November 21, 2019 / 8:05 AM / 24 days ago

Political row in Indian state sparks debate on land rights for Dalits

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A spat between two political parties in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu over a piece of land has cast a spotlight on the mismanagement of land earmarked for lower-caste Dalits across the country, according to human rights activists.

The state secretary of India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), accused the state’s main opposition party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), of having built an office on so-called panchami land, which is reserved for Dalits.

Panchami land, which was first allocated during the British colonial era, can not be sold to non-Dalits or reclassified, as it was meant to boost livelihoods of Dalits, who were historically denied land ownership.

DMK officials have denied the charges. The case, which is being heard by the quasi-judicial government agency the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), was adjourned until January at a hearing earlier this week.

“Both parties produced relevant documents and asked for more time,” L. Murugan, vice chairman of the NCSC, told reporters on Tuesday.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi Palaniswami has promised an investigation, and said the state government would consider drafting a new law to better protect panchami lands.

Dalit activists said legislation already exists but authorities have repeatedly failed to protect panchami lands from commercial and industrial developers.

“This is not a new issue, it is a long-pending grievance,” said Vincent Manoharan at the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, an advocacy network in New Delhi.

“We are not asking for a new law. We simply want the existing legislation to be implemented, so that panchami land is given to Dalits and any attempt to use that land for other purposes is stopped,” he said.

An 1892 law allocated about 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares) of land to Dalits in a region once known as the Madras Presidency, which included present-day Tamil Nadu state.

Dalits in the state hold less than 10% of the land allotted to them, according to Dalit rights groups.

The lack of documentation makes it hard to prove ownership, and easy for the land to be appropriated, said Vanessa Peter, a researcher at the Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities in the southern city of Chennai.

“It has been a few generations now, so there is little documentation with the owners and the state has not made much effort to map these lands and update records,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.

With a population of about 1.3 billion people on a land mass less than half the size of Australia, rising pressure on land in India for homes, highways, airports and industry is triggering conflicts, with farmers and lower-caste citizens most affected.

India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old attitudes persist, and lower-caste groups including Dalits are among the most marginalised communities.

More than half the country’s lower-caste population is landless, census data shows.

While several Indian states have laws giving land to Dalits, few have done so, according to Dalit activists and leaders here, who say it is the only way they can earn dignified livelihoods.

Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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