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Landless state

Landlocked in Kerala


LONG MARCH: The protests are threatening to turn into a larger law and order problem

A recent movement encouraging landless families to occupy excess land has put into focus a faulty land use pattern

This New Year's day, Kerala woke up to a massive land rights struggle organised by the CPM when party cadres symbolically encroached what they termed "excess land". It marked the beginning of a movement that is now threatening to become a larger law and order issue.

"In the second phase, we will put up huts at different locations. Landless people will begin to live there and stake a claim to their share of land, " says Dr Thomas Isaac, former finance minister and a CPM central committee member. The plan is this: the party wants the landless to occupy the excess land so that their act of law breaking can be legalised once the CPM-led LDF comes back to power.

The ongoing struggle has once again brought to focus the complexities of the land issue in Kerala. One of the smallest states in the country, the state has a population density of 819 per sq km, much more than the national average of 324 per sq km. And there is now a substantial percentage of the landless. According to the state's revenue department, there are 2. 3 lakh landless families in the state, but the CPM puts the figure at around 3. 25 lakh families. Revenue minister Adoor Prakash, however, alleges the CPM is politicising the issue: he says the Left decided to take up a land rights movement because it felt threatened by the Congress government's Zero Landless project, which aims to give 3 cents of land to all landless families.

But the deeper issue is the change in the land use pattern and rising price of land. "Land has become a speculative commodity now. Earlier, it was a productive asset and its value was determined by how fertile it was, " observes Dr P Sivanandan, honorary professor, Centre for Development Studies. He says real estate agents and businessmen have become the new owners of large plots of land leaving farmers and the landless with nowhere to go.

Isaac says the land rights movement of the CPM aims to change this culture. "Now, land is offered as an incentive to almost all development projects. It was evident at the Emerging Kerala summit when disproportionate quantities of land were offered by the government to every project. While the core project often occupies only minimum land, other portions are used for real estate activities, " he says.

Political scientist and Kerala University pro vice-chancellor J Prabhash agrees. He says the neo-liberal policies have created a reversal of roles. "If the land reforms act facilitated the taking over of land from landlords and distribution to tenants decades ago, now the government seizes land from the poor and gives it to corporates, " he says.

The protesters are not only the landless but also those who once owned land and gave them up for development projects. Moolampally was one such movement in which evictees of Vallarpadam International Container Transshipment Terminal project fought for months for their right to land.

At Chengara in Pathanamthitta district, where about 1, 000 dalit families have been waging a land rights protest for over five years, the demand is not for 3 or 5 cents but at least an acre of land. The movement's leader, Laha Gopalan, is suspicious of the CPM. "The Chengara protest has taught the CPM a lesson, " he says. "This is a new gimmick to win back dalit support it lost by ignoring our struggle. It's part of a plan to protect the interests of large land holders like Harrisons and Tata. "

The protests have also paved the way for demands to rationalise the land holding pattern. "When the land reforms act was introduced, there was no ceiling for plantation land. As a result, a few planters amassed thousands of acres while a common family is entitled to hold only 15 acres. The time has come to put a ceiling on plantation land too, " says Varghese George of the Socialist Janata Democratic Party, a constituent of the ruling UDF.

With a broad conscience slowly developing among political parties and environmental organisations for amending land holding rules for plantations, the next major change that could bring in a social reform in the state will be an amendment to the clause dealing with plantations in the Kerala land reforms act of 1970.

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