Bhoodan Land and struggle of dalit agricultural workers

The piece of land on which the Renault Nissan factory stands today in Oragadam village in Sriperumbadur Taluk, has a long and checkered history of struggle.  A portion of the land, that the Tamil Nadu state industrial agency – SIPCOT had forcibly acquired in 2007 under the draconian Tamil Nadu Land Acquisition for Industrial Purposes Act (1997), had belonged to 13 dalit agricultural workers whose families were bonded labourers for generations in the area.

In 1955, 13 dalit agricultural workers were given about 37 acres of land by their landlords during the nation-wide Bhoodan movement led by gandhian Vinobha Bhave. In 1959, the land (Survey No. 49/1A/6B of Oragadam village) was formally distributed to the dalit families during Vinobha Bhave’s visit to the area followed by a ceremonial ‘bhojanam’, as per the local villagers. The families also claimed that they were handed the legal Dhanapatra as per the Tamil Nadu Bhoodan Yagna Act 1958. Each dalit family was given 2 acres of land and since then they have been tilling the land.

In 1977, a local MLA promising formal pattas (title deeds) deceitfully took away the land papers from the dalit workers and handed them over to a real estate agent. However, years later the families got back their papers with the help of a local land rights based NGO called VELS, which also found out that a local Tehsildar (revenue official) had sold off about 2 acres of the Bhoodan land.

In 1996, the then District Collector of Kancheepuram visited the dalit families and ordered the Additional Collector to issue formal pattas (title deeds) to the families, however this order was not implemented, and even today formal pattas have not been issued to the families. Meanwhile, in 2006, Tamil Nadu Industries Department issued a G.O. (No. 139, 3/11/2006) giving administrative sanction to acquire 360.9 hectares of patta land and 39.9 hectares of poromboke (common) land in Oragadam and Chennakuppam villages to expand the SIPCOT Industrial area. As per the dalit families, whose land fell within the area earmarked for the acquisition, they were never served any notices under the TN Land Acquisition Act (1997). In 2007, a public hearing was conducted to record any objection to the land acquisition from the land owners, after which a G.O. (No. 187) was issued and land was acquired and handed over to SIPCOT.  After agitating on the streets, petitioning the state government, Bhoodan Board and even being arrested for their protests, when the 13 dalit families took the matter to the Madras High Court in 2008 to challenge the forcible acquisition of their land, the state government claimed that the revenue record showed that the piece of land legally belonged to the Bhoodan Board and therefore no formal notices were issued to them. Land acquisition notices, as per the government, were served on the Bhoodan Board, which gave its ‘no objection’ to the acquisition. Its truly ironical that Bhoodan Board, which was created as part of affirmative action to undo the historical injustices meted out to the landless, dalits, and the oppressed people, took a unilateral decision to deprive the people of their only source of livelihood and a life with dignity.

In 2008, the Madras High Court while dismissing the petition of the dalit families asked them to take the matter to the civil court and seek compensation if they could prove their rights over the land. The single bench high court order was challenged by the workers and the matter is still pending with the higher bench of the high court. Meanwhile, in these last eight years of legal battle, four of the dalit workers have died due to old age and ailments and rest are fighting for survival without any stable source of livelihood or income.  Apart from the Bhoodan land, the 740 acres allotted to Renault Nissan, includes common grazing land, burial ground, small ponds, eri poromboke which were all source of livelihood and subsistence for the dalit, landless and small farming families in the area. Due to the land acquisition in the area, over 500 families, apart from the 13 dalit families, lost their livelihoods in Oragadam and Chennakuppam.

Swaminathan and his wife Nirmala, both leaders of the Bhoodan struggle who lost their land, have now started working as daily wagers in the automobile factories. In her piece of land where Nirmala once grew millet and other farm produce, now stands the gleaming Renault Nissan factory, where she now works as a housekeeping staff. The only difference is, as she says: “There is no dignity in this work. When the land was ours, we toiled hard, grew our own food, it was ours. Now I work for the company, clean dirt, carry waste, work 3 shifts, even night shifts, my life has become hard”. With a family to support, including a handicapped son and his family, both aging Swaminathan and Nirmala now work in the factories as housekeeping staff or as security guard, bringing in roughly Rs. 8000-10,000 per month between them. “But look at the cost of food. We used to grow rice, millet (raagi), now we buy all this in market for Rs 40-50 a kilo. Whatever we earn goes into buying food for the family”, said Swaminathan.

Story of Saraswathi amma and her daily wager husband is the same. One works as a house keeping staff in an electronics factory, and the other travels to distant places to look for work. Many women from the village have found jobs with house keeping contractors in the big auto factories in the area, while men work as daily wagers or as security guards. “They don’t give jobs to our sons and daughters in these factories, some of them have even done ITI trainings” – this is a common lament in the villages surrounding the SIPCOT industrial area. As per villagers, young men and women from the surrounding villages are not given jobs inside the factories. The jobs they get are mostly peripheral and temporary. “My son got a job inside the factory because he lied about his place of residence, he gave a different address. If he had said he is from this village, he wouldn’t have been given a job inside,” informed Swaminathan. This is a common tactic employed by most of the factories in the area where the management prefers to recruit workers from distant places to avoid formation of any support or solidarity among the local villagers and the workers inside the factories.

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