The rain began unexpectedly one mid-afternoon in September. Girija, sitting outside her cemented little house in Vembayam, Thiruvananthapuram, wiped away a tear, looking at the rain. It seemed an effort for her to tell the story again. Quietly she walked into the house, built four years ago on three cents of land, and brought back an old newspaper cutting from 2005. The folded Malayalam newspaper told the story of two young women, aged 20 and 17, drowning in the Pamba river when they went to take a bath. With no space to bury them, the family dug a hole on the kitchen floor and laid them there to rest.
“They were my daughters. They had gone to a relative’s house in Ranni, Pathanamthitta. I had said goodbye to them on a Saturday evening, dropping them there. The next Monday, they came back home in two coffins. They were washed away by a flash flood,” Girija says. Her voice cracked when she recalled that on the third day after they were buried, a card came home, with a job offer for Asha, the elder one. Ajitha, the younger one, had just finished Class 10.
Newspaper cutting about Asha and Ajitha, buried under the kitchen of their home in Vembayam
“I had worked so much to educate them. I am a daily wage labourer. And in my old age, when they were finally going to be independent, they were taken away from me,” says Girija, now all alone. Her husband, a labourer like her, took his own life, pained by the death of his daughters.
Girija and two of her sisters had shared eight cents of land, living in three houses. She’d have had to use part of the land belonging to the sisters if she needed to bury her daughters there. “I didn’t want to trouble anyone and buried my children under my kitchen. The land belongs to one of my sisters, she just let us use part of it. But afterward I moved away to this cemented house you see. It was a property that came to my late husband, years after our girls died.”
Same situation even today: public graveyards are too few
The girls’ burial became a point of major discussion 14 years ago, but little has changed since. Many like Girija, living on two or three cents of land (a cent is 1/100th of an acre or about 435 square-feet) allotted to them, end up demolishing a part of their little houses to bury their dead kin. In many parts of Kerala, there’s just no public graveyard for Dalit families living in colonies allotted to them after the Land Reforms Act of 1963.
Sanu Kummil, a journalist, realised the plight of the people living in such colonies when he had to report several such burials within the houses. “I work in Kollam, and have come across these instances in the panchayats of Chithara, Veliyam and Ittiva,” he says. Sanu says the lack of space in public graveyards forces people to bury their dead on their own land and for those who do not have enough land, the bodies have to be buried inside their houses. A year ago, he made a documentary on the subject called Six Feet Under.
“I wrote a series of these stories for the newspaper. I pointed out that there are wastelands belonging to the government that could be used as public graveyards. The authorities I spoke to had then told me that it could be done. But nothing changed. I understood later that it’s because the people who lived next to these wastelands – people of other communities – had a problem with Dalits being buried there,” Sanu says.
A few years ago, problems began in Kalathingal in Malappuram when an older woman died and was taken to the public graveyard for burial, her grandson Jayesh says. “We were not allowed to bury her there in 2013. It is a land where we have been burying our dead for more than 30 years. But a man had illegally taken over our land, dug out the remains of all our ancestors and dropped them off near our home. We have given complaints to the police and other authorities but no action has been taken,” he notes.
Jayesh, who took the body of his uncle Kannankutty to the same spot in March 2018, says that the police had stopped them and forced them out of the place. “Initially the police had come to escort us to the ground. But later they changed their stance and asked us to leave, saying that the land belongs to another person. We showed the documents we had but they claimed that those papers were not the proper ones. We still tried to dig the ground, but were beaten up and arrested,” Jayesh tells TNM.
Police clash with the people at the public graveyard in Kalathingal in Malappuram
Too little land, too little choice
Burial problems continue to affect people of the SC category living in Dalit colonies. At a 10-cent plot on top of an elevation in Madathilazhikam colony, Ittiva, Kollam, are three houses built next to each other. One of them is now full of weeds, uninhabited for the last five years after their aunt died. “Her name was Swarnamma, she was our aunt. When she died, there was no space to bury her and we demolished her kitchen and laid her there,” says Saji, who lives in one of the other houses. The 10 cents were shared by five children, but some chose to stay with the families they married into. When Swarnamma died, her children were away and the husband was living separately.
“No one has lived there after the burial. No one would want to buy such a property either,” says Simi, Saji’s wife. Four months ago, Saji’s grandmother died and got buried within the same ten cents, at her elder son’s part of the land.
Saji and Simi
A few yards away, Lekha of the Kannamkode colony in Chithara panchayat, Kollam, has a similar story to narrate. Her uncle died five years ago and was buried inside the house, after a hole was dug in the kitchen. Days later, her aunt – the uncle’s wife – died by suicide, and her body was burnt along with the house.
