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The struggle of the landless in Kerala


07 / 2010

On June 28, 2010, the organization Vikalp– Films for freedom (1) dedicated its monthly session at Prithvi House, Mumbai, to an homage to C. Saratchandran, a civil rights activist and an engaged documentary film maker from Kerala, who passed away in an accident on April 1st, 2010.

The screening of « To die for Land. The Ultimate Sacrifice » is an opportunity to come back on the struggle for land led by landless dalits and adivasis in Kerala. This fight saw landless farmers’ organizations free themselves from traditional political parties, forcibly encroach on the land of a large industrial group and obtain a minimum of satisfactions after two hard and long years of resistance and confrontation with the private company, its employees and local authorities.

Dalits and adivasis encroach on industrial land

On August 4th, 2007 about 300 landless families, mainly dalits (untouchables) but also adivasis (tribals), encroached on 140 hectares of land in the Kumbazha plantation. This rubber estate belongs to Harrisons Malayalam which is now owned by RP Goenka Enterprises. It is situated near Chengara, Patnamthitta district in Kerala. The encroachers set up simple huts on its steep slopes, thus launching a more than two year struggle against a historic injustice. At some point there were up to 5,000 families encroaching on 800 hectares of land, totalling more than 20,000 people coming from all parts of Kerala.

This non-violent struggle, spearheaded by the organization Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SJVSV, Liberation Front of the Poor), was led by Laha Gopalan who claims to be a former member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI(M), which leads the present governmental coalition.

According to the organizers Harrisons Malayalam, which holds land on long lease from the Government, illegally owns and exploits 2,000 hectares. By encroaching this particular plantation SJVSV aims at denouncing the monopoly of large owners, which includes industrial ones, on agricultural land, to the detriment of small and landless farmers.

It is quite amazing that the families could stay for more than two years without being evicted even by force. One of their sole weapons was the threat of committing collective suicide. C. Saratchandran’s documentary shows men who climb on trees, attach a rope to a branch, pass it around their neck, and are ready to jump and hang themselves. The women carry cans of petrol, ready to immolate themselves in case of a police assault. The mobilization was strong, as every one from men to women, children to the elderly were committed to the struggle.

Simply to survive they had to develop agriculture, plant banana trees, harvest honey, etc. Their living conditions were extremely precarious: steep slopes were not easy to cultivate, they had no protection against rains, they lacked health care, food and water. Thirteen people, who are considered martyrs, lost their lives for want of care and because of the blockade.

On many occasions the confrontation between the police and the families could have turned tragic. However, in its judgement of September 24th, 2007, the Kerala High Court ordered that the eviction should be done without any bloodshed. There was no question of repeating the February 2003 incidents in Muthanga where other encroaching tribals were brutally evicted by the Government. In Chengara, a smooth eviction was impossible as dalits were very determined, ready to die rather than renounce their legitimate claims. Only an agreement with the Government could lead to a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

A symbolic social movement

The Chengara movement is symbolic for two main reasons. Firstly, it is not a struggle against eviction from one’s own land for a private enterprise (2). Here, landless farmers encroached on the land of one of the largest Indian industrial groups to claim their rights: rights to own a cultivable land, to earn their life with dignity by practicing their profession, rather than working painfully on others’ land for a meagre salary and the lowest social status.

This struggle is also unique from a political point of view as it is led for the first time in Kerala not by political parties, but by landless farmers themselves. It is even oriented against all left parties, be it the present Left Democratic Front coalition ruling the State or other left parties who claim to represent the interests of oppressed and marginalized people like dalits and adivasis. In reality, CPI(M) did not get rid of caste prejudices in its own ranks and it reproduces them by giving to its low caste members only subaltern tasks.

CPI(M), that leads the Left Democratic Front, actually found itself in an awkward position, as it claimed to be the spokesperson of both social groups. On one side were the dalits and adivasis on the other side the plantation workers and trade-unions. The estate trade-unions were opposed to the landless people’s movement because their work was hindered due to the encroachement. Laha Gopalan rejects this allegation and says that the land they encroached upon was not exploited as it was intended to be replanted. According to him the blockade of the camp organized by the unions was decided by the company itself. The fact is that the workers who blocked the roads were paid by the company. They also provided information about new developments in the field.

Communist governance and land reform

Kerala is proud of being the first State of the Indian Union to have democratically elected a communist Government in 1957 and to have launched the land reform in a region where feudal type of relationships between landlords and land workers prevailed. Also, it is held as an example for its good performance in the fields of education and health, but the miserable socio-economic conditions of the dalits and the adivasis are less emphasized although they represent respectively 1,1% and 10% of Kerala’s population.

