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The Promised Land: Adivasi Land Struggles in Kerala

, by Intercultural Resources

This article is an attempt to capture the essence of one of the most widely discussed contemporary issues in the state of Kerala – landlessness among the Adivasis. The article traces the elements of Adivasi land struggles across the last few decades, and drills deeper into the issue to excavate the realities of the unfulfilled promises of the government and the Adivasis’ ongoing fight for their Promised Land.

By PT George

Introduction

The human struggle for ownership of a plot of land is perhaps as old as humanity itself, and the situation isn’t any different in Kerala; a picturesque, beautiful state in the southern part of India. Cuddled between the Arabian Sea and the lush green mountains of the Western Ghats, Kerala is often extolled for its high literacy rate (95.5 percent), radical land reform policies and the highest human development index in India (0.790 as of March, 2014). Kerala is also glorified as the holy land of tourism or as “God’s own country” [1]
– a slogan advertised for exploiting tourism potentials in the state. However, if one moves away from the glamorous world of tourism and other extolling factors, and penetrates deeper into the socio-political and economic structures that drive Kerala’s society, what one gets to see is the exclusion and marginalisation of the Adivasis (the indigenous communities) and the Dalits (the lowest group in the caste hierarchy), especially when it comes to the issue of land ownership.

Until the late 50s, the centuries old Janmi-Kudiyan (landlord-tenant) [2]
landholding system that prevailed in Kerala, accentuated by an oppressive caste system, had pushed the Adivasis and the Dalits into adimai (servitude/slavery), dispossession and displacement, which then compelled them to pawn their dignity and their human rights at the feet of a caste-based society. The Janmi-Kudiyan system offered no laws to protect the kudiyiruppu or the kudikidappukaran (cultivating tenant/homesteads) from eviction. The social customs prevalent then gave pre-emptive powers to the Janmis to evict the Kudiyans at will which often led to human rights violations against them. The Kudiyans, who were mere cultivators in the land leased to them for Pattom or Verum Pattom, had in fact no legal protection against such evictions.

Innumerable malpractices like untouchability [3], inapproachability and unseeability [4] were widely practiced by the Namboothiris (upper caste Kerala Brahmins). Many practices were based on the idea of purity, which gave rise to the widespread practice of theendal (pollution). The Adivasis and Dalits were neither allowed to enter schools and temples nor allowed to use any public services. The women of these ostracized sections of the society were specifically prevented from wearing blouses to cover their chests.

Resistance Against an Oppressive System

The unjust practices in the caste system led to numerous dissenting voices that sprang from Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, (the three major regions that were later merged to form the Kerala state). The resistance movements against the oppressive system also involved the leadership of several social reformers and political thinkers like Ayyankali, Chttampi Swamikal, Sree Narayana Guru and so on. The Adivasis’ and the Dalits’ struggles for liberation also arose from various sectors. Agriculture was one of the key areas where, due to social and political mobilisations many radical reforms took place. The Adivasis in Kerala are one of the most marginalised by land alienation and dispossession, and their persistent struggles to retain land ownership continue to this day.

Social Reforms in Kerala

By the early 20th century, due to the impact of several social reformations, Kerala managed to get rid of untouchability and other malpractices which alienated the Dalits and Adivasis. Some of the prominent movements, like the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25) – a systematically organized protest movement in Kerala, undertaken to secure the rights of the downtrodden classes; Shri Narayana guru’s teachings and the propagation of his ideology through the formation of the ‘Shri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam’ (SNDP) in 1903; Guruvayoor Satyagraha (1931-32) - a movement for temple entry and abolition of untouchability; and the consecutive ‘Temple Entry Proclamation’ (1936) etc., laid the foundation for the social transformation of Kerala and provided the base for the mass awakening of the marginalised sections of Kerala’s society against social evils and injustices.

Ayyankali Movement

The revolt against an oppressive social structure and tyrannical dogmas in Kerala was initiated by none other than a Dalit – the great leader Ayyankali (1863-1941) - in the early 20th century. This brave leader became one of the first in the Dalit history of Kerala to fight against exploitation and social oppression. His historic movement for Dalits’ rights to walk on public roads, known as “Villuvandi Yatra” (travel in a bullock cart through public roads) and his use of all public services became an everlasting example for the marginalised sections of Kerala. Even today, the Adivasis and the Dalits who are at the forefront of various land struggles evoke his name for inspiration.

