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'Our policy is not to suppress'

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-
Interview with Chief Minister A.K. Antony.

The issue of the tribal people of Kerala is one that would put any government in extreme difficulty. Even as the final round of negotiations was on to end the agitation by the Adivasi Dalit Action Council, Chief Minister A. K. Antony explained in an interview to R. Krishnakumar why it was possible for his government to meet the Adivasis' demands only halfway and why the issue of restoration of alienated land was not a priority now. Excerpts:

The Adivasi Dalit Action Council has declared that the struggle is no longer one between Adivasis and the settler-farmers, but one between the government and the tribal people. Will the issue be resolved to the tribal people's satisfaction?

It is too much to expect a new government to solve all problems that have remained unresolved for the past 50 years. It is only four months since I became Chief Minister. Did any other government in Kerala show such interest in finding a solution to the Adivasi issue in such a short time? We will give at least one acre of land to all landless Adivasis. Where there is more land, the government will give more.

Is the fact that Adivasis no longer demand the restoration of alienated land a positive change?

The main problem before the government was that they demanded five acres, nothing less. It is difficult to find that much land. Not only that, are there not others with similar problems in Kerala? Are there not lakhs of Scheduled Caste people with not even five cents of land? Are there not other sections who are landless? There is no doubt that Adivasis are eligible for a more considerate attitude. That is why the government is ready to give at least one acre to all landless Adivasis. It may not be possible to give one acre each to all landless people in Kerala. Will it be possible to give at least five cents each to all landless people in Kerala? Adivasis were the most exploited class of people. So they are eligible for special consideration. They should understand that this is an issue that had remained unsolved for the past 50 years.

When will the Adivasis start getting this land?

They should give the government some time. Look at the decisions we have taken. Adivasi welfare and rehabilitation is a major programme in the Tenth Five-Year Plan. Work for that has started and the government has decided to include Adivasis in all stages of its preparation. The Planning Board is to prepare a master plan for the development of the tribal people. There is the food-for-work programme that we are going to implement, the problem of educational and health facilities, of roads, that we have promised to solve. On the serious issue of exploitation of tribal women, I have asked the police to take stringent action. My government is giving the utmost priority, and showing empathy and eagerness to solve the problems of Adivasis as no other government has before. Look at the provocation that was made, but our policy is not to suppress the agitation.

Does the government consider the fact that Adivasis are demanding other land, rather than the restoration of alienated land, a welcome change?

The government's concern is only about their demand for five acres. There is no meaning in making promises that the government cannot keep. I believe in implementing what I promise. It is because all previous governments have fooled them that they do not trust anyone. What can we do now for things that did not proceed as promised earlier?

According to Adivasi leaders, there are 45,000 landless Adivasi families in Kerala. That is a much higher figure than the government estimate.

As per their figures, it is a lot of land that the government will have to give them, if they demand five acres. So they themselves know the impracticality of the demand they had placed before the government. The density of population in Kerala is so high that families are forced to build houses on two and a half cents in the cities and towns. Three or four families have constructed houses on the five cents the government distributed as part of land reforms. The government has readily agreed to all practical demands that they made. But does a government not have its limitations?

How can Adivasis be sure that the government is not making another hollow promise?

We will give them everything that we promised them. Perhaps the government may give more than it promised, but it will not go back on its commitments. But they should not expect the government to do what it simply cannot do.

Has the government found out what percentage of Adivasis the Action Council represents before it holds discussions or strikes a deal with it on the fate of all the tribal people in the State?

The Council leaders were the ones who took up the cause. That itself is an indication of the openness of the government's stand. Both the Opposition and pro-government tribal organisations were critical of the government holding talks with them. But they brought the issue before the people in a better way than other organisations did.

Do you think it is practical to take back land from the settler-farmers who had over the years taken possession of tribal land in Kerala?

That will create another problem in the State. It was the previous LDF (Left Democratic Front) government that brought in legislation in 1999 to take back tribal land alienated after a certain period. But would that not create a fresh set of problems? What is the point in solving one and creating another? That is why the government decided to find somehow the land.

What is your stand on the other major demand, that the tribal areas should be declared scheduled areas?

There are only two regions where there is a concentration of Adivasis in the State, Attappadi (in Palakkad district) and Wayanad district. In the rest of the State, they are a scattered population. The demand needs careful scrutiny before I can say anything about how the government will go about it. The situation is not the same as in northern India.

If the government makes the 1999 law the basis for the selection of beneficiaries...

Who is adamant that the 1999 law should be the benchmark? I am not discussing any law here. What I am saying is, the government will give at least a minimum of one acre. Wherever there is more land available, it will give more. Drop the 1999 Act and the 1975 Act. Who is being adamant here? The Adivasi problem can be solved only if they get land and employment, only if there is a solution to the peculiar diseases that afflict them, to the poverty among them and if there is an end to the kind of exploitation they have been subjected to over the years. Those are the problems that were begging a solution all along. And the government has decided to solve them with total commitment.