Struggle for land rights
Nikku Balaraju and Pranita Bhushan *
Land is the most crucial resource, valued for its economic, political and symbolic importance. It is a productive, wealth creating and livelihood-securing asset, providing a sense of identity and belongingness. Traditionally, it has been the basis of political power and social status. In many cases the economically and politically powerful people confiscate these resources. Unequal access to land resources, make people more vulnerable to conflict. The poor, marginalised, excluded groups have always fought against the oppression for securing legitimate access to resources. Following is a case of scheduled tribe in Rampachodavaram region of Andhra Pradesh who lost their productive lands due to the changes in the systems of land ownership and struggled to regain control over the resource.
Tribal interests are protected under various special provisions of the Indian Constitution, especially tribal autonomy and their rights over land, through Fifth and Sixth Schedules. Moreover, there is also a demand for inclusion of tribal-dominated regions of Andhra Pradesh under the Sixth Schedule which provides for establishing autonomous district councils and autonomous regions empowered with legislative, judicial, executive and financial powers, which has not been considered as yet. Subsequent Acts and amendments were also made with an intention to protect the rights and interest of the tribals in the state but the enforcement of the legislation has been weak. As a result the tribals were alienated systematically from then" resource endowments.
Changes in land ownership
In Andhra Pradesh, the Muttadari and Mahaldari systems were practiced in Andhra region and Jagirs, Izars, or Mukthas type of land tenure system was practiced in the Telangana region. The Nizam rule had encouraged the non tribals migration to the tribal areas in exchange of land revenue. Under the feudal land tenure system, the landholders had the right to evict a tenant and hence the tribal tenant did not have security over the land cultivated. After the country got independence, in spite of the legal provisions and constitutional protection, the tribals were continued to be exploited.
The migrated non-tribals exploited the tribals due to their ignorance regarding the land registration systems. Different methods, like physical force, inducements etc., were used to appropriate the resource. As a result many tribals lost their ancestral land. In most of these cases there were no proper documents validating such transfers. Many of the tribals from this region have become agricultural laborers when their lands were appropriated by powerful non tribals. The non-tribals who were migrants to these areas, now, dominate the socio economic and political space of the tribals.
The non-tribal people who got possession of the lands gradually became the virtual owners. The question is how-could tribal ownership and control over land be protected? In what way can these illegally transferred lands from scheduled tribes be restored to them? The case of struggles and resistance carried out by Darbagudem tribal communities can lead to some answers.
Darbagudem: the epicenter of land struggle
Darbagudem Panchayat is essentially a tribal Panchayat but dominated by the non-tribals in West Godavari district. Panduvari gudem is one of the tribal hamlets with about 70 koya families under the Darbagudem Panachayt. They claim that hundreds of acres of fertile land, which belonged to their ancestors, is now with the non tribals.
SAKTI, a local NGO, formed in the year 1985, supported the cause of tribals and started working with the tribals, recognising that the tribal economic growth is at the expense of their land, forest and labor. The organisation believed that among other methods of social action, using the legal powers is the most effective governance tool to regain the ownership rights.
With SAKTI's association, the tribals slowly became aware of the land rights that were due to them, but however, denied. With this new awareness, they started questioning the legitimacy of the land ownership in the year 1996 and the struggle reached it's peak between the years 1999 and 2001. However, the landlords who were more powerful than the tribals, both economically and politically, put up a strong resistance by way of denying them access to market and stopping food supplies to the tribals. No medical help was provided even during emergencies. The leaders were threatened and were offered "incentives" to suppress the agitation. The non-tribal lobby on the other hand procured court stay orders.
In order to build up the capacities of the tribals, SAKTI staff got hold of the revenue records from government offices, as old as 1933, and trained the members in understanding the loopholes in the land transfers. This legal knowledge gave the community members a confidence to argue then-cases. The youth were taught the surveying techniques and trained in reading the revenue records such as RSR(resettlement register), Aadangal and Enjoyment Survey Register(ESR). Information from these three records enabled to locate the person who was enjoying the land illegally. Once the plot was identified on the ground, matching the survey numbers, the concerned person was ordered to hand over the plot to the rightful owner. A Land Transfer (LTR) case was then filed with the local Tehsildar. According to the law, it is the responsibility of non-tribal to prove his/ her land ownership in the agency area.
