Struggles for land by the landless poor in Kerala have gained much momentum in the past few months. On 4 August 2007, around thousand families, most of them dalits and adivasis, moved into the rubber estates of Harrison Malayalam Plantation Private Limited at Chengara near Konni in Pathanamthitta district under the banner of Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV). The agitators, including women and children, pitched up tiny tents with plastic sheets on the hill slopes along the vast stretches of rubber trees, and ‘settled’ there.

Since then, the number of people joining the agitation kept increasing and now there are about 10,000 families in the struggle front. “This is a life and death struggle,” says Laha Gopalan, president of SJVSV and the moving spirit behind the struggle. “Land to landless adivasis and dalits is a long-standing promise of the government. But successive governments in the state have been betraying us for the last four decades.” More and more people—even from other communities and far away districts such as Kasaragod—are joining the agitators each day.

The Chengara settlers. Pic: Bhasi.

The agitators demand five acres of land and Rs.50,000 for rehabilitation for each family. They point out that Harrison Malayalam plantation, which got 1048 hectares of land on lease for 99 years from the erstwhile Travancore government, has not been paying lease rent after the lease period got over in 1985. They also allege that the plantation has encroached upon 5000 acres of forestland over the years. The encroached land by the company has not been measured.

“We have nothing against the plantations as such,” says C R Prakash, a youth leader of SJVSV. “But if plantation companies can encroach government land and reap huge profits from it, why not the poor be given five acres? Let the government do a resurvey of the plantation and demarcate the boundaries.”

Life is indeed miserable in the new settlement. No sufficient food, no water, no power. No healthcare facilities. “Since we are outsiders, it’s difficult to get wage labour here. If we go back to our own places, there we are denied of jobs as we left the place and taking part in the struggle,” says Babu who hails from Kollam district. “We are labelled as Maoists, and police hook us on false charges of theft and illegal rubber-tapping.” There are 1400 children in the camp, and most of them depressed, as they had to discontinue their studies when they left for Chengara.

“It’s not easy for thousands of families to survive for long in hunger and starvation,” says Thattayil Saraswathi, general secretary of SJVSV, who is a double-postgraduate. “But some how, we have to pull on. We don’t have other options.” At Muthanga in Wayanad district in 2003, police opened fire at a host of agitating adivasis who had moved into the wildlife sanctuary as part of their struggle for land. Will a similar fate fall on the families here? “Let them kill us if they want. We won’t resist. But we will not quit without getting land. We need land for our survival,” says Saraswathi.

Kerala, that always boasts it has implemented the most comprehensive land reforms in India with “equitable distribution of wealth”, has not done much justice to dalits and adivasis. The legislative process to introduce the reforms began in 1957 under the first communist ministry and had to face several political and legal hurdles and finally a much-diluted law was enacted in 1970. It could have ended statutory landlordism and provided security of tenure to tenants, ownership rights to occupant of homestead lands and imposed limits on land ownership. But the reforms, implemented with the intention of transferring “land to tiller” did not really transfer land to agriculture labourers and poor peasants. The further redistribution that ought to have taken place for the success of land reforms never happened.

“We are labelled as Maoists, and police hook us on false charges of theft and illegal rubber-tapping.”

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The labourers who really worked on the land for a living did not benefit much from the land reforms,” explains Gopalan. “Instead, they only got hutment dwelling rights. In the dalit colonies two to three generations live in ghetto-like conditions.” A study by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) indicates a definite trend away from the post-independence objective of equitable land distribution. Over 33 per cent of the people in Kerala have no land of their own; they include the poorest of the poor and the tribal, dalit and fishing communities. There is an abnormal concentration of land in the hands of the richest 8.8 per cent of the population.

While the SJVSV maintains that all the 31 plantations of Harrison Malayalam in six districts have encroached upon acres of government land, the company refutes all the charges of the agitators. “We have proper land documents. We have not encroached even a cent of the land,” says V Venugopal, the chief legal manager of the company. “But assume that we have encroached on land. Does it give any right to these people to move in there?” He insists that due to the ongoing struggle, rubber trees in 350 acres remain untapped and the company has incurred a loss of Rs.80 lakhs.

Had the government intervened in the scene at the beginning itself, the issue would not have grown to such a dimension, says Venugopal. “We have been alerting the government for the past five months. We met all the ministers including the chief minister. But so far no action has been taken. Government should have immediately started resurvey of the plantation.” The company has moved the Kerala High Court and the court had directed the government on November 30 to evict the encroachers within three months ‘without bloodshed and loss of life’. “But the government has done nothing except arresting a few,” says Venugopal.

Harrison Malayalam is not the only company which is alleged to have encroached on forest/revenue land and not paying the lease rent. But authentic information is not available on the lease period, and the government itself seems to be groping in the dark. “Documents are not available even under Right to Information Act,” says Tony Thomas of one Earth One Life, a civil society organisation working for environmental protection. The reply he gets from the authorities is that old records of lease are not available. “Most of the plantations have political backing. That could be the reason for not getting the documents,”says Tony. However the Chief Minister V S Achuthanadan has categorically stated that the Tata Tea in Munnar has encroached on 50,000 acres of forestland and a satellite survey is on for demarcating its boundaries.

There is considerable confusion in Kerala as on who possesses what land. It is not unusual for the forest and revenue departments to claim a particular piece of land to be theirs. In the Travancore region the last survey was done in 1875, in 1905 in Cochin and in 1933 in Malabar. These three regions came together in 1956 to form the state of Kerala, and the legislature passed the Survey and Boundaries Act in 1961. The State government had started the resurvey of the land in 1966 as a sequel to this bill with a target to finish it in 10-15 years. Even though, the resurvey of 700 villages out of 1600 was completed by 1985, there has been very little progress since then.

“The main reason for the delay is lack of political will,” says Biju Prabhakar, Asst. Secretary to the State Survey Department. “Land survey has never been a priority of successive governments.” The government can finish the survey in three years if it deploys 20,000 surveyors simultaneously, says he. But there are only about 3000 surveyors at present and many of them lack proper training.

Government now plans a three-stage process to prepare land records for the entire State. In the first stage, rectification of all complaints of the resurvey would be undertaken. In the second stage, the updating of the resurvey records would be completed along with digitisation of the existing records. In the third stage, remaining villages will be resurveyed.

Even as the Chengara and similar struggles at other places such as Chinnakkanal, Thenmala and Meppadi by dalits and adivasis remain unresolved, demands for the reversal of the land reform law, citing the need of the industry, have become increasingly insistent. Such demands come even from the state bureaucracy itself.

In November 2007, a note prepared by T Balakrishnan, Principal Secretary (Industries), for discussion at a monthly meeting of senior government officials convened by the Chief Secretary in Thiruvananthapuram, proposed the repeal of Kerala Land Reform Act as a necessary measure if the State was to progress economically! The note insisted that what the state needed the most at present is industries, economic zones, Information Technology parks and amusement parks. It blamed the land reform law as the root cause of non-availability of land for big industrial projects, and even observed that the Act had achieved its objectives in a remarkable manner and had outlived its utility!

Though Chief Minister V S Achuthanandan condemned the note and the Industries Minister Elamaram Kareem was quick to dissociate himself from it, the proposal could be taken as a pointer to the future policies leading to a new type of landlordism. (Quest Features & Footage).