Displaced by settlers: Tribal communities in Kerala’s Attappady block are being alienated from their land

Laws in place to protect their rights, but no means to enforce it

By Jeff Joseph
Published: Monday 17 April 2023
Energy major Suzlon has set up windmills on leased tribal land in Nallasingha village of Attappady block of Kerala. A high-level government committee has asked the land to be returned to the tribal people. Photo: Jeff Joseph
Energy major Suzlon has set up windmills on leased tribal land in Nallasingha village of Attappady block of Kerala. A high-level government committee has asked the land to be returned to the tribal people. Photo: Jeff Joseph Energy major Suzlon has set up windmills on leased tribal land in Nallasingha village of Attappady block of Kerala. A high-level government committee has asked the land to be returned to the tribal people. Photo: Jeff Joseph

Located at the foothills of the Nilgiris in Kerala, Attappady block is known for its agricultural productivity and tribal communities. The block is home to 33,000 or 6 per cent of the state’s tribal population, data from Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) showed. It is also the only block in Kerala where tribal communities have historically owned land. 

However, they are now increasingly being labelled as “encroachers” on their land. Many of them are in fact embroiled in legal disputes with non-tribal settlers, primarily from other parts of Kerala and adjoining Tamil Nadu, who claim to have proof of sale deals for the land even though Kerala’s laws prohibit such deals. 

One such case is of Nanjiyamma, who earned recognition in July 2022 after winning a National award for her song in the film Ayyappanum Koshiyum. At a time when her family should have been celebrating her win, they were locked in a fight over land rights. 

Read more: Criminal neglect takes toll on Attappady tribes

Two weeks prior, Palakkad additional judicial magistrate had permitted a petrol pump to be set up on 0.2 hectares (ha) that is part of the land historically owned by Nanjiyamma’s family and under ownership dispute for decades. 

In 1962, Nanjiyamma’s father-in-law Nagan leased out 0.5 ha of his total 1.9 ha of land to a settler farmer from Tamil Nadu, Mariboyan.

That year the government declared Attappady a tribal-dominated block and in 1975, passed the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, which prohibited sale of tribal land to non-tribals. 

By then, Mariboyan had allegedly prepared a fake sale deal for the land, leased out to him by Nagan. In 1986, after the rules were framed under the 1975 Act, Nagan tried to get the claims of Mariboyan nullified. 

As more such cases cropped up, the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), Ottapalam, Palakkad, in 1995 ordered restoration of 4,300 ha of tribal land in Attappady. Nagan too received an order that nullified Mariboyan’s claim over the land, but his son, Kandaswamy Boyan, challenged the order. 

“My father-in-law and my husband, Nanjan, died trying to assert their rights over the land. Boyan has also died, but his family maintains the claim,” said Nanjiyama.

They got a boost in 1999, when Kerala State Restriction in Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Land Act was passed to replace the 1975 Act.

Since it allows non-tribal settlers to keep bought tribal land if it is less than 2 ha, the RDO in 2020 reviewed the plea of Boyan’s family and sided with them. Nanjiyama challenged the RDO order.

Despite the 0.5 ha being disputed, it has changed hands multiple times. In 2009, one Ibrahim, who claims to be Kandaswamy’s son (there are discrepancies in the identity of his father in official records) sold the land to KV Mathew, a non-tribal, for Rs 5 lakh. 

Read more: Essential healthcare services failed in Attappady: UNICEF

In February 2010, Mathew got a legal order for ownership, after submitting in court that Ibrahim had “not honoured” the sale agreement. This allowed him to get the 0.5 ha registered in his name. 

In December 2017, Mathew sold 0.2 ha of the land to Joseph Kurian, another non-tribal individual—this is the land approved for the petrol pump. “As per the laws, I have full rights over the land. I will not give it up until the court orders it,” said Kurian.

In every instance, Nanjiyama was alerted of change in ownership much later, through court notices. But she has not lost hope. “I will not die before I get back our land for the next generation,” she said.

Nanjiyamma’s case is not an exception; tribal land alienation has been prevalent in Attappady for decades. The Survey Report of Tribal Lands and Collection of Data of the Tribal, Volume-II, published in 1982 by ITDP-Attappady, said tribal communities lost about 4,064 ha in 1960-77. 

Non-tribal populations from Tamil Nadu and Kerala settled in Attappady since the 1940s, leased land from tribal owners and made them sign blank papers to forge ownership documents later, or acquired sale deeds by paying a pittance, said the report. 

