Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dalit Identity & Politics of Access to Land: Will It Really Help Dalit Liberation?

IN INDIA, dalits and adivasis are on struggle, mainly for right to land. The adivasi, dalit land question today is one of most critical issues in the country. From Singur to Chengara, the anti-globalization campaigners to Gandhian satyagrahis to cause junkies to causeless politicians looking for a saleable slogan, are now speaking about dalits, adivasis and their right to land.

No doubt, adivasis and dalits were denied access to land and their lands were alienated treacherously by the vested interests and crooks. In Kerala, the Adivasi Land Alienation (Prevention) Act which sought to stop this trend and restore the land to the original owners) was watered down to such an extent that the adivasis who were owners of huge chunks of forest lands are now left with nothing.

Still, the present struggles raise some other questions relating to the strategy and slogans of these struggles. Here is a post I made to a discussion groups on the issue:

Will access to land help dalits and the other most disadvantaged sections in our society liberate themselves really from their slavery and poverty? In reality, how far these struggles like Chengara where access to land is made the central point will help dalits?

I am really confused here because I do have a sneaking doubt that for all practical purposes, the projection of land and land alone as the central feature of dalit life and identity would only help perpetuate their past and present miserable state of affairs. In fact, when they agitate for land and land alone and not for anything else, they are accepting an asset that had always been a curse, keeping them in the social position that they found themselves in, all these years, all these generations.

I am extremely doubtful whether those anti-globalization movements, those romantics who are convinced industries are bad and must be kept out at whatever cost, who now come to the aid of dalits and landless, would really help dalits. They are opposed to globalization because they are disturbed about the familiar, laid back idyllic life going for ever. They now enlist dalits only because they are suitable allies for the time being. Look at their priorities: They do not want manufacturing industries that will pollute (but will ensure more jobs to unskilled and semi-skilled people from dalits and adivasis) and they are fine with high-tech industries like information technology that would not pollute and would ensure good jobs for their kids …

I think Chandra Bhan Prasad and Sree Narayana Guru were right. Prasad says globalization and industrialization would help dalits lose for ever their segregated existence, will take them into a kind of existence that will make them part of a global work force with no name, no caste, and no discrimination on the basis of mere birth.

Guru said, for him what was important was fighting this segregation than the fight against British colonialism, whom some Chalappuram-based lawyers were waging hammer and tongs in their own drawing rooms, which at a later stage Muhammed Abdurahman called Sunday Congress. Still, people even today are asking where had been the Guru and his people when "we" were fighting for freedom! Well, those tapping toddy at tree tops never knew they had lost freedom in the first place because they never had any freedom to speak of.

So I wonder, perhaps this dalit identity that non- dalits are quite vocal of these days can be the most dangerous trap the dalits are falling into in their current social and economic plight? Why not at least think of a subaltern identity?


chespeak said...

Damodar Prasad writes in an email:

Absolute agreement.

Unlike in the past, Dalit intellectuals of today are very well-aware of this "trap". The subaltern politics no more need "Dathu Puthrans". It is the non-Dalits problem how to engage with the new mobilizations based on identity, etc.

No more appropriations and expropriations possible.

chespeak said...

Bobby Kunhu writes in an email:

I think I share Chekutty's concerns. In terms of the caste question, I, as an observer and sometime participant, have been troubled by the attempt to assert land and often confuse land with livelihood. Dalit and adivasi politics in most of South Asia at least evolved in a paradigm that exhorted traditionally land-alienated communities/communities where land has been the basis of hegemonies to alter their living situations, including arguments for urbanization. In that context, it might be that subaltern questions and that very emancipatory politics is being subverted by caste/vested interests.

Of course, in our collective imagination, Kerala is often superimposed as a site where "industry" cannot operate. Despite the rigid patriarchies that govern Kerala, I am not sure about that. For instance there are some well-functioning small industries that operate really well in Kerala - the Kanjikode industrial estate might be an example.

chespeak said...

K P Aravindan writes in an email:

I tend to agree with Chekkutty's observations. I have pointed out
before also that for the landless Dalits, to aim at being
agriculturists with whatever land is made available may be a losing
proposition. Their future lies in education and the upward social
mobility generated by it. Far more important than the land struggle
would be the fight to get their due share in the educational cake and the resultant jobs.
I am baffled that the advocates of the land struggles like Chengara
were not visible in the struggles against Self financing education and the stealing of the opportunities for the Dalits that resulted from it.

chespeak said...

