Chengara Land Struggle
Kerala’s much-vaunted land reforms continue to cheat its landless poor. An agitation in Pathanamthitta’s Chengara is determined to fight for the poor’s share
DOUBLE STANDARDS of the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala are steadily surfacing. The government recently rubbished a proposal by the state industry secretary, which demanded the scrapping of radical land reforms undertaken by the first EMS Namboodiripad government. The demand, which indicates the growing clout of land mafias and vested interests on administrative circles, was aimed at `expediting industrial growth.' However, the same LDF is now turning a blind eye to the massive land struggle in Chengara in Pathanamthitta district of the state involving a large number of dalit families. On the contarary, the LDF is also engaged in a fund collection drive to extend help to victims of the police firing on landless farmers in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh.
The Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress is vying with the BJP to gain political ground in the name of farmers in Nandigram who have been at the receiving end of the CPM’s wrath. The local media has also been vocal about the need of remaining vigilant against land mafias and their growing clout over political leadership and the bureaucracy. However, political parties and the mainstream media have chosen to maintain an eerie silence over a land struggle in which as many as 29,000 landless Dalits, Adivasis and other weaker segments of the society are on a warpath against the government.
While the Opposition has failed to issue even a press statement supporting the struggle, the vernacular media fears a loss of revenue at the hands of the estate major Harrison Malayalam Limited (HML), which claims the rights on the land now occupied by Dalits and Adivasis in Chengara. Nevertheless, the movement is gaining public support by each passing day and social workers from across the country, including Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar, have started to pour in into the interiors of Chengara to express their solidarity. The agitation, spearheaded by noted Dalit leaders Laha Gopalan and VT Saraswathy, actually began on August 4 when Dalits and other landless poor occupied about 2,000 acres of land that was until then under the possession of Harrison Malayalam.
Since then, they have erected tents of plastic sheets in the estate land after resisting the use of force by the estate management and its workers. According to Harrison Malayalam, Chengannur Mundankavu Vanjipuzha Matom, a local landlord, had leased the occupied land to them for 99 years. However, the company, an RP Goenka firm, failed to produce any lease deed to substantiate its claim. The government says there was no lease deed and neither the landlord nor Harrison Malayalam have any right over the land at present. But it refuses to take any action fearing a backlash by the industrial group. Even if the claims of the company on the lease holds true, the lease period stands completed now and as per the reforms initiated by previous Left governments, the land must be redistributed among the landless peasants.
Making things more complex, the landlords have now issued an eviction notice to Harrisson Plantation. In reply, HMC now claims that the ownership of rubber trees in the estate still remains with the company even if the ownership of the land is disputable. For Gopalan, it is a do or die battle. “It must be the duty of the Left government to distribute the land among the landless Dalits. These people are genuine landless poor from different parts of the state and, if needed, the government can verify their claims. Any move to evict us from the land would be countered by mass suicides. There is no going back from this struggle,’’ he says. But the going seems tough for Gopalan and his fellow protestors. “I am keeping five litres of kerosene in my hut. I would burn myself the moment authorities start eviction. There is no question of retreat. We will get the land,’’ said Saraswathy.
There is heavy police presence outside the area, and policemen often willfully discourage the movement of the agitators, depriving them of the opportunity to find work. The restriction has now started affecting the availability of even food and medicine.
“The government is out to kill the movement by remaining silent on their genuine demands and allowing police atrocities. They will have to pay a heavy price for the denial of basic needs to these Dalit families,’’ warns Sunny Kapikkad, a Dalit activist. “There are occasions when the agitators have had to survive by eating grass. There are possibilities of starvation deaths in the near future if the situation continues to be the same,’’ says Dilip Raj of the support group formed by civil society movements.
“It must be the duty of the Left Government to take immediate initiatives to confiscate the surplus land under the custody of different estates whose lease periods are over. It will expedite agricultural production,’’ says J. Devika, a research associate with the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. ACCORDING TO Gopalan, those occupying the land in Chengara represent the most deprived segments of the population, who have failed to benefit from the much-hyped land reforms initiated by the Left in the early 50s. Some agitators including women were hospitalised after they were attacked by a section of workers of the estate, who claims to enjoy support of CPM’s trade union wing, CITU.
“Changes in weather conditions have increased the cases of fever and other epidemics here, but nothing has diminished our spirits,’’ says TS Achuthan, an activist. According to him, a change is now visible in the attitude of estate workers as they have started realising the hidden motives of the HMC management.“Harrison Malayalam is a major player in the estate business in Kerala, holding thousands of hectares of land in different hilly regions for tea and rubber plantations. Sometimes they exceed the permissible limits given in lease deeds to extend the plantations. There are complaints against them of violating the lease agreements and subletting the land in question,’’ informs R. Prakash of the National Federation of Dalit Land Right Movements. Chengara must be a beginning for the Kerala government to take back the surplus land from the mighty estate groups and rightfully redistribute it to the people it belongs to,” he reiterates.