After Decades of Struggle, Rajasthan's Bhil Adivasis Hope to get Land Rights

With assembly polls due this year-end, the Vasundhara Raje government plans to enlist the camps being held for land allotment and grants to Bhil households as one of its achievements. But many villagers feel it is too little, too late.

Dungarpur, Rajasthan: Sitting on the floor of her two-room mud house perched on a hillock in Chak Khaparda I hamlet of Dungarpur district, South Rajasthan, Vanni Rot, 43, gazes through the open door at her two-acre farm. She is gravely aware of her dispossession of it. Then, she scours her large tin trunk stored with all the valuables, to reach for the eviction notices that the Rajasthan government has been serving her family. She has been termed an ‘encroacher’ on her ancestral land where three generations of her family have lived and farmed.

Just 5 kilometres away in Navaghara village, another subsistence farmer, Tanu Bhil, 50, recalls the expropriation of her farmland over the past two decades. Around three bighas (1.2 acre) of her land were acquired by the government for constructing a school, a road and then a ration shop. She received no compensation.

Subdued by decades of deprivation, Vanni and Tanu, like a thousand other Bhil adivasis, now eagerly look forward to the upcoming two months that may put an end to such exploitation.

The district administration has earmarked 1,872.57 acres across eight Bhil villages for allocation to adivasi farmers. An order by the Dungarpur sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) dated May 2, 2018, calls for organising revenue camps by the state government in these villages. Scheduled to be held from May 12 to July 27, 2018, the motif of the camps is to allot land and grant titles to adivasi farm households.

But, even as the land allotment camps will be a benchmark to grant land rights to adivasis, there are multiple concerns over the process. Gram sabhas have raised issues in land records – erroneous land parcel (khasra) numbers, multiple names and ownership claims over one plot and arbitrary classification of land used for farming and housing as grazing grounds.

In February 2018, the Dungarpur SDM released lists of land plots that were suitable for allotment to the adivasis in all nine villages. These lists of plots with corresponding khasra numbers and acreage were displayed at the gram panchayat and tehsil offices for public scrutiny. Thereafter, in March and April, the patwaris (gram panchayat-level revenue department officials) collected applications from farmers for khatedaari rights (ownership) over this land. These were then reviewed and the eligible applications were shortlisted, based on the criteria set forth in the Rajasthan Land Revenue (Allotment of Land for Agricultural Purpose) Rules, 1970.

Gangabai Haja (left) and Champabai Kauda from Chak Sarkan Kopcha village are among 81 farmers whose applications were rejected in 2016. With the help of Vagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan, they have now filed a petition in the Jodhpur high court.

On the day of the camp, a five-member (land) allotment advisory committee, headed by the local member of legislative assembly (MLA), will sanction orders to grant land titles. Thereafter, a mutation process will be initiated by the patwari, following which a title document will be handed over to the eligible applicants.

“We have received about 670 applications so far. Each farm and house traced on our revenue maps is made available to people on demand to avoid any confusion,” said Deepak Mehta, SDM, Dungarpur. “For Navaghara village, where the present mapping and records are severely lacking, we have planned to undertake an electronic total station survey before the camp”. At present, 99 families, in Navaghara, are indicated to be located in one large land parcel (khasra) with no micro-mapping carried out.

“My husband died fighting for this land,” added Vanni. Hurji Rot’s passport-sized photo is the only tangible memory of her husband in her house.

In August 2015, while returning from Udaipur after participating in a rally to demand land rights, Hurji was among the two people who died when the bus ferrying protestors met with an accident.

In a region where most households sustain themselves on daily wage and migrant labour in the unorganised sector, Hurji knew the economic security that owning a piece of land, albeit small, would bring.

“Nobody in our village has formal salaried employment – government or private. Land is the only asset,” said Nanu Ram Bhil, 57, a resident of Khaparda village, adding that “People live here hand-to-mouth. You won’t even find Rs 500 at any point in people’s homes”.

The highest earning member of the 94.05% of rural scheduled tribe (ST) households in Dungarpur tehsil and district earns less than Rs 5,000 a month.

In spite of these realities, the battle to own land has been long and arduous.

