60 yrs on, Guj Dalit’s wait for land is over
But it came at a price which activist Bhanubhai paid with his life demanding title ownership in Hemaben’s name
AHMEDABAD: In the second week of February, Gujarat’s Dudhka village resident Hemaben Vankar’s nine-year-long struggle to get ownership of eight hectares of land that her family had been tilling for several years came to an end. But it came at a price Dalit activist Bhanubhai Vankar paid with his life when he set himself on fire demanding title ownership in Hemaben’s name.
Having served as talati (village level revenue officer), 61-year-old Bhanubhai was well versed in land reforms rules. To get the land title, Hemaben had paid the requisite ₹23,000 in 2013. But her quest for ownership continued for five years.
Frustrated by the delay, Bhanubhai immolated himself at the Patan district collector’s office on February 15. He succumbed to the injuries the following day.
“I have forgotten the number of times I visited Gandhinagar and the Patan collector office (to get the file cleared). At every stage, I faced a new and different kind of struggle. It is sad that I got the land title only after losing Bhanubhai,” said Hemaben.
The district collector, however, said the land in question was gifted and did not come under the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act. “The revenue department inquiry revealed that she did not live at the given address,” said Patan collector Anand Patel, adding that the land has been given to her as a “special case”.
LAWS OF THE LAND
The process to allot land rights began soon after Gujarat was formed in 1960 after separating from Maharashtra.
Two legislations govern land redistribution: The Land Tenancy Act (1948) and the Gujarat Agricultural Land Ceiling Act (1961).
However, the net effect of the tenancy law was that ‘surplus’ land holdings belonging to Brahmins and other upper castes devolved principally to middle castes, but not to lower castes and Dalits. “In Gujarat, this process led to economic dominance of Patels that continues to this day,” says Topher L Daugal, in his thesis submitted to the University of Mexico in 2003.
After its formation as a separate state, Gujarat enacted the ceiling Act of 1961 that capped agricultural land ownership at 16 acres and declared rest of the land as surplus. The excess land was kept for redistribution to deprived communities, including Dalits. “Implementation of the Act has not been up to the mark for various reasons. Each district (Gujarat has 33) has its own set of challenges as some were part of the Saurashtra province and others were under the British rule,” said Manjula Pradeep of the Navsarjan Trust, which has been working for land rights of Dalits.
Activists Pradeep, late lawyer Mukul Sinha and Rashtriya Dalit Adhikar Manch convener and MLA Jignesh Mevani have filed PILs in the HC and RTIs to know how much land was declared “surplus”, how much was allotted and how much has been allotted with title rights pending.
According to Navsarjan, only 101,700 acres (7.5%) of the 1.35 million acres originally estimated as eligible for redistribution in Gujarat were declared “surplus” till 2000. In 2012, the revenue department replied to a PIL claiming that 163,880 acres of land had been allotted to 37,198 families, including 17,163 belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
When asked about the total size of the land to be allotted, commissioner (land reforms) Hareet Shukla expressed his inability to comment citing busy schedule.
Deputy CM Nitin Patel on Monday during the ongoing budget session of the assembly said, “The redistribution work will be done properly.” He was responding to Mevani’s allegation that even after issuing a circular, nothing concrete has been done.
Vankar’s self-immolation reignited the demand for allotting land rights to Dalits.
The BJP government — on the back foot after the party’s reduced tally in the December elections — on February 19 issued a circular to all district collectors for allocation of plots rendered surplus to SC/ST/OBC beneficiaries within six months after Mevani asked for five acres of land for every Dalit family.
Rupani’s assurance is not easy to implement as there are around five million Dalits in Gujarat (8% of its over 60 million population) and as many as 60% of them are landless (according to Ishant Anand’s research based on National Survey Sample 2013).
“It is a daunting task,” an official, who was not willing to be named, admitted.
Hemaben Vankar received the land title for an eight hectare patch of land in Dudhka village on February 20, after activist Bhanubhai Vankar set himself on fire in protest against delays.