Fresh from the successful conclusion of the global investor meet, the Muthanga crisis could not have come at a worse time for Kerala chief minister, A.K. Antony. It all began early this year, when adivasi groups and families belonging to the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha encroached upon and occupied a stretch of the Muthanga sanctuary.
The drama of “forced occupation of forestland”, had continued unhindered for 45 days. But on February 17, clashes between the police and adivasis erupted following a mysterious fire, and capture and detention of government officials. While the number of dead still remains a matter of speculation, the clampdown has led to several adivasi families being displaced, while many more have been detained or missing.
It marked a sordid highpoint in the five-decade struggle waged by different adivasi groups for restoration of alienated land. In October 2001, following a seven-week agitation, Antony’s United Democratic Front government had reached an agreement with the AGS, promising an amicable end to the agitation.
For the AGS, the agreement had been at best a compromise. The Dhebar commission’s recommendations date back to the Fifties, and the Kerala government passed the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act in 1975. Yet, successive governments have remained disinclined to implement these.
By the 2001 agreement, the government agreed to set up a tribal mission that would oversee the distribution of land to adivasi families, to be completed in the course of 2002. The government also proposed the inclusion of adivasi-inhabited areas in the constitution’s fifth schedule, to allow self-governance.
But in implying that the adivasis would now be satisfied with alternative land, the 2001 agreement saved the state government the huge legal responsibility of evicting powerful settler farmers from original tribal land and restoring the land to its tribal owners or their descendants. Moreover, almost simultaneously, the state government also passed the Kerala Stay of Eviction Proceedings Bill, 2001 — a temporary measure to regularize holdings of small farmers and cultivating tenants.
Sixteen months after the agreement, most of the tribals remain without a piece of land. A report submitted to the National Human Rights Commission by the Kerala government stated that only 1.06 per cent of the families were provided 2.2 per cent of the identified land in the first four months. Till January 2003, another 462 acres were distributed; but the land identified for distribution plummeted from 59,452 acres to a mere 2,300 acres in June 2002 and further to 1,223 acres.
No going back
At several places, the government’s efforts fumbled as the land identified either fell in the protected forests category, or happened to belong to some government department or the other.
Muthanga was not an isolated incident of occupation and determined survival against odds. Similar incidents have been taking place since 1997. The government, incidentally, has refused a judicial probe into the incident.
The violence being attributed to the AGS could provide a setback to it and once again lead to a brushing aside of the fundamental questions of survival that first forced adivasis into such dire states of frustration and despair. Compared to the general population, adivasis in Kerala fare little better than their counterparts elsewhere in India. Against 100 per cent literacy among the general population, half the tribal people are illiterate. Although Kerala has reduced its maternal mortality rate to 1.9 for 1,000 deliveries by 1998, nearly six times more mothers died in the primary health centre at tribal-dominated Agaly the same year. But the agitation of the AGS is an increased awareness among tribal people about their land rights.
After raising hopes among the adivasis, the government simply cannot back out on welfare measures. It will help heal some wounds of the tribals at least.