Monday, November 19, 2007

Agitation by landless poor gathering momentum

KERALA'S landless are on the warpath. Small, scattered movements demanding land are going on in various parts of the State for some time. The mainstream political parties and the media are ignoring them. Yet they appear to be gaining momentum and to hold the potential to develop into a major challenge to the administration.

About 25,000 people have been squatting on a rubber plantation at Chengara in Pathanamthitta district since early August demanding that the government make good the promise of land made to them a year ago. So far the authorities have turned a blind eye to the agitation.

In Kuttanad, 250 landless families are up in arms against a co-operative society, which allegedly turned over to a tourist enterprise the land that the government had allotted to them.

At Nainankonam in Thiruvanathapuram district, villagers are getting restive again as their demands, which the government had conceded, are yet to be implemented fully. They had won the demands after a prolonged agitation.

Most of the landless people in the State are Dalits and Adivasis. This may be one reason why the political establishment and the media tend to ignore their agitations.
Dalits and Adivasis, who form only 11 per cent of the population, are a small segment of the social spectrum. They do not have sufficient numerical or economic strength to command the attention of the political parties.

The Adivasi leader, CK Janu, was able to draw attention to the plight of her people by staging a long agitation in the State capital in 2001. At that time the government agreed to give land to every landless Adivasi family.
When it failed to fulfil the promise, she and her followers occupied an abandoned plantation at Muthanga in 2003. They were ousted in a bloody police action. Subsequently the United Democratic Front (UDF) government distributed land to some Adivasi families. Under Left Democratic Front (LDF) rule, distribution of land to Adivasis has continued but partisan considerations have crept into the process.

Distribution of surplus land to Dalits and Adivasis is a policy which is accepted in principle by successive governments. However, they have been tardy in implementing the policy. As a result, large sections among them are still landless.

The land reform initiated by the first Communist government in 1957 did grave injustice to Adivasis. It treated the Adivasi who was in possession of forest land as the landlord and the settler from the plains who cultivated that land as tenant. The law thus became an instrument for dispossessing the Adivasi of his land.

The land reform essentially benefited the tenant-cultivators. It did not benefit Dalits because there were few tenants among them. Almost all of them were farm labourers. Consequently the reform did not improve their social or economic status.

At the time of Janu's 2001 agitation, Chandrabhan Prasad, the Dalit columnist, cited figures to show that Dalits and Adivasis in Kerala, the most socially advanced State, were actually worse off than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, including Uttar Pradesh, admittedly one of the most backward States. He pointed out that while 53.79 per cent of the Scheduled Castes in Kerala were landless, the corresponding figure for UP was a mere 38.76 per cent. Even the all-India average was only 49.06 per cent. A whopping 55.47 per cent of the Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Kerala were landless as against only 32.99 per cent in the country as a whole. UP's ST population is a negligible 0.1 per cent of the total. Even among the other sections of the population, landlessness was higher in Kerala ( 20.78 per cent) than in UP (15.03 per cent) and the country as a whole (19.66 per cent).

The extreme Left, which has been actively involved in some of the land agitations, has taken the initiative to form a front to launch am intensified movement for comprehensive land reform. It wants land reform to cover plantations, which were exempted last time. The focus of some recent agitations has been on lands under plantations.

The scene of the Chengara agitation is land under the control of a large plantation company.
According to the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi, which leads the agitation, the company is holding on to the land even after expiry of the lease. Lands in Munnar and Ponmudi involved in some of the scandals that surfaced recently were part of big plantations.
The authorities remained silent spectators while the plantation owners sold leased lands to all and sundry.

The entry of the extreme Left raises the possibility of what has been a series of peaceful agitations evolving into a broad-based movement that can pose a threat to law and order. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, November 12, 2007

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