On July 21 about one hundred police and security personnel demolished houses and destroyed crops belonging to indigenous Adivasi people in Maharashtra, India. They burnt down hundreds of huts and more than a thousand acres of crops. About two hundred families now have no homes, no food, no livelihood and no place to go. ‘There was absolute peace when the demolition was taking place. Nobody could see or hear the burning in our hearts,’ writes one eyewitness. ‘It’s a heart-rending scene to see the young ones lying in the bushes without any cover above them. Only barbarians can do such acts of cruelty to a hapless people.’
The police and their accomplices were acting on orders of the Maharashtra State Farming Corporation, which holds title over the land the Adivasis are contesting. They carried out the destruction without giving notice and despite community leaders showing documents that an appeal over the title is pending before the Revenue Commissioner at Nashik. At least one leader was placed under detention without charge for the day.
Across India laws originally intended to benefit the landless poor are being perverted in favor of corrupt landlords, businessmen and government officials. Vast amounts of land under government title are lying fallow while people starve. The Adivasis have in the past years occupied large tracts of government-owned land outside their traditional areas, but are now facing confiscation of their land and with this a stable living environment.
Whereas laws enacted after India’s independence were intended to reduce inequities in land ownership, they have never been properly implemented. Many state governments introduced ‘land ceiling’ acts in the late 1950s and early 1960s: in Maharashtra the government passed the Maharashtra Agricultural Land (Ceiling on Holdings) Act in 1961. It limits the amount of land any individual may hold, with the purpose to distribute “agricultural lands as best to sub serve common good”. The intention was that lands in excess of the ceiling would fall under government control and would be redistributed to landless farmers. However, virtually no land was successfully redistributed. Landlords in collusion with corrupt officials avoided regulations by partitioning land or transferring it illegally. Furthermore, in Maharahstra the government set up the Maharashtra State Farming Corporation and gave it cultivation rights over the land. Yet the Corporation has never cultivated about 35,000 acres under its control. It has lain fallow for the last four decades.
Additionally, the laws are now being re-engineered to favor landowners. A 2001 bill has effectively set aside earlier arrangements for distribution of land to the poor, and is likewise attempting to bypass the constitutional provisions under and for which the original act was set up. This is despite the fact the landlords were already adequately compensated for excess lands taken by the government.
For years, the Adivasis have been occupying small parcels of government-owed land that was lying fallow and have been involved in confrontations with officials and powerful local interests. They more recently started a legal campaign on the grounds that by leaving 35,000 acres of ceiling land fallow the Farming Corporation is grossly violating the objectives and spirit of the Ceiling on Holdings Act, not to mention the provisions of the Constitution of India under which it was constituted. As a 1990 ruling permitted landless encroachers certain rights to stake claims of ownership on vacant government land, the Adivasis lodged an application with the Bombay High Court in 2000 for consideration of title over occupied ceiling lands. In 2001, the Court ordered revenue officials to assess the claim, however the District Collector rejected it on a technical point. A formal appeal has now been lodged with the Revenue Commissioner at Nashik against the decision of the District Collector. Besides this, a second writ petition is being prepared for the High Court, to challenge the constitutional legality of the 2001 bill permitting the state government to transfer ceiling lands back to landlords. Despite the fact that the legal appeal is pending, the police launched the July 21 raid without notice.
To put a stop to this gross injustice, the Revenue Commissioner at Nashik must first overthrow the earlier decision and assess the claims of the Adivasis to title over occupied ceiling land. Secondly, the government must retract the 2001 law that returns land to the landlords that was meant for landless people. These acts are in violation of India’s international obligations, in particular of the rights to food and adequate shelter. They are morally and legally reprehensible, and are but further evidence that the Law of Manu–the thousands of years old justification for the elite to treat other persons as sub-humans–prevails in India over and above the rule of law.