Dalits form the lowest strata in the caste hierarchy of the Indian Hindu Society. Dalits who form 25% of the total population of India are socially discriminated, economically neglected, politically weak and educationally backward. The Dalits live in separate settlements in the villages away from the main village where all the caste Hindus live and are not allowed to mingle freely with others. Nearly 60% of the Dalits are landless workers who depend on mainly the Caste Hindus for their daily needs. As a result their educational and health conditions are very bad. Only during the British colonial rule, the Dalits were able to enter in to the schools and were given preference in education and health sector. Even after Independence of India, the Dalits have not been able to fulfill all their basic needs.
Being born in the Dalit Community, some of us who have had the chance to go to the University with the help of the Christian Missionaries and who were actively involved in the All India Catholic University Federation (AICUF ) felt the need to go back to our respective villages and educate and motivate the Dalits to defend their socio economic rights. It was the time that the organized attacks on the Dalits by the Caste Hindus were on the rise in India. Brutal attacks on the Dalits lead to many number of killings of Dalits and burning down of their huts by the caste HIndus. Our organizational efforts in the early 80s brought unity and solidarity between Dalits from different villages. They started to rise up slowly against all forms of discrimination against them. They became confident that through strong unity and solidarity they can face any sort of discrimination and they can also come up in all the fields such as economic and educational fields. It was in this situation their unity started to decline due to large scale migration of Dalits towards the cities in search of livelihoods as the employment opportunities in the agricultural sector began to fall due to the mechanization of this sector and due to the increase of commercial crops in agricultural sector which needed minimum workers. Series of reflections lead us to feel that there is a need to involve the Dalits in Land struggles to reclaim their lost Panchami lands which were given to the Dalits during the British rule and which were forcibly confiscated by the Caste Hindu Land owners. To systemize and strengthen the struggles to reclaim Panchami Lands we had formed Dalit Land Rights Federation in the northern part of Tamil Nadu. When the Dalits got actively in the land struggles we noticed that a new threat in the form of neo liberal economic globalization touched the Indian continent leading to State sponsored land grabbing in the name of development.
Presently, India is emerging as one of the leading developing countries in the world. Present Rulers plan the Indian Economy in such a way that the country becomes very soon a leading economic power in the World. They always mention that they are committed to the ‘development ‘of India at the earliest. When anyone who mentions the word ‘development’ he would always mean that development of a country is linked to the development of the citizens in that particular country. This means ensuring all its citizens their basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing and ensuring equal and dignified life to all. But In the Indian context when majority of the people live in hunger and poverty and denied of all their basic human rights such as right to life, right to education, right to health and right to employment, we cannot say that the present development paradigm proposed by its present rulers has any meaning to the larger number of population who go to sleep without food every day.
It is in this context, Dalit Land Rights Federation engineered the formation of Tamil Nadu Land Rights Federation (TNLRF ) comprising of Social Movements involved in educating and mobilizing the marginalized communities such as Dalits, Tribals, Fisher Folk, Urban slum Dwellers and small and marginal farmers towards a sustainable model of development that would cater to the basic needs of the communities through engaging themselves to have access to and control over land and resources in their respective regions. When we mention ‘land’ it does not mean only agricultural lands. Land has different usages. It has different dimensions. Land to produce, land to set up habitats, lands to foster and protect animals and other species, lands to accommodate the coastal communities, lands which nurtures medicinal plants and herbs, lands which is source of water and lands which are rich in minerals. Land is a natural resource which is organically linking the humans and the nature. It is this organic link between these two which has been protecting both the humans and the nature. In this way we feel that land is food, land is employment, and land is education land is health and land is everything.
In the present context, the neo liberal economic globalization proposed by the corporate driven Institutions are focusing mainly on alienating the lands and resources from the humans for indiscriminate profit making ventures through unethical means and are massively planning to destroy the organic links between the humans and the nature leading to the Globe to its end. But in our case through our struggles for land and resources we are trying to strengthen the organic links between humans and nature. That is one of the reasons why we are constantly involved with the communities to fight for land rights.
When we talk of land rights, it has different dimensions.
Pressurizing the State to ensure distribution of lands to the landless through the implementation of progressive land reforms in the country
Ensuring the restoration of lands which have been unethically grabbed for the so called development projects and industrial ventures of the corporate
Protection of lands from being grabbed for the so called development initiatives
Promotion of lands to meet the needs of the humans and the nature.
TNLRFs work in Tamil Nadu has two approaches in its work around land and resources. It opposes all forms of unethical land and resources grabbing in the State of Tamil Nadu. It proposes alternative models of development which would re establish the organic link between the humans and the nature and would do justice to both. This clearly shows that TNLRF is not meant for opposing but it is also meant for proposing. We use the following methodologies to win over the struggles for land and resources. They are:
Education and mobilization of the communities at the grassroots level
Legal Interventions whenever necessary
Advocacy and lobbying at different levels starting from the Village Panchayths (municipalities ).
Distribution of Lands:
We educate and mobilize the Dalits at the village level to reclaim the Panchami Lands and other lands which they have lost to the private Caste Hindu land owners and to the State. This includes identification of the Lands to be restored to the Dalits, collection of Documentary evidences from the concerned Departments of the State, formation of Village Action Committees in the respective villages. Selection of landless Dalit women who are dependent on agriculture and forming them into women’s collective. Training them on the different land laws in the country including the laws related to Panchami Lands and training them to understand the different Court Judgments related to these lands and preparing them to submit petitions to the Officials to restore these lands to them with documentary evidences. We also train the young and educated Dalits on GPS mapping to locate these lands in the respective villages and to identify the persons who are illegally occupying these lands. In our land struggles we give importance to the Dalit women as it is they who bear most of the burdens of the families and who have strong roots in the agricultural activities. That is one of the reasons that most of our petitioners for land are the Dalit women. By getting the land titles in their names they also become empowered within the communities and the villages and have a strong say in the decision making in the families and in the village communities. After petition for the restoration of lands they also meet with the concerned officials and negotiate with them to speed up the process. To speed up the process of land distribution the communities also organize peaceful demonstrations in front of the concerned offices. If things are not happening in the offices properly to distribute the lands to them they plan for peaceful occupation of these lands with the support of the other village communities and the support of the progressive and democratic forces that are operating in their respective regions.
The same method is used in the case of Tribals who are demanding lands from the State under the Forest Land Rights Act of 2006 and the Slum dwellers in the Cities who are struggling to land titles in the slums where they are living for many years.
In the above mentioned way so far nearly 100.000 women from all the marginalized communities are involved in the struggles for land distribution. But so far the State had assigned land titles to only nearly 5000 women in all these sectors.
Restoration of Lands:
In the recent past in all the regions of Tamil Nadu agricultural lands, common lands like grazing lands, community forests , reserve forests, water bodies like lakes and tanks, coastal lands and habitats are indiscriminately grabbed by the State and private companies to set up their industrial ventures like construction of high ways, tiger reserves, mines, commercial ports, power plants, tourist resorts, corporate farming and setting up of commercial complexes. These initiatives, supported by the State have displaced many of the locals who are refugees in their own lands. In this context TNLRF is constantly educating and mobilizing all the marginal communities to systematically involve in restoring these lands so that they can have a decent and dignified life in their localities. With the support of TNLRF collective agitations and hunger strikes, protest rallies are organized against these initiatives. In few cases these marginal communities have filed cases against the State in Courts in Tamil Nadu. For example along the eastern coast of Tamil Nadu within a distance of 84 Kilometers along the eastern coast 13 Power plants using coal and a commercial port to import coal for these power plants have been planned by the State Government. All these above mentioned ventures are privately owned by companies. To implement these projects large areas of agricultural lands, common lands, coastal lands have been grabbed by the State displacing many number of farmers and these Private Companies have also put up fences to stop the fisher folk from going in to the sea for fishing. These projects would also cause serious pollution in this area and in future much number of villages have to be evicted. By doing so the State Government has flouted its own laws like the Environment Protection Act of 1986 and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification of 1991. Realizing the negative impact of these projects, the marginalized communities together with other democratic forces are collectively protesting against the implementation of these projects and have appealed to the Green Tribunal in the State to immediately with draw these projects and restore the lands to the concerned communities. The struggle is moving on.
