A land battle

Print edition : November 06, 2009

Laha Gopalan, leader of the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi, with the agitating families at the Chengara estate after accepting the governments offer.-RADHAKRISHNAN KUTTOOR

FOR a long time, Kerala watched uneasily the twists and turns of an agitation demanding land for livelihood by hundreds of marginalised people, the majority of them Dalits, who encroached on a rubber estate near Chengara in Pathanamthitta district on August 4, 2007, and have been living there ever since. The encroached land was part of a plantation held on long lease for decades by Harrisons Malayalam Ltd, now owned by one of Indias largest industrial groups, RPG Enterprises. The agitation was spearheaded by the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SVSV), a relatively new outfit, led mainly by a hitherto unknown champion, Laha Gopalan, a former government employee and a self-proclaimed Communist Party of India (Marxist) worker.

Though it ran for 795 days on the demand for five acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of cultivable land for every participant family, the struggle ended abruptly on October 6, with clear signs of divisions in the leadership and the ranks of the agitators. Gopalan told Frontline that he was being forced to stop the agitation temporarily and accept an unsatisfactory resolution package drawn out jointly by the government and the Opposition against the interests of Dalits and under threat of violent reprisals from CPI(M) cadre if he did otherwise.

The SVSV came into being as an organisation mostly of Dalits and Dalit Christian labourers and agricultural workers (and a minority of tribal and other marginalised people) and sustained its struggle all this while without much patronage from mainstream political parties and social organisations in Kerala. For several months, hundreds of agitators, including about 200 children, braved the rains, virulent outbreaks of communicable diseases, slander campaigns and opposition from the plantation workers belonging to almost all trade unions who had lost their jobs because of the struggle.

At times the agitators were forced into hunger and isolation within the estate because of blockades of the road by the workers. At one juncture, with the Kerala High Court too ordering their eviction without bloodshed, many of the agitators seemed even ready to commit suicide by hanging themselves from the rubber trees or by immolating themselves with kerosene they had stored in cans.

As months passed with the agitators sticking to their demand and the High Court ordering their eviction, there were signs of division in the ranks of the agitators, allegations of nepotism and corruption against its leaders, and reports of steady infiltration of extremist elements and ideology into the struggle.

A few weeks before Gopalan announced that he was reluctantly ending the Chengara struggle, three young motorcycle riders, allegedly members of a new Dalit organisation, hacked to death a 60-year-old man who was out on his morning walk at Varkala in Thiruvananthapuram district. They also tried to kill another person, a tea shop owner, in the neighbourhood. Several members of the three-year-old Dalit Human Rights Movement were arrested immediately, and the police said the group had plans to conduct eight such murders in the State, to shock and awe Kerala and perhaps draw attention to its demands that were yet to be fully articulated.

But it was clear from the beginning that the Chengara agitation, if left unsolved, would become a cause for embarrassment for the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government in Kerala. After all, the State had initiated a wide-ranging land reform process right from the day the first Communist Ministry took office in 1957.

The choice of a plantation to launch the struggle turned out to be quite symbolic as it highlighted the reality in Kerala of large tracts of land still remaining in the hands of landlords, while a substantial section of the downtrodden went without even a piece of land to make a living, a legacy of the incomplete land reform process.

As is well known, the original land reform process launched by the first Communist Ministry underwent much dilution after the Congress government at the Centre dismissed the Ministry and replaced it with less committed coalition governments. By the early 1970s, when the reform process finally ended, it had been reduced to the distribution of surplus agricultural land. Forests and plantations were excluded from its purview as they were treated as industries (in the context of the relationship between the plantation owners and workers).

Certainly, when looked at in the contemporary social context, the changes the reforms brought about in Kerala society were revolutionary, breaking as they did the stranglehold of the upper-caste janmi landlords by abolishing statutory landlordism and imposing a ceiling on household landholdings. It made about 28 lakh tenants owners of their own land and gave about 5.8 rural poor ownership rights to their homestead land (kudikidappu), raising the bargaining power and wages of agricultural workers. The progress that Kerala made in the late 1970s and 1980s in the areas of education and health care was a result of this reform process.

However, it is also true that the part of the reform process that dealt with the identification of land held above the ceiling and its redistribution was a failure. Though the land ceiling laws were expected to create large extents of surplus land, most landlords circumvented the legal requirement through bogus transfers, gift deeds, and so on.

Successive coalition governments representing powerful landed groups made several dilutions in the original law. The result was that many of the landowners managed to retain much of the surplus, and a major part of the land that was eventually redistributed went to the traditional intermediate smallholder stratum of Kerala society. Today mainstream society often forgets that it was on the land ownership system that the caste system was thriving in its most obnoxious form in Kerala. We fail to realise the reality of caste in the land reform process. The families of the rural poor who actually worked on the land were only given small plots of homestead land [10 cents, or one-tenth of an acre; five cents; or three cents depending on whether they lived in a village, town or city] after the land reforms and all of them belonged to Dalit castes. They never became owners of cultivable land and are facing the worst hardship, with no means of a dignified livelihood, said Sreeraman Koyyon, vice-chairman of the Chengara Solidarity Forum.

Two or three generations down the line, how do Dalit families, with their children now married and with families of their own, live together in these small strips of land? By the 1980s we were being largely herded into Harijan colonies and community homes built under the One-Lakh Housing Scheme. Crores of rupees set apart for us by the Central and State governments is again used to buy small plots of homestead land, build low-cost houses or toilets for us. Will any of these measures help Dalit families overcome the poverty and hardship that they face every day? That is why we demanded five acres for each participant family, for cultivation as a means of livelihood and to lead a dignified life, Gopalan told Frontline soon after announcing the end of the Chengara agitation.

In the settlement package announced by Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, the government promised 50 cents each to 832 participant Dalit families, one acre each for 27 tribal families (as it was promised to the Scheduled Tribes in other parts of the State) and 25 cents each to the landless others. In all, land and housing assistance were offered to 1,432 participant families whose applications were in the official records. The government was also to provide housing assistance to the landless as well as to those families that had only less than five cents of land.

At a joint press conference following the announcement of the package in the presence of Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy (who played a key role in formulating the settlement), the Chief Minister said it was difficult to find the necessary land in Kerala even to implement the package that was being offered and there was no way the government could fulfil the SVSVs demand for more.

Gopalan said that his organisation was accepting the leftover offer under protest, convinced that this was the best that Dalits could expect from both the ruling and Opposition coalitions. He, however, said the agitators would leave Chengara only after the land promised by the government was actually allotted to them.

Some other leaders claimed that the package was a sell-out and that it kept a large number of families that were part of the struggle outside the list of beneficiaries.

Sreeraman told Frontline: Dalits in Kerala are going to lose a lot because of the Chengara package. We are all disappointed. There is a clear scaling down of the extent of land that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes can claim from now on. Dalits were demanding one acre; the package says they are eligible for 50 cents. Not long ago Adivasis were promised up to five acres, but the government now says they will get only one acre.

(Hardly six years have passed since Kerala saw the five-decade-old dream of another group of landless and marginalised people in the State turning sour with the police action against tribal encroachers at the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary in Wayanad district.)

Chengara is yet another indication of the restlessness that is building up in the lower strata of Kerala society, which is sought to be articulated pointedly under a caste (rather than class) identity, and disturbingly, at times, with extremist overtones. There is need for caution because at its root is the issue of land, a primary resource, or rather the lack of it a serious and complex problem in a shoestring-shaped State where the land-people ratio is one of the highest in the country.

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