K Satchidanandan writes in an email:

I feel a bit worried when enlightened friends like NPC and KPA look at the issue as just one of livelihood. Land is much more than a livelihood issue ; it is a place they can reach out from, a real location to feel rooted and have a sense of belonging. No one is arguing, at least not me, that the dalits should be tied to the land for ever; they need to be educated, need to have the opportunity to choose other kinds of jobs and careers. But that should not become an argument against providing them with land to inhabit if not to live on, which is at least as much a psychological and civilizational need as economic...a question in Shakespearean terms of having " a local habitation and a name..."

chespeak said...

A reply to K Satchidanandan:

Dear Satchi daa,

When I made public my private thoughts that used to haunt me in the past few months, about the way the entire dalit issue is being collapsed into a question of access to a piece of land, I was never intending it to be a critique of the ongoing struggle at Chengara.

I do believe they have a right to be there, right to demand their piece of land and also feel the government is absolutely wrong in its intransigence. That is beyond the question.

But for me, what was important was the question what should be the long term agenda for the dalit movement, what should be their real slogans and also whether they have the right allies in their present movement.

I say this because I had seen how Muthanga was soaked in a bloodbath and how the civil society took it . Besides the adivasis, two of my friends, Ramdas, a TV reporter, and K K Surendran,a teacher, were accused in the case by CBI and I know how many spoke up for them. And you know how many adivasis charged in Muthanga case had committed suicide in the past few years? Why they had to do it? Any one took notice of what went on after their movement was over, and is there a strong civil society here to support those left behind, at least for people like adivasis and dalits? I say this as I happen to see these things almost daily in my career as a media-person, and I feel sad seeing what I see. So is it not important for us to think of how to develop a civil society that would really care for them and carry forward their struggles in the democratic fora, and not be simply fair media-weather friends?


chespeak said...

K Satchidananan writes in an email:

Thanks, NPC, that was comforting. I agree with you about the long-term goals.And even more about the civil society.We have not developed a civil society sensitive enough to the subaltern issues , including issues of survival and the fall-outs of the struggles. ( Gwalior Rayons is still a shocking memory and a continuing tragedy)Even the little sensitivity that was there ( as shown in the seventies and eighties) seems to be dwindling. And unless we develop a civil society that can intervene in struggles and develop a moral critique of realpolitik as practised toady, I do not find any salvation for us.

chespeak said...

Dr V Sasi Kumar writes in an email:

I think there is another issue that has to be considered. If what I understand is right, modern manufacturing is largely automated. Thus a new manufacturing plant that costs a few crores may employ only a few
tens of skilled workers. The other option is to start manufacturing
plants using outdated technology and employ a lot of people. But then we accept the risk of continuing with outmoded technology and the consequent setback in the market. Pollution is, of course, one of the
consequences. This is a onsequence of our trying to leapfrog from a
feudal to an Internet society over a short period. What is the solution?

I have none. But, maybe, helping the backward communities to first
settle down in their own manner and then helping them to leapfrog into the modern society may be a feasible choice. Providing them with land and getting them to settle down into a normal life may be the first thing to do, but the work will have to continue at least for a generation.

chespeak said...

Automation and mechanization has always been an argument used to stall any kind of industrialization in Kerala in the past. When industrialization in agriculture was on the cards in seventies, the 'progressive left' lobby stalled it preventing tractors and threshers in the paddy which led to our present predicament in Kuttanadu where peasants this year committed suicide because they were not able to harvest on time, leaving most of their ripe crops to rains.

I am arguing for a thrust on all kinds of new small and medium scale industries,whether automated or not, in all parts of the state of Kerala because this is the only way majority of people may get to some real economic well being. I have noticed life in small pockets in various parts of Kerala from Kanjikkode to Kasargode where small units and ancillary activities have provided employment to a good number of people ,skilled ,semi skilled and unskilled , on a longer term basis compared to agriculture. But we see today organised resistance against any new industrial units coming up anywhere.

Now that agriculture is no longer is a possible option for the future for the people of Kerala, we need forcefully argue for more industries. But the resistance comes from the middle class and their main arguments are always that it would pollute, it would not help the poor, it would not ensure more jobs, it would not be suitable for kerala culture, etc. All these are specious and self- serving arguments which need to to be countered and exposed.

For this to happen, the poor people must rise up and say, this land is not only for the middle class; it belongs to the poor too who in anyway live in squalour, pollution and poverty.An extra dose of pollution which gives a little way of sustenance to the people cannot be a hurdle for such an effort.


chespeak said...

RVG Menon writes in an email:

They can survive long only. Chekkutty is right in that we need a judicious mix of Big, Medium and Small industries, as well as agriculture. The SMEs have no viability unless supported by some big industries, whether they are located in Kerala or outside. Of course, we can afford to be choosy about what kind of industries we need to encourage in Kerala. For example, it would be foolish to subsidize energy intensive industrial units in Kerala. But we have done that in the past. It is also undesirable to encourage large chemical industries. We have done that also. We should certainly try to avoid such pitfalls in the future. Light Engineering, Electronics, IT, BT and Tourism (carefully regulated) seem to be ideal. The traditional industries like coir, cashew and tiles employ a huge number of people, but with the help of modernization.

