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Triple Exclusion of Dalits in Land Ownership in Kerala

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As a community, dalits are found to be at the lowest level of land ownership in Kerala. This article argues that this abysmal status of land ownership is the result of three exclusionary processes. Dalits were historically excluded from land ownership due to the caste system. Second, they were consistently excluded from the process of land reforms in a significant way. Lastly, the current trends in land market activities tend to exclude them from land ownership. This article shows how social inequality in land ownership in Kerala, known to be a progressive state, remains high. Dalits lag far behind in land ownership as compared to the upper castes reinforcing the fact that the land–caste nexus still dominates in Kerala.
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Article
Triple Exclusion of
Dalits in Land Ownership
in Kerala
C.R. Yadu1
C.K. Vijayasuryan2
Abstract
As a community, dalits are found to be at the lowest level of land ownership in
Kerala. This article argues that this abysmal status of land ownership is the result
of three exclusionary processes. Dalits were historically excluded from land
ownership due to the caste system. Second, they were consistently excluded
from the process of land reforms in a significant way. Lastly, the current trends
in land market activities tend to exclude them from land ownership. This article
shows how social inequality in land ownership in Kerala, known to be a progres-
sive state, remains high. Dalits lag far behind in land ownership as compared to
the upper castes reinforcing the fact that the land–caste nexus still dominates
in Kerala.
Keywords
Dalits, land ownership, legislation, social inequality, mobility
Introduction
The current pattern of land ownership in Kerala is a blot on the progressive image
of the state. The struggling masses of dalits and adivasis in different parts of the
state present a dismal picture of land inequality and exclusion. The struggles for
own a piece of land by dalits in Changara, Arippa and many other micro-conflicts
in the state speak volumes about the continuing ‘land hunger’1 that this commu-
nity has been facing from the pre-independent period. Land inequality in the state
is neither sudden nor accidental but has been the result of different exclusionary
processes. Understanding this dynamics of exclusion becomes essential for
Social Change
46(3) 1–16
© CSD 2016
SAGE Publications
sagepub.in/home.nav
DOI: 10.1177/0049085716654814
http://sch.sagepub.com
1 Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India.
2 Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India.
Corresponding author:
C.R. Yadu, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India.
E-mail: chandran.yadu@gmail.com
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2 Social Change 46(3)
analysing the current land inequality scenario in the state. An attempt is made here
to examine the different exclusionary processes at work that perpetuate land
deprivation faced by dalits in the state.
The contours of the dalit land question can be better understood from the
fact that 60 per cent of the Scheduled Caste (SC) population in Kerala lives in
26,109 dalit colonies spread across the state (Rights, n.d.): all in abysmally poor
living conditions. The pathetic state of land ownership among the dalits seriously
impinges their mobility options. While other communities have opportunities
of migrating to West Asia, dalits lack this mobility option because of their land-
lessness (Scaria, 2010). Omvedt (2006) notes that the situation of Kerala’s dalits
with respect to land ownership at the turn of the twenty-first century was not
much different from what is shown in the Travancore Census of 1931. In this
context, a study of dalit land ownership in comparison with other social groups
becomes important.
The data presented in this article are based on 68th round of the NSSO
Employment and Unemployment Survey, apart from historical surveys. The
article is organised in three sections. The first section examines the ‘triple exclu-
sion’ thesis in detail. The second discusses the current status of land ownership in
the state using tables derived from NSSO unit level data. The final section
concludes the article.
Dalits in ‘Triple Exclusion’
As regards the land question in Kerala, dalits have to bear the brunt of ‘triple
exclusions’. The very first exclusion is their historical exclusion. They were
denied land ownership in the feudal caste-based agrarian set-up. The second
exclusion is their exclusion from land reforms during the post-independent
period under democratic governance. Dalits had to be satisfied with tiny pieces of
homestead lands, so small that they were inadequate for putting up a house. The
third exclusion is the ongoing process of their exclusion from the land market.
The real estate boom and high land prices in the state totally exclude this histori-
cally marginalised group. It has become highly difficult for them to own land
through any market mechanism. This section discusses the three exclusionary
processes that exist in Kerala denying the opportunities for land ownership to
dalits and their current dismal status.
