Authorities in India’s West Bengal state have given land titles to about 30,000 refugees who have lived in settlement colonies for years, and promised that thousands more will also get property rights, as a row over their citizenship intensifies.
West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee handed the title deeds on Monday (28), and said those living in more than 200 settlements will also get land rights, even though their settlements are on private or federal government land.
“We will try to buy the land from the owners, and we will ask the central government to regularise the colonies on plots owned by central agencies,” Banerjee said at a public meeting late on Monday.
There are an estimated 150,000 families in the eastern state’s refugee colonies. Most are from Bangladesh, according to officials.
Banerjee’s move is part of a wider push to give more rights to certain refugee groups in the country.
India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which spells out refugee rights and state responsibilities to protect them.
Nor does it have a domestic law to protect the more than 200,000 refugees it currently hosts, including Tibetans, Sri Lankans, Afghans, Bangladeshis and Rohingyas from Myanmar.
But in recent years, the government has been granting limited rights to some refugee groups.
Last year, the western state of Maharashtra granted land ownership rights to refugees who had fled what is now Pakistan some 70 years ago, when the countries were partitioned at independence.
Indigenous Chakma and Hajong refugees who left Bangladesh more than five decades ago have limited citizenship in India, but not land rights, while Tibetan refugees get welfare benefits, but no property rights.
Refugee rights are in focus with the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2019, which proposes to give citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Parsis from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who came to India before December 31, 2014.
“Land ownership is an issue for refugees, so having a title will make them feel more secure,” said Achin Chakraborty, director of the Institute of Development Studies in the West Bengal capital Kolkata.
“But the issue over the cut-off date still remains, and it is not clear if having a land title is enough,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Tuesday.
Chakraborty is one of more than 100 academics and activists who have appealed to president Ram Nath Kovind to reject the citizenship bill as it discriminates on the grounds of religion and “violates the constitutional principle of equality”.
There have also been protests in the northeastern state of Assam, where residents complain that immigrants from Bangladesh have encroached their land and strained resources.
The bill, which was passed in the lower house of parliament earlier this month, is expected to face resistance from the opposition Congress party in the upper house.