Kerala may be widely recognised as a benchmark for development not only in India, but across the world too. But for hundreds of Adivasi and Dalit families in the state, the promise of the Kerala model of development has remained just that, a promise that seems endlessly deferred.
For over four years, hundreds of these landless families from Arippa in the stateâ€™s Kollam district have been locked in an agitation spearheaded by the Adivasi Dalit Munnetta Samithi. For the last 300 days, over 350 families have brought this protest to the doorstep of the government, undertaking a serial protest in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram.
Every day for the last 10 months, at least 10 Adivasi and Dalit families from Arippa have been gathering outside the Secretariat demanding that the government fulfil a promise made to them â€“ that they will all be given enough land to earn a basic livelihood.
Omana Kalaketti, Vice president of the Adivasi Dalit Munnetta Samithi, tells TNM, â€śWe are demanding agricultural land for our survival. We have no educational qualifications to get government jobs or any other profession. Agriculture is our only means of survival. If the government does not want to give us the land, how do we fill our stomachs?â€ť
Left behind by land reforms
Behind this protracted struggle of the Arippa agitation is a long history of uneven development in Kerala that has left the stateâ€™s Adivasis and Dalits struggling to eke out a livelihood on the margins. As an article by Sanal Mohan in The Hindu Business Line observes, Adivasis historically lost out to peasant communities migrating into tribal territories from other parts of the state, bringing with them new concepts of land ownership that disrupted the traditional claim that Adivasis had on their land.
Dalits, on the other hand, were disabled by caste from staking claim to agricultural land. When Kerala carried out its historic land reforms, one of the most successful such programmes in the country, these Dalit families only received ownership for small household plots, but not to agricultural land.
As CK Janu, one of the major Adivasi activists in Kerala once told The Hindu, â€śThe Land Reforms Act enacted in the Kerala State in the 1960s helped thousands of landless tenants realise their dream of owning land but it also denied justice to tribal people.â€ť
Though a 1975 law by Parliament made it mandatory for Kerala to return alienated to Adivasi communities, this has never gone sufficiently beyond paper. And while successive governments have launched initiatives like the Zero Landless Scheme, Dalit and Adivasi families like those led by the ADMS are still waiting for these to materialise.
Pushpalatha, a 42-year-old Arippa farmer, echoes the sentiments of many of those protesting outside the Secretariat when she says that the least the government can do is provide them the meagre resources to stand on their own feet.
â€śI have four children. Our only source of income is agriculture. We grow grains, tapioca, spinach and other vegetables in these lands. The land that I have been farming belongs to a wealthy landowner of the region. I have been toiling on farm lands all my life now, and it hurts not to have a piece of land in my or my familyâ€™s name. At least give us land on patta, so that we donâ€™t have to depend on others to feed us,â€ť says Pushpalatha.
Pushpalatha, a 42-year-old Arippa farmer.
Lack of resources or government indifference?
Omana says that the protesting families in Arippa have been denied land for years on the pretext of a lack of government land. But, this is not really the case, she alleges.
â€śThe government authorities always cite lack of revenue land as the reason for not allotting Adivasis and Dalits farmlands. We are tired of listening to the same excuse for years. We did a survey with the help of some Adivasi activists and we now know that more than two-and-a-half lakh acres of land is under the possession of the government. The officials donâ€™t feel the necessity to help those who are suffering,â€ť she says.
Dhanya Raman, another activist involved with the Arippa struggle, agrees. It is not an unavailability of land but an unwillingness to help marginalised farmers that stands in the way, she too alleges.
â€śThe government revenue land in Thiruvananthapuram alone is recorded to be more than 16000 acres. Itâ€™s not that the government doesnâ€™t have land â€“ it is an unwillingness to help the poor. They have been protesting for so long and their demands have only fallen on deaf earsâ€ť, said Dhanya.
Lathika, a 54-year-old woman participating in the fast outside the Secretariat on Thursday, says that her arrest for land encroachment accurately reflects the attitude of the government to their demands. Earlier this year, says Lathika, she and 11 others were arrested after they and others attempted to take revenue land in Pallickal village in Thiruvananthapuram that had been promised by officials. She spent 14 days in jail.
â€śThere are about 14 acres of government revenue land in Pallickal village in Thiruvananthapuram. Of this, officials announced that 25 cents of land each would be given to farmers in Chengara. That remained as a promise. So, we had encroached on the land and put up our tents. The next morning an army of police officers circled out tents. Many people ran out of fear and 11 of us were taken into custodyâ€ť, narrates Lathika.
The struggle continues
Omana says that repeated negotiations have not yielded any fruitful results for the Arippa agitators. â€śOn November 6, there was a meeting with the Kollam District Collector, where he promised one acre of land each for Adivasis. But that excludes Dalits and landless farmers from the general category. The officials decided to allocate only three cents of land for Dalits and general category farmers. We will continue to protest until our demands are met,â€ť says Omana.
The protesters have two demands for the government:
Â· All landless Dalit and Adivasi farmers be given one acre of land each.
Â· Other landless farmers (who are neither Adivasi nor Dalit) be given 50 cents of land each.
With their protests thus far having fallen on deaf ears, the Arippa protesters intend to intensify their protest, beginning with a 48-hour fast outside the Secretariat on Thursday and Friday. Following this, the protests will be expanded with more Dalit and Adivasi families planned to be brought into it.
After all, says Lathika, theirs is not an extravagant demand, but only for a right to livelihood. â€śWhen will they give us land? When will they learn to keep their promises? We are fighting for means of survival. We are not asking for luxurious flats,â€ť she says.
Edited by Rakesh Mehar