Confusion on paper

Despite acknowledgement, there are gaps in identifying false ownership claims. “We only look into whether the person selling the land is legally authorised to do so, whether their identity is verified and check the veracity of all papers presented to us,” said a senior officer in the sub-registrar office in Attappady’s Agali town, on condition of anonymity. 

The officer said there is a need for a survey and demarcation of tribal lands that cannot be transacted or sold to non-tribals. There is also no provision to obtain a no-objection for land deals, pointed out an officer with ITDP-Attappady, who wishes to remain anonymous. 

The fundamental problem with land ownership in India is there is no singular document to prove it, said CR Bijoy, an independent researcher on tribal rights based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. “Ownership is decided based on supporting documents in court,” he said. 

These include land tax receipts and possession certificates, which can be forged and presented in courts with petitions to remove tribal owners by calling them “encroachers”. 

A case in point is Unnikrishnan Maruthan of Boothivazhi hamlet in Agali, whose family owns 2.02 ha. A non-tribal settler from Tamil Nadu, Mayilsamy N and his family claim ownership over the land. “Their records show the land was sold to them between 1965 and 1969 by my uncles and grandmother,” said Unnikrishnan. 

Read more: Tamil Nadu to provide medical help to tribals of Attappady

“The land, as per the old Madras Registry, is in my grandfather’s name. All other records also show it was our land,” he added. Unnikrishnan’s father, Maruthan, challenged Mayilsamy’s claims and got them nullified under the 1975 Act. But the order was not executed and the land is still with Mayilasamy’s family.

As per the 1999 Act too, both the RDO of Ottappalam and the district collector had concluded that they could not prove their ownership, claimed Unnikrishnan. Mayilsamy N and his family then moved the high court, which ruled against the powers of RDO and collector in such cases. 

Unnikrishnan, whose appeal against this judgement is pending in the high court, said, “The claimants have offered to return the land belonging to my father for a mutually agreed settlement.” Accepting this would mean foregoing the land belonging to his uncles’ families.  

Fighting big entities

Even as tribal communities are still waiting for judgements on old cases, the entry of big corporate entities in Attappady is adding to their woes. 

In 2010, the state government found out that energy major Suzlon illegally set up windmills on the land leased from tribal people in Kottathara village of Attappady. It set up a high-level committee that has asked to dismantle the windmills and return the land to the tribal people. This has not yet taken place. 

In another ongoing case, Chellamma P of Kottathara village, Attappady, is battling a Mumbai-based multinational firm for ownership of her family’s 1.58 ha.

Her ordeal began in 2015, when a group of non-tribals, led by Mathew Kachappally, tried to take possession of the land, alleging that Chellamma’s father sold it to them.

Her family deny making any sale or even meeting the claimants. To overturn the claims, she provided records from the Attappady settlement register, which was last updated in 1962-64 and listed her grandfather as the owner. 

In 2019, the company entered the dispute, claiming to have bought the land from Kachappally and filed a case. Chellamma has moved the high court against the illegal deals.

Skewed politics

“Across Attappady, one can see widespread tribal land alienation,” said R Sunil, a journalist with Malayalam news publication Madhyamam.

The issue, he said, is kept at abeyance due to a lack of political will. Comprising less than 1.5 per cent of the state’s population, tribal communities are not a powerful bloc and there is a growing convergence of settler interest with state politics.

“The tribals in Attappady are not landless, they have documents to show ownership, but they have no means to enforce the rights. Government departments refuse to survey and issue their titles while others openly grab their land,” said KK Rema, a member of the Kerala Legislative Assembly associated with the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India. 

Read more: Malnutrition caused infant deaths in Attappady, Kerala minister tells Assembly

Rema raised the issue last year, prompting assurances from the state revenue minister and an investigation from the land revenue commissioner. The report was submitted on January 28 this year. It lists 22 tribal land alienation cases in Attappady but elaborates on just one — Nanjiyamma’s case. 

It mentions the need to investigate the transaction of Nanjiyamma’s ancestral land and, if found illegal, to cancel it. It recommended studying the practicality of execution of all provisions of the 1999 Act to seek clarity on restoration of tribal lands.

“This is not about my land alone,” insisted Nanjiyamma. “This is the plight of all tribal people in Attappady. We want our lands to be restored.”       

(Jeff Joseph is a researcher with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change and natural resource governance in India)

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