers after the opposition parties protested against it.

An amendment to the law -- Orissa Scheduled Areas Transfer of. Immovable Property (by Scheduled Tribes) Regulation, 1956 -- as per the cabinet decision could have allowed tribal-owned lands to be sold to non-tribal people.

“Indeed, it is a great relief to the tribal people in the state because they heavily depended on the land to survive,” said Father Nicholas Barla, secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India’s office for tribal people.

If the land is taken away from them, they will face hunger, diseases, and even die, the priest who himself comes from a tribal community told UCA News on Nov. 21.

India’s largest mining companies like NALCO and Hindalco and firms attached to India’s billionaire tycoon Gautam Adani and transnational firm Vedanta have a strong presence in the mineral-rich state, ruled by Navin Patnaik from the Biju Janata Dal.

Earlier, the South Korea-based POSCO had made efforts to establish a mining unit in Odisha’s tribal areas. However, the steel-making and materials conglomerate abandoned the move in 2017 following protests by indigenous people.

“Most of the time these kinds of ordinances come from the government to clear the way for acquiring tribal land for the corporate world,” the priest said.

Once landless, the indigenous people have to migrate to other places to find a livelihood and eventually will have to sell their labor cheaply, Father Barla added.

Most of the tribal population in Odisha is concentrated in the high-altitude zone of the Eastern Ghat. Their occupations vary from area to area depending on topography, availability of forests, land, and water.

The main tribal communities in the state include Khonds (Kandho), Gond, Santal, Soara, Kolha, Shabar, and Munda.

They constitute 22.85 percent of Odisha’s 41 million population and account for 9.17 percent of the total tribal population of the country.

The opposition parties have made the tribal land transfer to non-tribal people a major issue in the Odisha assembly which commenced its winter session on Nov. 21.

According to them, the Odisha Scheduled Areas Transfer of Immovable Property Amendment Regulation is "ant-tribal" and "a conspiracy to transfer tribal lands to businessmen."

In 2002, the Odisha government passed legislation that prohibited the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people.

In 2006, the federal government enacted the Forest Rights Act to give land rights to tribal people. The law added amendments to the Indian Forest Act 1927, introduced by colonial Britain to establish legal control over the country’s forests which make up 23 percent of India’s landmass.

Father Dibakar Parichha, attached to the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese in Odisha, said “We welcome the steps taken by the state.”

"Tribal people in Odisha face a piquant situation. If they do not sell land, there are chances it may become a hurdle to their development and if they sell their land they will become landless," Parichha noted.

The priest demanded that the government should come out with a better way to address the issue amicably.

The opposition has asked the Patnaik government to roll back the order permanently.

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