Kerala tribals stand and protest for land

Demand the state government to fulfill its 2001 promise to give land to tribals

By M Suchitra
Published: Wednesday 10 September 2014

Protest outside Kerala secretariat (courtesy Mathrubhumi)

The indefinite nilppusamaram (standing protest) by Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, an umbrella organisation of adivasi (tribal) groups in Kerala, in front of the state secretariat for land has entered into third month. The adivasis, who started the latest agitation on July 9, are demanding the state government to honour the package it had promised to the adivasis in 2001. After 48 days of continuous protests by several tribal organisations, under the leadership of Wayanad tribal leader C K Janu, the Kerala government had promised in October 2001 to distribute cultivable land to adivasis, and protect their land from encroachment.

“The then United Democratic Front government, led by A K Anthony, had promised to formulate a master plan for distributing land. It was to be implemented in a mission mode,” says M Geethanandan, coordinator of the agitation. As per the agreement, all landless adivasis were to get one to two hectares (ha) of cultivable land and receive financial help to develop the land. The distributed land was to be categorised as Scheduled Five areas to prevent alienation and transfer to non-tribals. The government had also promised to bring in the tribal land under the Panchayati Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996.

Soon after the October 2001 agitation, the state government prepared a master plan and estimated that there were around 52,000 landless adivasi families in the state. Since the state lacked adequate cultivable revenue land, it asked the permission of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre to distribute 12,000 ha of forestland with the state government. For the next one year nothing happened.

“It was then that the adivasis decided to enter into the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary and build huts there as protest,” says Janu, leader of Adivasi Gothra Maha Sabha, a social movement that has been agitating since 2001 for redistribution of land to the landless adivasis in Kerala. Without holding talks with the adivasis for 45 days, the government ordered the police to open fire on February 19, 2003 that killed one adivasi.

After the Muthanga firing, the state government formulated the Tribal Rehabilitation and Development Mission. The Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2004 gave permission to distribute 7,840 ha of the wasted forests to adivasis.  As per the mission’s data, the government has till date distributed 3,588.4 ha to 6,841 tribal families.

There are about 15 rehabilitation areas, including a few cooperative farms for tribals such as Pookode, Sugandhagiri, Priyadarshini in Wayanad, a Western Ghats district , and Aralam in Kannur district. “The rehabilitation areas lack basic amenities like houses and drinking water. The government has not given promised fund to develop the land do agriculture,” points out Geethanandan. As a result, many adivasis who secured land deed are unable to live in their land. In many areas, land distributed to the tribes either lie abandoned or have been encroached by outsiders. “The saddest thing is that the state government is itself taking away land distributed to the tribes,” points out Geethanandan. For instance, at the Pookode Diary farm, a rehabilitation area for the tribes, 40 ha has been taken away for constructing buildings for Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University. The university is trying to get more land there, allege the protestors. Similarly, land has been awarded to non-adivasis in the 5,000-ha Aralam farm area. It was decided that 2,000 ha of the farm will be used for rehabilitation and the remaining area will be used for farming by the adivasis. The protestors, however, allege that the area for farming has been leased out to two large-scale pineapple cultivators.

“It’s not fair for a democratic society to ignore the struggles of adivasis. Providing land to adivasis is not a charity,” says well-known writer Sarah Joseph. So it is high time that the Kerala government stopped betraying the tribal communities in the state, she adds. The adivasis now plan to intensify the protests.

No land for tribals
Adivasis constitute slightly more than one per cent of Kerala’s over 30 million people. In 1975, the Kerala Assembly had unanimously passed the Kerala Schduled Tribes (Restriction of transfer of land and Restoration of alienated land) legislation for the tribal population in the state. The rules to implement the law were formulated a decade later in 1986. However, use of adivasi land for commercial purposes remains a problem even after that the law. In 1993, the Kerala High Court, while considering a public interest litigation, ordered the state government to restore all the alienated tribal land and give back to adivasis.

The government did not implement this order alleging that such a move would lead to conflict and confrontation between the adivasis and those who have bought adivasis land, leading o law and order issues in the state. When the state kept on ignoring the court order, adivasis started agitations demanding the implementation of the law. In the wake of a court ultimatum, without implementing the law, the state Assembly in 1996 amended the 1975 Act in favour of the settlers making all transfer of adivasi land up to 1986 legal. Most of the tribal land in the state had been alienated before 1986.

Recognition of forest rights and livelihoods of tribal communities: a study of Western Ghats region, Kerala state

Implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the Western Ghats region of Kerala

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