Indian Adivasis begin hunger strike in call for land rights and justice
Members of an Adivasi community from the Indian state of Maharashtra have begun a hunger strike in protest at the eviction of some 200 families from their land and its appropriation by the Maharashtra State Farming Corporation in July 2003. The families were evicted despite having lodged a court appeal on the right to the ownership of the land, and a Supreme Court ruling banning their eviction until the case is settled. Four members of the community began the hunger strike on 06 October to demand their rights to the land, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). The Adivasis claim that the land was confiscated by force and that their huts and crops were destroyed with support from state police.
A 1961 Maharashtra Agricultural Land Act placed a ceiling on individual land holdings, allowing the state government to take possession of land above this ceiling. The intention of this Act was to allow for the redistribution of land to landless farmers such as the Adivasis. The Adivasis and the AHRC state that this redistribution did not fully take place and thousands of acres now under government control in Maharashtra have not been cultivated and remain vacant. The Adivasis occupied small plots of this uncultivated land, which in the present case they have farmed for almost two decades. They claim a legal right to the land under the provisions and objectives of the 1961 Act. In what has become a lengthy and complex legal process, an appeal has been lodged against a decision rejecting the Adivasis claim to the land. According to the AHRC, a 2001 bill has now effectively set aside earlier provisions for distribution of land to the poor and landless.
Previous legal attempts by India’s poor to protect their rights have been successful in Maharashtra, notably in regard to the rights of pavement and slum dwellers who were evicted from their shelters without compensation by Bombay Municipal Corporation. The Indian High Court established that the action threatened their ability to earn even a subsistence living and therefore to feed, clothe and provide shelter for themselves and their families. Under India’s domestic legislation, rights such as food and shelter are not considered ‘fundamental rights’ but rather ‘Directive Principles’, which are not considered enforceable in the courts. However, in a landmark judgement, the court ruled that these economic and social factors had a direct effect on an individuals fundamental right to life, and it was therefore illegal to deprive individuals of their means of livelihood, including basic shelter.
The Adivasis (from the Sanskrit meaning ‘original inhabitants’) of India constitute about 67 million of the country’s population. Corresponding largely, but not entirely, to the officially designated ‘Scheduled Tribes’, they are geographically dispersed and culturally diverse. Their distinct identity has many aspects: language, religion, a profound bond to community and nature, a tradition of community-level self government, and an egalitarian culture that rejects the rigid social hierarchy of the Hindu caste system. MRG sees the Adivasis as marginalized, indigenous, ethnic, religious and linguistic communities, often without power, whose rights must be a concern of all communities, both in India and internationally.
Minority Rights Group International has highlighted the situation of the Adivasis of India in a report, which considered the issue of land rights among numerous features of discrimination and marginalization. MRG supports the call of the Asian Human Rights Commission for the state authorities to urgently consider the situation of the Adivasis and their demands, and take immediate action to provide housing and provisions for the evicted families. Steps should be taken to resolve the issue of land ownership giving due and full consideration to international law and the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples, and in the spirit of the Indian legislation designed to redistribute land to the landless poor.