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Dalits In News, Nov 30

by udaya — last modified 2007-12-01 13:39

Kerala's landless dalits battle for Chengara Buta Singh complains to PM on quotas Court raps JNU for caste discrimination

Kerala's landless dalits battle for Chengara
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. "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 Nayars, 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 helps them brave the torrential rains that have lashed the area throughout their stay in 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?"
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 case has now been posted for November 30 for a reply from the government.
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 per the lease records. "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. But the company 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 of 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 in full swing, at Counter 6, she says.
After walking for almost two hours, we reach Counter 5. On the way we passed 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 looks do 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.
Perhaps the system is waiting just for this: for the willpower of these women and men to wilt. 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 disassociate himself from the note, it is indicative of the resurgence of a feudal mentality, in the garb of modernisation and development, in Kerala society. In this scenario, what fate awaits the disinherited of Chengara?
Buta Singh complains to PM on quotas
A Vaidyanathan
Thursday, November 29, 2007 (New Delhi)
The government has pushed hard for quotas in higher education but seems to have forgotten about its own commission set up to look at the welfare of Scheduled Castes.

NDTV has learnt that the head of the Commission for Scheduled Castes, Buta Singh, is furious and has written to the Prime Minister complaining that none of the ministries consult the commission. A shaken UPA, which has to face elections in about 16 months, has now woken up.
Singh has shot off a letter to the Prime Minister complaining that none of the ministries consult his office on matters relating to Scheduled Castes.
''It is a shocking incident and it shows government's casual attitude. Government has to apply force. This comes as a blow to the government's much-hyped pro-Dalit policies,'' he said.
Singh's letter has jolted the PMO; the cabinet secretary has now asked all ministries to keep the commission posted on Schedule Caste-related issues.
''In Mumbai the largest recruitment is in the transport department but there is no reservation for SC. Even in the central ministries posts for SCs are lying vacant though candidates are available,'' said Singh.
Singh's letter and the PMO's follow-up action has ministers looking for politically correct alibis.

Raghuvansh Prasad, Union Minister for Rural Development said, ''It's true that SC quota is not filled up. A lot of backlog is there. It has to be filled up quickly.''
In a way, Singh's outburst is a wake up call for the UPA government, which is now technically 16 months away from Lok Sabha polls. It has indicated that like most of its policies for the aam admi both - implementation on the ground level and resultant political benefits for the government remain poor.
Court raps JNU for caste discrimination
Thursday, 29 November , 2007, 23:21
New Delhi: The Delhi High Court on Thursday asked the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) to admit a student, who had complained of caste discrimination, to the course of his choice.
Justice S Ravindra Bhat also imposed a fine of Rs 25,000 on the university, which will be paid to the petitioner, Amritashva Kamal, within two weeks.
"The university is directed to offer the petitioner a seat according to his choice in the reserved/Scheduled Caste category and admit him to the course of his choice. The university shall bear the costs of these proceedings," the court said in its order.
The petitioner had said his brother Saurabh Kamal was being constantly humiliated and harassed on the caste lines by a group of students, including Mahinder Kumar Chauhan, a former student of the university who apparently was staying in a JNU hostel.
When the two brothers asked Chauhan not to harass them, he reportedly abused them and assaulted them.
An inquiry conducted by a university committee found Chauhan and others guilty. Chauhan was barred from entering the JNU campus and also from taking admission in the university in future.
But at the same time, the chief proctor passed an order declaring that the campus would also be out of bounds for the petitioner and he would not be allowed to take admission in the JNU.
The court observed that the said order was in violation of principles of natural justice. "The said order is also assailed as being in complete violation of the inquiry committee report as there is not even an iota of evidence against the petitioner, and rather he is found specifically to be a victim of physical violence and harassment on caste lines. It is clear that the impugned order is unsupportable in the law. It is arbitrary. It was also issued without materials in support of the JNU's opinion," Justice Bhat said. 

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