After a long period of struggle, the members proudly claim that they have got 300 acres of land back from the landlords in Darbagudam and Laxmipuram and another 500 acres of land is pending under land transfer cases. The acquired land was shared between the rightful owners. Single, widowed and destitute women were given priority to cultivate the lands acquired. The new registrations of the land acquired were held in the name of women.
The emergence of women leadership
The women members played an active role in the struggle demonstrating their commitment and passion in seeking the rights once lost. Saryam Ramulamma, from Tatiramanna gudem, aged 40, recollects the long years of struggle. The confrontation with the dominant caste groups began when Ramulamma and her social group had raised questions on the ownership rights of the non tribals. The community members objected to agriculture operations of the non-tribal landowners when they found loopholes in the transfers. The landowners did not take the issue seriously and transplanted paddy. As a response the tribals waited till the crop maturity stage and harvested forcefully. At the same time Ramulamma and others filed Land Transfer (LTR) cases with the help of SAKTI team. The community members also exerted pressure on district administration to accelerate LTR cases filed and finally got 240 acres of land released. Ramulamma recalls, "In the past, we used to get scared of government officers when they visited our village. But today we have gained the confidence and are also able to find loopholes in the government records. Today we control 240 acres of land and are reaping the benefits of our struggle. The change of ownership on a piece of land has made a difference in our lives". Though the land is under the possession of the community now, the tribals are yet to receive individual land titles. "The struggle will continue not for the land, but for the titles," conclude the members.
The conflicts among the resource rich and poor communities are indicators of the complexities involved with the changing legal system, land ownership, registration practices and bureaucratic rules. The continuing land struggles and tribal unrest emphasize that the issue is not only of economic in nature. They reflect the nature of state interventions and legal structures provided to protect the interests of the tribals. To survive in this kind of environment, the tribal communities need to acquire the governance tools. We hope the experiences of Darbagudem tribals and the approach adapted by SAKTI will provide us useful tools in empowering the communities to gain access and control over their rightful resources.
REPORT OF THE EXPERT GROUP ON PREVENTION OF ALIENATION OF
Formed on 20-04-2000
MINISTRY OF RURAL DEVELOPMENT
GOVERNMENT OF INDIA
II. LAND RIGHTS OF SCHEDULED TRIBES
(i) Identification of Land Rights
8. The Expert Group considers it a serious irony and regrettable debacle that decades of effort to extend the Survey and Settlement operations in the Scheduled Areas and conferment of clear title to all forms of entitlement of land and other land-based resources to Scheduled Tribes have, instead of improving the situation, contributed to its deterioration. Large extent of land in several states over which members of Scheduled Tribes have had ownership rights or customary rights for centuries has neither been surveyed nor settled with clear proprietary titles for Scheduled Tribes. This is much true of the land settled even in terms of Forest Settlement Acts under which the reserve forest has been identified in different states. In areas where surveys and settlement operations have been extended, the conventional and corrupt processes have lead to innumerable errors, anomalies and discrepancies which have taken decades to be to sorted out or are yet to be sorted out. Consequently the unique character of tribal land rights, which include their abiding attachment to the land, community elements in its management and their customary rights over land based resources are all at variance with the records churned out in land surveys and settlement operations.
9. There are serious infirmities and flaws in the output of survey and settlement operations. The uncertainty, harassment and expense caused by the absence of clear record of rights in respect of land held by the tribal people and their communities, are responsible for ever increasing tension among members of the Scheduled Tribes. Absence of a clear record of such rights to land held by tribals and their communities has also contributed to misadministration of tribal lands. Therefore, the Expert Group recommends that (he highest priority should be accorded to the preparation and updating of Land records in Tribal areas with active participation of Tribal communities.
10. In preparation and updating of land records in tribal areas, (he following measures should be taken:
a) Tribal community Organizations/Panchayats/Gram Sabhas should all be actively and formally associated with the process of updating of land records in tribal areas so that correct entries can be made in the record of rights.
b) Before survey/resurvey and settlement operations are taken up in any tribal area, adequate number of tribal youth shall be trained in methods of updating of land records and inducted into the organization for carrying out this work.
c) Non-tribal personnel in the survey and settlement organization involved in updating of land records in tribal areas must be trained in the system of tribal land management, customary laws of various communities and statutory measures for their protection before being so deployed.
d) The Collector/Deputy Commissioner of the Districts in the fifth schedule areas should be empowered to take up correction of land records, cither of their own motion or on representation received, even after the expiry of the period of limitation for sue correction, if it is found that the record of rights does not reflect the correct reality i1 respect of land belonging to persons of Scheduled Tribes.
