Indian tribal protesters stand up for their rights

Tribal protest Image copyright Haris Kuttipuuram
Image caption The 'standing protest' has entered its sixth month

For more than five months, a group of 50 tribespeople have been standing outside a government office in the southern Indian state of Kerala to press their claim for land and amenities.

They are demanding that the government deliver on its promise of giving land, water and electricity to the community.

Tribespeople comprise nearly 500,000 of Kerala's 33 million people and are mostly landless and desperately poor.

The agitators have travelled to the capital, Trivandrum, from their faraway villages to participate in the protest.

They live in a rented house in the city and arrive at the office at eight every morning to begin what they call "Nilpu Samaram" or "Standing Stir". They bring their own food.

The tribespeople stand uninterruptedly for nearly 11 hours every day outside the office even as ministers and officials pass them by.

Writers, filmmakers and some political leaders drop in to pledge support. Some donate money; others sing revolutionary songs.

"Many more are willing to come but we are restricting the number to avoid inconvenience to the people," protest leader CK Janu says.

Stellar record

At the root of the demonstration is a long and arduous battle that Ms Janu and her fellow travellers have fought for their fundamental rights.

By Indian standards, Kerala has a stellar record in land reform - distributing land to the landless - but it appears to have bypassed its tribespeople.

The tribespeople say they were promised land - ranging from one to five acres per family - by a previous Congress party-led government headed by former chief minister AK Antony after they waged a 48-day-long protest in 2001.

Ms Janu says the number of landless tribal families has now grown to about 75,000 - up from 35,000 during the 2001 protest when the government promised to allocate 12,000 acres of land for their rehabilitation.

Image copyright others
Image caption Ms Janu says the tribespeople want to live with dignity
Image copyright Haris Kuttipuuram
Image caption Outsiders sometimes join the protest singing songs in solidarity

When the government failed to keep its promise, Ms Janu led more than 1,000 tribespeople in 2003 to illegally occupy a wildlife sanctuary in Wayanad district.

Armed police and wildlife officials took two days to clear the sanctuary. A tribal and a policeman were killed in pitched battles and police firing.

'Without a break'

Kerala's minister for tribespeople PK Jayalakshmi says the government has met most of the protesters' demands.

The government has so far been able to provide more than 9,000 acres of land to 6,887 families and plans are afoot to give land to another 417 families soon.

"Land is being distributed as per its availability. It is a continuing process," Ms Jayalakshmi says.

But Ms Janu is not convinced.

"There's no water, power and other infrastructure where land has been given to us. Most of the land is not cultivable. Officials are not visiting their new villages in the forests and seeing the conditions our people are living in," she says.

"The government should have done its homework properly before the 2001 agreement. We want to live with dignity."

The protesters mainly live in the three districts of Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad and, reports say, in recent years, a number of infants have died due to malnutrition and local women have been sexually abused in the tribal settlements by outsiders.

They say it is not easy fighting for your rights standing up the whole day.

Twenty-one-year-old Vineetha's family received an acre of land but, she says, the land cannot be cultivated and is often trampled over by marauding elephants and wild boars in the northern district of Kannur.

Now she participates in the protest every day, with her 42-year-old mother Kamala.

"I have developed body pain and swollen feel as I come here every day and stand without a break," she says.

But she is not willing to give up fighting: "My mother and I are prepared to die here. We will not go back until our demands are met."

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