Mrunal Manmay Dash

Odisha Revenue Minister, Sudam Marndi, who was all praises for the Cabinet nod to amend the law allowing the scheduled tribes (ST) to transfer their land to non-tribals, took a U-turn just 48 hours later and withheld the decision.

When asked about the change in decision, Marndi said that it was not a decision but rather a discussion in the Cabinet meeting held on November 14.

Marndi on Friday took to X, earlier known as Twitter, and wrote, “The proposed Amendment to Regulation-2 of 1956 discussed in the Cabinet meeting held on 14th November 2023, regarding the transfer of Tribal lands, has been withheld.”

By this, Marndi effectively withheld the November 14 Odisha Cabinet decision to amend the law allowing the tribals to transfer their land to non-tribals in scheduled areas with written permission from the sub-collector.

It was decided in the cabinet meeting that STs can gift, exchange for public purposes or obtain a loan by mortgaging a plot of land in a public financial institution for agriculture, construction of a residential house, higher studies of children, self-employment, business or establishment of small-scale industries; or transfer it in favour of a person not belonging to the ST community for these purposes.

As per the official note, the educated youth belonging to ST communities were facing many difficulties. Realising this problem and based on the recommendations of the Scheduled Tribes Advisory Council, the amendments were made.

Marndi said, “Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik always takes decisions in view of the interests of the people. However, this was not a decision. It was only a discussion.”

It is pertinent to mention here that Sudam Marndi was particularly happy after the Cabinet decision was announced on November 14.

On November 15, Marndi said, “The decision taken in the Cabinet yesterday was a good one. This will help tribal entrepreneurship and tribal education. Poor tribals will definitely get help from the amendment.”

His U-turn sent rumour mills abuzz that he withheld the decision after protests by several social organisations and the Opposition, which alleged that the social security of the STs would be jeopardised by this amendment.

“The tribals will lose their lands if the new law will be implemented. Hence it should be withheld. It will affect their life and livelihoods. The lands of the tribals should be safe and secure. The State government was trying to provide the lands of the tribals to the contractors and land mafias. Earlier many illegal transactions have been made in this regard and now they were trying to legalise the process. We and many tribal communities are strongly protesting against any such decision,” said BJP MLA, Nityananda Gond.

Congress MP Saptagiri Ulaka said, “We wanted the land valuation of the tribals to increase and steps to be taken to make bank loans available to them. But if the non-tribals would get powers to buy lands from them, then the tribals would lose everything. The government should ensure that the tribals are not duped into selling their lands to fraudsters.”

However, is it only Opposition pressure that forced the minister to swallow his own words? Experts opine otherwise.

More than Opposition pressure, experts suspected some problems in the amendment particularly, legal hurdles which were possibly overlooked in the Cabinet meeting, indicating a departmental error.

“I do not think demand from the Opposition has forced the government to withhold the decision. I think the Law department and Revenue departments have erred somewhere and they withheld the decision after getting to know their error. It puts a question mark on the functioning of the government,” said political expert, K Ravi.

This is not the first time such an attempt has been made in India. Earlier, the former Governor of Jharkhand, Droupadi Murmu had refused to give her approval to such a bill brought by the former Chief Minister, Raghubar Das.