Adivasi farmers in these villages have been tilling the land they currently occupy since the early 1960s when the erstwhile princely ruler, Maharawal Lakshman Singh, distributed and sold land titles to them. Around 3,200 farmers from across 24 chak rajdhani (princely land) villages spread across three tehsils and three forests in Dungarpur received land from the ruler.

But, when all such princely land – 17,402 acres – was transferred to the government, according to the Rajasthan Land Reforms and Acquisition of Land Owners’ Estates Act, 1963, the adivasis’ land purchase was not recognised.

Babulal Mangla with wife, Dhavri and son, Kishore, at their four-acre farm in Khaparda village. Their application to receive khatedaari rights (land ownership) was rejected as their land is a designated grazing pasture. But, Babulal claims his family is in possession of the plot since 60 years.

In 1977, the first land settlement or cadastral survey was undertaken and the government classified village lands into residential, privately-owned, government-owned and grazing categories.

After this exercise, many Bhil farmers began receiving eviction notices from the government under section 91 of the Rajasthan Land Revenue Act, 1956. Penalty worth 50 times the annual assessment of land began to be recovered from farmers every year. In some villages, this amounts to up to Rs 1,000 per bigha.

“We took up the matter after our sangathan (organisation) was formed in 1997,” said Lalu Ram Bhil, a member of  the Vagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan and another resident of Khaparda village.

Some allotments were made in 2002 and 2006, but vast portions and a number of families were still left out. A pending case for compensation filed by the royal family was cited as a cause for delay by the state government.

The demands were renewed by adivasi farmers post-2012 and a bunch of representations were submitted to the SDM, collector and state revenue department. A 10-day-long protest and hunger strike, too, were held in April 2015.

Following such pressure, on June 23, 2016, the then SDM of Dungarpur issued an order scheduling allotment camps for six of the 24 villages and laid out the procedures for the same. Today, since the first set of land allocations in 2002, around 3,340 acres have been allotted to 1,324 families, according to data compiled by the Vagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan.

But, further allocations were halted after the nine villages (which are being taken up for allotment this year) were stated to be in Dungarpur town’s periphery by the municipal council. Rule 4 of the Rajasthan Land Revenue (Allotment of Land for Agricultural Purpose) Rules, 1970, states that land cannot be allotted in a one-mile radius of towns having a population of more than one lakh. Hence, it had to be later established that the population of Dungarpur town was less than a lakh – 47,706 – and the rule did not apply.

“There has been serious negligence and delay on the part of the administration,” said Man Singh, another member of the sangathan, adding that “It is only because we have followed up the issue constantly that the allotments are taking place”.

Out of the 24 chak rajdhani villages, allotments in six villages were completed in 2016, nine villages will be completed this year while two have been included in Dungarpur town’s periphery and seven are pending.

Some adivasis, therefore, feel that the decision to initiate allotments in the nine villages now is too little too late and is fraught with lapses in land records. They said that the land surveys did not accurately indicate the current land uses. Kamal Ram Bhil, 60, a resident of Khaparda village, said the well on his field has not been assigned a separate khasra (land plot) number.

A deed dated May 10, 1961, indicating sale and location of land issued by the princely ruler of Dungarpur, Maharawal Lakshman Singh to an adivasi farmer of Chak Lolakpur village.

“How will I avail of any scheme for irrigation if my land ownership document does not indicate the existence of a well?” he rued. He intended to upgrade the lighting and pumping capacity of his irrigation system, so his entire two-acre field could be irrigated.

Many farmers also groused that the land records did not mention the wide variety of trees present in their gardens and around their houses and farms.

Another worry was how the undue delay in regularising land possession of adivasis had resulted in seizure of land to a great extent towards rapid urbanisation.

Two of the 24 chak rajdhani villages – Chak Dungarpur and Udaipura – were included in the master plan formulated for Dungarpur town in 1988. “My house and farmland is on the border of Chak Dungarpur and Mandwa. I will not get any right on a major part of this land now,” said Kantilal Bhil.

Madhulika, a software engineer based in Udaipura who has been closely working with the sangathan, said that acquisition of land from the Bhils without any compensation was very common. “Chak Dungarpur, which is a mixed-caste village, had a population of 35 Bhil families. But, over the years, owing to its vicinity to the town, many of the families’ lands were taken away,” she said adding that “Now, there are just seven Bhil families left in the village”.

