(Madurai): Dalits in Tamil Nadu have launched a statewide campaign to reclaim Panjami lands.
These lands were gifted by the British to the Dalits to improve their socio-economic conditions.
But over the years dominant communities have forcefully taken over several thousand acres of the Panjami lands from dalits across the country. 43-year old Ramamoorthi, a dalit in Madurai, is a shattered man. A three-acre plot given to his late father in 1974 under the Panjami or free land scheme has been taken over by an upper caste landlord.
Over the past 40 years, thousands of dalits claim to have lost the only piece of land they owned in Tamil Nadu. "I have no other property. It is so difficult to even feed myself. If I get back my land I will be able to survive," said Ramamoorthi. "When we tried to plough our land the upper class people didn’t allow us. They told me that late my mother-in-law owed them Rs 4,000," said Pandiyammal, a dalit. "They’ve taken away the land against the principal and the interest due," added Pandiyammal.
Revenue officials Although possession of Panjami lands by non-dalits is illegal, in Tamil Nadu alone over one lakh acres of such land is estimated to have been forcibly taken over by dominant classes with the connivance of revenue officials. This is despite a Supreme Court order in 2004 to restore the lands to the rightful owners. "It is easy for the revenue department to identify the legal heirs of the Panjami lands and very well give it to them," said Jeeva, Director, SIRD. "They have not taken a stand on this. We strongly condemn the beauracracy and the state of Tamil Nadu," added Jeeva. Revenue officials refrained from speaking on camera. With elections round the corner, the demand to retrieve Panjami lands could snowball into a serious electoral issue in Tamil Nadu.