Most of the lands in Attappady remain under dispute, with the village survey records stating that they belong to tribal people, though they are under the custody of powerful immigrants from Tamil Nadu and other parts of Kerala.

In Keralas Attappady illegal sale of protected tribal lands continues unhinderedPerumal and his family
news Tribal Friday, July 01, 2022 - 11:38

Leaving behind the concrete terrace houses allotted to them by the government just a few kilometres away, the families of Perumal and his brother, belonging to the Irula tribal community at Attappady in Kerala’s Palakkad district, now live in two makeshift huts made of tarpaulin sheets and bamboo sticks at the Sholayar grama panchayat of Agali. They had shifted to these huts just a few months ago in a desperate attempt to hold on to their land, where their father and grandparents toiled for years cultivating millets and maize.

The experiences of scores of tribal families in Attappady, whose lands were alienated and grabbed by powerful immigrants over the years, lends legitimacy to the fears of these families. “We live here without electricity or a proper water source, just to keep our land safe. At night, goons will come and threaten us to move from the land. But we will not. If they have to construct a building on our land, they will have to kill us first,” Perumal says, standing outside his hut.

Attappady is probably one among the very few places in Kerala housing large barren lands. Most of the lands here are under dispute, with the village survey records stating that they belong to the tribal people, even though they are under the custody of a number of immigrant businessmen from Tamil Nadu and other parts of Kerala. The Adivasi people of the area assert that the documents owned by these immigrants, proving their authority over these lands, were fabricated with the help of some government officials.

“These are lands owned by tribal people. They had just leased it to the rich immigrants for a few years. But then they fabricated documents and took custody of the lands. We can still find the original name of the land owners if we check the village survey records. For example, in the survey documents the name will be Marutha, but the title deeds will say Maruthan Gountar,” explains Murugan, a tribal rights activist from Attappady.

Murugan

A long history of alienation

The fight for alienated land has a long history in Attappady. According to the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, 1975, “notwithstanding anything to the contrary contained in any other law, or in any contract, custom or usage, or in any Judgment, decree or order of any court, any transfer effected by a member of a Scheduled Tribe, of immovable property possessed, enjoyed or owned by him, on or after the commencement of this Act to a person other than a member of a Scheduled Tribe, without the previous consent in writing of the competent authority, shall be invalid.” However, under the Tribal Land Alienation Act, the purchases of all tribal land to the extent of below two hectares registered till January 24, 1986, have legal validity. Taking advantage of this loophole, the immigrants create fake documents to make it seem like the purchase was made before 1986, allege tribal rights activists.

As per the village survey records, the land under survey number 520/2 in Kottathara village is owned by Nanjan, son of Kullan. But Nanjan’s son, 50-year-old Valaithiri, says the land is not with the family anymore. Instead, it is in the custody of some people from Tamil Nadu. “They had come to measure the land a few days ago. But all of us came together to protest and put a stop to the proceedings. The land was owned by my ancestors. My father and his brother Badiran, whose name is also in the records under survey number 523/2, worked hard and cultivated this land. It was after they gave the land for lease that we lost it,” Valaithiri says. Even in the Survey Department Register of the Revenue Department, Badiran’s name is mentioned. The documents clearly state that the Adivasi family had settled on this land, where they cultivated ragi and corn.

Velaithiri

Similar is the situation faced by the children of Bodhan and Masani, to whom the land under survey number 237 is supposed to belong. They say Masani got the land in 1975, but it is now occupied by someone they don’t even know. This is the main problem, Vellaithiri says. “Most of the time, we don’t even know who took our land or who the current owners are. Since they know that the land does not belong to them, these people may not even come to see the plot for several years. In the meantime, we will continue to cultivate the land thinking of it as our own. Years later, they will suddenly appear and claim the land as their own,” he says. The case of Nanchi, who used to own the land under survey number 477/1,3 in Kottathara village which was later possessed by Selvan, an immigrant from Dayannur, has been in court for the past few years.

Nanjan's family

What the data shows

According to the data from the Attappady block panchayat in 1951, 90.26% of the population in the region were tribal people. In 2011, the tribal population here was reduced to 44% while the immigrant population became 56%, turning the tribal communities into a minority. Currently, there are 192 tribal hamlets in Attappady, consisting of Irular, Mudukar and Kurumbar tribes. “At one point, the whole of Attappady was just tribal land. Looking at the population change alone, we can say with conviction that immigrants have been grabbing tribal lands illegally. Over the past 10 years too, the immigrant population has only increased,” says Prakasan, a tribal man from the Irular community.

