The land betrayal

Attappady's tribals have been alienated from their land by settlers as well as the government. This is the root cause of their poor health status and recent infant deaths

By M Suchitra
Published: Thursday 11 July 2013

The state government has been distributing title deeds to uncultivable and uninhabitable land to the tribal people

On June 6, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy visited Attappdy’s tribal settlements along with the Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramseh in the wake of the death of 30 tribal infants in five months from January to May. He announced that his government would be giving one acre (0.4 hectare or ha) of cultivable land to each landless tribal family in Attappady.

But the tribals here are no longer in a mood to trust the chief minister. They are sure that this will end up as yet another false promise on land. “We have had enough of promises,” says V S Murugan, a young tribal activist from Vattalakki hamlet in Kottathara village. His neighbour Pazhaniswami says, “they might give us title deeds but will never show us where the land is. If they give us land, it would be barren hilltops.”

Their distrust is not baseless. In September 2011, some 10 of the 110 tribal families in Vattalakki received title deeds for 0.4 ha each at a pattaya mela ( title deed distribution jamboree) organised for the landless by the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government at the district headquarters of Palakkad, 100 km from Attappady. But the land is located somewhere in Mannarkkad, 50 km from the block. “Despite repeated requests to revenue officials, we are yet to see our land,” says 50-year-old Kaliyamma, holding out the laminated title deed paper. A few years ago, Kaliyamma lost her two hectares to a settler, who initially took it on lease but later usurped it. Murugan’s father, Danda Mooppan, who was the chief of this settlement, also lost four of six hectares of his ancestral land to settlers. It was a cheating case similar to that of Kaliyamma’s. “We have a court order favouring us. But we have not succeeded in getting the land back,” says Murugan.

Like Murugan and Kaliyamma, most tribals in Attappdy have lost much of their fertile land to settlers who came from the plains of Kerala and Tamil Nadu since the 1950s (see timeline). The naive residents shared their ancestral fertile land with settlers, who took advantage of the fact that the tribals did not have documents supporting their ownership.

A survey report prepared by the Integrated Tribal Development Programme office in Attappady in 1982 reveals the tribes have lost about 4,064 ha between 1960 and 1977. According to this report, the settlers made them sign on blank papers, taking land for lease and not returning them, acquiring sale deeds by paying pittance or wooing them with alcohol or tobacco. “The tribals continue to give their land on lease even now,” says Murugan.

Cheating by the government

The land alienation continued even after the state enacted the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act in 1975. “The successive Left and Right governments in the state did not bother to implement the legislation,” points out P R G Mathur, former director of the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (KIRTADS).

Worse, when the Kerala High Court asked the state government to implement the law, it amended the legislation in favour of settlers and made all tribal land transactions up to 1986 valid (see box: Historical injustice).

“Instead of giving cultivable land, the state government has been cheating the tribes with false promises and title deeds,” points out K A Ramu, convener of Thampu, an organisation working for the development of adivasis.

In July 1999, soon after amending the 1975 tribal law, the then Left Democratic Front ministry led by E K Nayanar organised a grand title deed distribution jamboree in Attappady. Many tribal activists and non-tribal human rights activists were taken into custody prior to the function.

In that function, 400 landless tribal families were given title deeds for 0.4 ha land each in places like Moolagangal and Adhwanapetty in Attappady. “But not a single family could occupy the land as it was uninhabitable and uncultivable due to hostile climate with very strong winds and without water,” says Koyan Mooppan, who was the president of the Pudur grama panchayat for more than two decades. Besides, these places were far away from their traditional settlements. “The government has allotted the same land again and again to landless tribals,” he alleges.

Consider this. In 2010, the government allotted 10 ha in Adhwanapetty in Kottathara village to 53 dalit families from Chengara, 330 km from Attappady. They were among the 5,000 dalit families protesting to press their demand for land. When the tahsildar came to Adhwanapetty to demarcate the land for the Chengara families, the tribal residents of Attappady were there with title deeds for the same land. “The tribals were told their title deeds were cancelled years back since they did not occupy the land,” says Murugan. In fact, the revenue divisional office had sent notices to the tribals asking why they are not occupying the land. But the notices were in English.

Interestingly, Chengara families too could not live there because of strong winds and wild elephants. “This is a classic example of how the state government treats the landless dalits and adivasis,” says Murugan.

Land grabbing goes on

Even when the law prohibits selling or transfer of tribal land to non-tribals, many, including windmill companies, resorts and farm developers are still buying tribal land in connivance with the officials of revenue department.