Historical Exclusion
Sangham literature gives valuable accounts of the early history and society of
Kerala. Untouchability and caste differences were unheard of during the Sangham
period2 (Pillai, 1970). The historian Ilamkulam Kunjan Pillai (1970) notes that
private ownership of land began in Kerala long before the Sangham Age. The
landlords and local chieftains of this period were the Pulayas, Idayas, Vedas and
other agriculturalists. There is no evidence of a land owning Brahmin-Namboodiri
class or Devaswoms3 and Brahmaswoms.4 It was with the Aryan invasion starting
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Yadu and Vijayasuryan 3
from the ninth century that land ownership was passed to the present class of land
owners. Kunjan Pillai suggests that the process of transfer of ownership of land to
the upper castes largely happened between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.
Kerala in the seventh and eighth centuries CE witnessed a heavy influx of
Aryans from the north. The Brahmins who had come to dominate in the region
by spreading chaturvarnya (four castes) began to influence the Kerala society
in different spheres. Their culture spread rapidly. This gave rise to a new culture
based on a synthesis of Aryan and Dravidian cultures. This new system under the
Brahmin dominance is inextricably bound with the matrilineal system, the rise of
the Nairs, and above all the feudal system (Pillai, 1970). It was during this period
that the temples, the spiritual strength of Brahmins, became the cornerstone of the
social and economic structure in Kerala.
Temples sprang up in the length and breadth of the region, many of them sup-
ported schools, hospitals, Agraharams and rest houses for Brahmins. When a
temple was built, it was usual to endow it with large tracts of land the revenue
from which was essential to meet the expenses of daily worship, festivals, schools
and feeding Brahmins. During early times, there is evidence to show that these
lands were donated by the indigenous people, the Kuravas, Pulayas and so on
(Pillai cited in Oommen, 1971). The management of temple property was vested
in a board of trustees known as ooralar. As temples grew in number, landed prop-
erty came to be accumulated under these trustees. Both landlords and ordinary
men continued to hand over large tracts of land to temples.
The imposition of land tax that was hitherto non-existent, following the
‘Hundred Year’s War’ between the Chera and the Chola kings, reinforced donat-
ing land to the temples by landlords and ordinary men. To finance the war, the
Chera rulers imposed land tax on all lands other than those owned by the temples.
As a result, many people handed over their land to the temples to escape from land
tax obligations but continued to cultivate their own. The Brahmins later legalised
this surrender and usurped ownership of land, thus reducing the legal owners to
the status of kudiayans or tenants.
As managers of temple wealth, the power and influence of ooralars increased
considerably. Temple land was gradually taken over by Brahmins as their private
property. Going with this trend, various tenure rights were created to suit their
interests. From the twelfth century onwards, the Namboodiris became the ‘monop-
olists of wealth, power, education and divine will’ (Pillai, 1970). They became
more powerful than the kings. The priests and tantris amassed large amounts of
wealth. It is these developments that caused the evolution of the janmi system
in Kerala.
The rise of the janmi system is an important precursor of Kerala society in
the medieval times. Janmam means birth right claim. It denotes the right of a
person to hold on to land in his lifetime, the right to transfer it to future genera-
tions, and the right over a part of the produce from land (Ganesh, 1990). In this
way, the lands that were the property of the indigenous inhabitants of Kerala were
passed on to the Brahmins and temples who later claimed janmam rights over
this land. This heralded the evolution a new landlord class in Kerala society
known as janmies.
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4 Social Change 46(3)
The period between twelfth and nineteenth centuries is considered as the
feudal period in the history of Kerala. It was with the advent of feudalism that
the caste system evolved in Kerala (Gopalakrishnan, 1974). Caste became the
dominant reality in the social, economic and political spheres. Kerala after the
rise of the janmi system presents a complex case of land relations where caste
and class tend to coincide with the agrarian hierarchy to produce the most bewil-
dering social structure. The Marxist scholar, E.M.S. Namboodirippad (1981),
rightly termed this system as jati–janmi–naduvazhi Medhavitvam which means
upper caste–landlord–chieftain hegemony. This translates to a situation where
social relations are dominated by Brahmins and upper castes; production relations
are dominated by landlords and the administration is controlled by chieftains in
the medieval Kerala society.
