People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 11

March 14, 2010



Who are Owners and Who are Encroachers of Land!


P Krishnaprasad


THE ongoing widespread land struggle in Wayanad district has generated a big debate in Kerala on the issue of �land encroachment.� Opposition leader and former chief minister Oommen Chandy has blatantly termed the poor landless tribal people who are participating in the historic land struggle, as �encroachers� and �Naxal type agitators.� One of the mainstream newspapers in the state is the Mathrubhoomi whose managing director and his son are facing the charge of unauthorised occupation of government lands. They are openly spearheading a campaign war, alleging that the tribal agitators are mere land-grabbers.

Thanks to the panic created by the media and opposition leaders regarding land encroachments (!), however, the struggle of the poor landless tribal and agricultural worker families under the aegis of the Adivasi Kshema Samithi (AKS) and Kerala State Karshaka Thozhilali Union (KSKTU) has received maximum media projection. The real land-grabbers, including the big plantation owners like the Harrison Malayalam Ltd (HML), the capitalist landlords and land mafias, are now running from pillar and post to somehow save their unauthorised surplus lands.  Police stations and courts are now busy with complaints on �land-grabbing� by the landless poor. Thus, since the historic land struggle of 1970 under the leadership of late Comrades A K Gopalan and E M S Namboodiripad, Kerala has once again become the scene of a class struggle between the landlords and the landless poor.




Wayanad was once a tribal majority area. In 1942 the tribal population here was around 61,000 out of a total of about 74,000. But the large scale migration of farmers, especially from the southern districts, changed the demography of Wayanad. Now the population is 7,80,619, out of which the tribals are around 1,37,000, i.e. a mere 17 per cent. Prior to the colonial period, there was no private land ownership among the tribal people. The land was a community asset. During the British period, tribes were forcibly displaced for building large scale tea and coffee plantations. Widespread alienation of tribal lands to settler farmers resulted in the high level of landlessness among tribes.

According to government data, at present, 7,893 tribal families are landless in Wayanad; another 14,000 families have inadequate land. Both are entitled to get land up to one acre since the LDF government declared to provide minimum one acre land to all landless tribal families.

The socio-economic condition of tribal people in Wayanad is pathetic. They are mainly poor, landless and unskilled workers. Alarmingly, life expectancy among the largest tribal group, called Paniyas, is only 40 years. Alcoholism is widespread among them, along with poverty and unemployment. Genetic disorders like sickle cell anaemia are widespread among certain tribes. It is painful to note that some of the primitive tribal groups are facing extinction.

The Kerala Land Reforms Act, initiated by the communist government in 1957, in spite of the amendments and dilutions made in it by the subsequent right wing governments, helped to end landlordism in Kerala and the jenmam (ownership) rights of jenmis (landlords) on land were legally vested with the state government as on April 1, 1964. Ceiling limits on the land to be owned by individuals and families were stipulated. The Act conferred ownership rights upon more than 26 lakh peasant families in the state on the land they had leased. In 1967, the Left led EMS government again enacted a law to provide ownership right on 10 cents of land and homestead lands occupied by poor and landless agricultural workers and peasants. Nearly 5.5 lakh families benefited from it.




However, Section 81(1) of the KLR Act exempted the plantations from ceiling stipulations. Thus, capitalist landlords and big plantation owners kept thousands of acres under this exemption. They also got exemptions for thousands of acres of land occupied by plantations under different lease agreements. Apart from these, they illegally grabbed thousands of acres of government land, forestland and surplus land.

The Left and Democratic Front (LDF) government has been trying to get back the government land so as to distribute it among the landless poor. Under the chairmanship of principal revenue secretary Smt Nivedita P Haran, a high level committee on HML suggested that the government needs to resume the alienated lands through the due procedure. Then, in his legal advice to the government of Kerala, Justice L M Manoharan, a former judge of the High Court of Kerala and High Court of Bombay, said if any transfer had been made in contravention of the restriction in the lease document, it would be invalid and the government could take steps for recovery of the property under sections 11 and 12 of the Land Conservancy Act 1957. Subsection 2 of this act also prescribes the procedure for eviction. According to Justice Manoharan, when a person holds a property beyond the period fixed in the lease deed, the possession becomes unauthorised and he can be proceeded against under the abovementioned sections 11 and 12.

As a matter of fact, bureaucrats have been helping the landowning class to keep the excess land and they used the courts too for the purpose through endless litigations

One of the largest landowners in Kerala is the Harrison Malayalam Ltd under the R P Goyanka group of companies, which owns the Indian Express newspaper also. According to records, this company has 76,769.80 acres of land in eight districts of the state. But after January 1, 1970, this company has alienated 12,658.16 acres of land in violation of the KLR Act. The lease period of many of its estates, involving than 6,000 acres, is over since decades.

