India: tribal Christians fear land seizure

Thousands of tribal people in Chhattisgarh state say they fear losing their homes and lands as the central Indian state pushes ahead with industrialization plans. Potentially the worst affected are tribal Catholics in Jashpur and Raigarh dioceses.

Jashpur's 190,000 Oraon tribal people form 23.5 percent of the state's Catholic population. Raigarh has some 60,000 Catholics.

According to the Chhattisgarh government's website, the main objective of the new industrial policy is to "add maximum value to the state's abundant natural resources" and create "maximum employment opportunities by setting up industries" across the state.

The website adds that "for setting up industries, particularly large and mega industrial units, outside the industrial areas and parks, government revenue land and private land will be acquired and made available to investors."

However, Benedict Minj, a former government worker, says the industrialization plan is a government plot to disband Christian pockets in the state and weaken the Church. The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party) now heads the government.

Minj, a Catholic, warned the move would be "a disaster for the Church" which draws its strength from its tribal members. With their land and forestry taken, tribal people would become dependent on industrialists, he said.

Petrus Minj (no relation), another tribal Catholic, said the government has completed aerial and land surveys it started five years ago to set up various industries. The collector of Jashpur, the top bureaucrat in the district, has informed villagers about the move to take over their land, after side stepping village councils' objections.

The Church has been helping the locals in their fight. For the past few years, Jashpur diocese has held classes encouraging the villagers not to sell their land.

Jesuit Father Zacharias Lakra said the government has taken and sold hundreds of hectares of land in Raigarh diocese to a firm to set up a steel plant there. Many displaced tribal people have yet to receive adequate compensation, he added.

The priest said political parties support the new projects and some of them had initially tried to convince people that only Christians would be moved. "But now Hindus have realized they too will lose their land," the tribal priest said. The politicians now accuse the Church of fomenting trouble, he added.

Tribal leaders, however, accuse the government of "militarizing" the state since it forcibly removes people from their ancestral land.

Exasperated with the government plans, some 3,000 tribal people from across the state earlier this month demonstrated in the state capital, Raipur, but they say the protest fell on deaf ears.

A memorandum the protesters, including Catholics from Jashpur some 300 kilometres away, submitted to the state governor rejected plans to establish Special Economic Zones.

Instead, they demanded the government boost the agricultural sector by providing irrigation and drinking water as stipulated in the National Agricultural Act the federal government enacted in 2002.

Source: UCAN

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