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Chengara: Dalit homeland?

By P N Venugopal

In yet another confrontation with industry, hundreds of landless families -- principally dalits and adivasis -- have occupied the Harrison Malayalam rubber plantation in Kerala. Claiming that the company's land lease has long expired, they are demanding 5 acres of land and Rs 50,000 for each family. A special report from the new battleground of Chengara



The terrain is steep. Vast stretches of rubber trees and endless rows of huts thatched with coloured polythene sheets greet our eyes. In each hut, women and children sit around or cook meals on makeshift stoves. Men and women walk around with sack-loads of rice and provisions on their heads. Another group shouts slogans as they sit huddled in a shed against a backdrop of large photographs of Ambedkar and other leaders.

We are trudging along a rough trail in the Chengara rubber estate of Harrison Malayalam Plantations Ltd near Konni in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district. The estate has been occupied by landless dalits and adivasis since August 4, 2007. "There's no way anyone can force us away from here," says Mohanan, our guide and an activist with the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SJVSV), the organisation leading the struggle for the landless.

We pass through the first 'counter', or Ambedkar Nagar as they have named it. There are six such 'counters'; each has a committee to take care of its affairs. "More than 7,000 families from all 14 districts in Kerala are here," says Thomas, who is himself from Kadakkal in Kollam district.

"More and more people are joining our ranks daily," confirms Laha Gopalan, Founder President of the SJVSV and the moving force behind the current struggle.

The first communist government anywhere in the world to come to power through the ballot, the E M Sankaran Namboodiripad-led ministry had initiated land reforms in a big way. Even though many of the original provisions were watered down by subsequent governments, Kerala has the distinction of being the only state in the country where land reforms were taken up seriously. About 32 lakh families were benefited, of which 5 lakh belonged to the lowest strata of society.

However, Gopalan has slightly different views on the subject. "Kerala always boasts about revolutionary changes brought about by land reforms ushered in by the communists, starting from the first communist government of 1957," he says. "But the beneficiaries have been only the Nairs, Ezhava (Thiyya) Christians and, to some extent, the Muslims. The dalits and adivasis were always bypassed. They were never part of the landowning scheme, being neither sharecroppers nor tenants," he explains. "They were forever the toilers, and no one bothered about them.

"In the 1970s and 1980s, the government came out with the Laksham Veedu (100,000 houses) scheme. The houses provided were very small. What about the children, and their children after that? Ten or 12 people of three generations live crammed in that small space. Life is a misery for them."

We pass Suhrabeevi's hut. She is 58 years old and from Kulathupuzha, 20 km away. "I live with my husband and three daughters along with the husband of my eldest, in a small hut on Puramboke (government) land," she says. "We could be evicted by the government any day, so I've nothing to lose by coming here." And everything to gain, she hopes.

It is this hope that sustains Suhrabeevi and thousands of others like her in these hostile environs, and helped them brave the torrential rains that lashed the area in the early months of their stay on the Chengara estate.

"We are demanding 5 acres of land and Rs 50,000 for each family," says Gopalan. "You might think we are asking for the moon. But what about Harrison Malayalam? They claim they got this land, 1,048 hectares, on lease for 99 years from Chengannur Mundankavu Vanjipuzha Matom. Where did this Matom get the land from? Obviously from the government of the time. In any case, the lease expired long ago and they have not been paying any lease rent to anyone since 1985-86. So if a foreign company can possess government land and reap huge income from it, why can't the poor be given 5 acres?"

Till around 15 years ago, the company was a wholly-foreign-owned company -- Harrison & Crossfield. It later merged with the RPG group, with some of the foreign interests retained. In popular perception, however, it remains a 'foreign' company.

The fact that the company has not been paying rent for years will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with the ways of the Kerala government. Many land leases expired in the 1980s but have neither been renewed nor their possession revoked. It's only recently that the government has begun swinging into action.

Harrison Malayalam went to the Kerala High Court demanding that the encroachers be evicted. The court asked the government to evict the people within a month. "The government did not act and we again took the matter up with the court," says V Venugopal, Chief Manager (Legal Cell) of Harrison Malayalam Plantations Ltd. The court has now given the government three months time for 'resolving the issue'. The government had not taken any steps nor had it initiated talks, at the time of writing this report.

The crux of the matter is perhaps inherent in the SJVSV's allegation that the company is, in fact, in possession of almost 5,000 hectares, not 1,048 as the lease records say. "We've nothing against the plantation as such," says C R Prakash, youth leader of the SJVSV. "We are only occupying land that belongs to us, which was encroached upon by the company," he adds. "Let the government measure the land and show the company their limits." At a three-party meeting, Prakash claimed that the district collector had agreed to measure the land -- the only move so far on the government's part to help solve the crisis.

