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Dalit women put up a brave show to secure land rights

Dec 03, 2008

It all began in 2006 with a foot march organised by the APVVU Mandal Union to unite dalit women in southern India. Since then, displaying a relentless spirit against upper caste oppression, they have overcome all hurdles in seeking land allotments in their names.

Andhra Pradesh, India: Forty landless dalit families live in Marthuvari Palli Dalitawada, a hamlet in Jogivari Palli Panchayat of Sadum Mandal located at a distance of 65 km from the district head quarters. All the agricultural lands are in the hands of 20 Reddy families of landlords of the same village. The Reddys are the dominant caste of this village. While the landlords own large chunks of land (both dry & irrigated Lands), dalits earn their bread as agricultural labourers.

The wages are low and also unequal between men (Rs.30/- per day) and women (Rs.25/- per day) labourers, while the minimum wages according to the Act should be Rs.60. Due to agriculture crises, the dalits do not get employment for more than 75 days in a year.

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Therefore, they have to depend on the landlords for food grains during emergency situations and in lean season. Taking advantage of this, landlords offer hand loans with an exorbitant rate of interest of 60% to 100% per annum. Most of the time the landlords offer loans with the condition that the borrower must work for the farmer until the debt is repaid.

Further, distress migration has become inevitable for at least 50% of the dalit families. To survive in the lean season, they go to Bangalore (about 250 km away) to work as construction workers for six months. As a result, child labour, early marriages for girl children and illiteracy have become the reality of their lives. Added to this misery for women, are desertion and bigamy.

The women have formed a separate unit within the village as they have recognised the need to be together to discuss their own issues

APVVU Mandal Union organised a foot march during February 2006 in Sadum Mandal to strengthen the unionisation in the Mandal after identifying the most backward villages.

Six Dalit women from Marthuvari Palli participated throughout the 5-day padayatra and since then the union membership is increased to 77 members in their village. The women have formed a separate union unit within the village as they have recognised the need to be together to discuss their own issues.

While the men continued to migrate and also work in submission to the landlords with low wages, the women decided to make use of the provisions of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to get employment. It is in this context that all 40 dalit families were motivated to obtain Job cards.

Knowing their rights

The dalits were completely ignorant of the availability of government lands in their village. Therefore, without probing too deeply into this, they applied under the NREGA (which ensures 100 days employment for rural workers) for working on a road to the hillocks near their village.

While many people started working on the road, the union leader Chendramma continued investigating the various legal spaces available to dalits to occupy the government land which is illegally under the control of landlords. Hence she applied for the status of land under the RTI and finally realised that the land was noted as government waste land not allotted to any body on records. But in the reality they were in the hands of the landlords as grazing lands.

After several rounds of discussions among the dalits in the village, the women decided to take up the task of land appropriation. As usual the men did not show interest because they were afraid of the backlash from the dominant caste landlords. Strategically it was decided collectively by the women to take over the land, while the men stayed behind, extending support.

The women-led collective action not only strengthened the women’s unity, it also developed the positive feelings of the dalits

The entire village staged a dharna (demonstration) on May 19, 2008 in front of the Mandal Development Office for taking the side of the landlords. The media also exposed this issue in the newspapers. One of the demands of the demonstration was that the Grama Sabha meeting should be attended by the District Panchyat Officer and that meeting should be organised with proper advance information to every one in the village.

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Subsequently, on June 16, a Gram Sabha meeting was organised in which dalits succeeded getting approval for NREGA work on the 32 acres of land, after proving with the factual data collected through RTI, that the land was not reserved for grazing purposes.

A lot of preparatory meetings had taken place for building the unity of dalits and also to equip them to participate in the Grama Sabha meetings. All the strenuous efforts of landlords to stop the participation of dalits in Grama Sabha failed despite their arranging liquor and Rs.100/- for every family to visit their relatives outside the village.

People took the money and the liquor but still participated in the Grama Sabha meeting! This was the first victory of their collective effort against the landlords and unhelpful bureaucracy. Further, the women-led collective action not only strengthened the women’s unity, it also developed the positive feelings of the dalits.

Fighting against all odds

The general saying in Telugu among the poor about the law is “Chattlanni vunoodiki chuttale” (Laws and Legal systems work as relatives to rich people.) Similarly another saying about the legal system is “courtuku poyinavadu, katiki poyinavadito samanam” (stepping inside the court is equal to entering in the graveyard as dead body).

These two sayings have emerged from the experiences of rural poor as all the laws have adequate loopholes to support the rich people. Hence, the poor are always reluctant of going to courts, while the rich take advantage of this and exploit the judicial system for their own selfish reasons.

APVVU has more than two decades experience in using the law and courts as tools for asserting dalit rights. Therefore, it decided to play a key role in building the case of Maruthuvari Palli at the District Court in Chittoor by filing a caveat to prevent the landlords from getting any injunction orders to prevent Dalits’ entry into the disputed land.

As per the legal procedures with regard to the government land, the person asking for land ownership should cultivate the land at least for a year. Therefore, in all cases of land appropriation the union’s strategy is to occupy the land and cultivate it collectively, so that the cultivation status can be entered in the government records.

To till the land, dalits do not own cultivation animals as they can not afford them. Hence, the land can be cultivated only by tractors. Therefore, SAHANIVASA sent a tractor to assist them.

Around 700 people from four neighboring villages joined the Maruthuvaripalli dalits in order to support the land appropriation. The landlords sent their women with chilly powder to attack the tractor driver and also the people. All the dalit women gathered around him in a human chain to physically block the entry of upper caste women on land.

Both sides lodged complaints against each other with the local police. The dalits demanded that the landlords withdraw from the land after which they would withdraw the case. After a long debate finally landlords withdrew their case and also agreed to stop further interference on the land.

But they have not stood by their promise after the court cases were withdrawn. Though they don’t come directly they have supported a backward caste community (Yadavas), to enter on the land.

A remarkable feat

As a general decision in the union, Maruthuvari Palli dalits have agreed and also stand by the pre-condition of land appropriation “to assign the land in the names of women”. In this case woman led the movement for land and also took all risks of divisions, pressures from their men and landlords, and the non-cooperation of the bureaucracy.

Dalit women of Maruthuvari Palli stood boldly against all pressures and put up the application to the district collector on August 15 demanding the government to issue the titles on verification of cultivation status. Followed by the District Collector’s promise, the government has appointed a surveyor to measure the land and prepare the documents for titles.

A demonstration was organised again on October 17, 2008 in front of Mandal Revenue Office in the context of Stand up and Take Action Campaign demanding for the immediate allotment of the land titles in the names of women.

Traditional way of pest management is practiced and no chemical manure is applied.

Land ownership for women not only gives economic security it also gives space for decision-making process in the family. In Maruthuvari Palli the women took the decision to go for bio-diversity agriculture where every family is going to harvest food crops which will give them at least four months’ food in the families.

They have grown 12 varieties of mixed crop which is to be harvested in a month from now. Traditional way of pest management is practiced and no chemical manure is applied.

As dalits fight for their social dignity and equality, women will also continue to fight to restore their rights and equal opportunities in the society.

For more information, contact:

P. Chennaiah
Secretary – Nation Coordination

Source : APVVU
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