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Police carrying away protesters demanding land at Arippa
Police carrying away protesters demanding land at Arippa
Kerala

Dalits & Adivasis Continue To Struggle For Land Rights In Kerala

Whether it is the LDF or the UDF in power, these communities are deprived of their legitimate rights, they say

Rejimon Kuttappan

Rejimon Kuttappan

On December 28, some 150 tribals, including women holding toddlers close to their heart, started to walk from their huts in Arippa, a forest in Kulathupuzha in the eastern part of Kollam district of Kerala.

Their final destination was Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s residence in Thiruvananthapuram city and they aimed to cook rice in front of his residence as part of their protest to raise their long-pending demands to have one-acre land per family for farming.

Not allowed to protest in front of CM's residence: Arippa's Dalits
Not allowed to protest in front of CM's residence: Arippa's Dalits

They traversed around 60 km and reached Kawadiar, where the chief minister resides, by December 31. That night, they stayed in the city with Dr Ambedkar’s picture, flags, banner, and a few utensils to cook food.

Early morning, on January 01, the same day when Kerala was marking the 50th anniversary of much-talked Land Reforms, they headed to the chief minister’s residence.

“We wanted to hold a peaceful protest only. We had lost patience in the lethargic attitude of the government. However, we never had planned violence. But when we reached the site, a senior police officer approached us and told that we can’t hold the protest there and they will show a land somewhere else. But we were fooled. I was forcefully arrested and then others who resisted were also taken under custody,” Sreeram Koyyan, a leader of the Arippa land struggle, told The Lede.

The protestors were taken to a police camp in the city and then released after four hours.

“We were strictly told not to go back to CM’s residence. So we moved our protest to the government secretariat. For 100 hours, we stayed there and returned home without any positive result,” Sreeraman added.

The protesters of Arippa
The protesters of Arippa

Arippa Land Struggle

In 2012, a large group of Adivasis, Dalits, and landless peasants, encroached into the Arippa forest in Kulathupuzha village in the Kollam district of Kerala and their demand was land for cultivation, and their slogan: “We do not want three cents of land; we want land for cultivation.”

Unfortunately, their struggle still continues.

Arippa's protesters want land for cultivation
Arippa's protesters want land for cultivation

The 90 acre Arippa revenue forest in Kulathupuzha village was in the possession of a Thangal Kunju Musaliar. The forest land was leased to him for 90 years, which he had retained for 102 years. When the land tenure expired in 2001, the Kerala government took over the forest and declared it as surplus revenue land. Out of the 90 acres of this revenue land, around 21.54 acres was set aside for some of the beneficiaries of the Chengara land struggle, who had been given land title deed in 2009.

The remaining 68.46 acres were kept aside for institutional development, out of which, 13 acres were meant for the Ambedkar Model Residential School.

The rest of the 55.46 acres was earmarked for developing an International University campus, Biological Park and Dental College.

Currently, the Adivasis and Dalits in Arippa are holding their demonstration in the 55.46 acres of land, which they claim is the surplus revenue land meant for redistribution among the landless Adivasis, Dalits, and the landless poor.

“Since 2012, we have been asking for one-acre land for 600 families residing in the forest for farming. The government will hold meetings. But then they will forget us. Finally, we approached the court. The court ordered the government to prepare a list and give us land. It was some one-and-half years ago. After that nothing happened. So we decided to intensify the protest and came to Thiruvananthapuram,” Sreeraman said.

Sreeram and other Dalits were farming rice in marshy land in the forest for the last few years. Even though there was good yield, the government stopped it.

“We have now no other options to survive. It is quite hard to get jobs too. So through the protest, we were seeking permission to restart the rice farming again. But we were forcefully ‘sent back’,” Sreeraman added.

Thovarimala Land Struggle

If Arippa is a major land struggle in south Kerala, another land struggle which is continuing for the last seven months in northern Kerala is Thovarimala land struggle in Wayanad.

Since April 2019, some 300 tribal and Dalit families are protesting in front of Wayanad District Collector office demanding land for farming.

On 21 April 2019, they had ‘encroached’ a ‘vested forest land’, reportedly ‘owned’ by Harrison Malayalam Ltd earlier in Thovarimala, Wayanad, however, around three days later, Forest Department officials supported by policemen forcefully evicted the tribals.

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.

Many were arrested and released only after several days.