“There was no other space. She belonged to another community and had married before. Her relatives were mad at her for marrying a man from a lower caste. They wouldn’t claim her body. And they had no one else. So, we burnt down the house along with her body,” says Lekha. The nearest public crematorium is in Thiruvananthapuram, and they cannot afford to go there, Lekha adds.
The problem comes to the people who own two or three cents of land on which they build a house, a toilet and a well. “There wouldn’t be space outside the house to bury someone. It is not the same story for those who have one house on 10 cents. They have space,” says Vinod, a man from the Kannamkode colony.
Why is this not a political or social problem?
A woman from Kozhikode, in Sanu’s documentary says, “Fifteen years ago, there was a protest and we were promised five cents of land to bury our dead. But afterward, we didn’t get the land. It seems that there was a canal flowing through the area and people had problems in bodies being buried there. But then there are churches here, cemeteries where the Christians are buried. They respect their dead so much. There is a well in the Christian burial ground, from which water is drawn for schools and hotels. That is not a problem. It seems only the water flowing through our graveyard is impure,” says Leela, a Dalit woman in Koorachundu panchayat, Kozhikode on Six Feet Under.
Such protests are very rare, says Sunny M Kapikad, a social activist. “Their life and situation are so bad that they are not even aware this is a problem. They bury their dead in the kitchen and carry on with their lives again. They don’t even protest, because they are not aware it is a problem. And that’s because the society is least concerned about it. The fact that there is no place to bury the dead is being normalised.”
The problem began in 1963 soon after the laws connected to the Land Reforms Act were implemented. “It is what made them (Dalit communities) owners of 3-cent lands and 5-cent lands. They couldn’t claim anything beyond that. They are not farmers but farming employees. According to the government data, there are 29,000 Dalit colonies and 4,500 Adivasi colonies. You can see the little plastic houses on the roadside,” Sunny says.
Formation of colonies discriminates, prevents progress
The colonies have become a way to discriminate against the people in the name of caste, says Dhanya Raman, social activist. “It is this colonisation that has prevented progress. In Palakkad there is a colony near the Mangalam dam, where the houses are separated by a single slab. Under one such slab five people of a family were buried. When they opened the slab to bury the last dead person, they found the body of a four-year-old child who was buried six months earlier in the same place. The child’s body had not decomposed, it remained the same. Imagine the situation,” Dhanya asks.
It is a huge ordeal for the SC community to prove they are landless. “We have to prove that there is no land for us in all the 14 districts of the state. We run from pillar to post so much that we are simply exhausted by the end. The interest that was shown in the Maradu flat issue (when five apartments were ordered to be demolished by the Supreme Court for not meeting environmental concerns and the residents had to be evicted) is not shown in our case. Eight years ago, we had approached the government to allot two acres of land anywhere in Kerala, for Adivasi women to farm on it, but nothing came out of it,” Dhanya says.
Unused wastelands, illegally acquired plantations
It is not that wastelands are unavailable. It is just not given away to the SC communities even if it may remain unused for decades. But then there is a rule that every panchayat should have a public graveyard. According to the Kerala Panchayat Raj (Burial and Burning Grounds) Rules, 1998, "Any Panchayat shall, if no sufficient provision exists, with the previous sanction of the District Collector, provide land to be used as burial or burning grounds or cemeteries by meeting the expenditure from the Panchayat fund and may charge rents and fees as the Panchayat may decide, for the use thereof."
“When the burial of Girija’s girls became a much-discussed topic, the then Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had allotted Rs 1 lakh to every panchayat to build public graveyards. But that did no good. No one was ready to give land for such a price or such a purpose. The politicians also didn’t push for it -- neither the Left nor the right governments that came one after another,” says Sanu.
It is not just an issue of upper caste versus lower caste, there are some other vested interests here, points out Sunny. “Many of these lands are in the hands of plantation owners or corporates. They have obtained it illegally. The High Court has pointed this out. But even so, the government is not redistributing the land to the landless.”
Sunny repeatedly stresses that the bigger problem here is the way it is not raised as a social or political issue. An otherwise outraged society, raising slogans for the slightest of injustices, people in Kerala somehow seem largely silent on the issue. Even the newspaper stories about the burials are tucked in the inside pages. But then Simi, whose aunt had to be buried beneath her kitchen floor says, “This is not a problem for the SC category alone, but everyone with two or three cents of land.”
When we ask if they are not worried about living next to the buried, she says, “There is no need to fear the dead ones, you only need to fear the living.”