Kerala: Tribals Occupy Vested Forest Lands
Shafeeq Thamarassery

Kerala: Tribals Occupy Vested Forest Lands

Forceful eviction of tribals and protesters by police only strengthens their resolve

Team Lede

Team Lede

On April 21, some 300 tribal and Dalit families ‘encroached’ a ‘vested forest land’, reportedly ‘owned’ by Harrison Malayalam Ltd earlier in Thowari Mala, Wayanad.

On April 24, the very next day after the day Kerala went to polls for Lok Sabha 2019, forest department officials supported by policemen forcefully evicted the tribals.

Some 1000 people led by the All India Krantikari Kisan Sabha (AIKKS) and the Adivasi Bharath Mahasabha (ABM), feeder organisations of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star, had taken over 104 hectares of vested forest land and put up their tents.

Vested forests are private forests which the government says – according to the Kerala Private Forests (Vesting and Assignment) Act, 1971 – can be converted into agricultural lands. This was done by the Kerala government to promote the welfare of the population practicing agriculture in the state

On the day after the LS polls, policemen and forest department officials sprang into action.

“On that morning itself, policemen and officials came yelling at us. They were pushing us here and there, forcing us to leave the place. We tried our best to remain there. But when they started to throw away our food, we decided to move out,” Seetha, a tribal woman who was chased away police, told The Lede.

“We had cooked food for our children. It was just a rice soup and a green chilli salad. Unfortunately, the police didn’t allow us to serve that too for our hungry children. They threw away the food too,” Seetha added.

Before Seetha and others were forcefully evicted from the vested forest land, their leaders were called by police for talks, ‘smuggled’ away from the protest scene and arrested.

PJ James, CPI (ML) Red Star Politburo member, told The Lede that MP Kunhikanaran (All India Krantikari Kisan Sabha secretary and CPI (ML) Red Star Central Committee member), Rajesh Appat (CPI (ML) Red Star State Executive member) and K Manoharan (convenor, Adivasi Bharat Mahasabha) were arrested.

“They are still in custody. And as the other protestors were forced to leave the scene, we led them to Wayanad Collectorate in a long march,” James added.

Tribals sitting on protest in front of Collectorate
Tribals sitting on protest in front of CollectorateShafeeq Thamarassery
Tribals walked around 26 km from the protest site to reach the district collectorate in Kalpetta
Tribals walked around 26 km from the protest site to reach the district collectorate in KalpettaShafeeq Thamarassery
A long walk from Thowari Mala to Kalpetta 
A long walk from Thowari Mala to Kalpetta Shafeeq Thamarassery

When this story was published on Tuesday, the tribals and Dalits were still protesting in front of the collectorate.

Talking to The Lede from the protest tent, Santha, a tribal woman, who stays in a two-room house in Nagarkunnu area with 16 family members, asked why policemen were beating them up and chasing them away.

“We had approached grama sabhas seeking land for house and farming. But our pleas fell on deaf hears. Now, when we try to find land by ourselves, the government which is supposed to help us is using force to chase us away. My life is over. What about my children and their generation? Don’t they have to live? It is a sad situation,” Santha said adding that they were born in this land.

“We were here before the British came. We owned this land. But we were cheated and evicted from our own land. We will continue this protest till we claim that back,” Santha added.

Wayanad has the largest population of tribals in Kerala. While the total population of tribals in the state is around 3.64 lakh, around 1.36 lakh are in Wayanad.

“These landless households are ghettoised in as many as 4762 “colonies” across Kerala, 2167 in Wayanad alone. All these are 1 cent or 2 cent colonies,” James said adding that the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front governments and CPM-led Left Democratic Front government have betrayed the tribals and Dalits.

Interestingly, tribes are forced to adjust in colonies even as five lakh acres of government land reportedly remains in the illegal possession of plantation companies.

And the government actually does not know how much land it has; a full-fledged land survey commissioned in 1965 remains incomplete with data collected for only half the number of revenue villages.