Land Reforms

During the 1950s, there were several efforts in Kerala to get rid of the Janmi-kudiyan land-tenure system and to implement equitable distribution of land. One of the key legislations the state had undertaken to ensure land for the landless was the Kerala Land Reforms Act, implemented in 1970. By this Act, the centuries old Janmi-Kudiyan system was brought to an end. The Act was introduced with some amendments on the fixation of ceiling on land holdings. However, plantations and private forests were exempted from this Act. The Act also gave proprietary rights to cultivating tenants and protected the Kudikidappukars from eviction. This piece of legislation was considered by many to be a revolutionary movement for the landless Adivasis. However, the proper implementation of the Act is another story. According to the Act, the government was to distribute surplus and revenue forest land to Kerala’s landless poor. However, till date, the Act has not been fully implemented, resulting in a huge number of landless people in the state.

Adivasi Land Struggles in Kerala

The Adivasis in Kerala, mostly inhabiting the mountains of the Western Ghats, constitute around one percent of the total population, while the Dalits form about 9 percent. Marginalized and oppressed by social and economic factors, the Adivasis have never been the real beneficiaries of the government schemes implemented to reduce landlessness among them. Instead, they have been deprived of their customary rights over their natural resources and traditional knowledge systems, leading to several struggles for land across a timeframe of several decades. Some of the key struggles are listed below:

Adivasi Land Struggles in Kannur

The Adivasi land struggles in Kannur (a district located in the northern part of Kerala) that began in 1999 were led by Adivasi Vimochana Munnani, an Adivasi organisation at the forefront of several land movements in Kerala. The movement was started by 9 landless Adivasi families who occupied 9.25 acres of land in Thiruvonappuram in the Peravoor region of Kannur. They encroached into the land as a result of the Government of Kerala capturing it to implement the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1970. On December 22, 1999 representatives of Adivasi, Dalit and several other organizations took part in a convention held in Peravoor. During the convention a formal resolution was passed for a land seizure movement whereby, the protestors would attempt to recapture surplus land, reserve forest land, government project lands and lands of large landowners. However, recently, the AVM’s orientation towards the revolutionary people’s movement in Kerala has come under the scanner of the Home Ministry of India. The Central Government had in fact sent a watch-list to the State Government to closely observe their activities. AVM’s name also appeared in that list and now, their activities are being closely monitored by the State Government and the police.

Muthanga Land Struggle

In 2001, the shocking death of 32 Adivasis from starvation forced the Adivasis in Wayanad to renew their struggle for land. One of the reasons cited for the starvation deaths among the Adivasis was the lack of land for cultivation. Resultantly, a new organization - the Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha (AGMS) was formed. On August 30, 2001 the agitators gathered in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram and began a campaign with the slogan “Right to live in the land one is born.” After several weeks of protest, a seven-point agreement was reached with the then Chief Minister, AK Anthony, who promised to give 5 acres of land to each Adivasi family. Even after 45 days, when the government failed to abide by the agreement, AGMS protestors encroached into the Muthunga Wildlife Sanctuary in Wayanad on January 5, 2003. The government didn’t pay any attention to the protesters until February 17, 2003, when a large contingent of police forces entered the forest and began evicting the protesters violently without any warning. In the ensuing battle, several hundred tribals were injured, one Adivasi was killed and a policeman died. Such criminal injustice and brutality by the police had been unheard of in Kerala’s recent history. Thus, a mammoth struggle that began with a long pending demand for the Adivasis’ right to land became a short one that lived for only 44 days, brutally suppressed and brought to a halt using police force.

Although the Muthanga land struggle has completed a decade, the AGMS continues to lead many other land struggles across the state. The Adivasis’ dream of regaining their land turned out to be a horrid experience, as many of them who took part in the struggle were falsely accused in several cases. For the past eleven years, many of them have been trekking once in every month to Kochi, for the routine hearings in various cases. Acute poverty and joblessness have reduced them to skeletons and have paralysed their morals. Out of the more than 70 accused in many cases, 22 have already died. Meanwhile, the court cases drag on and on without any meaningful end in sight.

