M.S. Sreerekha and A.K. Ramakrishnan

Hengara: Perseverance and hope

Chengara Struggle Site, Pathanamthitta
Wednesday 28 July 2010 by LRAN

August 2010 will be three years after hundreds of families forcefully settled themselves in the plantation land at Chengara, which is otherwise illegally occupied by the Harrison’s Plantations. A visit to Chengara in June 2010, in a reasonably ’peaceful’ time, have been a very interesting experience revealing the efforts and continuing struggle by the people there who refuse to give up with the relentless hard work and incomparable political will.

The agreement reached by the leadership of the Sadhu Jana Vimochana Samyuktha Vedi (SJVSV) with the government on the 5th October 2009 stipulates that 1432 of the 1738 families who occupied the estate land at Chengara would be given land and assistance for house construction. The 27 landless Scheduled Tribe families will get on acre of land each and Rs.1.25 lakhs each to build houses. Landless scheduled caste families, 832 in number will get 75 cents of land and Rs. 1 lakh each. Others numbering 48 would get 25 cents of land each along with Rs.75000/-as housing assistance. The same kind of benefits would be extended to 525 families who own less than five cents of land. The land was to be made available to the beneficiaries within 3 months. However, this agreement has not been materialized yet. In this context, since there is absolute silence from the Government on the implementation of the agreement, people continue their life and work at the struggle site with tremendous determination.

The most important and striking factor of change at the struggle site is the growing agricultural activity and an increased attachment to land. Our initial visits and the recent one is markedly different for two reasons: one, the threat of police action is less for the time being, surely a temporary retreat by the state; two, the scene of aged rubber trees as the only prominent vegetation around during the earlier visits is now intermittently filled with a variety of crops including banana, tapioca, yams of different varieties, sweet potatoes, taro, papaya etc. The only trouble they face with the crops is the attack by wild pigs which are many in number in and around the area and many have consistently lost their crops due to this. The aged rubber trees are also a problem since they block the sunlight and also consume more water from below, both of which affect the new crops. However, they have started tapping the rubber, as against their earlier decision, and that’s added to their income at a minimal level.

Today, above ninety percent people at the site are engaged in agricultural activities. However, any yield from the existing crops to contribute enough for survival will still take time. So, a combination of outside work for daily earnings and agricultural work within the site is the existing option. Outside work remains necessary at least for one person in the family so that needs are met. Outside work include domestic work, construction work, factory work, etc. There are three or four small tea-shops inside the site. It is a marked change that many children are going to schools of nearby areas where earlier either they were denied admission or they could not reach in the absence of transportation facility. Though access to school is still a hurdle for some, things have certainly improved. Drinking water facility has also improved since they have rigged five small wells at the site.

In the last three years, 13 people from the site have died due to different medical reasons. Illnesses and accessibility to hospitals are still a major issue. Some of those who left the site did so due to health problems and among those who remain, some are suffering with serious health issues and its dangerous and risky for them to continue while others are constantly under the attack of contagious diseases like fever, diarrhea etc. The nearby hospitals refuse to provide medicines when the patients insist on giving their address as ’Chengara struggle site’. Moreover, the present Monsoon rains have hit them so badly that the tents are severely damaged and huge number of inhabitants affected by viral fever.

At the time of the occupation, the inhabitants had divided themselves into 6 wards/divisions (what they call as counters). At present, the numbers of wards are five and there is a 31-member committee, which has five conveners (however, unlike earlier there are less women in the leadership) who look into matters of helping with housing, health issues or any other disputes at the site. The overall number have certainly dwindled, the more determined have stayed back. In the context of the agreement with the government, more people are now trying to come to the site of the struggle. Around 30 people who tried to come back to the site got arrested recently. Now they are coming in smaller groups. The Chengara leadership expects that the forthcoming elections to the local bodies and later to the Kerala Assembly may provide some breathing space for the people at Chengara, as the government will find it difficult to use force now. No doubt, it is going to be a long-drawn out battle.

Chengara has been a land struggle of the landless and its has been one of the rare occasions in which people of many communities waged a united struggle led by the dalit community for access to agricultural land. There have been many attempts to divide this struggle both in the past and in the present. A demand for one acre of land has been brought down to an offer of 50 cents each by the authorities to the majority of dalits. The CPI (M) has been once again reiterating recently the supremacy of class against community identity. However, while the landless people at Chengara were united throughout the struggle in demanding equal share of land for everyone, the government’s position in the agreement divided them into tribals, dalits, and others who can own I acre, 75cents or 25 cents. When the agreement was reached, Laha Gopalan, the leader of the SJVSV admitted that he was forced to compromise.

However, he said, ’we are accepting it, in the current circumstances’. In the absence of implementation of the agreement, the people at the struggle site have taken the initiative to divide the land into approximately 50 cents each to every family to start cultivation. One thing the leadership insists interestingly is that only those who wish to cultivate should stay. With great joy the people at Chengara showed us their the new crops and said they are ready to show the outside world their determined faith in land and their readiness to engage in meaningful farming. It’s certainly a successful struggle, even though getting legal rights for the land is still a long way ahead. The state and the Harrisons should not be allowed to defeat this unique struggle.

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