As per a report submitted by IAS officer MG Rajamanickam in 2016, on lands occupied by plantations, it was found that nearly five lakh acres were held illegally by plantations, including British companies.

The report even revealed that these companies had also sold a vast extent of government land under their possession by flouting laws.

Unfortunately, the report has not seen light or action following its submission in 2016.

MK Dasan of the CPI (ML) Red Star told The Lede that land reform programmes after the formation of Kerala in 1956, did not help the poor landless peasants to obtain farmland or housing.

“Tribals and Dalits, who really were landless then when the land reforms were initiated are still landless. Interestingly now these people are deserted even from agricultural labour because of the policies that serve corporate interests in the agricultural field and anti-people corporate development agendas. And this endangers their limited means to survive and they are subjected to unbearable living conditions,” Dasan said.

“However, all governments were indifferent to the plight of the landless and poor farmers. The Forest Right Act 2006, Transfer of Lands and (Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act 1975 and the projects like “Ashikkum Bhoomi Adivasikku Swantham” (the land will be the Adivasi’s if he wishes to buy it), “Bhoorahithar IIIatha Keralam” (Kerala with no landless people), betrayed the Dalit and Adivasi people,” he added.

According to Dasan, the findings by panels constituted by the governments like Justice Manoharan Committee, Nivedita P Haran Committee, and finally Rajamanickam too advised the governments that companies like Harrison Malayalam Plantations Ltd, Kannan Devan (Tata), Travancore Rubber & Tea Co are flouting all rules existing in India with forged documents and keeping 5.25 lakh acres of land.

“All these commissions’ reports undoubtedly reveal that the government can take over all these land by passing a law in the Legislative Assembly. But setting aside all the recommendations of these commissions, and deliberately losing all the cases in the court, the consecutive governments have shown that they are not with the landless people, but with the forces who snatched lakhs of acres of land and suppressed all the land struggle movements,” Dasan added.

In 1957, the government had declared the total area of the surplus land vested with the government was 12 lakh acres.

“However, the governments since then have failed to distribute the 8 lakh acres of surplus land to the landless. Currently, there is 5.25 lakh acres land which can be distributed to the landless people. When the other Communist parties have failed, we are going to re-organise all the landless people with a slogan “From The Colonies To Farmland,” Dasan added.

The Lede attempted to contact the district administration as well as the relevant ministers of the state, but in vain. This story will be updated with their response as and when it comes.

Tribals on a halt during the long march from Thowari Mala to Kalpetta 
Tribals on a halt during the long march from Thowari Mala to Kalpetta Shafeeq Thamarassery

Who Is CPI (ML) Red Star?

The CPI (ML) Red Star is a relatively new party which claims to have a presence in 16 Indian states including Kerala. This group claims to have split in 2009 from the CPI (ML) led by Kanu Sanyal.

Since its formation, KN Ramachandran is the general secretary of the party. “The CPI (Marxist-Leninist) were resorting to armed revolution. We couldn’t adjust to that. We believe that there are no heroes who are going to lead the fight with arms. We believe that only people can fight for people. We believe in the class struggle. We need people participation. We educate them on their deprived rights and guide them in their struggle. This is the only scientific way,” James said.

In 2017, the party had made headlines in West Bengal through its participation in Bhangor against an ongoing power station project.

The agitation in Bhangor was against an under-construction power grid sub-station. Led by CPI (ML) Red Star, it turned violent when thousands of villagers blocked roads and clashed with policemen demanding that the project be scrapped – allegedly because it would harm the environment and their livelihoods, while some also claimed they had been forced to part with their lands and had not been adequately compensated.

Two villagers were killed in firing and protestors also had set fire to a large number of police vehicles.

Although many of its members were arrested, including women’s wing leader Sharmishtha Chowdhury, the movement continued. In May 2018, five independent candidates supported by CPI (ML) Red Star won the Bhangor rural polls.

