VIJAYAN, VIPITHA (2017). 'Landlessness and Capabilities : A case study of Squatter poor at Chengara, Kerala,India' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


The immediate academic and political context of the present paper is the debate on the Kerala Model and its resultant social and economic inequality and capability deprivation of various social groups in Kerala. ‘Caste - class identity’ is ‘an inherent feature of the socio - economic relations in Kerala’, and still continues to be a major factor of deprivation and hinder upward mobility in several respect. Here the paper addresses the challenges of landlessness in hindering human capabilities and in building an atmosphere for decent life. The contemporary land question in Kerala has rooted on the question of caste in which the ‘outliers’ are left out of the domain of public action and public policy. The communist - led land reforms of the early 1970s were exclusionary in nature in that they denied dalits productive land. Instead, they were provided only minimal land grant for housing. Besides, the land reform policy in Kerala, as it shaped over the decades between the Communist and the Congress – led governments and in the light of constraints imposed by the Central government, contained decisions contrary to the radical spirit, the communists sought to imbue it with. Chief among these was the decision to exclude the plantations from its purview. This led to the huge concentration of land in the plantations. In the light of this longer history, the paper addresses the social changes in Kerala in the new millennium where fresh conflicts for plantation land emerged and gave way to depoliticized groups forming new communities away from the mainstream society. The paper locates the Chengara settlers of Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, who mainly form the Scheduled caste group of Kerala and their well being, freedom and rights in the highly developed society of Kerala. Once they formed a society, the caste headmanship starts to dominate them, inhibiting their political freedom, opportunities and overall life. Though the social justice is denied, the community do not urge for enhancing their capability to come out of the social and economic inequalities they face. The paper has mainly three objectives. Firstly it sketches the conflict for land at Chengara in the light of the problem of exclusion of the Dalits and Adivasis in the Kerala Model. Secondly, it explores a major question of the capability deprivation of the group at Chengara in terms of their land rights , ie, the socio-economic position of the marginalised that came into the fore in the wake of the Chengara land struggle which is in clear rejection of the solution of welfare proffered by the Panchayati Raj institutions through responsibilized welfare. Thirdly, the social history and the origin of this group (who are termed as the squatter-poor in the paper) are taken up in order to reflect on their historical deprivation in terms of their capability,ie, how the historic land deprivation is related to their current capability deprivation.

The paper used primary and secondary source of information. A field survey is conducted in the squatter settlement at Chengara. A snowball sampling technique has been adopted, considering the difficulties of fieldwork at the squatter settlement and the difficult physical terrain of the region. Along with a sample survey at the squatter settlement, semi - structured interviews with selected workers, protestors, leader of the struggle, union members were also conducted to reflect on the background of the struggle. In addition, public sphere materials, press reportage, books in Malayalam etc. have been used. The study mainly used the capability framework in analyzing the qualitative information that collected from the respective field. The study found that the squatter poor have passed through age-old deprivation and poverty. The squatter women are the victims of domestic violence and assaults. These groups of people are plagued by historical disadvantage, suffer stringent forms of control and engage in forms of resistance against it. The historical disadvantages define their capabilities. They lack legal status which denies them access to basic amenities and make them insecure. They lack the support of political movements through which they could have asserted their claims to citizenship. They were dependent on their leader (a form of caste headmanship forming an alternate government there) which actually diminished their citizenship and binds them to him in a patron - client relationship. However the squatter poor develop distinct kind of resistance in. They subvert the authority of their leader in different forms since they do not possess democratic rights. It appears now that such pressure has now gathered into open resistance –recent reports from Chengara are of the dethronement of the leader by the ranks. So it can be concluded that informal form of power may seize resources for the poor, but it does not guarantee democratic ethos and this seems to apply for rural, on –slum communities with Ambedkarite ambitions too.  

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