Kerala tribals want their lands back, plan protest rallies

Kurumthala Rangamoopan, in his late 70s, stands behind his hut at Kalkandiyoor in Attappady, Kerala’s largest tribal habitat, and points to vast stretches of land that once belonged to his tribesmen.

They moved out in the late 1930s when the British, who were then ruling India, proposed a hydroelectric project at the confluence of the Bhavani and Siruvani rivers there.

“We were told the electricity would burn us. Our people fled our ooru (village) of more than 130 acres and literally huddled at this place nearby, where now 70 families continue to live,” said Rangamoopan.

The hydel power project never took off. In its place instead is the Sugarcane Breeding Institute Research Centre, a unit of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research.

“Our land was usurped by people who came from outside after the British left and in 1995, part of that land was given by the government for setting up the sugar company. We were promised land in return but to this date that has not happened,” Rangamoopan said.

The alienation of tribals, or indigenous people, is a fallout of the development thrust. The displacement of a vast number of people by large commercial projects has led to armed struggles in several parts of the country. Attappady is no different.

On 9 August—declared by the UN as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People—groups of tribal organizations met at Palakkad and decided to conduct protest marches to demand their land back. They also plan to approach the Union and state governments to seek a survey in Attappady so their tribal land can be identified and restored to them, said K.A. Ramu, an activist with Thambu, a non-profit working for the welfare of indigenous people.

“The monstrosity of this alienation will become clear only then,” said M. Sukumaran, secretary of the Attappady Samrakshna Samiti, another non-profit at the front of agitations seeking the restoration of tribal land to its original inhabitants.

Attappady, spread over 745 sq. km. in Palakkad district, had a 91% population of indigenous people in the 1950s, but this has shrunk to 41% with settlers flooding in from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and parts of central Kerala over the years, according to the Attappady Hills Area Development Society, a government body formed for eco-restoration and social development in the area.

Still, at least a third of the 90,000 people in the area are tribals.

Sukumaran has also been at the forefront of protests against the sale of tribal land in Attappady to Suzlon Energy Ltd in 2007 for a windmill farm—a move that has mobilized tribal people in the area to demand all their land back. A Pune firm, Sarjan Realities Ltd, had arranged 224 acres, including 50 acres of forest land, for Suzlon’s project, said Sukumaran.

He alleged the tribals were cheated of their land receipts by some government officials on the pretext of arranging new farming activity on their properties. These receipts were later used for making land ownership documents and the properties were eventually sold to Sarjan, he claimed.

A spokesperson for Suzlon denied comment saying the matter is in court and cannot be discussed. Sarjan could not be reached.

Based on a public hearing on the issue late July, district collector K.V. Mohankumar submitted a report on the land deal to the state government stating that a preliminary inquiry revealed forged documents. “There has been a surge of land deals between 2006 and 2008 (involving private parties) which needs to be probed. My report has recommended a high-level detailed inquiry across Attappady,” said Mohankumar.

The Kerala government has authorized the chief secretary to probe the matter. “Once the report is got, the government will initiate action,” said A.K. Balan, the state minister of backward and scheduled communities as well as electricity. The report will be ready in a month, he said.

Under Kerala’s Tribal Land Act of 1975, tribal land can be sold only to other tribals. In mid-1980s, the Supreme Court had asked state governments to cancel all tribal land transactions with non-tribals that were finalized after 1986.

No action has been taken on this yet, said Sukumaran.

“The windmill land deal is just a tip of the iceberg,” said Murugan V.S. from Anakkaty, who has with him a 1995 order from the revenue divisional officer directing five people to restore to him 12 acres of his ancestral land. “But till date, neither my father nor his brother has got possession of the land,” said Murugan. “Though there have been a few instances of threat(s) to my life, I will continue my fight.”