Loss of common lands a death knell for Indian craftsmen, analysts say

A weaver changes a spool of silk yarn for making fabrics in Margram village, about 240 km (149 miles) north of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata in this file photo. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal (INDIA)

Despite laws to protect the property of indigenous people, states can deny these rights or change the classification of land, particularly in resource-rich areas they deems critical for development

MUMBAI, June 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The loss of India's community lands to industrial use is hurting weavers, potters and other craftsmen who rely on them for their livelihoods, activists say, sparking disputes across the country and even a music video.

Community or common lands include forests, grazing lands, water bodies and land owned by village councils. They provide food, water, fuel, fodder and livelihoods to rural communities.

These lands make up more than a third of India's land area but as demand for land has risen to spur economic growth, large tracts have been reclassified by state governments for industrial use, threatening local artisans' livelihoods.

"Traditionally, potters, weavers, ironsmiths, all had access to common lands for their work," said Tarique Shafique, a social worker in Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh state, known for its silk sarees made by Muslim weavers.

"Now there is less of that land, and that is hurting their work. These are people who have done this work for generations."

Many of them belong to lower-caste and minority communities who do not own land so the loss of common lands has a more debilitating effect than the acquisition of private land where compensation is paid, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Between 1980 and 2011, about 830,000 hectares (3,205 sq miles) of India's forest land were reclassified or diverted for industrial use, according to advocacy group Rights and Resources Institute.

Nearly a quarter of this land was given to mining, while a fifth went to power projects as India builds infrastructure to spur growth and generate jobs for its 1.2 billion population.


"Land use is determined by the states on a case by case basis, and the law is followed in every case," said Hukum Singh Meena, a joint secretary in the department of land resources.

In villages, dhobis, or washermen, washed clothes and hung them out to dry in 'dhobighaats' earmarked for this purpose.

Potters, weavers, ironsmiths and coppersmiths used common property resources to source water, mud and reeds, and to dry their wares.

"Earlier, there used to be "tana-bana zameen", a piece of land where weavers placed their looms," said Niti Saxena, a land rights researcher in Lucknow city in Uttar Pradesh.

"That has slowly disappeared from villages, leaving them with no place to weave," she said.

In Goa, where about 70 percent of land is collectively owned and administered by a centuries-old community code, common lands are caught up in several disputes with the state.

In the southern city of Chennai, popular classical singer T.M. Krishna recently made a music video appealing for the protection of common lands, sometimes also called wastelands.

The 2006 Forest Rights Act and an older law to protect lands of indigenous people recognise the rights of forest dwellers and indigenous communities.

But states can deny these rights or change the classification of land, particularly in resource-rich areas they deem critical for development.

"Once the land is gone, it's gone," said Shafique.

"Then these workers have no choice but to give up their trade and move to the cities to work in construction."

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