A Fact File on Tribal Land : Main Issues and Resolutions
1. The Debar Commission instituted by Central Government in 1950s suggest restoration of alienated Tribal lands back to Tribals with effect from January 26, 1950.
2. Two-and-half decades later, following outbreak of unprecedented starvation deaths in early 1970s, a meeting of State Revenue Ministers called by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at New Delhi on April 1, 1975, recommends passing of legislation in tune with Debar Commission Report.
3. April 1975 : The Kerala Assembly, with C. Achutha Menon as Chief Minister and EMS Namboodiripad as Opposition leader, unanimously passed the Tribal Land Act which assures restoration of all the lands lost by Kerala tribals from January 26, 1960, instead of 1950 as suggested by Debar Commission. Moving the bill, the then Revenue Minister, Baby John, proclaimed on the floor of the Assembly that “the Government treats all the alienated tribal lands as ‘stolen property’” and assured that the Government is fully committed to restore it to its traditionally rightful owners the Tribals.
4. July 1975 : As part of the then Emergency measures, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi proclaims 20-Point Programme, including restoration of alienated tribal lands back to the tribals, after banning a total of 14 CPI-ML (Naxalite) groups who were actively waging armed struggle in tribal belts throughout India.
5. November 11, 1975 : The Kerala Tribal Land Act gets the mandatory assent of Indian Presient and was also included in the 9th Schedule of Indian Constitution.
6. 1975-1986 : Absolutely nothing was done by all the successive UDF-LDF Governments of Kerala to implement the Act.
7. 1986 : Rules were formulated to implement the Act with retrospective effect from January 1, 1982 (bypassing 1950 fixed by Debar Commission and 1960 by the parent Act).
8. 1988 : Dr. Nalla Thampi Thera of Mananthavadi, Wayanad, moved the first writ petition before Kerala High Court pleading to instruct Kerala Government to implement the Tribal Land Act of 1975.
9. October 15, 1993 : Kerala High Court directs Kerala Government to implement the the Act within 6 months. The UDF Government led by both K. Karunakaran and yourself seek repeated extensions to scuttle implementation of the law.
10. April 1996 : An attempt by the UDF Government led by you to bring an Ordinance amending the 1975 Act was rejected by the Governor on the ground that it was violative of the election code.
11. May 1996 : LDF Government led by E. K. Nayanar occupies power.
12. August 9, 1996 : Principle Secretary for SC-ST Development inform the High Court through an affidavit about the Government’s inability to implement the 1975 Act due to organised resistance from the powerful encroacher-settlers in tribal belt.
13. August 14, 1996 : Rejecting the above claim of the Government, the High Court firmly gave final direction to implement the Act within six weeks ending 30 September 1996. The High Court also directed that the “RDOs should effect delivery of possession of alienated tribal lands to its original owners in cases where no appeals are pending against orders for restoration of land and where no compensation is payable”, and that adquate law and order machinery could be used to carry this out, and that the RDOs have to file affidavits by September 30, 1996.
14. September 1996 : Like its predecessor UDF Government, the LDF Government also tries to bring an Ordinance seeking to amend the 1975 Act which, too, was rejected by the Governor.
15. September 19, 1996 : Then Finance Minister T. Sivadasa Menon and then Revenue Minister K. E. Ismail applies undue pressure, including threats, to prevent Palakkad District Collector, Dr. W. R. Reddy, from implementing the law before the September 30 deadline set by High Court, especially in Attappadi tribal belt.
15. September 23, 1996 : With the support of all LDF-UDF MLAs, barring Ms. K. R. Gouriamma, the Kerala Assembly passes the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Land and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Amendment Bill, 1996 in a hurried attempt to avoid contempt of Court proceedings on RDOs. This amendment bill scuttled the whole spirit of the 1975 parent Act. For example, it held legal and valid all transactions of tribal land between 1960 to January 24, 1986. In other words, the same Kerala Assembly, which proclaimed in April 1975 that all the alienated tribal lands since 1960 were stolen property tried to give legal sanctity for the illegal possessors to enjoy this very stolen property through the September 23, 1996, amendment bill. It was on this ground that your present Cabinet Minister, Ms. Gouriamma, while single-handedly opposing the amendment bill termed it as the foremost reactionary bill ever introduced since the formation of Kerala Assembly in 1957. Yet another Cabinet member or yours, M.V. Raghavan, though not an MLA then, opposed the amendment bill outside the Assembly including at a meeting organised by Kerala Civil Liberties Committee (KCLC), one of the CHRO constituents, at Thiruvananthapuram.