(ii) The Conduct of 'Enjoyment Survey'
11. The Expert Group recommends that "enjoyment survey" to establish the rights of the tribal people to their land be prosecuted with utmost urgency. It further recommends that the following specific elements be made integral parts of the process for conducting such an "enjoyment survey" in all tribal areas:
a) The entire process of implementing land alienation laws including assignment of government lands should be done under the supervision of a district level committee, headed by the District Collector, consisting of representatives of NGOs, community-based organizations and political parties.
b) A Village Level Committee should be constituted for each village in the scheduled area under the Chairmanship of concerned Gram Panchayat and consisting of at least three members from the Scheduled Tribes, at least one scheduled caste person, at least one backward caste person and a representative each of local NGO or community-based-organization. At least one member of each Committee should be a woman.
c) The data on precise composition of Village Level Committees must be available with the District Collector.
d) The decisions taken by the District level committee as well as the Village Level Committee should reflect In the form of resolutions reduced to writing in the minutes book to be maintained by the District Collector in case of the District level committee and office of the Gram Panchayat in case of Village Level Committees.
e) Officials, non-officials and non-government organizations engaged in the scheduled areas for verification of titles and possession of lands should follow a campaign approach as detailed here, to address the issue of tribal land alienation.
f) The District Level Committees should ensure that village maps are prepared for each village by showing in different colours, different kinds of lands: lands belonging to tribals, non tribals, tribal lands under occupation of non-tribals, Government lands assigned to tribals, Government lands assigned to non-tribals, Government lands immediately available for assignment on the basis of revenue records along with a statement containing full particulars of land, i.e. Khala/holding/plot number, pattedar, possessor, etc.
g) Prior dialogue with the tribals and non-tribal residents of habitations must be undertaken by holding special 'Gram Sabha' meetings in each habitation to explain to the people the purpose and strategy of the proposed verification, viz, that it would help in identifying the possessor and in setting the law into motion for restoration of rights to land to their rightful owners.
h) A gap of two to four weeks must be maintained between the date of Gram Sabha and the actual date of conducting 'enjoyment survey'.
i) The revenue machinery should enable collection, by all concerned, including tribal representatives, of relevant documents and information, including villa map(s), record of rights of the last survey, khatian, list of judgments passed by various courts in cases involving tribal lands, details of cases pending, reasons for pendency of cases and the like. The information already available with the NGOs on the status of cases may also be compiled.
j) The Tehsildar should be directed to make available freely these records for inspection either by rival claimants or by representatives of NGO/CBO for about one week.
k) The schedule of 'enjoyment survey' should be widely announced in local newspapers, apart from announcement by beat of drum. The schedule should clearly spell out (lie following:
Date on which the village map with survey numbers and the land owner data as above, shall be made available in the village by way of special 'Gram Sabha' meetings
Date or dates for inspection of records in the Tehsil office, time to receive objections. Claims from either side shall be scrutinized by the Village Level Committee prior to the date of "enjoyment survey".
The date of actual physical 'enjoyment survey', i.e. plot-to-plot physical verification of land with reference to revenue records to be done by concerned Government officials.
The Village Level Committee shall take up the responsibility of serving notice on the rival claimants.
Time limit for claiming cases before concerned empowered Court or for institution of suo-moto cases.
12. Depending upon the work to be undertaken village-wise, the District Level Committee shall ensure that necessary staff from revenue and survey organizations arc requisitioned. Each team for 'enjoyment survey' will be headed by a revenue officer not below the rank of a Tahsildar. Prior training of team leaders should be organized in order to make the survey process effective. During the 'enjoyment survey', the non-tribals who are found to be in possession of land/property in scheduled areas shall be called upon to substantiate their claims to hold the land/property under reference.
13. Even where a case is pending before any judicial forum during the 'enjoyment survey', the team conducting the 'survey' must complete the work of physical verification with reference to the records maintained by the revenue machinery and the title held by the non-tribals. Wherever considered necessary the concerned parties will be given sufficient opportunity to prove their title to the land/property in question.
14. After completion of the verification work, the Village Level Committee shall issue a joint statement indicating the outcome of such verification work, clearly spelling out the final list of landholders with all the details of lands held.