According to the company, it has only 59,623.50 acres of land. The Vythiri Land Board once said the company had surplus land with it, but the company approached the court and got a direction for a review of the case in 1993. However, no final decision has come in this dispute even after 17 years. The HML is not paying any tax on land and lease --- a paltry sum of Rs 2 per acre --- for the large extents of land it is at present occupying.

The AKS and KSKTU have provided leadership in the struggle to establish the tribal people�s right on the wasteland and surplus land under HML in Wayanad. Around 800 landless tribal and agricultural worker families have erected huts on these lands as a part of the agitation.

In Krishnagiri village, the AKS initiated a struggle on 14 acres of government land under the unauthorised occupation of Shreyams Kumar, MLA, who belongs to the Janata Dal (S), a component of the UDF. The land has no title and no land tax is paid against it.

Though the MLA applied to the government for getting title to the said land, the principal revenue secretary rejected it. The ground was that the Kerala Land Assignment Act allows a maximum assignment of one acre in hilly areas and therefore the law does not permit the assignment of 48 acres in favour of Shreyams Kumar. Veerendrakumar, former MP and Shreyams Kumar�s father, has claimed that his family does possess around 1,000 acres of land.

On February 15, 2008, the High Court ordered reclamation of the land from illegal occupation and its distribution among the landless tribals. Even after two years, however, the district administration has not initiated action to get the stay in a lower court vacated and repossess the land. This is the background in which the AKS initiated a land struggle in Krishnagiri village.

The centre of another land agitation is the 67 acres of land at Vellaramkunnu near Kalpetta, the headquarters town of Wayanad. Around 340 landless tribal families entered the land on February 8, erected huts and have been living there since then.

In November 2007, Devadas, IAS and then the deputy collector (revenue), submitted a report on this land while the present sub-collector of Wayanad, Prasanth, IAS, submitted another on February 8, 2010. Both reports clearly pointed out that 179.81 acres of land at Vellaramkunnu belong to the state government and legal proceedings under the IPC need to be initiated against the scam perpetrators who forged fake records for the said land and even sold 50 acres out of it to the state government for establishing an industrial park.



LAND STRUGGLES                          

After independence, though many laws were enacted especially to address the landlessness among tribes, not much progress was made in solving the problem. The Kerala Land Reforms Act, too, did not specifically address the landlessness among the tribes. The central Tribal Land Act of 1975 purported to retrieve the alienated tribal lands and redistribute the same among the tribals, but it was not implemented due to sharp resistance from the settler farmers who were occupying tribal lands. To avoid conflict between the tribes and farmers, the LDF government enacted another Tribal Land Act in 1999, which assured alternative land to all the landless tribal families. But the Supreme Court stayed the act and cleared it only after a decade, in 2009. The bureaucracy and the judiciary have been the major roadblocks to the timely implementation of land laws in favour of landless tribals and rural proletariat.

Though the government�s estimate of surplus land in Kerala in 1970 was about 9 lakh hectares, only one lakh hectares were retrieved and redistributed till 1990 --- just 11 per cent of the total. On the other hand, since the onset of neo-liberal �reforms� in 1991, pauperisation and landlessness has grown among the poor people --- the small peasants, agricultural labourers and subaltern groups including the tribes and scheduled castes. Recent studies indicate the gravity of the issue --- the percentage of the landless (if we disregard the homestead lands) has increased in Kerala from six per cent in 1970 to 36 per cent in 2007.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was an upsurge for the basic rights of the tribal people. The formation of Adivasi Kshema Samithy (AKS) on March 6, 2000 at Kalpetta in Wayanad was a result of this upsurge and thousands of tribes participated in the land struggles under its leadership. They forcefully occupied government lands and vested forestlands since March 9, 2002. The then UDF government forcibly evicted and jailed 1,736 tribes, to suppress their just struggle. But, with the active help from workers and peasants under the communist leadership, the tribals successfully established their right on nearly 5,000 acres of vested forestland and government land in 19 localities in Wayanad. Around 2,400 tribal families erected huts on this land and cultivated different crops for their livelihood.

It was a most successful, massive, historic agitation and the tribals continued it. In 2006, supported by the Left parties, the UPA government enacted the Forest Rights Act for the tribals and other traditional forest dwellers. Thus they became the legal owners of the land where they have been in control. It must be remembered that it was due to the pressure from the Left parties that the then UPA government felt compelled to extend the cut-off date to December 31, 2005 for fixing the occupancy rights on the forestlands. The present agitation is in continuation of these struggles.