16. October 4, 1996 : The incident of Ayyankali Pada group of Naxlites holding Palakkad District Collector, Dr. W. R. Reddy, as hostage demanding withdrawal of the amendment bill and total implementation of the 1975 parent Act, drew national and international attention to Kerala’s tribal land issue, and on the negative attitude of the successive State Governments towards it.
17. March 1998 : Despite a joint LDF-UDF delegation led by then Chief Minister Nayanar and yourself as Opposition leader going to Delhi seeking Presidential assent to the widely condemned anti-tribal amendment bill of September 1996, the same was rejected by President K. R. Narayanan, and notably three days before A. B. Vajpayee’s NDA Government at the Centre was sworn-in. One of the known reasons for the Presidential rejection was the inclusion of 1975 parent Act in the 9th Schedule of the Constitution and, therefore, it cannot be amended by the State Assembly. In other words, except Ms. K. R. Gouriamma, all the 139 LDF-UDF MLAs, including yourself, who supported the Amendment Bill of September 23, 1996, had committed a serious fraud on the Indian Constitution and against the Constitutional safeguards given to the tribals to cheat them for favouring the vested interests of the powerful encroacher-settlers.
18. 1999 : The LDF Government, with due support of UDF opposition led by you, pass the second amendment bill in the State Assembly. In order to bypass Presidential assent, the words tribal land was replaced in it with agricultural land and it secured the needy approval from the State Governor. This second amendment bill was patently meant to help the big encroachers since it sanctifies even those who own 100 acres of land in tribal areas to legally occupy an additional five acres of tribal land. On the other hand, it kept limitations on tribals permitting them to occupy land only upto one acre and, that too, as part of the rehabilitation package which is nothing but uprooting the tribals from their ancestral land to far away places wherever land is available for distribution.
19. 1999 and 2000 : The High Court rejects both the 1996 and 1999 Amendment Bills.
20. 2000 and 2001 : Kerala Government file writ appeals before Supreme Court to get stay against High Court verdicts. Petitions by Dr. Nalla Thampi Thera and Niyamavedi of Kochi against these stay orders are still pending before the Apex Court.
21. August 14, 2001 : Following unprecedented starvation deaths in Adivasi belts, a group of tribals, supported by radical Naxalite groups, snatched food stuffs from the Government-owned mobile Maveli van at Noolpuzha area in Wayanad. This took place on the anniversary of August 14, 1996, final order given by the High Court directing the State Government to implement the 1975 parent Act before September 30, 1996, which led to the passing of Amendment bill on September 23, 1996, and the subsequent Ayyankali Pada action at Palakkad on October 4, 1996. It was this Noolpuzha incident which once again drew nation-wide attention to the unending plight of Adivasis in Kerala due to repeated State violations and which resulted in the present spate of agitations by different Adivasi bodies, including the ongoing one in front of the Secretariate led by Ms. C. K. Janu.
Suggestions and Recommendations:
1) Total implementation of the 1975 Tribal Land Act.
2) Withdrawal of the 1999 amendment by honoring the High Court verdicts.
3) Issue a white paper on pattern of land holding in Kerala’s Tribal and Forest belts with details of properties possessed by leading business houses like Tata’s Kannan Devan, major political party leaders and even foreign nationals (as in Nelliampathy in Palakkad district).
4) Enact the Scheduled Areas Act in Kerala to enable the tribals to govern their traditional tribal belt in true spirit of decentralisation of political and economic power as well as to deny land ownership rights in Tribal areas to non-Tribals from the plains.
Urgent action on SC directive on starvation deaths/BPL figures:
We also draw your attention on the September 17 Supreme Court directive to 13 States and Union Territories to identify those living below the poverty line (BPL) and to submit their affidavits within three weeks so that food grains rotting in government godowns could be distributed. Although Kerala Government was not included as a party in this writ petition by the original petitioners, and in view of the unprecedented number of starvation deaths among Kerala Tribals, we urge you to comply with this Supreme Court directive by furnishing the BPL details within three weeks. On our part, we are moving the Apex Court with a specific request to include us as a party and also to issue notice to your government to file affidavit on the BPL figures in Kerala.
Mukundan C. Menon (Secretary General