Back in 1891, the then Chengalpet District Collector J H A Tremen Heere, a Britisher, submitted a report on the socio-economic, political and cultural condition of the dalits. He said in the report that even after the abolition of slavery in 1844, the practice continued in disguise in the name of “Padiyal” Bonded Labour.
With land in total control of Brahmins and Goundars at that point in time, the dalits were bonded agricultural labourers and landless workers. Terman noted in the report: “The small or marginal land holding, housing, literacy, free labour without force/bondage, self-respect and dignity are the factors that could lead to transformation in the lives of dalits.”
Based on the report, British Parliament in 1892 passed the Depressed Class Land Act. Under the Act, 12 lakh acres of land were distributed to dalits in Tamil Nadu. The lands — called Panchami lands — were given away under the condition that the beneficiaries would not sell them off, lease out under tenancy, give as gift, or pledge them for the first 10 years. Even after 10 years, it could not be transferred under the above four causes to non-dalits (as in tribal lands that cannot be transferred to non-tribals in scheduled areas). If transferred in violation of the above conditions, the deal would be null and void under the Act.
But, as found out through an RTI application filed by activist Y Aruldoss, of the 1,04,494.38 acres of Panchami land in Tamil Nadu, 12,415.52 acres are now with non-Dalits and 74,893 acres with the Dalits.
What happened to the remaining land? The government is mum.
D Ravikumar, general secretary, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) says: “Landlessness and servitude are interconnected. Landlessness among dalits is very high in Tamil Nadu compared to the other states.” “Small share croppers are entering into servitude and the population of landless labourers who are dependant on the land is increasing with every passing year,” he says.