Such struggles of the marginalized people to restore the lands back to the communities around Chennai city are also active with the support of TNLRF.
Protection of Lands:
The only agenda of the Indian State at present is to grab the lands for the benefit of the corporate. With this agenda, in the state of Tamil Nadu large projects have been announced and are being announced every day by the State Government. Methane gas extraction project in the River Cauvery delta districts in Tamil Nadu which are known as the ‘rice bowl’ of Tamil Nadu to destroy the intensive agricultural activities in these districts, laying of gas pipeline project through seven western districts of Tamil Nadu through the agricultural lands of thousands of farmers in these districts, National High way 47 project by displacing many number of families and farmers in southern Kanyakumari District, Tiger Reserves Projects in Nellai and Kanyakumari Districts and in Nilgiris and Erode Districts and State Industrial Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT ) projects to accommodate corporate companies in different locations in Tamil Nadu at the cost of the livelihood resources of thousands of families in all these areas are some of the announced projects in Tamil Nadu. In order to oppose all the projects and ensure the organic link between humans and nature TNLRF is educating and mobilizing the marginal communities across the State to oppose all these above mentioned projects and protect the lands and resources in these areas. Intensive struggles are going on in these areas which are becoming stronger and stronger every day in Tamil Nadu. TNLRF is also involved in systematic advocacy work to prevent these projects from being implemented. TNLRF is also blamed by the State and the Corporate as anti development organization which is preventing modern development in the State of Tamil Nadu. But the larger number of people is out in the streets to put an end to this unethical land grabbing at the cost of livelihoods of the people. As a result, the State Government is finding it difficult to grab lands for these purposes.
Promotion of Lands:
TNLRF is guided by the words of the Indian American Tribal Chief Seattle who mentioned that the ‘man belongs to the earth and the earth does not belong to the man ‘. In this way we strongly feel that the land can be used by humans and it cannot be exploited by the humans to make immediate profits at the cost of destruction of the ecology and environment in which we live. We do not see the land as something which has commercial values but something which is organically linked to the humans. Therefore we feel the need to promote the lands in which we live to satisfy both the needs of the humans and the nature.
As a result in the lands which we have reclaimed and which we own we always promote traditional farming without using chemicals. We form groups of women and men who are trained inorganic farming skills such as watershed management, preparation of the soil to protect the bio diversity of the soil, preparation of organic fertilizers and pesticides using the available materials and plants around the villages, collection and preservation of traditional seeds. Since the organic farmers network of Tamil Nadu which is known as Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA ) network is part of TNLRF exposure and exchange visits are organized for our activists to stay and learn from the experiences of traditional farming done by LEISA network farmers. In this way we are every year involving nearly 200 women in traditional farming methods who do organic farming in the small pieces of lands they own to produce their own food. The excess production is shared by the communities in which they live. We are also building few models of organic farming initiatives in our areas to make the other surrounding farmers to learn from these models. As far as the rural population is concerned, they believe only their eyes and they do not believe their ears. It is one of the reasons why we are building models of organic farming to extend the initiatives to other villages.
In the same way using the Mahathma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2006 through which every rural households in the villages are provided 100 days of employment by the Local Administration of the village, we are educating an motivating the village communities to clean and protect the water bodies like lakes and tanks and irrigational and drainage canals and to develop and protect community forests and grazing lands which are very essential to protect the environment and ecology of the respective villages. As a result the traditional medicinal plants and herbs are also protected to address the health issues of the locals.
In the tribal villages the tribals form village committees to protect the reserve forests and animals being destroyed by the private interests. They are also involved in the collection of traditional medicinal plants and herbs to safeguard the health of the local communities.
We are also training the young people to understand the political economy land and prepare them to go back to their villages to undertake land development activities that would fulfill the needs of the humans and the nature. We insist to the young people that there is a need to make U turn and go back to the villages and use their studies to build a sustainable model of development that would serve the long term needs of the humans and the environment.
Convener, TNLRF, Villupuram, India.