Aralam Farm Protest

With the rising demands of the tribals for their rightful land, the Kerala Government signed an agreement with the State Farms Cooperation of India in June, 2004 to use the 3,060 hectares of the Central State Farm in Aralam for the resettlement of the Adivasis. The rehabilitation process was to incorporate the tribals of Kannur and Wayanad districts into the project. However, in 2006, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) came up with the plan of establishing an ecotourism project on the farm to exploit it for tourism purposes. It also decided to exclude the Adivasis from Wayanad district from the rehabilitation agreement. The delay in the process of rehabilitation and the exclusion of the tribals from Wayanad instigated a fresh movement by the Adivasis. Thousands of Adivasis encroached into the farmlands and stated living there, which put the State Government under pressure to start the process of distribution of title deeds. The rehabilitation plan promised each eligible family one acre of land, along with basic facilities like drinking water, roads, transportation, schools and electricity. But even after two years, the promise of basic facilities remained unfulfilled and led to the death of 14 people in the farm. The government’s offer to provide employment also saw no progress. Today, the community’s primary demand is five acres as alternate land and the inclusion of Adivasi areas in Kerala in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. But, the Government does not seem to be very keen to alleviate the pains of the struggling Adivasis in the Farm.

Chengara Land Struggle

The agitation at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district began on August 4, 2007, when 300 families from various parts of the state converged on the rubber estate owned by Harrison Malayalam Plantations Ltd. The agitators alleged that the company was in possession of much more land than the actual extent under the government’s lease. Their demand was five acres of land for cultivation (later reduced to one acre) and Rs 50,000 as financial assistance per family. During the more than two-year long protest, lack of food, scarcity of water, absence of medical facilities and hostile weather conditions led to the death of 13 people. After 790 grueling days, the agitation was settled during a discussion between the then Chief Minister, V S Achutanandan, Laha Gopalan (leader of the Chengara Land Struggle) and others of the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SJVSV) – the organization that led the land struggle. Oommen Chandy, who was then the Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala State Assembly also participated in the talks. As a part of the settlement, 1,432 out of the 1,738 families that had started living on the rubber plantation were enlisted for receiving financial assistance to build houses. However, the distribution of land amongst the various tribes and castes was uneven. Some received one acre of land, while others received only 25 cents. The SJVSV also alleged that the Chengara Package had been accepted under pressure, as CPI (M) leaders had been intimidating and paying off their activists. Despite bitter allegations of betrayal and conspiracy by the ruling and opposition parties, the Chengara land struggle was a success. 

Arippa Bhoosamaram

In 2009, the Kerala Government decided to set aside 21.54 acres of the 90 acre Arippa Revenue Forest in Kulathupuzha village for the beneficiaries of the Chengara Package. The remaining 68.46 acres was kept aside for institutional development. On December 31, 2012 around 1,300 Adivasis, Dalits and landless poor encroached into the remaining land in Arippa Forest and began their protest by building shanties and living there. The protestors claimed that a part of the forest was surplus revenue land meant for redistribution among the landless tribals. Under the banner of Adivasi Dalit Munetta Samiti (ADMS), the agitators raised the slogan “We do not want 3 cents of land; all we want is land for cultivation.” Among the protesters were people who had taken part in the historic Chengara land struggle and were given title deeds, but found themselves cheated, when they realized that the land allotted to them was neither fit for cultivation nor was it suitable for habitation. After one and a half year of relentless struggle, a discussion was called by the Chief Minister of Kerala with the representatives of the Adivasis and the Dalits protesting in Arippa, which ended without reaching any final decisions. The suggestion by the Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, to give 3 cents of land to each protester was summarily rejected by the representatives. At the moment, the protesters are living in the Arippa Forest in shanties to press their demand of land for cultivation.

Apart from these large struggles, there were also many small-scale protests across Kerala that continue even today.

Puyamkutti Land Struggle

Some 218 Adivasi families had been residing in the 939 acres of the Uriyampetty forests in Puyamkutti. In order to evacuate the Adivasis from the biodiversity rich forests in the Western Ghats, the State Government made an agreement with them that in place of the forest land, the Adivasis would be given financial assistance and fertile land for agriculture. However, the promised 545 acres of land meant for Adivasi rehabilitation actually is in the possession of Kerala Forest Department, which does not want to let go off the prime land. To get their right due of land and proper rehabilitation packages, the Adivasis came down to the streets of the Kochi District Collectorate and began their protests. The Adivasis have been caught in the infinite loop of bureaucratic procedures, and the inaction of the government has invigorated them into strengthening their protests.

Adivasi Welfare Forum (AWF)

The Adivasi Welfare Forum in Kerala has been undertaking a relay protest strike in Pottanachira for land for the Adivasis. In 2002, protestors encroached into the Jersey Farm in Pottanachira demanding land titles for 24 acres of excess land in the farm. When the LDF government did not pay heed to the agitators, the protest slowly died down. However, the district Panchayat’s decision to convert the 24 acres of land into a high-tech farm caused the AWF to renew its protests. On January 25, 2013, when the Deputy Collector came to the farm to collect evidence, the AWF protested by erecting more shanties at the farm site. Currently, while the Adivasis are fighting for land, the villagers and farm employees have begun a counter protest at the farm junction.