Dalits, descendants of the erstwhile landholdings indigenous social groups and
who later happened to be at the bottom end of agrarian hierarchy, were subjected
brutal and subhuman conditions. The most draconian form of the discrimina-
tion in this period was the prevalence of slavery. The ‘moral and religious codes
articulated through the ideology and practice of Hinduism and caste’ legitimised
the system of slavery (Mohan, 2015). The untouchable castes, Pulaya, Paraya,
Cheruma, Vettuva and Ullador, filled the position of agrestic slaves in the paddy
fields of kings, chieftains and upper caste landlords. There were other slaves from
other castes such as Ezhavas, Muslims and Arayas as well. These slaves were be
bought and sold like cattle. Gopalakrishnan (1974) points out that a considerable
section of the population in Kerala during the feudal period consisted of slaves
and they kept on increasing over time. At the beginning of the nineteenth century,
almost 10 per cent and 15 per cent of the population of Travancore and Cochin,
respectively, consisted of slaves (ibid.).
Even after the legal abolition of slavery in the three political units of the state,
namely Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, the system continued to be practiced
in different forms. Dalits were completely denied of ownership rights over land
and reduced to the status of agricultural labourers either attached or casual.
Untouchability and other forms of ‘unfreedoms’ were imposed on them. Different
gradations of distant pollution decreed that ‘a Nair cannot touch a Namboodiri, a
Tiyya had to keep at least 32 feet away from him, and a Cheruman or Pulaya had
to keep at least 64 feet’ (Mayer cited in Ramakumar, 2014). As Herring (1983)
rightly noted, ‘landlordism in Kerala was inextricably tied to a social system that
imposed disabilities and indignities on the lowest orders which were extreme,
severe and rigid even by the Indian standards’.
The Brahmins who became the new owners of lands were neither able to culti-
vate land nor able to supervise cultivation by others. They considered cultivating
land themselves akin to a sin. This meant that a new system of land relations had
to evolve whereby cultivation could go on but the land ownership right remained
with the landlords. When control of lands was transferred to Brahmin temples or
chieftains by indigenous owners under coercion, cultivators were given to under-
stand that they were to till the land as a token of allegiance or respect (Varghese,
1970). This is how one of the most important tenures of Kerala called kanam
originated. The lands thus attained were given on kanam, a 12-year fixed rent
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Yadu and Vijayasuryan 5
lease with a provision of renewal at a higher rent rate, to the Nairs in the south and
Nambiars in the north. As they saw direct cultivation something that lowered their
social status, the Nairs and Nambiars leased out these kanam and janmam lands
on pattom and other inferior kinds of tenures to castes and religions just below
them in the hierarchy except the dalits. The main beneficiaries were Christians
and Ezhavas in the south and Muslims in the north. There was another form of
inferior tenure, kuzhikanam, which was intended to put waste lands into cultiva-
tion. But, in this case also the main beneficiaries were Ezhavas and Muslims
(ibid.). Many lower castes and communities, including dalits, were pushed to the
status of agricultural labourers. Thus the whole structure of agrarian hierarchy
came to be determined and governed by the caste hierarchy both reinforcing each
other producing one of the most rigid social structures in the country. Keeping
in mind the intricacy of this kind of a bewildering land tenure system, Daniel
Thorner (1956) offered a useful simplification: ‘A many-tiered edifice of inter-
ests in land—janmies, kanamdars, verumpattamdars—rests on a mass of landless
labourers known as the Cherumas, Pulayas or Poliyars’ (cited in Herring, 1983).
The coming of the British added insult to injury to Kerala’s land relations.
Some historians hold the British administrators responsible for the worsening of
the feudal land relations in Kerala (see Gopalakrishnan, 1974: 431). Panikkar
(2006) notes that the coming of the British helped the janmies reassert their
janmam rights on land. Moreover, the British judges and administrators ruled
that the janmies had all the rights to evict kanakudiayans from their lands. The
judiciary, interpreting property rights according to the English law bestowed
absolute ownership rights of land on the janmies. The application of English
law by the courts had turned traditional customary land laws upside down.
The historical exclusion of dalits by the caste ideology ensured that they would
never own economic resources that would release them from permanent penury.
This was why even after the abolition of slavery they could not gain upward
mobility. In the words of Logan (n.d.), ‘The slaves, however as a caste, will never
understand what real freedom means until measures are adopted to give them
indefeasible rights in small orchards occupied by them as house-sites’ (cited
in Nair, 1986: 58). All through in this phase, it can be seen that the dalits’ land-
less status was preventing them from attaining citizenship. Their poor economic
resources even limited their social movements. Mohan (2015) notes that in none
of the social mobilisations in this period, were dalits present in large numbers. It
also should be noted that even in the social movements among dalits could not
attain the economic and political strength as that of the Ezhavas. This is because
they lacked economic power that could be translated into political power (Pramod,
2004). While the Ezhavas had trade surplus and land ownership, the dalits
had very little resources to draw upon.
