By Jatindra Dash
BHUBANESWAR, India, March 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Church leaders in eastern India are backing a campaign to overturn recent amendments to decades-old land laws, saying the changes will hurt indigenous communities and lead to privatisation of protected territory.
Lawmakers in eastern Jharkhand state in November approved changes to two colonial-era laws that would allow the state to buy tribal land to lease to investors for non-agricultural purposes.
Indigenous people have protested, saying the laws will infringe on their rights.
Church leaders, who rarely wade into India's political matters, earlier this month met Jharkhand governor Droupadi Murmu and urged her to block the amendments.
"The acts were there to protect the interests of the tribals, but they have been compromised," Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo, head of the state's Catholic church, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Government officials have accused Toppo and other church leaders of interfering in state matters and opposing development for indigenous communities.
Officials say amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act will help provide land to build much-needed infrastructure in the poor state, and derive better value for tribal land.
"The laws have been amended several times before - we have in fact simplified them now to ensure that tribals get the real benefit," said Anant Kumar Ojha, a lawmaker and tribal leader.
There has been a rising number of conflicts over land in India as the economy expands and more land is sought for industrial use and development projects.
While several laws have been introduced in the past decade to protect the rights of farmers and indigenous people, some of these laws have been diluted and have not always helped the most vulnerable, activists say.
Last month, Pope Francis appeared to back Native Americans seeking to halt part of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, saying indigenous cultures have a right to defend "their ancestral relationship to the earth".
(Writing by Rina Chandran, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)