Perinchamkutty Land Struggle

On February 10, 2012 a batch of government officials arrived at the Perinchamkutty Adivasi Colony with a mighty police force, and proceeded to mercilessly beat up the residents and to forcefully evacuate them from their huts. 62 Adivasis of all ages and genders were arrested and imprisoned. The government’s reasoning for the violent evictions was “illegal encroachment into government land”. The Adivasis were released months later, and in protest against the wrongful eviction, they gathered in front of the District Collectorate on October 1, 2012 and began a non-violent, indefinite protest. Under the direction of the Adivasi Bhoomi Avakasa Samyukta Samiti (ABASS), they submitted a list of the landless Adivasis residing in Perinchamkutty. Accordingly, the District Collector of Idukki selected 161 Adivasis for the land distribution scheme and promised to allot an acre of land to each family. However, in the last two years, the government has not met with its promise. So far, 7 people have died in the struggle to reclaim their lands, but the government has still not reached a consensus on rehabilitating these innocent people. Meanwhile, the protesting Adivasis have reiterated their demand for land and have decided to intensify their struggle till they achieve their aim.

Impact of Land Reforms on the Adivasis

Although the Adivasis and Dalits form the backbone of the agricultural economy of Kerala, they have not yet benefitted from the land reforms that the Kerala Government initiated in the 1950s. Various land distribution schemes and programmes that were meant to minimise landlessness among the Adivasis and the Dalits, did not actually relieve them. As far as the landlessness in Kerala is concerned, the Dalits and the Adivasis form around 85 per cent of the landless in the state. The state has been witnessing a steady decline in food production and farming. Since agricultural activity has hit a bottom low the state is largely dependent on the neighbouring states for its food requirements. As such, the Government of Kerala, instead of bringing back the Adivasis and the Dalits to agriculture and farming, has thrown them to the fringes of the society and has reduced them to living in colonies. A close look at the way the state has fared in implementing various reforms and how it has impacted the Adivasis and the Dalits reveals that:

i) There was a lack of will among the successive governments that came to power in Kerala to properly implement various land legislation policies and to honestly redistribute land among the Adivasis.
ii) A look at the various legislations initiated shows that there is a huge gap in the introduction of the policies and their actual effective implementation. For example, The Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act was adopted in 1975, but it was only implemented after 1986, causing a huge delay.
iii) Adivasi lands have been lost due to encroachments, land grabbing, forest notifications and the formation of private plantation companies.
iv) Alienation of Adivasis from forest and nature, and restriction on access to forest produce has increased the Adivasis’ dependence on other sources of income, and has forced them to migrate to other places for work such as casual labour etc.
v) Frustration among the Adivasis due to gradual land loss over the years has led to loss of livelihood, hunger, malnutrition and starvation deaths.
vi) Denial of livelihood and the struggle for sheer survival has led to the formation of several Adivasi struggle groups for land rights across the state and the rise of Adivasi land rights movements.
vii) Ghettoization of the Adivasi communities through creation of Adivasi and Harijan colonies.

According to CK Janu – one of the prominent Adivasi leaders in Kerala – although the Kerala State Government decided to limit the individual possession of land to 15 acres during the Land Reforms in the 1960s, excluding plantations from the purview of this law effectively led to the ghettoization of the Adivasi communities, as they were either pushed to the reserves or to three cent plot colonies. In spite of several provisions in the law, the State Government has failed to provide enough land to the Adivasis to ensure their survival. Instead, what one gets to witness is the apathy of the state and its indifference to the Adivasis. Even the mainstream society at times looks at the Adivasis and their dissenting voices as a nuisance and a disruption to India’s development story.

Manoranjan Mohanty, a well-known Professor of Political Science, says that the present trend of Adivasi awakening is a defining characteristic of contemporary Indian politics. He sees the new awakening as a positive sign of the democratic transformation in India. Yet, a large section of the Indian polity does not treat the Adivasi struggles as a positive phenomenon, but are caught in the whirlpool of mainstream India’s development and growth. Thus, caught between the apathy and inaction of the state and a section of the mainstream society that looks at the Adivasis as a nuisance, their struggle for their right to life continues amidst a confused state of affairs.

References

Nair, K. Ramachandran, The History of Trade Union Movement in Kerala, Thiruvanathapuram, Manak Publishers, 2006, pp.10-11.

