On the 6th of February, 2017, more than 100 Dalits, most of them women, were dragged, beaten and arrested in Ilaparru Village of Nandivada Mandal of Krishna District when they tried to take posession of 165 aces of ‘contested land’. Dalits have been on relay hunger strike for the past 143 days fighting for the rights over the assigned lands given to them, but which were occupied by Kapu, Kamma and Rajaka landlords.

Since no elected representatives or officials cared about them even after scores of petitions, memorandoms and dharnas, they decided to undertake direct action under the leadership of All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU), Kula Vivaksha Porata Sangham (KVPS) and the CPI(M). Prior to this, Ilaparru has been under Section 144 since the past three months while Section 145 was imposed near the ‘contested land’ since the 5th of February. 400 policemen and 24 police pickets guarded the roads to Ilaparru to foil the protest of the Dalits.

165 acres of land was assigned to 138 Dalit families by forming a Field labour Cooperative Society with the registration number 412/1921, as early as 1921 by the colonial British Government. They have been cultivating the land since then untill the early 1990’s when the lands were either occupied or taken for lease using the thumb impressions of the illiterate Dalits.

Thus, new names were added to the exisiting society and an alternative namesake society Agriculture labour Cooperative Society was formed to facilitate the transfer of lands from the Dalits to the dominant caste landlords. However, this namesake society was not even audited once while the original one has documented audit records every year since 1921.

The Dalits cultivated paddy in these lands from 1921 to 1995. However, the agricultural return out of these lands was minimal as the Kolleru flood water used to inundate these lands. In 1982, the SC Corporation and Indian Overseas Bank gave a loan of 1.6 lakh to buy 16 oil engines to remove the flood water. The loan is still not repaid and the society still gets notices for the same. There are enough records and documents supporting this claim.

With the rise of aqua culture in the area in the 1990’s, the landlords converted most of their agricultural land into fish tanks as this resulted in more profits with less investment, less risk and less labour costs. The landlords encroached upon the lands of the society, dug them up and coverted them into fish tanks using the power of their caste. Today, there is hardly any agricultural land left in the village. Almost all of them are converted into fish tanks.

This has adversely affected the ground water and has contaminated the water bodies around, including Kolleru which was once upon a time one of the worlds largest fresh water lake. The people in the village have been buying drinking water bottles and packets as the water being supplied from the Panchayiti tap reminds you of the colour of sugarcane juice.

Nandivada mandal, under which Ilaparru falls, has the second largest per capita income in Andhra Pradesh while it is the only mandal across the state where the population has been decreasing every year continuously since the early 2000’s. 100 acres of agricultural land gives 5500 work days per crop while 100 acres of fish tanks need only 4-5 people across the year.

This led to a serious work crunch in the village which led to migration despite the high returns on the fish tanks. 29 year old Ravi Kumar running his business in Hyderabad left his village 17 years ago. “Close all the fish tanks and I promise to come back to my village,” he says. In the last ten years, the reduction in the population also led to the decrease in the number of Mandal Parishad Territorial Constituency (MPTC) seats in the mandal from 12 to 11.

70 year old widow Chinna Visrantham says, “RMP doctor Gollapudi Baburao has taken away our land for treating my ailing husband in 1995. When I questioned him about this, he said he will provide me with injections and medicines for the rest of my life. How can someone be so inhuman?” The landlords have used all methods – from forcibly acquiring fingerprints of the illiterate Dalits on a blank paper to threatening them to part away with their lands at a throwaway price.

While most people relented, some of them still held on to their lands. These people were tamed with the help of revenue and police officials, who were hand in glove with the landlords, considering their caste and political clout. Thota Seetamahalakshmi, TDP MP in Rajya Sabha from West Godavari district, belonging to the Kapu community, has allegedly occupied 27 acres amongst these 165 acres of assigned land. Apart from this, she encroached upon 300 acres, of which 180 acres are assigned lands in the same village, allege the Dalits.

After the Dalits started protesting against the encroachment of assigned lands by the dominant caste landlords, she sent emissaries to the village offering them to develop their village and lay cement roads if the Dalits agree to forego the land and stop the movement. The Dalits in the village rejected the compromise. “We have walked on mud roads all of our lives. We don’t mind walking on them in the future. But, we want out lands.

How can rich upper caste politicans like her grab away the land which the Government has given to the poor?” asks Sundar Rao, who has been part of the agitation since 2007. While the politicans offered cement roads as a compromise, the officials led by the RDO, in a bid to mediate between the landlords and the Dalits asked the landlords to ‘give crackers’ for Diwali and build a temple for the Dalits.

“What will we do with a temple and crackers? We are neither Hindus nor we celebrate Diwali. Instead of giving our land to us, they are also imposing their Brahminical culture on us,” says a young Dalit who requested not to mention his name. Since the lands have been transferred after 1954 and there are enough proofs of the same, including the loan from IOB, according to the A.P. Assigned Lands (Prohibition of Transfers) Act 1977, the Govt. should take all the necessary steps to handover the land to the Dalits.

When a delegation of CPI(M), KVPS, AIAWU leaders and the Dalits went as a padayatra from Ilaparru to district headquarters Machilipatnam demanding justice, the Collector agreed that the lands legally belonged to the Dalits and that he is waiting for the case in the High Court to be cleared. The landlords approached HC way back in 2009 but the judgement is still pending.

28 year old M Rajesh, who has been leading the struggle since 2013 says, “The Collector, the Joint Collector and even the new RDO has ruled that the land belongs to the Dalits. However, none of them is handing over the land to the Dalits. This is the reason we tried to reclaim the land and hand it over to the Dalits today (6th Feb 2017). Arrests will not stop the movement.
The women are even more determined to continue the struggle now. We will take this movement to its logical conclusion.” A Dalit himself, Rajesh is the Krishna district secretary of the All India Agricultural Workers Association (AIAWU). He further says, “The fish tanks occupy close to 28000 acres in Nandivada mandal. Each fish tank needs 7 permissions from the District Fisheries Director. However, more than 20000 acres of fish tanks are illegal and don’t have the required permissions.”Author is alumnus of  IIT Mumbai and a freelance journalist.
Courtesy- The Hnas India