We need to support agriculture not only for food security, but also because it is crucial for our ecology. It is also the area which can absorb a large number of workers. But as education spreads, more and more workers will move from agriculture into manufacturing or service sectors, where the incomes are bound to be higher.

Mechanization will come as a natural corollary of this shift. If it comes about in that fashion, there will be little opposition to it. It was objected to, and naturally so, when mechanization's was introduced to eliminate labour. What else would you expect, in an empowered society?

Agriculture can not compete with industry or service, as far as wages are concerned. This is so in the developed countries also. All of them support their agriculture sector through heavy subsidies. That is why I have never understood our opposition to the USA or EU subsdizing their agriculture. We can not object to that. What we should insist on, is our right to subsidize our farmers, and also to protect them by imposing customs duty on agri imports.

We can not prevent farmers from going for high value agriculture also. If we want them tostick to food crops, we should make food crops more attractive, by offering incentives.

We should also have a policy to discourage absentee land lords and Sunday farmers. Farming should be a full time occupation, as attractive as any other. For this, heavy subsidy and incentives are necessary. And the resources for this have to come form the other sectors.

That means, more taxes!
If we are not ready to bear that burden, all the talk about the glory of agriculture and the importance of environment, will be mere empty rhetoric.


R.Sajan said...

Kerala is a place where you cannot get agriculture labourers because everyone is literate and thinks manual labour is unbecoming. The minimum wages that you have to pay to any manual labourer is Rs. 250/- a day - for 6 hours of what they deem to be ‘work’. The carpenter gets Rs. 300/- to Rs. 500/- a day. A live-in maid comes at not less than Rs. 4500/- plus food and clothes, a month. If you use her for other things, you pay extra. All labourers come to work in motorcycles or scooters.

Kerala is ‘Gulf’ to manual labourers from other states. There is practically no unemployment here after 2000, if you are ready to work. The greediest of young men work in ‘quotation gangs’ that recover money for banks like ICICI, HSBC, HDFC etc, or beat up people for politicians or similar others. They quote in 10000s to lakhs.

Malayali workers including head loaders, and employees including college teachers are, within Kerala, a disgrace to world labour. To them, work is worship of selfish indolence, and exercising of the tongue. Chaathans, created by the great VKN is the best possible presentation of our poor farm labourer.

The Communist parties profess the raising of the living standards of the working class and their leaders. They have thus managed to raise the lifestyles of even coolies or head-loaders to Star levels. Clerks and peons of government departments like Revenue, Registration, and Transport etc earn much more than MNC CEOs, thanks to their unions’ protecting bribe-taking. College lecturers earn at UGC levels without possessing the stipulated qualifications, only because of their Left unions. Secure monthly salary earners are deemed the genuine working class because they pay more and regular Union levies.

Kerala has a population of about 4 % of the country. Projected population for 1st March 2008 is 3, 42, 32,000. We have land of 1.18% of India. The quantum of land 38863 sq. kms or 9 603 00000 cents cannot change.

Of this geographical area, 48% is mountainous or hilly. 12% is the coastal lowlands. The remaining 40% of midlands alone is suitable for human dwelling. That is to say, for 4% percent of the country’s population, only about 0. 45% of its land is available for living and surviving.

In land-starved Kerala, the largest landowners are the government, the Christian plantation owners and the Church. Every time that the CPM has been in power, grabbing of government land by the party workers is usual. The party, however, is now no longer of the poor; it is now a party of contractors, brokers and businesspersons. The CPM thus having moved away from the downtrodden, new forces like the Muslim Solidarity, Catholic Infam and foreign-funded environment organizations moved in to rescue the poor. The Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyukta Vedi (SJVSV) that has started the Chengara land-grab is one such saviour-outfit of dubious origins.

The pressure on land is our greatest weakness. Our earlier planners did not give this matter honest consideration. We should have planned for development without disturbing or destroying the highlands and lowlands. You meddle with mother Earth and you suffer – our planners ignored this old rule.

Institutional support by the Church to encroachments is responsible for the destruction of our hills. Muthanga was the zenith of their achievement under a Catholic ruler. Sex tourism is responsible for the vandalisation of our coasts.