Ayyankali: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayyankali

Land Reforms in Kerala: http://kerala.gov.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3668&Itemid=2955

R Krishnakumar, The Adivasi struggle, The Frontline, Volume 18 - Issue 21, Oct. 13 - 26, 2001. Online at: http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1821/18210490.htm

Injustice in god’s country The adivasi uprising in Kerala. Online at:
http://old.himalmag.com/component/content/article/1917-injustice-in-gods-country-the-adivasi-uprising-in-kerala.html

Mukundan C. Menon, Kerala’s Tribals fight for their Land, Infochange, online at:
http://infochangeindia.org/human-rights/features/keralas-tribals-fight-for-their-lands.html

Dalit Camera Dalit Camera: Through Un-Touchable Eyes. Interview with CK Janu. Online at:
http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=6330:adivasis-cannot-survive-without-their-land-c-k-janu&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132

Darley Jose, Kjosavik, Articulating Identities in the Struggle for Land: The Case of the Indigenous People (Adivasis) of Highland Kerala, South India. Online at:
https://www.mpl.ird.fr/colloque_foncier/Communications/PDF/Kjosavik.pdf

Sreerekha, M.S., “Challenges before Kerala’s Landless: The Story of Aralam Farm,” Economic & Political Weekly, May 22, 2010 vol xlv no 21, p.p. 55-62. Online at: http://re.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/Challenges%20before%20Keralas%20Landless.pdf

N. R. Nithya, “Land Question And The Tribals Of Kerala,” International Journal of Scientific & Technology Research Volume 2, Issue 9, September 2013. Online at:
http://www.ijstr.org/final-print/sep2013/Land-Question-And-The-Tribals-Of-Kerala.pdf

KP Sai Kiran, “Four Outfits in Kerala under watch,” Times of India, March 10, 2013. Online at:
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Four-outfits-in-Kerala-under-watch/articleshow/18885787.cms

“Kannur Adivasi Land Struggle : Towards A New Approach On Kerala,” Peoples’ March, Volume 1, No. 7, September 2000. Online at:
http://www.bannedthought.net/India/PeoplesMarch/PM1999-2006/archives/2000/sep2k/kannur.htm

P.N. VenuGopal, “A Kerala land struggle is ’settled’, questions remain,” India Together, 28 October, 2009. Online at: http://indiatogether.org/chengara-society

Manoranjan Mohanty, “Adivasi Awakening and Emergence of New Politics,” Frontier
Vol. 44, Nos. 11-14, Sep 25-Oct 22, 2011. Online at:
http://www.frontierweekly.com/pdf-files/vol-44-11-14/adivasi-44-11-14.pdf

Notes

[1God’s Own Country – In India, the phrase is often used to refer to the southern state of Kerala. According to the Hindu mythology, it is believed that Kerala was created by Lord Parasurama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu), who threw his axe across the Arabian Sea and created a beautiful land which later came to be known as Kerala.

[2Janmi-Kudiyan – is a land tenure system that once existed in Kerala based on the caste system, where the Landlords were the Brahmins (the highest in the Caste heirarchy and called the Namboothiris in Kerala) The land was often leased to the lower castes (the Dalits) for cultivation with a simple taxation system known as Pattom (tax) or also called Karam, which used to be a part of the produce. Verumpattom or Verum Pattom means simple tax. For more details on the Janmi-Kudiyan land tenure system, online at: http://shodhganga.inflibnet.ac.in/bitstream/10603/532/18/10_chapter3.pdf

[3Untouchability is the practice of ostracizing a group by separating them from the mainstream by social customs or legal mandates. It is usually associated with ill-treatment of the Adivasis and the Dalit communities, who are considered "polluting." Although untouchability has been made illegal in post-independence India, prejudices against them continue, especially in rural areas. In Kerala, the term often used for untouchability is Theendal

[4Unseeability is a social practice where the very sight of someone from the Dalit Adivasi communities could pollute. Those belonging to the higher castes believed that they should not see the persons of the low castes. To avoid polluting the persons of the Higher castes, the Dalits and the Adivasis had to work between midnight and day break and were forbidden to come out during the day time. When a Nambuthiri Brahmin or Nair noble came out on the public road, an attendant would walk ahead of him/her shouting “Po, Po”, which means ‘go away’, so that the low caste people would not come near the high castes.

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About the Author:
PT George is currently leading Intercultural Resources, a New Delhi based NGO engaged in research, documentation and intervention on social, political, environmental and human rights issues. He has been writing on the contemporary social issues in India both for the national and international media. He is keenly interested in photography and focuses on peoples’ struggles.

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