Exclusion from Land Reforms
As Kerala was divided into three political entities, Travancore, Cochin and
Malabar, the land legislations implemented in these regions differed in terms of
their nature, scope and impact. It is said that the progressive state policies in
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6 Social Change 46(3)
Travancore ushered in an era favourable to the peasantry. The Travancore govern-
ment passed major laws to grant full ownership rights to cultivators and to control
the power of janmies. Towards this end, the government came up with significant
legislations including the Royal Proclamations of 1865 and 1867, the Janmi-
Kudiyan Act of 1896 and the Janmi-Kudiyan (Amendment) Act of 1932.
In the case of Cochin, the important legislations in this period were the
Cochin Tenancy Act of 1914, the Cochin Tenancy Act of 1938, the Cochin
Verumpattomdars Act of 1943 and the Devaswom Verumpattom Settlement
Proclamation of 1943. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century,
Cochin accomplished more than what Travancore and Malabar could achieve
with regard to tenancy reform (Varghese, 1970).
In Malabar, the British land policy was faulty and actually distorted. Though
the Malabar Tenancy Act was passed in 1930 it was not adequate enough to bring
about a radical change in the tenancy system. But the constraints that the act
brought on the supreme powers of the janmies did provide some slight relief
to actual cultivators.
After the formation of Kerala state, three major land reform legislations
were put into place. Soon after coming to power, the first Communist ministry
passed the Agrarian Relations Bill which was a radical attempt in overhauling the
prevailing agrarian structure. But as the Bill invited ire from the landed aristoc-
racy, they took to opposing it, along with the oppositions, leading ultimately to the
dismissal of the first Communist government in the country by the President.
The next government, a coalition of the Congress–Praja Socialist Party, passed a
watered down version of the Kerala Agrarian Relations Bill in 1961. Meanwhile,
extensive land transfers were taking place amongst owners and their heirs during
this time. Heavy transfers took place, both by transfer of ownership and trans-
fer of possession, covering more than 0.4 million acres in the decade 1957–66
(Raj & Tharakan, 1983). These land transfers constituted a substantial propor-
tion of the area that was intended to be transferred as surplus under the provi-
sions of the Agrarian Relations Bill (ibid.). However, this government too fell due
to differences among the coalition partners. With this, the state again came
under President’s rule with the prospect of implementation of this landmark act
becoming bleak.
The formation of the third ministry in 1967 by the CPI (M) saw a drastic amend-
ment to the Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1964. Thus the Kerala Land Reforms
(Amendment) Act of 1969 was passed in the assembly in October 1969 and
brought into force from 1 January 1970. The Kerala Land Reforms (Amendment)
Act of 1969 broadly contained three schemes. The first was the conferment of
ownership rights to the cultivating tenants of lands leased by them. The govern-
ment ordered that the ownership rights of all tenanted lands would be vested in
the state for subsequent transfer to cultivating tenants. The tenants had to pay a
nominal amount as purchase price. They were also exempted from paying any
rent to either the government or the landlords. The creation of new tenancies was
banned with retrospective effect from April 1964.
The second element of the Act was the provision of homestead lands to
homestead tenants or kudikidappukars. Under this they could purchase from their
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Yadu and Vijayasuryan 7
landowners three cents of their homestead in a city or major municipality, five
cents in a municipality or ten cents in a panchayat area. The kudikidappukars
were expected to pay only 25 per cent of the market value of the land for such
lands and only half of it if the landowner was found to be holding on to lands
in excess of the ceiling limit. One half of this purchase price had to be subsi-
dised by the government. The tenants had to pay the other half in 12 equal annual
installments. Under this provision, more than 300,000 agricultural labourers got
hutment dwellings (Oommen, 1994).
The third scheme of the Act was to take possession of surplus land above the
imposed ceiling and redistribute it among landless labourers and landless poor
peasants. The Act had scaled down the ceiling limit to 20 acres for a family of
five. The ceiling exemption was confined to rubber, tea and coffee plantations,
private forests and other such non-agricultural land and land belonging to reli-
gious, charitable and educational institutions of public nature.