In fact, a study by the Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP) states that 10,106.19 acres of tribal land in Attappady had been alienated as of 1977. “This was just until 1977. After that, the amount of land grabbed from tribal people has only multiplied,” Murugan says. “Earlier, the immigrants used to even physically torture Adivasi people to grab their land, get their signatures, and then scare them away. In a majority of cases, they took advantage of the lease agreement to grab the land,” he adds.

In connection with a case filed by two tribal people, Ponni and Kakki, over the encroachment of their land in 1987, the Kerala High Court had issued an order in 2000 that the alienated land belonged to the tribes. Though the encroachers in this case, Rajalekshmi and Ismail Rawther, had moved the Supreme Court against this judgment, the SC panel comprising Justice Markendaya Katju and Chandramauli KR Prasad too upheld the HC order, stating that tribal land belonged only to tribal people. This was in 2011. But even after the landmark judgment, there were no efforts from the side of the government to restore the alienated properties, Murugan says. Besides, the Adivasi people of Attappady point out that even many of the government offices are built on tribal land, which is also not legal.

A controversy that had erupted in connection with the Sarjan Realities Ltd, a Pune company that buys land and instals windmills for the multinational manufacturer Suzlon Energy, had shed light on some of the major encroachments that took place in Attappady. A Vigilance probe in 2013 found that as many as 13 documents registered by Sarjan Realities, which had bought land in the area between 2005 and 2008, involved tribal lands. In 2010, during another inquiry by the Ottapalam Revenue Divisional Officer, it was found that Sarjan Realities and 29 individuals had bought 105.2 hectares of land in the region, of which up to 72.8 ha belonged to tribal people, while 17.09 ha was forestland. The Down To Earth had then reported that the company sold 0.4 ha each to a number of business houses, including Poppy Umbrella Mart, Anna Aluminium, Bhima Jewellery, Kerala Steel Associates, and Mumbai's Asian Star Company.

In 2013, Kerala Chief Secretary EK Bharat Bushan had said that 530 hectares of alienated tribal land would be restored. But community leaders point out that this was a very small portion of the alienated land, and even this was not implemented fully. “Even the ITDP survey, which dealt with alienated land until 1977, had said that more than 4,210 hectares of tribal land had been encroached upon. Years later, the actual number is much higher. Of that, the government took initiative only to restore 530 ha, and even that was also not properly completed,” says Prasad, a tribal activist. Since then, there have been no efforts from the government to restore alienated land.

TNM visited some Attappady families who are fighting to get their ancestral land back. Kaliyamma, of Sholayar panchayat, who lives with her family in a hamlet of which the houses are built by the Attappady Hills Area Development Society (AHADS) project, shares her story. “We used to cultivate seven acres of land. We raised goats and cows there. But then the people who leased out the land from us forced us to leave the land. They did not even give us any money. It was all done by force. We are the real owners of the land,” Kaliyamma says.

Maruthan, another Sholayar native, has been going through an even more bizarre experience. His family’s ancestral property, the land owned by his grandfather, has now been put up for sale by outsiders. He watched helplessly as a ‘for sale’ signboard was erected outside his property, he says. “We did not get any help from officials. This mafia has the ability to pay thousands of rupees as bribes to officials. Our family has filed several complaints on the matter since the time of my father, including one to the Revenue Divisional Officer of Kollam. The latest is my complaint seeking to put a stop to the encroachment of this land. My father had even brought a village officer to the site by hiring a vehicle. The official visited the site and went back, only to respond after several weeks that the land was not ours,” says Maruthan.

However, a revenue official at the Kottathara village, under which Attappady falls, tells TNM that no fresh cases of land grabbing has been reported in the region. “Some of the old cases are still under consideration. But even in those cases, the land was not grabbed by forging documents. It was handed over to non-tribal people by getting the tribal people to sign the documents,” says the official. There is no mafia behind all this, nor have the tribal people been betrayed or manipulated into signing documents that hand over their land to non-tribal people, he adds.

 
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