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Lack of political will in Kerala has ensured that tribal land rights are paid mere lip-service by subsequent governments
Kerala, acclaimed as India's most progressive and model state, has earned the distinction of protecting the basic rights of the tribal population who form the largest ethnic minority at the bottom level of Kerala society. All major national and international agencies, including Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen, applauded this `God's own country' as a model state in the fields of literacy, education, health, family welfare, life expectancy, gender ratio, representation in public service, etc. However, the nearly 3.5 lakh tribalsbelonging to 35 different communities, who form roughly one per cent of the state's population, lag terribly behind the so-called mainstream society of Kerala in all these areas.
True, this `red-belt' state is politically advanced. However, the two major ruling fronts - the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) - exhibited a remarkable collective unity not only in non-implementation of the 1975 Act for restoration of alienated tribal lands but also in hoodwinking the very Act, which they had passed unanimously in the state assembly in April 1975. All this while various tribes are facing a severe threat to their very existence and the apprehension that many of them will become extinct during the next 25-50 years.
Undoubtedly, the tribal land issue has become the single major human rights issue in present day Kerala. Says former Supreme Court judge, VR Krishna Iyer: "The Kerala Scheduled Tribes (Restriction on Transfer of Lands and Restoration of Alienated Lands) Act, 1975, was not implemented so far due to lack of political will on the part of successive ruling governments and political parties."
Unfulfilled efforts to solve tribal land alienation has a long history in independent India, starting with the Dhebar Commission's major recommendation that all the tribal land alienated since January 26, 1950, the day the Indian constitution came into force, should be returned to their original rightful owners. It took almost two decades for the tribal ministers of all states to meet at New Delhi to pass a resolution on April 1, 1975, containing the spirit of the Commission's recommendation. This was followed by the passing of the 1975 Tribal Land Act by the Kerala assembly, unanimously with veteran CPI leader, C Achutha Menon, as UDF chief minister, and veteran CPM leader, EMS Namboodiripad, as main opposition leader. Moving the bill in the assembly, then revenue minister Baby John of Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) said that the encroachers had snatched the lands from the tribal adopting fraudulent methods, apart from providing them dry fish, tobacco, and paltry amounts of money in return. "Whatever may be the methods adopted, this government considers all such land-transactions as thefts, and we are determined to return the stolen property to their rightful owners," he declared.
Passing of this Act was followed by the declaration of Emergency in June 1975. The 20-point programme announced during the Emergency again found a solemn pledge to restore alienated tribal lands throughout India. The Act passed by the Kerala assembly got the mandatory assent of the President of India on November 11, 1975. Yet, throughout the Emergency period, which lasted till March 1977, the Act was not implemented. At the same time, even after passing the Act and its getting the president's consent, massive encroachment of tribal land continued unabated, especially in the predominant tribal belts of Attappadi (Palakkad district) and in the tribal-dominated Wayanad district. In fact, the government took 11 years to formulate the rules to implement the Act, which was formed only in 1986 with retrospective effect from January 1, 1982. Even after the belated formulation of rules, the successive governments failed to implement it while, on the other hand, the powerful lobby of encroachers, with due political patronage, continued their tribal land-grabbing spree.