Land belongs to all of us equally. We also have responsibility to it. Calculating on 960300000 cents and 34232000 humans, individual share comes to 28 cents each. Permissible human usage-share is 40% of that total. Thus, each of us has a birthright to only 11 cents of the land area in Kerala. If you allow a further deduction of 30% to man-made infrastructure like roads, public grounds and buildings, other public utilities etc, a Keralite can claim or own to himself only 7 cents or so.

It is against this ground reality that Chengara orphans demand five acres of land suitable for agriculture and Rs.50,000 in cash for each landless family among them [The Hindu 04.06.2008]. The demands are typically Malayali – similar to demanding that you shut your thattu-kada, stop plying your autorikshaw or not take your ill child to the hospital, for ‘their’ Bandh. It is mere bullying. And we would not dare to do it outside Kerala borders.
Meeting the demand would need only about 40000 acres of land.

I heard Laha Gopalan say many times on TV that the Chengara camp has people of all castes, and that it is only an agitation of people who do not have as much land as their birthright [they having only 4 to 10 cents] and the landless. This might mean that it is not an agitation of landless Dalits; or at least, not any longer. Laha Gopalan himself has by his own admission, only one hectare or 247 cents valued at Rs. 24, 70,000/-

In 3 years, 30% of the active population in Kerala would be non-Malayali or immigrant labour. The Chengara model would serve them well. TRESPASS, SQUAT, GRAB! We need not stop with land alone in the Chengara culture.

There are reports that the organisers of the land-grab collect admission fees ranging from Rs.6000/- upwards from the squatters. As per the Vedi’s claims, as many as 24,000 people belonging to 7,282 families are occupying about 14,000 acres of land at the Kumbazha Estate. The number of makeshift huts pitched at the estate will be around 7,800. The money collected might thus come to crores of Rupees, exclusive of financial assistance received from various Agencies.

Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy and similar mega-stars’ going to Chengara to proclaim support was only like Henry Kissinger’s having come to New Delhi in November 2007 on behalf of the NSG corporates, to sort out the Left’s misgivings about the reciprocal arrangements for their agreeing to the Nuclear Deal. Such initiatives need spending.

Harrisons Plantations is a company of the RP Goenka group. It is not a foreign company, as depicted by the activists and the media. From 2005, they have been selling off pieces of the Estates in Kerala to real estate companies. The land was not theirs; and their lease with the owners, the Kerala government, had run out in 2005. However, neither Left nor Right, or activist raised any voice against the fraud.

The Harrison’s Kodumon Estate land grab by Laha Gopalan and his group in 2006 and the Chengara land-grab of 2007 might thus have been some trick by some real estate group to force a cheap sale of the land. The huge funds spent in mobilising media and activist support could have come from that group. Alternately, it might have been a trick by RPG themselves to escape from Kerala without paying the rent to the government [they have reportedly not paid it for 20 years] and the employee benefits to the labour. After the lease ran out, RPG had availed a loan of Rs. 100 crores from the ICICI Bank on the security of the Estate, on which they had no rights at that point of time. The land grab might also have been to avert having to repay the Bank.

AK Balan, Kerala’s Minister for SC/STs, has already called Chengara a ‘state-sponsored agitation’. It is like Kerala’s Private Bus operators’ agitating and frequently stopping services to make the public agree in agony to fare-hikes by an eager ministry. In the name of settlement of Chengara orphans, government land elsewhere would soon be allotted. The Estate might also be divided and allotted to different employees’ co-operatives, to benefit all the political parties. On 17.9.2008, Laha Gopalan categorically said on Doordarshan that they would not accept land at Chengara, even if no other land were given.

The rehabilitation initiative would be used more as a ploy to allot land to LDF cadres. Each party would have quotas, as had been with the Plus 2 allotment. Anyone that would pay the leaders would get choice real estate ‘free’. By 2010, the plots thus allotted would be consolidated to build resorts, amusement parks or professional colleges. Either the Party leaders themselves or Comrades like Farris Aboobacker would be the entrepreneurs on the land. Chengara would thus be revealed as a Total4 U, in a few more months.

On 20th September 2008, AK Balan, Kerala’s Minister for SC/STs, announced that beginning October 5th, the government would begin a massive Scheme for allotting land to the landless all over the State. A total of 15000 acres would thus be disposed off. Houses would also be built for the beneficiaries. Chengara squatters would be the first to benefit under the Scheme, he said.

What is to happen to the landless among the middle classes of Kerala, who are unable to have houses of their own because of the inhuman cost of land in Kerala? Would they also have to squat and threaten suicide to have 7 cents for a house each?

Average minimum cost of land in Kerala is Rs.10 lakhs per acre in the rural parts. In places like Kochi, it is around half to one crore a cent. How much of public wealth would be lost when 15000 acres is freely given away to squatters?

The intellectual activists would not answer. Perhaps, their cut is already paid in advance?