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FOCUS December 2007 Volume 50

Struggle for Land in Kerala

On 4 August 2007 thousands of poor farmers started occupying part of the Chengara Harrison Malayalam estate (also called as Laha estate and operated by Harrison Malayalam Plantations Ltd.) in Chengara, Pathnamtitta district, Kerala state in India. The poor farmers are composed of landless Dalits and Adivasis as well as scores of families from other marginalized communities, Muslim communities, etc. from all parts of Kerala. They are seeking ownership of cultivable land for five thousand poor families (with more than twenty thousand family members). They aim to re-claim ownership of the land that has been part of a long-standing promise of the State government for land distribution.

They would like to become permanent owners of the land since the company's possession of the estate has become illegal when its lease agreement lapsed in 1996. They also allege that the company possesses much more area than what is included in the lease agreement, and they (poor farmers) occupy the land in excess of the area leased.[1]

Since the start of the land occupation, arrests and illegal detentions have become common in the areas near the estate. The occupying poor farmers have been facing threats from the local communist party (Marxist) members as well as workers of the estate. The party members and estate workers are claiming that the occupation of the land by the farmers has been affecting plantation activities, yet the rubber trees in the estate are already too old for tapping.

A Kerala High Court issued, in favor of the plantation company, an order to evict the poor farmers from the estate.

The broader context

Kerala is not known for land struggles until the historic land agreement in October 2001 signed between protesting Dalits and Adivasis of Kerala and the State government. The agreement, among others, committed the State government of Kerala to distribute fertile land to Dalits and Adivasis. This "immediate measure" along with other provisions of the agreement were unjustifiably delayed for years. At the same time, state lands were being alienated to private parties and their inhabitants forcefully displaced.

Since then, Dalit and Adivasi land struggles in Kerala attained a new order of practice. For the first time ever, a large-scale mass occupation of land happened in Muthanga. But it was met with violence like in other states in India. Many other places where the people have tilled the lands for generations also suffered from state violence. The poor farmers in the Chengara estate pledged to fight for their right to land without using violence.[2]

The Kerala State government enacted a Land Reform Act in 1963. But its implementation was delayed for fifteen years. And the law only covers tenants, which therefore excludes Dalits and Adivasis who in "Kerala's context the caste and cultural hierarchy, with strong oppressive segregation of these communities, did not allow them to be tenants."[3]
The lead organization of the land struggle, Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV), has opted for the land occupation as the strategy, remembering the tradition of the great leader Ayyankali, the militant dalit leader whose mission was to ensure the liberation of dalits from various forms of slavery, and ensure their right to agricultural land as well as right to education in Kerala. SJVSV sees the Chengara struggle as an example of government double standards in favor of big private corporations.[4]

According to SJVSV there are 12,500 dalit colonies and 4,083 adivasi colonies where tens of thousands of families live in extreme lack of basic amenities facing civil, political, economic and cultural rights violations.

(This article is mainly based on Peoples' Movements Solidarity Team, A Report on Chengara Land Struggle in Kerala, c/o ADVOCACY-Indian Social Institute, November 29, 2007 Other sources provided additional information, see Endnotes.)


1. P. N. Venugopal, "Kerala's landless dalits battle for Chengara" in InfoChange News & Feature s, November 2007, /features461.jsp

2. Chengara Pledge in Peoples' Movements Solidarity Team, A Report on Chengara Land Struggle in Kerala, c/o ADVOCACY-Indian Social Institute, November 29, 2007,

3. "Chengara Land Struggle in Kerala" in The South Asian, 2 December 2007,

4. KA SHAJI, The Meek Shall Inherit The Earth?, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 47, 8 December 2007, asp?filename=Ne081207THE_MEEK.asp