Venugopal agrees that the agitators have no quarrel with them. "They are only agitating against the government." Initially there were skirmishes, with plantation workers trying to drive away the settlers. But now they have been left in peace, perhaps because the site the SJVSV has chosen to pitch its tents in is a patch of old trees. The company was on the verge of felling those trees after slaughter-tapping, and had already begun work planting fresh saplings. It claims it is "losing money daily". Venugopal also says that he is unaware of any assurances by the district collector regarding measuring the land.

Pathanamthitta District Collector Dr Raju Narayana Swamy refused to discuss the issue.

We now come upon a bigger, cleaner tent with a raised platform with several little children running about. We are told that this is the anganwadi for the children at the camp. Teacher Sreeja Sreedharan explains that although she is not a qualified teacher, she has a BA and intends to teach the children how to read and write. She expects the number of children to swell to about 50 within the next couple of days. There is another anganwadi on in full swing, at Counter 6, she says.

After walking for almost two hours, we reach Counter 5. On the way we pass the Kallar river that forms one of the boundaries of the plantation. We could see the reserve forests on the other side.



At Counter 5, a lean young woman is addressing a huge crowd of spirited men and women. The woman is Thattayil Saraswathy, General Secretary of the SJVSV and apparently the leader of the struggle. In her early-30s, and a double post-graduate, Saraswathy's frail appearance does not conceal the fire within.

Although the crowd is not openly hostile, they are certainly suspicious of the two of us with our cameras. After verifying our credentials, Thattayil Saraswathy sits down on the grass to talk to us. "We do not want a Muthanga to be repeated here," she says, referring to the occupation of the Muthanga Wildlife Sanctuary by a group of adivasis four years ago that ended in the death of one adivasi and a policeman. "But there is no question of our leaving this place without our demands being met," she emphasises. On that day, she claimed, there were 14,436 families with 21,014 individuals registered at the camp. When asked if all are dalits and adivasis, she says that the initial idea had been for a struggle that was confined to these two groups, but the landless from all castes and religions thronged the estate. "What was a struggle for the birthright of the basic class has now turned into a struggle of all those deprived of land," she says.

There are provision shops, tea shops and also two barber shops in the 'homeland' now, and an open school will be set up in the coming months for children whose studies have been disrupted, says Saraswathy. When asked about the long-term nature of their plans, her answer is emphatic. "We don't think about short or long term. As far as we are concerned, this is our land from which we were disinherited." About threats the people face she is prompt in naming poverty, wild animals, and illness. And scarcity of water. But for the time being it's food that is the big issue. With very few skilled workers among them, able-bodied men and women go to the town, 15 km away, do odd jobs and come back with the bare essentials. This is shared with people who have nothing.

But it's not getting easier. The government is trying to suppress the movement through clandestine measures, claims Gopalan. The police are systematically arresting those who return with foodgrain, etc, from the town on false charges, he says. A hundred and eighty people have been arrested for 'theft'. "We have managed to bail out 167 of them," says Gopalan. "But all of them will have to suffer the consequences of these cases for years to come."

These arrests have had a deterrent effect and many are reluctant to go for work. Consequently there is food scarcity at the camp and poverty is gradually taking over. Around 2,000 families have left the camp, Saraswathy admits.

Perhaps the system is waiting just for this: for the willpower of these women and men to wane. Saraswathy ridicules the idea and blames it on ignorance about the physical endurance of the downtrodden. This optimism and the numbers she quotes are the only two facets of the agitation that border on the unreal.

What is significant is that it's not just the government that is ignoring this massive struggle, it's being sidelined by almost every political party. Only the BJP came to them with support; "perhaps they thought we would all join the BJP," says Gopalan. "When they realised that no such thing was going to happen, they too retreated." He blames this all-round apathy, including that of the media, on their being what they are -- dalits.

Gopalan may have a point there, as Kerala society seems to be headed down a revisionist path. The latest contradiction that has emerged to haunt the Left Front government in the state throws some light on the dark forces waiting in the wings. A note from the industries ministry, signed by T Balakrishnan, Principal Secretary, and sent to the chief minister's office, calls for a reversal of the Land Reforms Act 1963 because it contradicts the present-day needs of Kerala society. The need of the hour is more land for IT schemes and the commercial/entertainment sectors. The main reason, says the note, for non-availability of land is the Act which restricts landholdings and insists on land for the landless.

Although the CPI (M) Minister for Industries Elamaram Kareem was quick to dissociate himself from the note, it is indicative of the resurgence of a feudal mentality, in the garb of modernisation and development, within Kerala society. In this scenario, what fate awaits the disinherited of Chengara?

(P N Venugopal is with the Quest Features & Footage, Kochi)

The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi, March 2008