On a windy evening, Vadugan, in his seventies, stumbles home along the Kottathara Main Road. On either side of the road lies the land that he once tilled with his father, Mallan. Today, he is a trespasser on the property.
In 1963, an ailing Mallan had leased out three acres to Aruva Chettiar (Arumugham), a settler from Tamil Nadu, for Rs.300. A second tract of land, this time measuring 1.2146 hectares, also went to Arumugham. Mallan, a member of the Irula tribal community, got Rs.300 more for it.
Vadugan explains that for Mallan, at that time, it might have seemed to be a practical choice.
“My father was unwell. The land was given on ‘paattam’ to Chettiar, but the village office wrote a title deed in his name. Today, I live in a one-room house that the panchayat built for me on five cents… What is worse! It is right next to my father’s lands… Everyday, I wake up to see what I lost!” Vadugan said. A survey by Integrated Tribal Development Programme (ITDP) reveals that 10,159 acres of land have been transacted away from Adivasis in Attappady.
“Mooppen’s (Vadugan) story is our story… that of thousands of Adivasis in Attappady.
These people were forced to write off their lands to the settlers as they had no money to pay the credit at the local tea shop or stationary shop or arrack shop,” K.A. Ramu, a volunteer with Thampu, a tribal activist group based in Attappady, said.
Official data with the Attappady block panchayat show how the settlers had taken over land and agriculture from the tribal people; how traditional agriculture gave way to cash crops and plantations.
Of the 130.3 sq km of agriculture land in Attappady, 77.65 sq km comprises plantation crops.
In 1951, the population of Scheduled Tribes was recorded as 10,200 — 90.26 per cent of the total population in Attappady. Settlers or non-ethnic groups, on the other hand, comprised a mere 1,100 or 9.74 per cent.
By 2001, the number of settlers had climbed to 34,171, comprising 51 per cent of Attappady’s population of 67,672, compared to the 28,711 Scheduled Tribes.
The laws too had failed the Scheduled Tribes of Attappady. In 1975, the State legislature passed the Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act calling for “full restoration” of the alienated lands of the tribes.
In 1999, the State government took a complete u-turn and came up with the more restrictive Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to the Scheduled Tribes Act, admittedly to “avert a conflict between the tribal people and the non-tribals.”
Under this Act, which repealed the 1975 statute, a settler or “non-ethnic person” needs to part with land he/she got from a Scheduled Tribe person only if it exceeds 2 hectares.
Moreover, the tribal person has to pay the settler a “compensation” for “improvements” he made on the land.
Besides, the 1999 Act confines itself to the restoration of agricultural land to tribal persons, while the 1975 law had shown no distinction between agricultural and non-agricultural lands. Vadugan’s story, over the years, reflects the whims of the two “good-intentioned” statutes.
On October 10, 1995, the Ottapalam Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), the nodal agency under the 1975 law, declared the transaction between Chettiar and Mallan “invalid”.
He ordered Arumugham’s family to restore possession of the land to Vadugan, as Mallan’s rightful legal heir, within 30 days.
But the RDO order directed Vadugan to pay Chettiar's family Rs.15,000 as compensation in return for the three acres.
For the return of the 1.2146 hectares his father had lost to Arumugham, Vadugan was asked to shell out Rs.1.80 lakh as the “value of improvements” made by the Chettiars on the land.
“The RDO team who came to measure the land was beaten up. They never came back,” he said.
Anyway, the legal victory died with a whimper with the coming of the Kerala (Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands to the Scheduled Tribes Act) in 1999. Vadugan’s land did not come to 2 hectares. The land would remain with the Chettiars.