Of the three schemes of the Kerala Land Reforms Act of 1969, the first two
were implemented successfully whereas the implementation of the last scheme
failed miserably (Krishnaji, 2007; Radhakrishnan, 1981). Only one tenth of the
estimated surplus land could be ordered for surrender as on 1988 (Oommen,
1993). Only a little over 1 per cent of the cultivated area could be redistributed
consequent to the imposition of the ceiling. This amounted to an area of 66,984
acres to be distributed over 157,841 households thus making the average plot
size a tiny 0.63 acres: mostly barren and uncultivable this land was not even
adequate enough for a subsistence living.
Studies have found that land concentration did significant reduce consequent
to the land reforms (Oommen, 1993; Radhakrishnan, 1981). The land-owning
power of the upper castes, especially the Brahmins, considerably weakened.
But significantly, this legislation was more beneficial to the tenants than the
agricultural labourers. Available evidences suggest that it was the rich peasants
who were the primary beneficiaries of the land reform of 1970 (Herring, 1980).
Rich peasants who constituted 13.3 per cent of the total households could gain
38.7 per cent of the total redistributed area. While Ezhavas, Muslims and Christians
gained full benefits of the land reforms, the benefits that accrued to dalits was
confined to small pieces of hutment dwellings. They were completely denied of
cultivable land despite being the actual tillers of the soil. The land reforms of 1969
affected the land distribution in such a way that redistribution took place from the
upper echelons to the middle level while the lowest end of the agrarian hierarchy
continued to remain landless and poor with very little gains.
Thus, the land reform measures implemented in the before and after Independence
were excluded the dalits in Kerala. Critiques of the homestead land provision in
the land reforms of 1970 have emphasised that tiny plots of land received under
the scheme were completely inadequate and not enough to even build a house
(Radhakrishnan, 1981). Mencher (1980) pointed out that in Tamil Nadu, the dalit
quarter, known as cheri, was always the property of dalits and thus it was impossi-
ble for the landowner to throw them out from here. She has argued that ‘What the
legislation in Kerala gave to the landless labourers was something that the Tamil
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8 Social Change 46(3)
agricultural labourers had all along. And though some have claimed that the land
around the house was cultivable, for the majority of the labourers this is not pos-
sible’ (Mencher, 1980). Thus the, ‘… legal denial of ownership and access to
land meant that dalits would never evolve as land-owning peasants despite their
continued role in agrarian society’ (Mohan, 2011).
Exclusion from the Land Market
The land market also became exclusionary for dalits given their poor resource
endowments. Historical experience also gave testimony to this fact. In the nine-
teenth century, the land market in the state became vibrant after the breakup
of joint families and the consequent partitioning of family property. For non-
traditional land-owning communities, this was an opportunity for them to attain
landed property. However, the available evidence has shown that dalits could not
become beneficiaries of land transactions occurred during this period. It was
Christians and Ezhavas who gained access to land through market mechanism in
this period. The material deprivation of dalits prevented them from becoming land
owners through market mechanism in the same period while their traditional
non-land owning counterparts could gain from owning landed property.
In Table 1, the share of different communities in the land transactions in the
princely state of Travancore is shown. It is clear from the table that due to the
breakup of the joint family system, the upper castes, the Brahmins and the Nairs
were selling their land far more than they were buying. And it was the Christians
and Ezhavas who were the prime beneficiaries of these sales.
A recent study by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishad based on the data on
land transaction for five years shows that the richest class had gained access to
land at the cost of the lower economic classes in the society (Aravindan, 2006).
The study categorised households into four economic groups based on a com-
posite index comprising the condition of houses lived in, per capita income,
the educational status of members and land ownership. While the first three
classes witnessed a negative accumulation, the highest class had accumulated
landed wealth to the tune of 33,023 hectares of land in a period of five years.
The findings of the study may be summarised in Table 2.
If the revenue collected from land transactions could be an indicator of real
estate activities, notwithstanding the underestimation in value and all, it can be
said that real estate activities rapidly increased in the state. In Figure 1, it can be
seen that the graph rises all over the period. The fall in revenue between 2007–08
and 2009–10 may be due to the effect of the global economic crisis. After this
short period of downfall, the revenue shows a steep increase in recent years. In
the era of high real estate activities and ever rising prices, it becomes difficult for
dalits to own land through a market mechanism. While they can easily sell their
land, but may be unable to buy a piece of land.