During the same period, in 2003, the then UDF government of Kerala suppressed the struggle under Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha and its leader Ms C K Janu in Muthanga, Wayanad. One tribal, Jogi, was killed in the police firing in Muthanga; a policeman was also killed in the fracas. The CPI(M) supported the struggle, resisted the UDF administration�s violence against the helpless tribals and Gothra Mahasabha activists, and demanded punishment to the guilty officers. Though this struggle could not establish a single landless tribal family�s right on land, it helped make the society sensitive to the seriousness of landlessness among the Kerala tribes. The bourgeois media projected the Gothra Mahasabha agitation as the only case of resistance put up by the tribals, and tried to suppress the news of AKS struggles. Ms C K Janu later joined hands with the UDF and contested the local body election with its support, but miserably failed. In the last assembly and Lok Sabha elections, Gothra Mahasabha actively supported the UDF. Now Ms Janu is campaigning that the LDF has not given a single acre of land to the tribals.

The present LDF government gave a government job to Kumari Sita, the daughter of Sri Jogi. On February 27, 2010, the LDF government granted land titles to Ms Janu and 32 other tribal families in her settlement.




In West Bengal, the communists gained strength in the 1960s and 70s through the struggles of poor peasants and rural proletariat. Land struggles under the leadership of Harekrishna Konar and Pramod Dasgupta helped the landless poor get some land. In 1977, the Left Front formed a ministry in West Bengal under the stewardship of Comrade Jyoti Basu. This government implemented vigorous land reforms, sending the people into joyous emotions. But the CPI(M) also cautioned the people not to have any illusion that all the landless would get land simply because an act had been passed. It said the landlords would not on their own surrender the surplus lands under their unauthorised occupation. Likewise, the bureaucracy and judiciary, whose members mainly come from the propertied classes, will not take sincere and determined actions to retrieve the surplus lands and distribute the same among the landless.

Similarly, in Kerala, there was widespread agitation under the leadership of AIKS and KSKTU since January 1, 1970, in which 18 martyrs shed their blood. This helped retrieve the surplus land from landlords and its redistribution among the land-poor. Comrade A K Gopalan was in the forefront of land agitation and other peasant agitations all over Kerala. These included one at Amaravathi in South Kerala and Kumbeleri in Wayanad against the eviction of peasants from their lands. AKG is still a source of inspiration for the mass movements in India.

The Left led governments in these two states and Tripura gave clear instructions to the police not to use force against the people�s struggles for their rights. These struggles helped the CPI(M) to consolidate its base in Kerala and West Bengal.

In Kerala, the LDF government has in the last four years created a record by providing ownership rights to 1,11,187 landless and poor peasant families. Of these, 21,985 are tribes. However, after 4,000 tribal families got ownership rights in Wayanad alone, around 22,000 tribal families are yet to get the same.

When the police forcibly evicted the tribals from the land in Krishnagiri, under the district collector�s orders, chief minister V S Achutanandan publicly said no police highhandedness would be allowed against the tribals. He emphasised that the LDF government would not dilute its pro-people police policy.




When the struggle of landless tribals and agricultural workers for the government lands in Wayanad intensified and got the public support, the UDF leadership and certain powerful media institutions like Mathrubhoomi, Indian Express and Malayala Manorama tried to depict it as a partisan stir. They said it was to take revenge on Janata Dal (S) leader Veerendra Kumar and his son Shreyams Kumar for quitting the LDF.

Opposition leader and former chief minister Oommen Chandy went to the extent of calling the tribals �encroachers on private land of Mr Shreyams Kumar� and dubbed the agitation as �Naxal model.� But Chandy cut a sorry figure after the answer he gave in the assembly in 2005 to a fellow Congress (I) MLA, P T Thomas. His reply said that the 14 acres of land claimed by Shreyams Kumar was government land and that records had been corrected accordingly. This exposed the opposition leader�s dishonesty before the people.

Chandy seems to think that the landlords occupying government lands are �philanthropic nobles� while the landless tribals are mere �encroachers.�

When the elite media and political leaders belonging to the right wing political formations used abusive language to describe the agitation of the tribal and the rural poor who do not have an inch of land, the High Court of Kerala effectively reflected the public feelings. It said it was painful to learn that certain persons were in possession of thousands of acres of land in the state when thousands of tribal families did not have a shred of land. These words gave blow to those who had been abusing the agitators. The High Court did not concede the landlords� demand for protection of their lands and forcible eviction of the tribals. The court rather asked the landlords to produce all relevant documents to prove their ownership on the land.  

A democratic society is obliged to discuss the genuine demands of the struggling people. This was what the LDF government did in case of �Chengara agitation.� In spite of a court order, the LDF government refused to forcibly evict the poor and landless people who had established their rights on a plantation land. Despite the motivated allegations about �oppressing the people�s struggle,� the government effected a settlement regarding the agitators� rights.

However, the right wing media and political leaders, who describe those violating the law as nobles and dub as law-breakers the tribes who are demanding an implementation of the laws, need to learn from history. The present land struggle by the tribals in Wayanad is a warning to the landlords who are continuing with the unauthorised occupation of the government land that they cannot continue with it any longer.