Over the years, the governmental coalitions became less left oriented as it needed the support of the Congress party. As a result, the land reform lost its focus and it took fifteen years to implement it. But plantations and forests were largely ignored by the reform as they were considered as industries. Only the land “in surplus” was distributed.

Adivasis and dalits were the big losers of the reform and got, at best, only small plots of non-cultivable land to build a house. The social caste hierarchy is still very strong in Kerala in spite of the important role played by communists. It didn’t allow scheduled tribes and castes to become tenants nor to own land. According to SJVSV estimates they represent 85% of landless farmers. The main beneficiaries of the reform were the tenants who belong to middle and high castes and could become land owners.

The population density in Kerala (819 people per km²) is one of the highest in India, the national average being 324 per km², making the land issue particularly sensitive. Besides that, large tracks of land having been converted into residential, tourist and industrial estates exagerate the agricultural land shortage.

The Government claims that there is no land left to distribute. However, only an inquiry into land property in Kerala will reveal the actual situation and probable violations of the Land Ceiling Law.

Since 2008 the Bhoomi Keralam project has been stuck. It was launched by the Government of Kerala to survey the land within three years, amongst other things, to identify 27.000 ha of land to be distributed to tribal people. As expected, a number of difficulties emerged: there was undertrained staff, who were expected to use sophisticated devices, and land mafia resisted the survey (see « Bhoomi Keralam project lands in trouble »).

A bitter settlement

After 795 days of agitation, a settlement package was reached on October 5th 2009, within a context of internal tensions in the movement. It was signed between the SJVSV and the Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan from CPI(M) with the mediation of the opposition leader Oommen Chandy from the Congress Party.

As per the agreement 1,432 families out of a total of 1,738 will get land and financial aid to construct a house: 27 adivasi families will get 1 acre (0,4 hectares) of land and 125,000 rupees each; 832 dalit families will get 50 cents (0,2 ha) of land and 100,000 rupees each; 48 other dalit families ((Ezhava, Christians and Nair) will get 25 cents (0,1 ha) of land and 75,000 rupees. The plots of land will be in different parts of Kerala.

The goal of 2 hectares of cultivable land and 50,000 rupees per family was not reached. The encroachers received the announcement of the settlement in a resigned silence.

Laha Gopalan said he was forced to accept this package as he feared another Nandigram. This violent intervention of 4,000 policemen in March 2007 in West Bengal left 14 dead and 70 injured amongst the local population who were demonstrating against their expropriation for a special economic zone.

It also seems that the CPI(M) managed to infiltrate the agitation and to create unrest amongst the families regarding the amount of their financial participation in the organization running the camp. Therefore, Laha Gopalan felt it was urgent to reach a compromise and thus settle the land issue.

As of today (July 2010) the land has still not been distributed. The Government newly promised it will do it in a month. However, the SJVSV complains that the proposed plots are situated in remote districts while land is available in closer districts.

The outcome of this unique battle can be considered as an historic victory for dalits who fought against injustice, alone and in their own name, and succeeded in resisting the Government, the High-Court and the Police for more than two years. The fact that they were promised land for cultivation adds legitimacy to their struggle.

As their demands were only partially fulfilled, others feel the struggle was a failure, perhaps setting a future precedent that will make it even more difficult for marginalised social groups struggling for the recognition of their rights.

From a political point of view the Chengara agitation is another symptom of a historical turn as dalit organizations turned away from their traditional ally, the CPI(M), and voted against the Government in the 2009 general elections for Lok Sabha.

Because of the reluctance of the left Government to satisfactorily fulfil the claims of the poorest and most marginalised social groups, one can fear the development of extremist groups like the violent Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM) founded in 2007. This emergence is the direct result of the failure of communists in power to effectively change the traditional social order by giving dalits and adivasis their right and access to land.

1Founded in 2004, Vikalp– Films for freedom screens independent documentaries and fights against censorship, be it official or unofficial, and for freedom of expression in India and abroad.
2In Nandigram and Singur, in the communist led West Bengal, farmers opposed giving up their land to the private companies Tata and Salim for industrialization.

Key words

landless farmer, real estate property, social inequality, caste, indigenous peoples, civil society, struggle for land

, India


This article is available in French: La lutte des sans terre au Kerala

For more information:

See also the site of the organization Vikalp-Films for Freedom and read InfoChange article about it.


Original text

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