As land is increasingly becoming a real estate asset, it is not only the
physical extent of land under possession that matters, the value of land is also
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Table 1. Share of Different Communities in the Land Transactions in Travancore (in percentage)
Name of Community
1926 1930 1935 1940
Sellers Buyers Sellers Buyers Sellers Buyers Sellers Buyers
Brahmin 4.5 2.7 4.3 2.7 3.4 3.2 3 2.4
Nair 38.6 29.2 41.6 36.1 44.4 36.2 47.2 27.7
Ezhava 10.2 12.7 13.3 15.8 14.7 17.2 14.2 13.1
Vellala 6.4 5.8 6.9 5.2 5.1 5.2 4.6 4.3
Other Hindus 9.4 6.9 8.5 8.6 9.1 6.2 6.2 7.1
Backward Hindus 1.9 1.6 1.6 1.9 1.5 0 2 2.1
Christian 23.8 33.9 19.5 25.5 17.7 22.2 18.3 28
Muslim 5.2 4.7 4.3 4.2 4.1 3.8 4.4 5.2
Source: Varghese (1970).
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10 Social Change 46(3)
Table 2. Net Accumulation of Land (in five years)
Economic Class Net Accumulation of Land (hectares)
I –275.8
II –2110.0
III –3681.5
IV 33023.5
Source: Aravindan (2006).
Figure 1. Revenue Generated from Land Transactions in Kerala (in crores).
Source: Department of Registration, Government of Kerala, 2014.
very important. The difference in the market value of land can be an indicator of
inequality in the society. As Morrison (1997) observes:
… there is a widening economic gap between those who have marketable land and
those who do not… Those with valuable land have the capability to use that resource
to advance the family’s fortunes. Those who can nance education, underwrite the job
search, invest in off-farm income sources will accumulate yet more resources which
will be used to advance the family’s social and economic standing. The gap between
the wealthier, better educated and more capitalist families and the others will increase
generation by generation. Those with lower-value land holdings will fall behind and,
of course, those without land will fall even farther behind in their income-generating
capacity and so in social status (pp. 86–87).
As most of dalit settlements and colonies fall in the peripheral regions, their
land commands less value. This is also because of the societal attitude and
social stigma attached to dalits colonies. So, it is highly likely that the real estate
boom will also bypass dalits. Therefore, even for land-owning dalits, the lower
value of their landholdings may become a hindrance to advance the fortunes of
their families.
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Yadu and Vijayasuryan 11
The role of remittances in fuelling real estate boom and thereby land inequality
in the state has long been speculated (Harilal, 2008; Oommen, 1993). Evidence
from micro-level studies also shows that migrants’ remittances are being invested
to buy up land (Osella & Osella, 2000). Since dalits are not a remittance-receiving
community as such, they lack the purchasing power which accrues by virtue of
being a migrant.
The conversion of farmland into real estate has further made dalits vulnerable.
According to a report submitted to the state planning board (2008),
… when the area under cultivation, particularly paddy cultivation in the state started
depleting in the last more than a quarter of the century, its rst casualties where the
SCs and STs who lost their livelihood as petty producers or agricultural labourers on
these lands (Government of Kerala, 2008).
Here was another dimension of exclusion.
In this way, the three exclusion processes discussed above perpetuates the
dismal status of dalits’ land ownership in the state. As land ownership is consid-
ered to be vital for the social mobility of marginalised communities, the landless-
ness of dalits blocks their upward mobility. They are trapped in a vicious circle—
landlessness preventing social mobility and social and economic backwardness
preventing land ownership. Contemporary land struggles in Kerala by dalits are
nothing but struggles for upward social mobility. It must also be mentioned that
the odds working against the dalit ‘land hunger’ are multiple and was very much
visible during the height of the Chengara land struggle. The agitation had to
confront state, political parties and trade unions. What kind of political action
could successfully quench the dalit land hunger is the penultimate question.
Land Inequality in Kerala: Dalits versus Others
Conventional literature on land inequality in Kerala turned a blind eye towards the
social inequality aspect of the land question. The social inequality aspect of land
distribution is an important dimension that needs to be focused more. Studies
have shown that social inequality in land ownership can cause great divergence in
the mobility patterns of different social groups (Yadu, 2014).
