Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sewa Sansthan

Indigenous People Helpless against Land Grabbers

TERVA, India - The small farm patches stand out like oases amidst the low, barren hills and rocky land that surround this hamlet in central India.

It was because of one of these fertile islands in the otherwise arid and harsh terrain, that Kuniya was killed. So believe others like him who fear they would have met the same fate if they had done what Kuniya was bold enough to do.

Terva, located on the southern fringes of India's northern Uttar Pradesh state, is mainly inhabited by an indigenous community known as the Kols who live in one-room huts with mud walls and thatch roofs. For centuries, the tribals worked hard on the land to make it yield enough for their daily needs and leave a small bit extra for bad times. But things changed when outsiders came and settled near their homes.

Over several decades, using guile and sometimes force, the settlers took over most of the land of the tribals. The tribals and rights activists here believe that Kuniya would have been alive today if he had not resisted the efforts of a large non-tribal Terva landowner to take Kuniya's farm plot.

According to Gaya Prasad Gopal of the Samaj Seva Sansthaan, (Social Service Association), a non-governmental group fighting for the tribals' right to their land, scores of tribal families have lost their ancestral land in similar ways. Gopal's organization has filed nearly 100 complaints in the law courts to restore this land to the rightful owners. ''It is because of this that we live in such poverty,'' says Booti Kol, a tribal woman of Terva speaking in her native tongue. The big landowners - all outsiders - live in large brick and cement houses set away from the huts of the tribals that are clustered together.

According to social researchers and rights activists like Gopal, the land of millions of indigenous people in India was snatched over the centuries in the same way by outsiders.

Indigenous people make up about 8 percent of India's 1 billion people. There are over 600 different tribal groups in the country. They are are among the poorest people in a nation with an average daily per person income of not more than $1.

According to India's Planning Commission, nearly half a million cases of tribals losing their land to outsiders have been recorded. The total tribal land lost is nearly half a million hectares. The government claims to have restored almost half of this land to the tribals.

They have lost their lands, despite a legal ban on the sale of tribal land to outsiders. However, this restriction applies only in specially designated enclaves of indigenous people. Known as ''scheduled areas'', these are the traditional homes of tribal communities and listed by the country's constitution. Non-tribals cannot buy tribal land here, but outsiders circumvent this rule by buying land in the name of other tribals who work for them, say rights activists.

Moreover, over the past half century, indigenous people have been shifted in large numbers from their traditional homes by development projects like big dams and mining activity. Tribals living outside scheduled areas cannot claim legal protection for their lands.

The Planning Commission has recommended that the ban should also apply to non-scheduled areas where tribals live in large numbers.

Official figures on tribal land losses do not reveal the real picture, activists say. To prove this, P V Rajgopal of a leading local tribal rights group walked with other activists along a large stretch of central India inhabited by indigenous people. Their march took them across the famed Chambal ravines that were once home to legendary central Indian brigands. The activists stopped at tribal habitations to talk to the people.

In a preliminary report based on this first hand investigation, the activists note that most tribals in these areas work as farm hands on the land that was once their own. According to the report, the tribals said their land was taken away by outsiders who used cunning and force to do so. When the tribal community in the hamlet of Rajpur resisted the land grab, their women were raped, terrifying the villagers into fleeing their homes. The report documents similar terror land grab tactics in the villages of Mahuakhera, Aantri, Sarela, Dandapera, Barkhera and Bhavreshwar. Canny landgrabbers are known to wait till the hard toiling indigenous communities have turned the harsh land into fertile farm.

According to a report of India's National Commission for the Development of Backward Areas, tribals are still being deprived of their land despite various government programs to help them. The national planning commission too says in a document: ''Despite the commitment that tribal lands must remain with the tribals, alienation of tribals from their land continues on a large scale.''

Rights activists say that tribals cannot depend on the government alone to protect them. Gopal of Terva's Social Service Association thinks the time has come for these people to band together and with other rural poor to fight for their due.

Bharat Dogra, Asia Times Online, June 2, 2000

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