Arippa Bhoosamaram: Kerala’s seven-year-old land struggle

The entrance to Arippa protest site

The entrance to Arippa protest site  

Arippa Bhoosamaram, the seven-year-old land struggle, has nearly 500 families living in abominable conditions devoid of all basic amenities

At the entrance to the Arippa protest site you will find colourful strips of cloth hanging from tall rubber trees. Come closer and you will see the noose, sturdy and perfect.

A few metres into the nondescript forest in Kollam district stand the shanties – nearly 500 families constrained to a pitiable existence. Rainwater seeps into every makeshift shelter and snakes frequent the settlement. There is no electricity or public tap as the residents are denied all access to basic facilities, an extended ordeal they have been enduring for the past seven years.

Arippa Bhoosamaram (land struggle) started on December 31, 2012 when an assorted group of landless Adivasis and Dalits encroached on 51.7 acres of forest in Kulathupuzha, near Kollam, demanding land for housing and cultivation.

“Initially, there were around 150 people, but soon the number swelled to a thousand. This part of Arippa forest started teeming with landless people cutting across communities, the majority being Dalits. On January 11, we erected huts and refused to leave,” says Sreeraman Koyyon, president of the Adivasi Dalit Munnetta Samiti (ADMS), a collective that leads the struggle.

Sabotage bid

Soon, revenue officials visited the place and eviction notices were served. “We turned down offers of three-cent plots as our motto is colony vittu krishiboomiyilekku (from colony to farmland). We also resisted their attempts to create a rift among the protesters through preferential treatment. Then some political parties launched a parallel strike demanding 10 cents to sabotage our struggle,” he says. The situation turned volatile in May, 2013 following an altercation between the protesters and local residents, who started a slow and steady social boycott. Those living in the Arippa protest site were denied jobs and shops stopped selling provisions to them.

“Then they started harassing us and molesting our women. Some families fled the place after the women were violated and the police sided with the perpetrators,” says Anil, another protester.

Many hurdles

Later, some local gangs, allegedly led by political parties, laid siege to the forest entrance point, trapping the protesters inside. “What followed was a nightmare that left us sick and starving. All essential items ran out and we had to survive on bare minimum food. Men walked long distances through core forest and carried back some rice which was always insufficient to feed some 500 plus families,” he adds.

Nobody was allowed to enter or exit the forest and finally the authorities had to intervene.

Another blow came when the district administration decided to ban paddy cultivation in the forest, tagging it as ‘subversive activity’. There was a vast expanse of land that offered them sustenance for long. Now, the eight-acre polder is covered with weeds.

“Among all things they did, this hurt the most,” he says. Paddy farming wasn’t an easy task as they had to face many challenges, including irrigation. But that problem was solved by diverting a stream and setting up an indigenous irrigation system. Since they couldn’t afford machines or bullocks, the large stretch of land was ploughed manually. They found the area is strewn with oil palm needles from the nearby plantation, but bleeding heels did not stop them from tilling.

“We had cultivated paddy in nine seasons. When we were all set for the next njattuvela with the land ready for sowing seeds, the authorities arrived. They whipped up some story about the presence of extremist elements and an order prohibiting paddy farming was issued in 2017.” Seven years into their struggle, the families are still treated as second class citizens and offered lower wages due to their rebel status. Eighty three-year-old Maria and 90-year-old Saraswathy spend the whole day making brooms. If they work without any break they will make two pieces that will be sold for ₹25 each.

“Many of the elderly women walk four to five km daily to collect palm leaves from the farms of Oil Palm India Limited. After the ban, this is our only income,” says Kumaran, who came to Arippa from Chengara.

Medical camp stopped

Medical aid is another issue as the settlement has many elderly persons and children born at the protest site during the last seven years. In an attempt to shoo them away, the monthly medical camp for Adivasis was stopped by the authorities long back.

Sixty-year-old Lalitha was living in one of the ramshackle shanties till she breathed her last on January 18. With her leg amputated and a feeding tube connected to her nose, the bedridden patient never received proper medical attention. According to the residents, nearby hospitals are not very keen on taking in protesters. “

Children huddle around the dim glow of diesel lamps at night, struggling to study in poorly-lit rooms. Udayan, another protester, points to power cables running over the settlement to electrify another colony in a more interior part.

Arippa has protesters from seven districts, some even from Chengara land struggle who allege they were given non-arable plots.

Protesters say an unholy nexus of bureaucrats, politicians, and private players has been blocking all serious attempts to redistribute the forestland.

“Revenue officials conducted surveys in 2017 and 2018, finding a total of 479 families living in the area. They came for field verification unannounced and the list they made excluded many families who had gone out of the settlement for work. Now they argue only a few are residing here permanently and many of us have land elsewhere. But they are not ready to cross-check facts. But this never-ending neglect cannot douse our spirit as we plan to continue the struggle till the end,” says Sreeraman Koyyon.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 7:04:15 PM |

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