Kochi: Around 1,000 landless people in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala have pitched tents in the Kumbazha rubber estate of Harrisons Malayalam Ltd (HML), part of RPG Enterprises, and are demanding retrieval of the land and distributing it to them.
They gathered under the banner of the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi and put up their tents early this week. Their struggle is for the assignment of land that the government had promised to them more than a year ago.
Vedi member T.S. Achuthan said the estate lease already had lapsed and the group’s members would not vacate the land until the government allotted them five acres and Rs50,000 in cash each, as was promised more than a year ago. The Vedi now also has the support of a breakaway outfit of tribespeople, Adivasi Gotra Jana Sabha, whose leader, Sreeraman Koyyan, has promised to back the agitation.
In 2001, the Adivasis in Kerala had led a month-and-a-half-long struggle under the banner of the Adivasi Gotra Mahasabha led by tribeswoman C.K. Janu and had attracted global attention.
The demand then was that 45,000 landless Adivasi families be provided five acres each of cultivable land. The government then had said that land would be identified and a recommendation would be made to the Union government that Adivasi lands be included in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution so that the land could be alienated at a later date.
Although the promise of land assignment has been met partially, the struggle of the Adivasis continues. This has led other marginalized and landless groups to move the government to get land that is being seen as an encroachment into HML land.
HML management has moved the Kerala high court, which will hear the urgent petition on Monday.
The company’s general manager for rubber C.Vinayaraghavan said the petition seeks eviction of the encroachers since the rights of the estate have been vested with the company.
The land was handed over to the company in 1918 from the Vanchipuzha Madhom family, which had been given the land by a Travancore king. However, the ownership of the land had been disputed in the Travancore high court that ruled in favour of the Madhom family, he said.
Vinayaraghavan added that after the 1964 Land Reforms Act of Kerala, rights to the land were vested with the tenants and there was no issue regarding lease expiration. Earlier this year, the government had imposed a fee for cutting old trees called the senior-age tree fee but the management challenged it before the Kerala high court, which stayed the fee collection on 2 July. This was despite the government claiming a right to the land, he added.
The area is now tense and has been cordoned off by police and HML is not being allowed to tap rubber trees. Vinayaraghavan said there was an earlier attempt by the Vedi activists to encroach upon a nearby forest land allotted to HML by the then royal family. This is being managed with the support of the Kerala forest department, which helped in foiling the encroachment move. It was then that the activists moved into the rubber estate.
HML officials met senior police officers and government officials, including Kerala chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan to discuss the crisis. It is now up to the court to take a call.