According to a report submitted by P V Radhakrishnan, project officer of the Integrated Tribal Development Project of Attappady, on May 25, large-scale land grabbing is going in Kottathara village at Adhwanapetty since January this year. The land has been taken by fabricated documents by resort owners and organic farmers. The report submitted to the state government has asked for a joint survey by the revenue and forest departments and sought action against the land grabbers.

Jairam Ramesh, after getting a picture of the ground realities, urged the state government to resolve the issues as soon as possible. “The root cause of all tragedies in Attappady, including the poor health status of the tribes and the recent infant deaths, is alienation of the tribal land,” he said. “Unless the state government shows the political will to resolve this crucial issue, there will not be any progress in the lives of the tribals here.”

But it is unlikely that the state will have political will to solve tribal issues. As tribal activists point out the tribes constitute slightly more than one per cent of the total population of the state, while the settlers have political clout.

Historical injustice
The Dhebar commission appointed by the Central government to look into the issues of tribal land alienation in 1960 had recommended that all tribal land alienated after January 26, 1950 should be restored and given back to the original owners. But the Centre as well as the state governments continued to ignore this recommendation. In April 1975, in the wake of spreading Naxalism in the country, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, called an urgent meeting of the state revenue ministers. The meeting decided that the states should immediately enact legislation to restore the alienated tribal land and prevent further alienation. It was also decided that each state would prepare a crash programme for effective implementation of the law, which would be periodically reviewed.

  • 1930-40 Tribal population 100 %
  • 1950 Influx of settlers
  • 1951 Tribals were 90.2 % of the population.
  • 1960 Dhaber Commission recommends restoration of alienated tribal land
  • 1961 Tribal population comes down to 60.4 %
  • 1975 Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act or KST Act passed
  • 1976 Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) started
  • 1977 Privataisation of forests: tribes lose rights to collect forest produce
  • 1986 Tribal Land Act comes into existence; but not implemented
  • 1991 Tribal population becomes 27.03%
  • 1993 Kerala High Court orders to return the land; not implemented
  • 1996 Tribal land Act amended
  • 1999 Amended Act gets President’s approval
  • 1999-2013 Title deed drama continues
Accordingly, the Kerala government enacted the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Land) Act (KST Act, 1975). The Act was included in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to ensure that the Act should not be challenged in any court of law.

As per the Act, all tribal lands taken by non-tribes through sale or lease or mortgage or by force after 1960 became illegal and invalid. Transfer of tribal land to non-tribes became punishable offence. However, the state government ignored the Act, and the rules for implementing the Act were formulated only after one decade in 1986 with retrospective effect from January 1982.

Under the legislation, all transactions of tribal lands from 1960 to 1982 became invalid and such lands were to be restored to the original owners. It was mandatory for tribals to give back the amount that might have been spent by occupiers for the improvement of lands or for buying land. For this, the government was supposed to give loans to tribals which they were to repay within 20 years. Though a majority of tribals did not have title deeds, the Act was applicable to only those who had land records.

Even after 1986, the government did not implement the Act. Responding to a public interest petition by Nalla Tambi Thera of Wayanad in 1988, the Kerala High Court in October 1993 ordered the government to implement the Act in six months. As many as 8,553 applications involving a total area of 11,000 ha were filed at state-level for restoration. The revenue divisional officers rejected about half of the applications for want of land documents to prove ownership. Only 496 were decided upon and the decision was implemented only in 100 cases.

The Palakkad district authorities received 2,523 applications from Attappady. Of these, 2,422 were accepted. But land was restored only in 13 cases. The government stopped restoration saying that there would be conflict and violence between settlers and tribals. The court extended the last date for carrying out its order for two-and-a-half years, ending on in April 1996. The government failed to carry out the orders of the court. In August 1996, the principal secretary for development of SCs/STs filed an affidavit that there was difficulty in implementing the Act in view of the organised resistance to it from the settlers. On August 14, 1996, the court ordered that within six weeks ending September 30 the authorities should restore the alienated land and give them to the original owners.

To meet the deadline, the government introduced a new Bill, the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction of Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Amendment Bill, on September 23, 1996 despite widespread opposition from tribals and their supporters. In 1999 it got the President’s approval. The amended law legitimised all transactions of tribal lands between 1960 and 1986. This, in effect, was counter to the original intention of the restoration of alienated lands. “It’s a historical injustice done to the adivasis in Kerala by the state,” says P R G Mathur, former director of the Kerala Institute for Research, Training and Development Studies of Scheduled Castes and Tribes.

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