India's Dalits protest against plan to develop common land

BANGKOK: Protests have flared in the Indian state of Punjab over a government plan to use common land for industrial development, a move that activists and analysts said on Friday would deny lower-caste Dalits their land rights.

The state government last month approved a proposal to amend a 1964 law to include common lands in a land bank for industrial development that authorities say is needed to generate jobs in the largely agricultural state.

Common lands traditionally belonged to rural communities and were controlled by village councils. Under the 1964 law, Dalits in Punjab have rights over a third of this land.

"The land is reserved for Dalits, but many have been unable to get it because of the entrenched social hierarchy, with the upper caste retaining control over land," said Ronki Ram, a professor of political science at Panjab University.

"If the law is amended to convert this land for industry, then Dalits will have even less opportunity to get land and earn a livelihood," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

More protests are due to be held in several parts of the state later this month, and a massive rally is planned for February 2, said Jai Singh, founder of Dalit rights group Volunteers for Social Justice.

Dalit groups also plan to launch a legal challenge to block the proposed amendment of the law, he said.

Punjab industries minister Sunder Sham Arora has said the scheme would be voluntary, that compensation would be paid, and that it would be limited to areas where there is ample land.

"Punjab needs progress, our youth need jobs," he told reporters earlier this month.

More than half of India's lower-caste population is landless, census data shows.

While India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, centuries-old attitudes persist, and lower-caste groups including Dalits are among the most marginalised communities.

Several states have laws giving land to Dalits, but few have done so, according to Dalit activists and leaders.

At least 27 land conflicts in the country are related to Dalits, according to research organisation Land Conflict Watch, which recorded more than 700 ongoing conflicts in India.

Common lands make up more than a third of India's total land area and include pastures, grazing grounds, some forest areas, ponds and rivers.

For many rural communities, common lands allow safe grazing zones, access to food, water, fodder and firewood, and a means of earning a livelihood.

With expansion of infrastructure and industry, demand for common lands has increased for roads, mines, power plants and real estate, said Kanchi Kohli, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in Delhi.

The majority of land conflicts in India are related to common lands, according to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that common lands cannot be privatised and ownership must remain with village councils.

"The push by the Punjab government goes completely against the letter and spirit of this order," Kohli said.