Table 3 shows data collected from different village studies at different time
points in Kerala. It clearly shows that the upper castes still dominate land owner-
ship in the state. Muslims and Ezhavas come second in terms of their land owner-
ship position in the society. Comparing Varghese’s (1970) data with other studies
can give us a picture of the land ownership scenario in the pre- and post-land
reform period, though not in a strict sense. It may be seen that the Christians,
Muslims and Ezhavas gained considerably from land reforms. All the studies
uniformly show that dalits are at the bottom of land ownership and not much
has changed even after the land reforms were ushered in. The share of land they
owned in relation to their share in the samples was extremely low. In Varghese’s
(1970) survey, total dalits constituted 19.43 per cent of the sample while their
share in total landholdings stands was a meager 0.9 per cent. Coming to Scaria’s
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Table 3. Caste and Landholding in Kerala: Evidence from Village Studies
Caste
Varghese (1958) Vijayan (1986) Isaac (1992) Scaria (2006)
Per cent in
Sample
Per cent in
Total Land
Owned
Per cent in
Sample
Per cent in
Total Land
Owned
Per cent in
Sample
Per cent in
Total Land
Owned
Per cent in
Sample
Per cent in
Total Land
Owned
Brahmins 0.43 3.2 1.03 3.45 0.2 0.6 1.61 5.16
Nair 18.47 28.38 1.82 5.27 12.5 18.2 2.26 13.82
Other upper castes 0.87 12.22 3.89 4.91 2.8 2.1 1.61 2.99
Total upper caste Hindus 19.77 43.8 6.74 13.74 15.5 20.9 5.48 21.97
Upper caste Christians 16.63 22.42 22.90 34.50
Total upper castes 36.4 66.22 6.74 13.74 15.5 20.9 33.87 78.45
Muslims 11.23 9.75 6.76 7.45 16.1 15.2 11.29 4.68
Ezhava 29.16 19.34 49.62 59.73 43.4 45.4 13.55 16.08
Other backward castes 13.72 2.77 6.75 17.09 19.8 16 15.16 16.82
Dalits 16.41 1.75 30.13 2.18 5 2.3 13.55 3.88
Dalit Christians 3.02 0.15
Total Dalits 19.43 0.9 30.13 2.18 5.4 2.3 13.55 3.88
Tribals – – – – – – – –
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100 100 100
Sources: Compiled from Kumar (2003) and Scaria (2010).
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Yadu and Vijayasuryan 13
(2010) data which corresponds to the year 2006, the same situation almost
continues. This clearly shows that the caste–land nexus is not completely broken
by the land reforms.
Though there are many village-level studies that shed light on the inequality
in land distribution at the micro-level, there is a dearth of studies that has dealt
with social inequality in land ownership at a pan-Kerala level. In this section, we
use the NSSO Employment and Unemployment Survey 68th round (2011–12)
to understand land inequality among different social groups.
In Table 4, the mean and median land owned are given along with the standard
deviation (SD). It can be seen that the mean is always greater than the median
for all social groups, which means that the land distribution is rightly skewed.
The mean land owned for all Kerala is 0.15 hectare. It can be seen that Christians
have a substantially higher average land ownership compared to all Kerala. The
same is the case for Hindu upper castes. Compared to all other social groups,
especially the upper castes, the dalits’ average land ownership is very low. This
finding comes in tandem with available village-level studies.
SD gives a picture of dispersion of landholdings within the social groups.
It can be seen that SCs have the lowest SD compared to other social groups. While
the Christians’ SD is as high as 0.60, the corresponding value for SCs stands at
0.08. This means that the land ownership of dalits is homogeneous in nature.
There are no significant differences in land ownership within that social group.
The high SD of Christians and Hindu upper castes shows that there are different
classes present within these social groups.
Table 5 shows the mean and median land cultivated for different social groups.
The distribution of land cultivated for all social groups is skewed to the right.
The pattern of average land cultivated also shows the same trend as in the case of
land owned. While Christians and Hindu upper castes dominate the scene, dalits
come at the bottom. The dispersion within social groups follows the same pattern
as in the earlier case.
