The Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme, which works in seven of India’s poorest states to help socially excluded communities to claim their rights and entitlements more effectively, gives a glimpse of the success its campaign received in Bettiah district of Bihar:
The tricolour flag of India is mounted on top of a peepul tree in the pastoral village of Salaha, located in the Bettiah district of Bihar. It was erected on the day that the dalit villagers took control of 30 acres of land that was rightfully theirs. “It is a sign of our triumph against the zamindars [land owners] and farmers who have encroached upon our lands for decades,” explains villager Sohan Ram. Thanks to the work of PACS and partner Samagra Shiksha Evam Vikas Sansthan (SSEVS) this is the first time that dalits, like Sohan, have been able to acquire land and they are rightly proud of their achievement.
Forced to work on their own land
In the feudal district of Bettiah, the upper caste land-owners (who constitute 30% of the population) own 90% of the land, whilst 90% of dalits are landless.
Although many dalits have a record of their land rights (Parcha), provided to them under the Bihar Land Ceiling Act (1961), they do not have actual possession of their land. Instead, they are forced to work as agricultural labourers on their own land by the traditional landowners. They are paid paltry wages and the working conditions are exploitative.
“167 people got their Parcha under the Land Ceiling Act way back in 1991-92,” explains Sohan. “But our lands were occupied by powerful landlords and we could never oppose them individually.”
Fighting for their rights
But times are changing… the dalits and mahadalits of Salaha village are, all of a sudden, showing boldness to acquire their land for themselves, thanks to efforts taken by PACS partner SSEVS.
Through the PACS programme, SSEVS has been working with Salaha village for over 2 years. They have helped the villagers to mobilise themselves into a land rights committee, which they named Lok Sangharsh Samiti (LSS). Sohan is the District Coordinator of LSS. “After forming LSS, we are now strong and united,” he says. “There is a new-found vigour among people to set things right.”
Through the committee, Sohan and the other 11 members promote awareness amongst dalits about their rights and also educate them about the benefits of availing government schemes.
Indeed, back in 2012-13, they submitted an application for possession of homestead land to the District Magistrate and Sub-Divisional Magistrate in Bettiah. As a result, 25 families got legal ownership of homestead land. Moreover, all the homestead land titles were granted in the wife’s name (rather than joint titles with husbands) to ensure effective and independent land rights for marginalised women.
5000 people join together
The major work of the committee has been to help the dalit villagers to gain possession of the lands for which they already have land records.
In April 2015, the villagers (under the leadership of Sohan) went to meet the then Chief Minister of Bihar and submit their application for land possession. But the group was lathicharged (beaten with lathi sticks) by the police and 214 of them were arrested and kept in custody for 12 hours.
The following month, LSS submitted an application to the District Magistrate (DM) with a warning that, if he didn’t give them occupancy within 15 days, they would organise a Satyagraha (Gandhian-style non-violent resistance) and seize the lands themselves. Since the DM didn’t take any action, the villagers ended up taking matters in their own hands.
On June 25, 2015, as proposed, the entire dalit population of Salaha seized 30 acres of land adjoining their village. They were supported by a crowd of 5000 people from other villages and panchayats who surrounded the land, shouting slogans. Together, they ploughed and levelled the land, and sowed seeds.
The next day the zamindar who used to cultivate the land threatened to shoot them and take back the land. But, as Sohan Ram says, “We were not frightened; we told him that we were even prepared to die to get possession of our land. We will cultivate it and reap the harvest.”
Not giving up hope
For the villagers of Salaha it’s a long battle. Although they now have possession of the land that is rightfully theirs, more than 100 cases under the Land Ceiling Act still need to be resolved.
Backed by LSS and the PACS team from SSEVS, the villagers are relentlessly fighting for their rights through dharnas (sit-ins), satyagrahas and rallies.
Mohan Ram – a resident of Salaha village – says, “Land is our only hope for a living. If we get land, there will be food on our plates, our children can study, and our families can live in dignity. That’s why we are fighting till our last breath.”
And the flag on the peepul tree in the middle of the village is a symbol that land rights and justice are possible. It’s a sign of achievement, pride and freedom. A reminder not to give up hope.