The state is trying to push through the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway, parts of which will run through land that tribals are unwilling to give away

Ketaki Ghoge
Hindustan Times
In Thane district, 27 of 28 village gram sabhas have opposed the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway.
In Thane district, 27 of 28 village gram sabhas have opposed the Mumbai-Nagpur expressway. (HT File)

Faced with opposition from tribal villages over land acquisition for its ambitious Mumbai-Nagpur expressway project, the state government has diluted powers of gram sabhas – a body of all adult members living in these villages as guaranteed under the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The ordinance overrides a notification issued by the Governor in 2016, asking collectors to take the concerned gram sabha’s permission before allowing sale of tribal land to non-tribals.

The ordinance, which was issued on November 14, states: “No sanction would be required for purchase of land by mutual agreement, if the land is required for vital government projects and if compensation for this purchase is arrived at by fair and transparent manner”.

Amending section 36A of the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code, the ordinance has identified vital projects as those being implemented by the state or central governments relating to highways, railways, multimodal corridors, electricity transmission lines, gas, water supply lines or canals.

“There is no taking away of powers of tribal villages or dilution of the PESA Act, as this is only for sale deeds of land which are mutually agreed to by the tribals. The ordinance was necessary to avoid delays in implementing public projects,” said a senior revenue department official.

However, activists, who have been opposing land acquisition for projects, including the 700-km-long Mumbai-Nagpur expressway, see the move as going against the spirit of the PESA law that aims to protect rights of tribals.

“In Thane district, as many as 27 out of 28 village gram sabhas have opposed the expressway. Despite this, the government is looking at measures and legal loopholes to acquire the land,” said Baban Harne, a Thane-based activist, who is opposing the project. “Currently, political henchmen are offering money to tribals to sign sale deeds, falsely promising a higher rate for the land. District collectorate officials are also spreading false information that if tribals don’t sign sale deeds for the project now, they will get 25 per cent lower prices.”

Harne claims majority of the tribals are unaware of the contours of the expressway project and are being forced and bribed to sell off their land by powerful land lobbies.

The PESA act gives powers to the gram sabha to prevent “alienation of land in scheduled areas (tribal areas)”. It aims to protect tribals from losing land “due to duress, forgery or fraud”.

Tribals roughly constitute 10 per cent of the state population and their lands are spread across 15 out of the 33 districts in the state, including Thane, Palghar, Nasik, Dhule, Raigad, Ahmednagar, Yavatmal, Amravati, Gadchiroli and Chandrapur. Over the years, nearly one third of the tribal land has been transferred to non-tribals largely through fraud, cheating, etc, claim activists.

Last year, the Governor, exercising his special powers under Schedule 5 of the Constitution, had issued a notification reducing powers of the collector to sanction sale of such lands to protect tribal interests.