“We don’t find space in news headlines often as other Communist parties do. However, it is a fact that during the last three years we have made important developments in all fields. But considering the strengthening of the forces of Right on the one hand and the weakening of the Left forces in general, whatever gains achieved by us is insignificant. To overcome this situation and to develop a powerful struggling Left and a democratic alternative is the challenge to be taken up,” James added.

In Kerala, for the last few years, CPI (ML) Red Star has been silently successful in mobilising landless people and farmers to join them in the fight for land.

Timeline Of Major Tribal Land Struggles

Muthanga Protest

In 2001, the death of 32 tribals in Wayanad due to starvation forced them to renew their struggle for land. They found that lack of land for cultivation was the reason behind the starvation deaths.

Tribals formed a new organisation, gathered in Thiruvananthapuram and began a campaign with the slogan “Right to live in the land one is born in.”

After several weeks of protest, an agreement was reached with the then Chief Minister AK Anthony who promised to give 5 acres of land to each Adivasi family.

However, even after 45 days, when the government failed to abide by the agreement, the protestors encroached into the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in Wayanad on 05 January 2003.

For one month, the government didn’t pay any attention to the protesters. On 17 February policemen entered the forest and began evicting the protesters violently without any warning.

In the fight, several hundred tribals were injured, one tribal and a policeman was killed.

Aralam Farm Protest

Following the Muthanga incident, the then Kerala government signed an agreement with the State Farms Cooperation of India in June 2004 to use the 3060 hectares of the Central State Farm in Aralam for the resettlement of the tribals.

The plan was to incorporate the tribals of Kannur and Wayanad districts.

However, in 2006, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) came up with the plan of establishing an ecotourism project on the farm for tourism purposes and also decided to exclude the tribals from the rehabilitation agreement.

The delay in the process of rehabilitation and the exclusion of tribals instigated a fresh movement by the tribals. Thousands of tribals encroached into the farmlands and started living there, which put the state government under pressure to start the process of distribution of title deeds.

Chengara Land Struggle

The Chengara protest in Pathanamthitta district began on 04 August 2007, when 300 families from various parts of the state converged on the rubber estate owned by Harrison’s Malayalam Plantations Ltd.

Alleging that the company was in possession of much more land than the actual extent under the government’s lease, the protestors encroached upon the land.

After 790 gruelling days, the agitation was settled during a discussion between the then Chief Minister VS Achutanandan, Laha Gopalan (leader of the Chengara Land Struggle) and others of the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SJVSV) – the organisation that led the land struggle. Oommen Chandy, who was then the Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala State Assembly, also participated in the talks.

As part of the settlement, 1432 out of the 1738 families that had started living on the rubber plantation were enlisted for receiving financial assistance to build houses. However, the distribution of land amongst the various tribes and castes was uneven.

Arippa Bhoosamaram

In 2009, the Kerala government decided to set aside 21.54 acres of the 90 acre Arippa Revenue Forest in Kulathupuzha village for the beneficiaries of the Chengara Package.

The remaining 68.46 acres was kept aside for institutional development. On 31 December 2012 around 1300 tribals, Dalits and landless poor encroached into the remaining land in Arippa Forest and began their protest by building shanties and living there.

The protestors claimed that a part of the forest was surplus revenue land meant for redistribution among the landless tribals. Under the banner of Adivasi Dalit Munetta Samiti (ADMS) the agitators raised the slogan - “We do not want 3 cents of land; all we want is land for cultivation.”

Among the protesters were people who had taken part in the historic Chengara land struggle and were given title deeds, but found themselves cheated, when they realised that the land allotted to them was neither fit for cultivation nor was it suitable for habitation.

At the moment, the protesters are living in the Arippa Forest in shanties to press their demand of land for cultivation.

Tribals take a break during the 26 km walk to the district collectorate 
Tribals take a break during the 26 km walk to the district collectorate Shafeeq Thamarassery
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