KASARGOD: “You may launch a bigger protest than the Chengara struggle and yet the government will find ways to deny you the ownership of the land you were asked to settle down on,” a former Collector portentously told residents of Chengara Colony in Periya in the early days of the settlement. Seven years down the line, the residents - around 85 families - feel cheated and robbed off their dreams. They are not just denied ownership of the land, even access to their own properties is restricted, the residents told Express.
“Even when the LDF Government celebrated its first anniversary by giving ownership of land to around 2,000 families, it ignored us again,” said K Thankappan, a protester who participated in the Chengara struggle and a resident of the Chengara Colony at Kaliyadukkam in Periya. Collector Jeevan Babu K, who works closely with the residents as chairman of their society, said the land belonged to the Department of Scheduled Caste.
“Once it is transferred to the Department of Revenue, the district administration will initiate steps to give the ownership of the land to the residents,” he said. But there is more to the officialese than meets the eye.
“There is a concerted effort on the part of the officials to deny our children the land we got from the Chengara struggle,” said Padmanabhan, 63, a resident.
As part of the Chengara package, 360 of the 7,500 protesting families were offered cultivable land in Periya. What the district administration, however, set aside for the Chengara protesters was 166 acres of treeless expanse of rocky terrain.According to the package, the government has decided to give 50 cents each to the families from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities and 25 cents each to the families from the general category.
“We almost gave up seeing the land. Even the backhoes cannot sink their teeth on this rocks,” said V C Manian, a resident. But the district administration offered to fill up the land with fertile soil from the outside to make it cultivable and ensure water for irrigation, apart from building homes for the settlers. “We fell for it and they made asses out of us illiterates,” he said, not hiding his bitterness.
The officers had only begun to make knots of the package. Instead of giving each family their promised land as a whole, they split the land into residential area and, ironically, farm land.
The residential area comprised of eight cents each, which together formed the Chengara Colony.
The government built 50 houses and handed over the keys to 50 beneficiaries in 2012. It is now building 35 more houses, which will take the total number of families to 85.
Across the road, the district administration demarcated plots of 42 cents and 17 cents on the rocky terrain and classified it as agricultural land. None of the families do farming on the land as the district administration had not kept its promise of filling up the plots with fertile soil, and neither does the land offer a means for irrigation. “We have been reduced to scarecrows on the rocky terrain,” said Manian.
STUCK WITH SOCIETY
Not all of the 360 families fell for the district administration’s promises. Around 80 families found the land at Periya uninhabitable and demanded the government show them better places. “They are well-settled in Cheemeni, Kallar and Manjeshwaram and do not face the problems faced by the residents of Chengara Colony in Periya,” said Leela Sasi, a resident. At Periya, prodded by the officers, the residents formed the K R Narayanan Cooperative Village Inhabitants Welfare Society to better manage the Rs 11.37-crore rehabilitation fund. “But the society turned out to be our undoing. Now we just want them to dissolve it,” said Sasi, who was earlier the secretary of the Society.
GRAFFITI OF GRAFT
Citing the bylaws of the Society, the officers have consistently denied the residents autonomy over the usage of funds, Leela said. “Officers decide the projects and they rope in a contractor to implement them. We have no say on how our houses should be,” she said. In contrast, those who have settled in other panchayats of the district have got land ownership records and are given money to build their houses. “Here, they promised to build houses with an area of 360 sq ft, but what we got is just 320 sq ft,” said Ponamma Padmanabhan (60), another resident. During the rains, the rooms are flooded because the windows do not have overhangs. In 2012, the then chief minister Oommen Chandy sanctioned Rs 50,000 to each resident to develop their houses.
“We had to run around for several years to get that money,” she said. Now, the district administration is using the entire money to build a tin-roofed walled extension, said Madhu A S, a resident working as a mason to the contractor. “If they (officers) gave us the money, we could have done it for just Rs 25,000,” he said. The skill development centre built at a cost of Rs 70 lakh is another manifestation of wasting public money. It was built three years ago and has tools to teach carpentry, handicraft, tailoring and pottery. After its inauguration, it has never been opened, said Omanna Kalambalam. The building has not yet received power connection. “Yes, that is a failing,” conceded Collector Jeevan Babu.
Caught In A Snare
The trap of classifying the land as farmland hit the residents late but hard. Three years ago, Vijaya, a painter by profession, thought of moving out of the house of his father Sisupalan who participated in the Chengara struggle. As the family had filled their eight cents of land with soil and had a kitchen garden on it, Vijaya thought of making his house on the unused 42 cents. The panchayat would not give a permit to the house as it was on an agricultural land.
The KSEB would not give power connection for the same reason. The residents took up the matter with the then Collector. The officer was blunt. “Who asked you to build the house on farmland?” he asked them, as quoted by Omanna Kalambalam, a neighbour of Sisupalan. “So, what do they expect?” she asks. “Should we throw our children in the forest?” asks Vijaya.