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Tribals continue to be robbed of land in Erode

My father used to say that an adivasi without land is like a living corpse

Published: Sunday 30 September 2007

-- (Credit: REVATHI R)On August 28, senior police officers and forest department personnel of two contiguous districts in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka held a joint meeting to combat the growing Naxal presence in forest areas. Erode in Tamil Nadu, one of the two districts in question, had not far back been the hunting grounds of the forest brigand, Veerappan. It has also seen extensive adivasi land alienation in the last few decades. The deprivation, often cited as a reason for the brigand's adivasi support base, continues three years after Veerappan was gunned down.

"My father used to say that an adivasi without land is like a living corpse. I never thought that I would become one," rues 75-year old Madhan of Osapalayam village. Only five of the 70 families in this village have land. "All of us had good fertile land, once. But we have been reduced to bonded labourers now," says Madhan.

"The adivasis have to work in sugarcane farms to pay back loans.It's semi-bonded labour, but the tribals have little option. Land alienation has put paid to agriculture, their traditional livelihood option. Collecting minor forest produce became a problem after Veerappan muscled his way into forests in the area. The villages were caught in the conflict between the forest brigand and police contingents from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka," says Madalai Selvan, director of the ngo Centre for Education and Environmental Development (ceed).
The tyranny of print "Land alienation takes place in three ways in Erode," says Mohan Kumar of Pazhankudi Makkal Sangam, an organisation fighting for tribal rights. "In Sathyamangalam taluk, for example, there are 65 tribal villages. But people here do not have written pattas for their holdings, so it's easy to divest them of their lands. Some of them do have conditional deeds which restrict them from transferring lands to non-tribals. They also have proof of paying bheem (a tax paid to the local revenue department). But in many instances, corrupt officials transfer these deeds and revenue obligations without the knowledge of the adivasis. Thirdly, many well-to-do people from the plains have got the land through lure, coercion and sometimes forgery," he explains.

Down to EarthFor people of the plains, the hills in the region offer salubrious climate. "They build rest houses where they retreat during weekends. Many industrial houses have acquired lands here, turning them to farms on which they show huge profits--it's a trick to convert black money into white money," Kumar adds.

Anshul Mishra, the sub-collector for Gobichettipalayam taluk in Erode corroborates the theory of outsider domination "There is a theory that people of the Lingayath community of Karnataka who migrated to these hills some 40-50 years back have gradually taken control of the land and later sold it."
In the name of the brigand According to a report by Sudipto Muhuri of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Our migration from the Kadambur hills, "Powerful non-tribal communities like Gounders have taken over the land. In all cases of forceful land grabbing the village administrative officers sided with people from this powerful community." The report also points out that the land grabbing intensified during the Special Task Force (stf) operation to nab Veerappan. stf held the Sathyamangalam forest region in its control for over a decade till they finally shot down the brigand.

"The region was much terrorised then. There were torture camps, murders, rapes. Going to a tribal village to hold a meeting there was a huge task. Stuck between an elusive forest brigand and a brutal stf, the adivasis were in no position to safeguard their lands. But the rich people from the plains had the administration and police on their side. So they went on a land registering spree," says V P Gunasekaran of the Pazhankudi Makkal Sangam.

In 2002, Gunasekaran's organisation started a land capture movement, which the state promptly crushed and threw the leaders behind the bars. Pazhankudi Makkal Sangam is now contemplating legal measures to regain the lost land. But its activists apprehend an uphill task. "On one hand, the government wants to expand forests. On the other hand, it wants to throw adivasis out of the forests. An adivasi is an integral part of the forest. If the government enacts protective legislation and redistributes land to adivasis, much of the livelihood problem of the tribals will be solved. And conservation won't suffer either," says P A Mohan, a leading human rights lawyer.

"We at Erode are not even covered by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act," rues an angry Selvan.

Large-scale chicanery
While there are huge gaps at the policy level, there are numerous anomalies at the local level too. Most corporate farmers who have bought tribal land have registered sale deeds. But according to the conditional pattas issued to the tribes the land cannot be registered to anyone who is not a scheduled caste or tribe. "The tehsildar and registrar are aware of these transactions. But they do not stop them. In many cases they actually broker the deals," says Nanjan of Pazhankudi Makkal Sangam.

Down to EarthMany adivasis told this correspondent that the revenue department and the registrar's office did not give them their documents on time. "They make us come twenty times. I was paying bheem for my land. Suddenly someone else was paying revenue for it. When I asked the official, he said it was over for me," says Chinnaraj of Osapalayam.

Brokers who live in Kadambur, in contrast have a smooth sail. A broker, in fact, told this correspondent, "I can get you any amount of land, be it 50 acres or 100 acres. It will be a clean transaction, with all legal documents."

Mishra admits to lapses, "Many of these new buyers are not from the scheduled castes or tribes. But they have managed to register their holdings. The legal course will be to resume the land. We have done so in a few cases, but possession remains in the hands of the buyer. We have to use force. We have not done that so far."

The sub-collector of Gobichettipalayam taluk says that the administration is collaborating with the ngo Myreda to give vocational training to the adivasis. But what about the semi bonded labour that the tribals have to resort to. "Yes the practice is a violation of minimum wages rule. But there is no force or coercion here. The families take work on the sugarcane farms of their own volition. They can leave the job whenever they want," Mishra maintains. "But only if we pay the money back," retorts Malliga of Osapalayam.

Pazhankudi Makkal Sangam and ceed representatives say that matters will improve if the Tamil Nadu government gives about 2 ha to each tribal family. "In any case, we are planning to organise the adivasis to seek land from the government under its 2-acre scheme which aims at distributing barren land to the landless. Most of the transactions are illegal. But proving that is beyond the might of an adivasi," says Selvan. Kumar agrees."All land transactions in the hills should be nullified. The land has to be re surveyed and possession of the tribals should be re-established. Whoever does not process land at that point should be given 2 ha," he says.

But that alone is not enough says Mishra. "Adivasis do prefer land ownership. And so far we have given land under the 2 acre scheme to about 30 families. But they haven't cultivated anything. Land is a physical asset alright. But what is the point in holding land if it's not used for cultivation?" he asks. "We have held talks with Tamil Nadu's agriculture department to resolve matters," the sub-collector said.

Defying odds
Meanwhile, many tribals refuse to give up even though the odds are stacked heavily against them. Poosari Madhan of Osapalayam village is one of them. In a village totally taken over by the 'plains people' Madhan's huge joint family refuses to leave its 2 ha land despite abject poverty. "We had two pieces of land. One of them is this 2 ha tract. There was another 2 ha patch. But we were defrauded out of it. We were told that it belonged to a person from another village, and the land was snatched away from us," says Madhan as he walks away, his head held high.

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