The poor individual

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Clashes relating to land disputes between villages in the hill districts have increased in recent times and it has even led to heavy casualties between warring villagers. The situation warrants serious attention of both the government and the general public as well. Whatever be the reason for disputes, it has brought into focus the traditional land holding system of the hill people including land use pattern. One problem area must have been demarcation. The hill communities have their own system of land holding based on customary and traditional practices. Yet there is a difference in land holding pattern between the Nagas and Kuki-Chin-Mizo groups. The hill people claimed absolute ownership over their land. The one who established the village is the first owner in Naga society. There was two to three tier system of ownership among some Naga tribes. The first owner i.e. the founder of the village had to dole out some portion of land to any of his villagers in exchange of animals like dog, pig, mithun, rice-beer, for use in his ritual performance. The one who could offer his domesticated animals, food and other goods against a piece of land etc. become the owner of that portion of land. Despite the absence of patta system, there is definitely an ownership system at the community level and also at the individual level among the Nagas varying according to tradition. With regard to the Kuki-Chin-Mizo group of people, the chief is all in all. He is the supreme authority. He owns the entire land within his jurisdiction. There is neither clan land nor individual. He distributes land for cultivation and plot for dwelling house construction. The villagers dwell or toil at his pleasure. The Kuki chief has the authority to expel any villager from the village. The Kuki administration is feudal and the chief is the autocrat and a landlord. Such a practice had in time reduced the poor villagers to the status of some kind of tenants who paid certain fixed amount of paddy for tilling the land and every front leg of any animal shot or killed to the chiefs annually. It was the result of the recognition and incorporation of the tribal chiefs with the colonial establishment for the purpose of collecting hill house tax and for administering simple justice in their respective chiefdoms. Soon after independence, the Government of India abolished the Privy Purse, and the Manipur State Legislative Assembly also passed the Manipur Hill Areas (Acquisition of Chiefs Rights) Act on 14 June, 1967 which authorized the state government to acquire the rights, titles and interests of the chiefs in the hill areas of Manipur. But because of vehement objections raised by the chiefs, the Act could not be implemented till today. Some intellectuals from the hill communities have suggested the introduction of a separate land law for the hills by codifying the traditional land tenure system, while other groups advocate the continuance of the existing system. What is missing in most of these deliberations is the issue of individual ownership rights over land.
While revisiting or re-examining traditional laws and customary practices the most important yardstick should be whether the law or practice is democratic or not. Today, we shall not talk about who owns the land in the hills or whether the government or the hill people are the real owners of the land in the hills or the forests. Our main concern is about the individual ownership rights of the people over land. The individual should not be exploited or dispossessed of his democratic right in the name of traditional law or customary practices. We must be very clear of the fact that the sacred man-land relationship begins at the individual level. We must also understand that one of the main causes of land degradation in the hills is the lack of individual ownership rights over land. The individual simply does not care about the upkeep of the land that he tills or the forest from where he lives off. Give him the ownership of land and it will be major step towards rejuvenation of the land in the hills.

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