15. Five sets of the records should be prepared after the completion of the verification work and they should be kept in the offices of Gram Panchayat, Tahsil office, the Project Director (ITDA)/District Tribal Welfare Officer, the District Collector and (he Commissioner/ Director (Tribal Welfare).
16. Given the fact that statutory survey and settlement proceedings are long drawn out, they are purely in official hands and require demystification, the Expert Group feels that 'enjoyment survey' proposed in this Report will help in not only ascertaining the current status of tribal land with regard to title and possession but also on setting the ball rolling for opening/re-opening of cases under the law for prevention of tribal land alienation and for restoration of alienated land to the people belonging to Scheduled Tribes.
(iii) Recording of Land Rights
17. The Expert Group was astonished that even in areas where survey and settlement operations have been carried out, the maintenance of land records, record of mutations and registers of cultivation / enjoyment arc hopelessly neglected. During its visits to several states the Expert Group was surprised at the neglect of basic revenue functions, such as maintenance of land records, providing clear-cut information to the tribal people and their communities regarding land records, land use maps and enjoyment details. Nowhere did the Expert Group find correct record of actual cultivators of (he land, as distinguished from the recorded owner entered in annual land revenue icoords. The hiatus between the recorded ownership of land and the actual cultivator of the land makes il almost impossible to identify the extent of alienation and initiate legal processes for its restoration. The Expert Group is convinced that a transparent, accountable and error-free record of land rights at the village level with promotion of literacy/awareness relating to these records and rights among the tribal people will only improve matters in the long run. The Expert Group, therefore, recommends that:
a) In-depth scrutiny of methods of preparation, maintenance and updating of land records should be undertaken to identify cases where lands cultivated by tribal individuals, or under use of tribal communities, particularly those on the higher slopes, have been wrongly recorded in the name of government or any other agency on account of faulty techniques of cadastral survey, erroneous perceptions of survey and settlement personnel and inadequate comprehension among them about tribal land management system and customary laws.
b) Immediate measures should be taken to correct entries in land records in such cases by correctly recording various rights and interests of tribal people, both individual and communal.
c) Survey and Settlement techniques be modified with a view to prevent such errors being committed in future, if necessary through suitable amendments of the law.
d) For carrying out quick land surveys and identifying the tribal holdings and recording their rights and enjoyments in quick time, several hassle free technologies have emerged which are being sponsored and advocated by Survey of India, ISRO, Technological Universities, Private Companies specializing electronic workstation survey methods and GIS. These methods and techniques must be used for quick survey, rectification of errors and generation of field measurement books and maps.
18. The Expert Group has come to the conclusion that computerization of land records in a citizen-friendly manner is a crying need of the hour, which would substantially contribute to accelerating recording of land rights in the scheduled areas. The Expert Group, therefore, strongly urges that computerization of land records in a citizen-friendly manner may be undertaken in all the States having fifth schedule areas. The Expert Group has noted with satisfaction that computerization of land records has made headway in several states especially Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and the Bhoomi System in Karnataka has succeeded in improving the inefficient, non transparent and discretionary processes by installing its own system where in all record of right to tenancy and cultivation have been computerized. Wide publicity to these records and on the spot supply of records to those needing them have evoked appreciation. The Expert Group recommends that updated and upgraded land records and record of rights of tenants and cultivators be made available to all Gram Panchayats, Village Communities, NGOs and others and the processes of the computerization of these records which has yielded such good results in Karnataka be initiated urgently throughout the fifth Scheduled Areas.
(iv) Security of Land Rights
19. In order to secure recognition for the inherent rights of Scheduled Tribes to their land it would be necessary that in addition to individual land rights, the rights of the communities are also identified and recorded. For the purpose of recording such community rights, members of Scheduled Tribes living together in a traditional geographic habitation should be deemed as constituting a 'tribal community'. Such tribal community should be recognized as a "Person" under the law, so that common lands and land-based resources in use of the community or under its control, are so recorded in the record of rights.
0. The entire land traditionally used for shifting cultivation on rotational basis shall be recorded in (he name of the tribal community and individuals who cultivate particular patches of land on rotational basis rather than being recorded in the name of Government or any other agency. Appropriate guidelines must be issued by the state Governments for recording rights and interests in respect of such lands covered by shifting cultivation to the settlement authorities.