Chengara Land Struggle
7000 odd families continue to live in Chengara for the 19th month. The challenge ` living is struggle’ has become real for the dalits, adivasis and dalit Christians. They were gathered from their desolate living conditions across the state and at Chengara, a community is taking shape. They have places to live. They cultivate even if in a small way. They have common worship .They have regained their spirituality and are on the way to a culture emerging from the struggles they have been waging although.
They say, they are not in` samaram’ agaist anybody. They are living there. The tents with plastic roofs have given place to semi permanent huts with raw earthern bricks and tin sheets. It is the trade unions which have been trying block the passage of dalits and adivasis in Chengara and to defeat the struggle of SVSV who are in `Samaram’ now.
Against this general background, the details are mentioned:
1) Being election time there is greater interest in the UDF ( Congress and the allies) for taking up the Chengara struggle and pressing for solution. The opposition leader held a one-day fast at Pathanamthitta on the 14th of Feb. Some of the cultural leaders viz. Poet Sugathakumari attended the programme as there was so much neglect and opposition on the part of the ruling LDF regime.
2) The condition of the people at Chengara still is precarious. For the last few months they were tapping the rubber trees and the urgent financial needs were met. But being slaughter trees, the yield is diminishing fast. With the coming of summer months, they are under strain for water. That brings contagious diseases such as chickenpose , skin problems, diarhea etc.,. No medical help is available in the area . They have to travel 15-17 Kilometres to reach the govt. hospitals at PATHANAMTHITTA. The district administration has not cared to offer medical help to the people in distress.
3) The obstinacy and the political insensitivity of the CPI (M) is coming to a head. Their craze for neo liberal development has made them deaf to the voices of the people. The Chengara land struggle Solidarity Committee held a public meeting in Eraviperur on the Republic Day claiming the peoples right to the basic resources specially land.
4) The LDF government gives a false propaganda to the claim for land by the landless .In the reconciliation talk by the government in December 2008 , they invited around 27 Dalit, Adivasi organisations including SVSV* . The Chief Minister announced a mega scheme for 5000 crores of rupees offering land and house to all the landless in the state .What is meant is that the government will give the land necessary to build a house ie., 3 or 4 cents of land and Rs.50.000 for house construction. This is again resorting to the same refrain the government has been playing; dalits are destined for only 4 cents of land. The basic demand that SVSV is raising ie., land for making a living is totally sidelined. The majority members of the dalit groups agreed to CM’ s offer their singling out SVSV as the disobedient lamb; the old game of the colonizers.
* SVSV – Sadhujana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi, the organization leading the struggle in Chengara
THE CHENGARA LAND STRUGGLE IN KERALA AND THE POLITICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF LAND STRUGGLES
The hilly terrains at the southern plantation belt of the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala reverberates with a major land struggle of an unprecedented nature involving more than 5000 families of the most deprived sections of the population. They demand land to live and labour on it. These are the people left-out in the once lauded land reforms of Kerala as a grand success. By tradition and practice, they have the creative potential to lead a highly productive life in relation to land and nature. But, they do not posses it. The mainstream society of Kerala either ignores this struggle or pretends that nothing seriously happen except for a bit of law and order problem. Some even perceive this as a violent and militant struggle, thereby indirectly even indicating that they are supported by ‘Naxals’. So goes the behavior of the media too.
This struggle by landless Dalits and Adviasis to gain ownership of land, which began on 4th August 2007 has completed one month now. They have been labelled as ‘encroachers’ and attacked by the Goonds of the rubber plantations of Harrisson Malayalam Limited at Chengara near Konni in Pathanamthitta District. Ten of them including women were admitted in the hospitals in Pathanamthitta. According to the President of the SJVSV, Laha Gopalan, about 4500 landless families involving 29000 odd people from different parts have moved on to the struggle front building tents with poles and plastic sheets. The Chickungunia epidemic is also taking its toll on these poor people. Several people are lying in the sheds. Sixteen people have been admitted in hospitals in Pathanamthitta.
With the rains continuing, the fever tightening its grip and the food stock drying up; the people are facing a dire situation. But their spirits are high even after 33 days. They affirm that they will not go back. "Give us land or bullets", their lips read.
This is actually the second phase of the struggle. 10 months back the SJVSV launched a struggle that was on very much similar lines. It was in Kumbazha Estate of the same management. The struggle was called-off after getting assurance from the Government that their demand would be looked into. Since there was no indication of any positive move from the state Govt, the SJVSU moved into the present struggle by occupying new land. To begin with, they occupied about 125 acres. After Onam Festival they have spread on to a larger area covering four hills – each family occupying one acre of land. This has two advantages. One, the earlier area was covered with Rubber trees which were yielding. The present spot is having old trees, non-yielding. The Trade unions were against the landless poor who occupied the land, saying that the ‘encroachers’ were not allowing them to continue their plantation related work. But, now since there is no hindrance for rubber tapping, the workers are more friendly. Secondly the Management and TUs had approached the court and the court advised the authorities that the encroachers be evicted without using force. Now, as they are out of that particular locale, the management may need fresh advice from the court.
The estate under purview has trespassed its lease period. Their claim is that even if the land is not theirs, the trees are theirs. Basically this is land which has to be taken back from the planters and given to the landless. The Left Front Government by its one year old promise is bound to do that.. The Ghost of Muthanga, where the police shot at the advisis who claimed their ancestral land, should continue to haunt the authorities. The government had given in writing that the Advasis will be allotted land. The governments of whichever shade; right of left have not fulfilled the promise of providing land to the landless except in a very very nominal way. Muthanga is a landmark in peoples struggle for land and it challenges people to go on with struggles claiming land for the dalits and adivasi.
By the least standards, 56% of dalits and advisis in Kerala have no land. One of the women in the huts in Chengara was narrating her experience of having to bury her husband a pit in the kitchen of her hut. The Advisis, dalits and dalit Christians (all these communities are among the 4500 occupiers in Chengara) constitute about 65 lakhs in Kerala’s population – 5 lakhs of Adivasis and the rest Dalits. These people if they posses 2 cents, 4 cents or at best 10 cents of land, they are considered as landowners while there are corporate houses that get thousands and thousands of acres on lease. And there are estate owners such as ‘Harrisons Malayalam’ who have no legal right over thousands of acres that they hold on to. They have 33 estates (Tea & Rubber) holding not less than fifty thousand acres in six districts of Kerala. How do we reconcile with such injustice? The reality which is the reason for hope is that these communities who are denied basic rights are becoming conscious and they are rising up.
The present agitation is an indication of the intense nature of the struggle. It is not easy for 4000 odd families (which keeps on increasing by a minimum of 20 families a day) to come away to an area surrounded by "enemies" and to stay on for weeks and months fighting the most horrid situations of rain, epidemics and hunger. The families at the Kurumbatti division of the Chengara estate were asked what if the court gives the verdict to oust the encoachers; the women were the most vocal in declaring: "We have fiive liters of Kerosin Oil and the moment the authorities turn us out we will burn ourselves. No question of retreating without getting land".
The management, Trade Unions and the media were most unfriendly to the land struggle at Chengara. The Political Parties including the CPI-M and CPI who led the land struggle in Khammam in Andhra Pradesh in August, who are collecting money to help the families of the deceased in Khammam; are sparing no effort to drive away the poor dalits and adivasis struggling for land in Kerala. The media except for one or two Malayalam dailies are adopting an anti- struggle position.
The important thing to note is that common people are not aware of the developments; the life and death struggle going on in the neghbourhood in Chengara involving thousands of landless poor. The ruling coalition is showing total apathy to the struggle of a major section of people. These Communities are coming to a new awareness that they have to posses land. They realize that land is the symbol of power and authority. So far they have been kept out of that. Land, which was the life-blood of these communities, was plucked away from them. The same land is in the hands of Corporations like Harrisons and real estate mafia. It is no more a life-providing, God given resource, but a commodity to make profit. The communities near to the natural resources like land and water are realising that they have to reain ownership of the natural resources their ancestors collectively owned. They have to posses the life-producing and life-sustaining resources. The present trend is leading to a negation of life of humans and nature. Unless they retrieve the land, the future of human and nature are in danger.
The land struggles that go on in Kerala in Chengara and in some other parts also are a symbol of people coming to deeper conciopusness of their relation with land and nature and its politics. They are symptomatic of the land struggles in Mudigonda Kammam (Andra Pradesh), Sonbhadra (UP), Rewa (MP), Orissa and in other parts of India. There are land struggles trying to posses land and then land struggles to affirm the right over land, not prepared to yield their land to the corporations as in the case of Singur and Nandigram.
Land struggles of such nature represent a new era of peoples awakening. They point to a bright horizon where we see people asserting their right to life; to create and preserve life. The Chengara struggle of the Sadhujana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi deservers support and encouragement from all sections of people who look for a new order. The people have to get land. They have to win. They need your support.