As average land holdings are not a satisfactory measure of a community’s
control over land, to understand the inequality in access to land, we can use a
ratio called Index of Access (Bakshi, 2008). The index of access is defined as the
ratio of the share of total land owned by group j to the share of this group in total
number of households. Thus, the index of access for SC, denoted by IA, can be
represented as
Table 4. Mean and Median Land Owned across Social Groups (in hectares)
Social Group Mean Median Standard Deviation
ST 0.13 0.07 0.18
SC 0.05 0.02 0.08
Hindu OBC 0.13 0.05 0.25
Muslim (non-SC and non-ST) 0.11 0.04 0.25
Christian (non-SC and non-ST) 0.28 0.08 0.60
Hindu Others 0.21 0.08 0.41
Total 0.15 0.05 0.36
Source: Authors’ calculation based on NSS Employment and Unemployment Survey 2011–12.
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14 Social Change 46(3)
Table 5. Mean and Median Land Cultivated across Social Groups
Social Group Mean Median Standard Deviation
ST 0.10 0.08 0.15
SC 0.04 0.01 0.08
Hindu OBC 0.13 0.03 0.28
Muslim (non-SC and non-ST) 0.09 0.01 0.26
Christian (non-SC and non-ST) 0.32 0.10 0.66
Hindu Others 0.19 0.06 0.85
Total 0.16 0.04 0.50
Source: Authors’ calculation based on NSS Employment and Unemployment Survey 2011–12.
Table 6. Index of Access for Different Social Groups
Social Group
Index of Access—Land
Owned
Index of Access—Land
Cultivated
ST 0.80 0.60
SC 0.34 0.22
Hindu OBC 0.84 0.82
Muslim (non-SC and non-ST) 0.71 0.60
Christian (non-SC and non-ST) 1.82 2.19
Hindu Others 1.32 1.22
Source: Authors’ calculation based on NSS Employment and Unemployment Survey 2011–12.
IA = Percentage of total land owned by SC households ÷ Percentage of SC
households to total households
The value of the access index range between 0 and ∞. If IA takes the value 1, it
represents a situation where SC household’s access to land is in proportion to their
share in the total population. Where the Access Index is less than 1, it represents
a situation in which the proportion of SC households in the population is greater
than the share of total land that they own (Bakshi, 2008).
It may be seen that Christians have highly disproportionate access to land
owned and land cultivated. Their index values stand at 1.82 and 2.19, respec-
tively. Hindu upper castes also have index values more than 1, which means that
they have higher proportion of land than their proportion in the population. Hindu
OBCs have higher index values than Muslims both for land owned and land
cultivated. The least index of access happens to be for the SCs. Their index of
access for land owned stands at 0.34 and 0.22 for land cultivated. The pathetic
state of land ownership of dalits in Kerala is a result of the ‘triple exclusion’ as we
have discussed in this article.
Conclusion
The triple exclusion processes placed dalits at the bottom of land ownership in
the state. The structure of land holding patterns went on drastic changes with the
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Yadu and Vijayasuryan 15
invasion of Aryans in favour of the Brahmins. The land-based caste system
completely denied dalits any land ownership rights. All the land reform policies
implemented in the pre- and post-land reform period excluded dalits from their
ambit. The land reforms of 1970 did not recognise them as the tillers of the soil.
The contemporary exclusion of dalits from land ownership happened by way
of their inability to participate in the land market. In an era of sky rocketing
land prices, buying a piece of land became very difficult for them.
The analysis shows that social inequality in land ownership continues to be
high in Kerala. While the Hindu forward castes and the Christians are predomi-
nantly landowners, dalits are at the bottom end of the land ownership pyramid
followed by adivasis. It is estimated that compared to SCs, the access to land
by forward castes is five times higher in the case of land owned and more than
eight times higher in case of land cultivated. The land–caste nexus has not disap-
peared with the passage of time. Such land deprivation is in a major way, imped-
ing the presence of dalits in the mainstream. To ensure their full participation in
the development process, land ownership becomes a necessary condition.
Notes
1. Land hunger was the term which missionaries described to denote the dalits’ urge for
land (Mohan, 2015).
2. The Sangham period lasts from fifth century BC to sixth century CE.
3. Properties belonging to god.
4. Properties belonging to Brahmins.
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Kerala Padanam (in Malayalam)
  • K P Aravindan
Aravindan, K.P. (Ed.) (2006). Kerala Padanam (in Malayalam). Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala Sastra SahityaParishad.