“Since then, we are here in the protest tent. The government is not listening to our plea. We are asking land only for farming. Without that how can we survive,” ND Venu, a protestor, told The Lede from the protest tent in Wayand.

According to Venu, after running pillar to post and long protests, a few lucky tribals would be provided land by the government, but unfortunately, when they go to the land, it will be discovered that the land is under the custody of somebody else.

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.

And these landless households are ghettoized in as many as 4762 “colonies” across Kerala, 2167 in Wayanad alone.

“All these are 1 cent or 2 cent colonies,” PJ James, CPI (ML) Red Star Politburo member, 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,” James alleged adding that and the government 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.

Meanwhile, 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 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,” Dasan said.

According to Dasan, all governments were indifferent to the plight of the landless and poor farmers.

“The Forest Rights Act 2006, Transfer of Lands and (Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act 1975 and projects like “Ashikkum Bhoomi Adivasikku Swantham” (the land will be the Adivasi’s if he wishes to buy it), “Bhoorahithar Illatha Keralam” (Kerala with no landless people), betrayed the Dalit and Adivasi people,” Dasan said adding that 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, 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 are 5.25 lakh acres of land that 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.

Denied Land

Historically, Dalits and Adivasis had never been landowners. Although an integral part of Kerala’s agricultural economy for centuries, the Adivasis and Dalits never held any records of possession.

Most of the land was owned by the upper caste Brahmins in Kerala, the Nairs or the warrior class belonging to the Kshatriya caste, wealthy Christians landowners and a few rich Mappilas, the Muslims of Kerala.

Dalits and Adivasis had worked in farmlands as farmworkers then and still do the same. Besides, due to a lack of modern education among the Adivasis and Dalits, these landless people were all the more forced to be dependent upon the land for sheer survival.

According to Mini Mohan, a social activist, the Adivasi land issue in Kerala presents a dismal picture.

“As the government remained indifferent, the Adivasis have from time to time tried to assert their land rights but were crushed by unleashing the state violence as at Cheengeri (1995) and Panavally (1997) and Muthanga (2003). The celebrated Kerala model of development has not made much of a change for the socio-economic life of the marginalised sections of Kerala,” Mini said.

“In the implementation of land reforms, the legitimate claim of the Dalits, the traditional tillers of the soil, to cultivable land was never recognised. Land alienation started in the 1950s,” Mini added.

72% Do Not Have Land

As per the land ownership indicator, 72.5% of the rural households in Kerala are landless whereas in India it is only 56.41%, reveals the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC).

In Kerala, the percentage of landless rural households was highest in Thrissur (87.39%) followed by Alappuzha (87.19%) and the lowest percentage is in Kasaragod district (49.13%).

There may be a definitional reason why the SECC data shows high landlessness in Kerala, despite its history of land reforms.

The SECC did not consider homestead land owned by households when assessing the land ownership status of a household. As a result, the SECC data may have failed to capture those landless households who received homestead land as part of the land redistribution programmes in Kerala.

This would also include beneficiaries who received crop land, including garden land, on which they later built homes, thus converting their plots into homestead land.

Row Over Land Reforms

Meanwhile, marking the 50th anniversary of Land Reforms in Kerala, a row erupted between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) in the name of the Land Reforms Act.

In a speech, CPM leader and chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan omitted the mention of C Achutha Menon, the chief minister of Kerala twice from 1969 till 1977.

As Pinarayi missed Achutha Menon’s name, the CPI’s news daily Janayugom made a scathing attack on Pinarayi.

The editorial of the daily said it cannot be viewed as a mistake but a deliberate omission of historical facts.

And CPI Secretary Kanam Rajendran said that it was Achutha Menon who introduced the Act in 1969. He asked Pinarayi not to give that credit to someone else.

Meanwhile, Pinarayi said that some people have no idea about the history of the implementation of the Land Reforms Act in Kerala.

“Perhaps because of their lack of knowledge about the history of the implementation of Land Reforms Act, some people have campaigned against me for my speech at the 50th anniversary celebration of Land Reforms Act as if I had done some serious crime,” Pinarayi said.

Meanwhile, commenting on the unnecessary row, PG Sunil Kumar, a social activist, said that both CPI and CPM are mocking Dalits and Adivasis.

“The fact is that Dalits and Adivasis are still on the streets protesting for a piece of land for farming. They are being ignored by all governments. But shamelessly, the government is celebrating the Land Reforms,” Sunil Kumar added.