The new Bill could potentially pave the way to legitimise illegal land occupations by non-tribals in Scheduled Areas in the state, affecting the interest of tribals.

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news Opinion Sunday, September 13, 2020 - 15:50

The Telangana Assembly passed a new Bill last week titled ‘The Telangana Rights in Land and Pattadar Passbooks Bill 2020’, which the government claims will solve issues plaguing the Revenue Department in the state. The Bill was passed after the Village Revenue Officer (VRO) system was abolished. However, the new Bill also paves the way to legitimise illegal land occupations by non-tribals in Scheduled Areas in the state, affecting the interest of tribals.

The new Bill passed in the Assembly on September 11 nullifies the existing Record of Rights (RoR) Act, 1971, while claiming that it offers an answer to resolve land-related problems and aims to revamp land administration in the state. On the contrary, the new Bill multiplies tribal land problems in the Scheduled Area and tends to further the alienation of tribal lands.

Land laws governing tribals

Special protective land laws have been in force in the Scheduled Areas of Telangana for a long time. The Tribal Area Regulation promulgated in 1949 was to provide better administration of the tribal areas of erstwhile Hyderabad State. This Regulation was repealed by the extension of the AP Scheduled Area Land Transfer Regulations (LTR) in 1963 to the Scheduled Areas of Telangana to prohibit the transfer of lands between tribals and non-tribals.

Regulation 1 of 59 of the LTR was further amended in 1970, totally prohibiting the transfer of lands situated in the Scheduled Areas by a tribal or non-tribal, making such transfers absolutely null and void unless made in favour of tribals.

However, the new Bill extends to the whole state of Telangana, disregarding the special laws made applicable for the protection of tribals from exploitative land deals in the Scheduled Areas.

Registration of land deeds and mutation of land records

The new Bill enables an applicant to seek the registration of land transfers and mutation of agricultural lands by producing an affidavit and the pattadar passbook, and on payment of required stamp duty and fee. The Tahsildars who are designated as Joint Registrars are empowered to register these land transactions and validate this.

Further, the new Bill says that a title deed issued by the Tahsildar shall have the same evidential value as a document registered in accordance with the provisions of the Registration Act, 1908. With this, the new Bill contradicts the LTR.

The Andhra government issued a circular (2422/F1/79) in 1980 prescribing a separate procedure for registration of documents where the transfer of immovable property situated in the Scheduled Areas was concerned. This imposed restrictions on the Registering Officers under the Registration Act, 1908.

Under the existing LTR, permission from the Agent to the Government or District Collector is essential for registration of any land transactions in the Scheduled Areas. As per the rules, the Tahsildar shall strictly comply with the provisions of the LTR to check for any potential illegal land transactions and scrutinise documents produced by applicants for registration of any land in the region, before sending remarks to the District Collector.

Therefore, the Tahsildar has no legal authority to register any land transaction. But the new Bill confers powers to them as registering authorities, thereby violating provisions of the LTR.

LTR has an overriding effect over other laws

Examining the land rights of tribals and non-tribals, several judgements have been passed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court and the Supreme Court. The High Court has held that the LTR shall have an overriding effect over the Record of Rights Act, 1971.

The Government of Andhra Pradesh also issued a Government Order (GO) in 2001 stating that the LTR shall have an overriding effect over the Settlement Regulations and any settlement ‘patta’ (title deed) granted in contravention of LTR in favour of non-tribals, will be null and void.

Regularisation of unregistered documents and assigned lands

The new Bill further provides for mutation of the land records and change of land ownerships based even on ‘unregistered deeds’ or arrangements among members of the family, which further contravenes the provisions of LTR and also orders of the High Court and Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of India had earlier held that immovable property in Scheduled Areas can be legally and lawfully transferred only by a registered deed. 

The Andhra High Court, while dealing with a case in 2008, held that unregistered sale papers cannot be taken into account while examining the nature of tribal rights under LTR.

Exposing dubious ways of non-tribals to grab the tribal land, the Koneru Rangarao Land Committee had recommended that unregistered deeds, which date back to a crucial period when LTR had not come into effect, shall be made inadmissible as evidence for establishing a non-tribal’s right to land in Scheduled Areas.

The new Bill defines an ‘owner’ as the holder of a patta, which is usually issued to a person who is landless and poor. Several assignment pattas were granted in favour of non-tribals in the Scheduled Areas of Telangana earlier in violation of the provisions of LTR and now the Bill legitimises such holdings.

No revision provision against appeal

Under the existing RoR Act, 1971, there is a provision to file an appeal with an Appellate Authority (generally the Revenue Divisional Officer) against the order of a Tahsildar, and also an opportunity to file a Revision Petition against the order passed by the Appellate Authority to the District Collector.

But the new Bill 2020 provides a Tribunal to adjudicate all pending appeals as well as revision petitions and stipulates that the decision of the Tribunal is final. Therefore, the Bill limits the right to appeal against the decision of the Tribunal.

Role of Gram Sabha undermined

The new Bill is also silent over the role of Gram Sabhas envisaged under the Parliament- enacted Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area (PESA) Act, 1996. The Gram Sabhas are considered a statutory authority under the Act to prevent tribal land alienation and restoration of alienated lands.

Further, the AP Panchayat Raj (Amendment) Act of 1998 empowers the Gram Sabhas to deal with tribal land matters in Scheduled Areas. The Gram Sabha is the authority to verify the land-holdings of non-tribals in the Scheduled Areas.

After the bifurcation of united Andhra Pradesh, Telangana adopted all the enactments made by the United AP. Therefore the new Bill violates PESA, a central law which overrides all state laws. In its provisions, the new Bill takes away the powers and functions of Gram Sabha in verifying land-holdings of non-tribals in the Scheduled Areas.

Therefore, there is a need to bring in a few amendments to the new Revenue Bill 2020, to further strengthen the land laws made applicable to Scheduled Areas, in order to prevent tribal land alienation.

The writer is a lawyer and an activist working for tribals rights for more than three decades. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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