A major point of contention, however, has been the exclusion of more than 60 families across three of the eight villages from allocation as their land has been codified as grazing grounds.

“A few years ago, we came to know that 32 families in our village were situated on grazing land,” said Lalu Ram Bhil, member of Khaparda gram sabha and one of the affected farmers. “We do not even know when this classification was made. No notice was even sent to inform us. We have been here for more than 60 years”.

Devlibai, a former ward panch from Khaparda village, said the geographical terrain in the region was different and the government’s rules for grazing grounds cannot be uniform for all villages. “A lot of forest and grassland can be found near our villages where the animals go to graze. There is no need to declare the location of our farms and houses for grazing,” she said.

Babulal Mangla is another farmer whose application was rejected on the same ground that the land he occupies was reserved for grazing. Babulal has been a daily wage labourer who has been engaged in plastering and masonry in the construction industry for 20 years. Two weeks before the allotment camp is scheduled in his village, he has skipped work and has been paying visits to the offices of tehsildar, patwari and SDM. “Only khasra numbers 43 and 149/1 are demarcated as grazing land in our village. But, our house has been on khasra number 148 since the 1980s,” said Babulal. “In the last 10 years, my name was included in khasra number 149/1. I do not know how. Now, I will not get any right to my land”.

A common landscape in villages of Dungarpur district, which is named after its many hillocks. House on the crest, kharif maize cultivation on the hill slopes and rice or fodder fields in the centre plains.

Residents complained that the patwaris hardly carried out physical inspection and autocratically altered records.

Mehta admitted that there might have been manipulations in records in the past, as people in the region have been taken advantage of because of their inability to read and write.

“There is no alternative vacant land available in the village now, which can be provided to those who are situated in grazing grounds,” said Mehta.

Gopichand Meena, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Aspur constituency, under whose jurisdiction the villages fall and who heads the allotment advisory committee, assured the farmers that the allotments would be done without glitches this time.

“I will be personally present for the camps. The first set of allotment orders have been granted to 11 farmers in the Chak Khaparda II hamlet in April,” he said. Chief minister Vasundhara Raje is also expected to be present for one of the camps in June to hand over sanction orders for record of rights to farmers. With the Rajasthan assembly elections due in December 2018, the ruling BJP government has been taking credit over this decision, enlisting it as one of its achievements.

In 2016, however, when the allocations were granted in six of the 24 chak rajdhani villages, 81 families’ were denied rights on several grounds. The main reasons given were that their occupation was within 250 metres of a highway and that members of their families were government servants. But, these bases were unreasonable, the families claimed.

Ten of these families from Chak Mahudi I, II and Chak Sarkan Kopcha villages appealed to the SDM again in 2017 to reconsider their applications. On not receiving any response, they filed a writ petition in the Jodhpur high court this year.

“My father retired from service 15 years ago. My brother, Surajmal, and I have been living separately from our parents since the past 20 years,” stated Manilal Rot’s appeal to the SDM on September 5, 2017 adding that “We are cultivating 1.5 acres of land independently, by ourselves”.

Another Chak Mahudi I village resident, Lalit Rot’s allotment of 1.2 acre-land was cancelled because his land was within 250-metres of a highway.

“When I measured the distance of the highway from my land, I found that only part of it falls within the radius while some part is outside of it,” reads his appeal. “I, therefore, request you to inspect the area again and grant allotment”.

Chak Sarkan Kopcha village resident Champabai Kauda’s application for six acres of land was also rejected because her brother-in-law had a government job. Her husband Haja’s appeal clarified: “I am a landless farmer and, by no means, dependent on my brother”. It further reiterated that his father had bought this land from the king and that they had been cultivating it since then”.

In the current allotment procedures, too, the rules for lands in the periphery of a road have been made stricter. Plots within 150 feet on both sides of even the internal pucca roads in the village, not just a highway, would be omitted from the allotment process.

Despite an air of anxiety over the fate of their applications, there is no doubt among people that the camps would bring a sense of relief.

“We rear many cattle and goats. If the government evicts us, where will we go?” asked Shankar Doda of Navaghara village. “Even with land in our name, the government can evict us. But, at least, we can get some compensation”.

Poorvi Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist.