Print edition : May 12, 2017

Members of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu and other organisations at a protest at Kottupaiyur village near Tirukoilur in Villupuram district in 2014. Photo: By Special Arrangement

WHEN Dalits took out a “march to our land” in V. Sathanur village in Vikrawandi subdivision in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu on April 10, 2015, the organisers took care to see that the agitation, launched to retrieve 66.47 acres (26.9 hectares) of Adi Dravidar (A.D.) conditional land in the village, did not degenerate into a law-and-order situation as it happened in Karanai village in 1994. They did not want another tragedy.

Armed with appropriate legal documents that identified the extent of land that was still under non-Dalit occupation, Dalit men and women entered a piece of land and brought down the fence that had been erected around it by the administration of a private college. They symbolically ploughed the land to assert their right over it and urged the State to reclaim A.D. land and redistribute it among landless Dalits in the village. Later, officials from the Revenue Department came to the site and promised the protesters that the panchami land would be reclaimed from the non-Dalit possessors.

Consequently, the Villupuram district administration cancelled the pattas issued to non-Dalit landholders and took possession of some pieces of land in the village. The Ambedkar Peravai organised the stir with the support of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu (Dalit Land Rights Federation), which has been fighting to retrieve panchami land since 1994, the Integrated Rural Development Society (IRDS), Villupuram, the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front of the CPI(M) and a few other organisations. M. Sundaramoorthy, a functionary of the Peravai, told Frontline that nearly 400 Dalits, mainly women, have been waiting for disbursal of these pieces of land since then.

“The officials found out that the classification of the A.D. conditional land allotted to 124 Dalits in 1926 in the village was altered under the UDR [Updating Registry Scheme], and a land survey conducted in 1985-86 enabled non-Dalits to buy and occupy the land. We sourced the relevant information through RTI [Right to Information] and created awareness among the district revenue officials about the illegal nature of these transactions involving land meant for Dalits. We urge the Villupuram district administration to expedite the distribution of the realigned land to Dalits immediately,” said Sundaramoorthy.

He has documentary evidence dated March 23, 1926, in support of his claim that the pieces of land in question were allotted to Adi Dravidars or Dalits. He claimed that a total of 66.47 acres of land in V. Sathanur village were disbursed to 124 Adi Dravidar beneficiaries, with each receiving half an acre in 1926 under the A.D. Conditional Land Scheme. But, between 1988 and 1990, a private educational trust purchased land in this area. Dalits also gave their land because they believed it was meant for the education of their wards. A few non-Dalits had also purchased land from the beneficiaries violating the rules of the A.D. Conditional Land Scheme. “Since 2009, we have been demanding that the land should be reclaimed and redistributed to landless village Dalit women. A total of 262 petitions have been given in this regard,” said Sundaramoorthy.

Two Dalit women, Maduramma (70) and Yasodhai, have been at the forefront of the land struggle in the village. They insisted that the beneficiaries should be landless Dalits, particularly women. “We, however, are not against distributing the land to the women heirs of those who had sold them. We are planning to form a cooperative society under which we plan to develop the land for eco-friendly farming,” Yasodhai said. Madhuramma agreed, as did Irusammal and Jayalakshmi, who also took part in the struggle.

C. Nicholas, convener of the Dalit Mannurimai Kootamaippu, said that they had been urging the district administrations to allot the retrieved land to landless Dalit women. He pointed out that it would “ensure a sustainable empowerment to the disadvantaged in rural areas”. His organisation, he said, was engaged in the unenviable task of making Dalits aware of their rights over panchami and other land that were allotted exclusively for landless Dalits. He has been involved in the exercise of identifying, retrieving and assigning panchami land in villages in Villupuram, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram, Tiruvannamalai and Vellore districts.

“After the tragedy at Karanai, we decided to take our mission forward sensibly and legally. We organise awareness programmes in which we encourage educated Dalit youths who would like to take up the issue of panchami land in their respective villages to make use of the RTI provisions to source the necessary information on land. Then we ask them to meet the officials concerned to brief them about the legality of the issue. We have a strong team of lawyers to back them in the courts. And, as a last resort, we organise agitations such as the one in V. Sathanur,” he said. With proper documents and records, neither the non-Dalit occupants nor the state can deny their right over the land, he said.

Nicholas is particular that struggles for panchami land do not create law-and-order situations, which, he believes, would invariably end in violence and yield no result. “Karanai taught us a bitter lesson about how a land-based struggle should not be organised. Land issues have to be approached legally and objectively. Here, there is no space for indulgence. It is a sensitive livelihood issue. After providing the necessary technical, legal and documental inputs, we ask the local Dalits to fight it out. After all, it is their battle,” he said.

Activists like him face formidable foes—big business and industrial establishments that attempt land consolidation under the ruse of industrialisation in the era of neoliberal reforms. “This issue is emerging as a major threat to the livelihood of marginalised people in rural Tamil Nadu, affecting small and medium farmers, not to mention landless Dalits. Hence, we empower Dalit women and youths in the villages so that they can take forward the struggle for land,” said Nicholas.

The strategy has started yielding positive results, with the State reclaiming panchami land in a few places and disbursing it to Dalits. In 2008, in Kattupaiyur village near Tirukkoilur block in Villupuram district, after an eight-year struggle, 31 Dalits, all women barring one, received land that had been alienated from them some half a century ago. These pieces of land, totalling 19 acres, had been in the possession of non-Dalits since 1931.

Kattupaiyur is not far from the Thenpennai river that cuts through the district. But still, it presents a parched landscape because it is dependent on rain for irrigation. “Even those who have land on the banks of the river are forced to sink borewells to get water for irrigation because of the intense sand mining on the riverbed. Our village is seven kilometres from the river and we bank on groundwater and rain,” said Govindasamy, a Dalit farmer. He owns one acre of rain-fed land in which he grows black gram and maize. Unfortunately, there is acute water scarcity in the village today.

Groundwater can only be tapped through borewells sunk to a depth of 300 feet. “Not everyone can afford to sink borewells. Those who have sunk borewells can go for paddy cultivation twice a year,” said Shankar, a Dalit graduate who is working among the disadvantaged in the village. His family members, including his mother, are beneficiaries of the redistribution of the panchami land.

Muthulakshmi, 57, was one of the 31 beneficiaries of the panchami land retrieval movement in Kattupaiyur. A tiny parcel of land measuring 30 cents (one acre is 100 cents) was what she got as her share after the struggle. Today, she grows millets and maize, besides black gram. “It is just one-time sowing. If it rains, they will flourish. If not, they will wither and, along with them, our life too. It is a perennial ordeal,” said Muthulakshmi.

This year, the rains failed miserably. The demonetisation move of Prime Minister Narendra Modi compounded their woes. “The village had to go without cash. The shortage of lower denomination notes, the mainstay of village economy, wrecked us totally. Even those who sustain their farms with borewell water were not able to give us wages,” she said.

Despite the grim situation, beneficiaries of panchami land redistribution are proud landowners. “They [the traditional landowning class] have started treating us with a modicum of respect and dignity. Besides, the migration of village folk, mainly Dalits, to cities in search of livelihood options has also come down significantly,” said another Dalit woman, Mariammal.

Nicholas pointed out that women were chosen as beneficiaries to receive the reclaimed land since experience had shown that male beneficiaries often tended to sell the land. “Besides, they migrate for employment, leaving the land fallow and allow ‘outsiders’ to come in. But women beneficiaries generally stay put. Hence, it was decided to make women landholders. The state generally accepts it,” claimed Nicholas.

Capacity building of women and youth of the disadvantaged groups, besides a concerted legal approach, has enabled activists to identify panchami land in various villages in Villupuram and its neighbouring districts. “Now, we have to organise and execute our objective in these places in a planned and phased manner. In many villages, the land has been alienated from the pattadars. Copies of documents related to the land have been procured through RTI and other sources. We have started initiating a string of legal measures to reclaim these pieces of land from the encroachers,” Nicholas said. In places where panchami land was identified, landless Dalit women farmworkers have been asked to submit petitions to the authorities concerned, seeking a share in the redistribution of the reclaimed land. “The entire exercise of identifying genuine beneficiaries has been handed over to the local people. They have to sit, discuss and decide their future,” Nicholas said. “Such empowerment alone can make them respectable and responsible,” he contended.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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