COVID-19, landlessness and food insecurity in Meghalaya

Bhogtoram Mawroh and Jakrimre Momin

In its 2019 ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: Safeguarding against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns’ report, FAO stated that “Where inequality is greater, economic slowdowns and downturns have a disproportionate effect on food security and nutrition for lower-income populations.” This is very relevant in a COVID-19 world, particularly so for India whose economy has been predicted to contract because of the restrictions imposed by the partial/complete lockdowns. The reduction in the size of the economy will have grave consequences on food security, especially, of the poor in the country. Meghalaya, which in the 2013 Raghuram Rajan Committee Report, was categorised as being in the least developed category will face great challenges in this regard.

Currently, Meghalaya is a food importing State which makes it vulnerable to external shocks like the one being faced right now. If the disruptions continue for long it is not an exaggeration to state that the spectre of prolonged food insecurity looms large for the populace of the state. Absolute lack of food is not the only symptom of food insecurity but includes the lack of regular access to nutritious and sufficient food as well. Even before the Covid-19 disruption the population of Meghalaya was already suffering from varying levels of food insecurity. According to the District Level Health Survey of the International Institute for Population Sciences (2014), Meghalaya has high rates of childhood undernutrition with 31% underweight, 42% stunting, 17% wasting, and 71% of children under 5 with anaemia. These worrisome figures have to be understood in the context of another grave development underway in the state, increasing land alienation. According to the Socio-Economic and Caste Survey (2011) more than 70% of the population in the state are landless. This poses two questions: How did landlessness emerge in a tribal society presumably egalitarian? And what are the implications in terms of food insecurity?

Landlessness in Meghalaya can be attributed to the process of privatisation of communal lands. This can be traced to the colonial period when the British entered the hills and began to create infrastructure for the purpose of administration. This resulted in land’s exchange value being greatly enhanced at the expense of its use value, i.e., land began to be seen as a commodity. Driven by this valuation of land the clans who became the early residents of Shillong appropriated almost the entire 10 sq km spanning the city. The British entered into hundred year leases with these prominent clans and paid them annual revenue. Wherever viable, they made outright purchases. It was not long before this form of valuation permeated the entire society.

The distinction between Ri Kynti (private land) and Ri Raid (community land) appears to have a long antecedent. However in terms of pervasiveness it seems that the latter was more prevalent than the former. An indication of this is the predominance of rep shyrti or shifting cultivation in the past. Being highly dependent on communal labour this farming system was practised on communal lands which must have been the main land use category. However in the first two decades of the 20th century, driven by the desire to acquire land to be traded as a commodity the more educated and well-off sections of the society began a scramble to grab waste land (fallow land or forested land on which shifting cultivation would have been practised) of Ri Raid to keep away the other members of the Raid from using them. This can be compared, albeit at a smaller scale to the ‘Enclosure Movement’ in England which led to the dispossession of the rural populace who later supplied the cheap labour for the factories in the cities. In Meghalaya there were no factories to absorb that surplus population. Instead a category of tenant farmers came into being.

After Independence, the process of privatisation intensified when the Government began acquiring lands for various projects paying compensation for them. The Autonomous District Councils, formed for protecting the interests of indigenous people, did not help matters when they started issuing patta in the Council areas. Through this the patta holders become de facto owners of that land which was a shift from the traditional practice of land control and management. After Meghalaya attained statehood, strong provisions were brought to counter the transfer of land to non-indigenous people through Acts like ‘The Meghalaya Transfer of Land (Regulation) Act, 1971’. But there are no provisions to prevent land alienation among the indigenous communities. The emergence of a class of neo-tribal elites is a testament to this phenomenon.

To make matters worse, interventions introduced albeit with good intentions have also accelerated the process of privatisation. The effort to wean people away from jhum (unfairly stigmatised) and improve their economic status has led to encouragement of cash cropping. An unexpected corollary has been the push for privatisation that accompanied such programs. This is something which was highlighted in a recent work “The Privatisation of Indigenous Community Lands in Meghalaya,” done in Ri Bhoi by NESFAS vice-chairman A K Nongkynrih. The introduction of cash crops was found to be leading to the permanent use and de facto privatization of communal land. In order to cement their claim, the occupants of formerly held communal lands had their land registered with the Land Revenue Department of the Government of Meghalaya. To avail development programs such as housing loans, cash crop plantation, and investment in trade and services, the applicants or the tribals of the state have to fulfil the criterion of having land registration documents as proof of ownership. This has also encouraged more people to register land as private property. It’s not only personal greed and a breakdown of traditional land tenure system but the post-independence policies based on individual property rights which are driving the privatisation process in Meghalaya. As a consequence, landlessness has reached alarming proportions in the State.

Instances of individual landlessness in a community are not uncommon but in some cases the entire agricultural land of a particular village is found to be on lease from another village. With increasing population and declining land availability access is going to become difficult and prohibitive in the future. Food insecurity will become a major problem for such communities if they are not already facing it. For those that still have their own land the disruptions created by Covid-19 also spells danger. Crisis is the moment when dispossessions (voluntary or involuntary) become widespread. Sale of land among the distressed has always been a major reason for landlessness. The deteriorating financial situation will force many to sell their land to stave off the crisis, food insecurity being one of them. After that happens they will join the rank of workers whose main source of income will be manual casual labour (according to Socio-Economic and Caste Survey 2011 this group already constitutes 34% of the landless population). In time they will become the surplus labour ripped for exploitation and trapped in a situation of low paying jobs, uncertain and exploitative working conditions. For many this is already a reality.

Food insecurity is already a concern for many in the State. With an overwhelming majority of the state’s population landless it is not difficult to surmise that the two are connected. Unless there are concerted efforts to arrest the trend of land alienation in the State the situation will only get worse. The downturn in the national economy portends tough times for all in the country. In the case of Meghalaya, COVID-19, landlessness and a declining economy will lead to enhanced and enduring food insecurity for many in the State, if it doesn’t already exist.

NOTE: This article has also been published in Shillong Times newspaper.



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