Struggle for land rights

Nikku.Balaraju and Pranita Bhushan


Land is the most crucial resource, valued for its economic, political and symbolic importance. It is a productive, wealth creating and livelihood-securing asset providing a sense of identity and belongingness. Traditionally it has been the basis of political power and social status.  In many cases the economically and politically powerful people confiscate these resources. Unequal access to land resources, make people more vulnerable to conflict. The poor, marginalised, excluded groups have always fought against the oppression for securing legitimate access to resources.  Following is a case of scheduled tribe in Rampachodavarm region of Andhra Pradesh who lost their productive lands due to the changes in the systems of land ownership and struggled to regain control over the resource.

Legal Provisions

Tribal interests are protected under various special provisions of the Indian Constitution, especially tribal autonomy and their rights over land, through Fifth and Sixth Schedules. Moreover, there is also a demand for inclusion of tribal-dominated regions of Andhra Pradesh under the Sixth Schedule which provides for establishing autonomous district councils and autonomous regions empowered with legislative, judicial, executive and financial powers, which has not been considered as yet. Subsequent Acts and amendments were also made with an intention to protect the rights and interest of the tribals in the state but the enforcement of the legislation has been weak. As a result the tribals were alienated systematically from their resource endowments.

Changes in land Ownership

The Muttadari and Mahaldari systems in Andhra region and Jagirs, Izars, or Mukthas type of land tenure system in the Telangana region of present Andhra Pradesh State were practiced. The Nizam rule had encouraged the non tribals migration to the tribal areas in exchange of land revenue.  Under the feudal land tenure system the landholders had the right to evict a tenant and hence the tribal tenant did not have security over the land cultivated. After the country got independence, in spite of the legal provisions and constitutional protection, the tribals were continued to exploit.

The migrated non-tribals exploited the tribals due to their ignorance regarding the land registration systems.  Different methods, like physical force, inducements etc., were used to appropriate the resource. As a result many tribals lost their ancestral land. In most of these cases there were no proper documents validating such transfers. Many of the tribals from this region have become agricultural laborers when their lands were appropriated by powerful non tribals. The non-tribals who were migrants to these areas, now, dominate the socio economic and political space of the tribals.

The non-tribal people who got possession of the lands gradually became the virtual owners. The question is how could tribal ownership and control over land be protected?  In what way can these illegally transferred lands from scheduled tribes be restored them? The case of struggles and resistance carried out by Darbagudem tribal communities can lead to some answers

Darbagudem: the epicenter of land struggle

Darbagudem Panchayat is essentially a tribal Panchayat but dominated by the non-tribals in East Godavari district. Panduvari gudem is one of the tribal hamlets with about 70 koya families under the Darbagudem Panachayt. They claim that hundreds of acres of fertile land, which belonged to their ancestors, is now with the non tribals.

SAKTI, a local NGO, formed in the year 1985, supported the cause of tribals and started working with the tribals, recognising that the tribal economic growth is at the expense of their land, forest and labor. The organisation believed that among other methods of social action, using the legal powers is the most effective governance tool to regain the ownership rights.

With SAKTI’s association, the tribals slowly became aware of the land rights that were due to them but however, denied. With this new awareness, they started questioning the legitimacy of the land ownership in the year 1996 and the struggle reached it’s peak between the years 1999 and 2001.  However, the landlords who were more powerful than the tribals, both economically and politically, put up a strong resistance by way of  denying them access to market and stopping food supplies to the tribals. No medical help was provided even during emergencies. The  leaders were threatened and were offered “incentives” to suppress the agitation. The non-tribal lobby on the other hand procured court stay orders.

In order to build up the capacities of the tribals, SAKTI staff got hold of the revenue records from government offices as old as 1933 and trained the members in understanding the loopholes in the land transfers. This legal knowledge gave the community members a confidence to argue their cases. The youth were taught the surveying techniques and trained in reading the revenue records such as RSR(resettlement register), Aadangal and Enjoyment Survey Register(ESR). Information from these three records enabled to locate the person who was enjoying the land illegally.  Once the plot was identified on the ground, matching the survey numbers, the concerned person was ordered to hand over the plot to the rightful owner.  A Land Transfer (LTR) case was then filed with the local Tehsildar.  According to the law, it is the responsibility of non-tribal to prove his/her land ownership in the agency area.

After a long period of struggle, the members proudly claim that they have got 300 acres of land back from the landlords in Darbagudam and Laxmipuram and another 500 acres of land is pending under land transfer cases. The acquired land was shared between the rightful owners.  Single, widowed and destitute women were given priority to cultivate the lands acquired. The new registrations of the land acquired were held in the name of women.

The emergence of women leadership

The women members played an active role in the struggle demonstrating their commitment and passion in seeking the rights once lost. Saryam Ramulamma, from Tatiramanna gudem, aged 40, recollects the long years of struggle.  The confrontation with the dominant caste groups began when Ramulamma and her social group had raised questions on the ownership rights of the non tribals. The community members objected to agriculture operations of the non-tribal landowners when they found loopholes in the transfers. The landowners did not take the issue seriously and transplanted paddy. As a response the tribals waited till the crop maturity stage and harvested forcefully. At the same time Ramulamma and others filed LTR cases with the help of SAKTI team.  The community members also exerted pressure on district administration to accelerate LTR cases filed and finally got 240 acres of land released. Ramulamma recalls, “In the past, we used to get scared of government officers when they visited our village. But today we have gained the confidence and are also able to find loopholes in the government records. Today we control 240 acres of land and are reaping the benefits of our struggle. The change of ownership on a piece of land has made a difference in our lives”. Though the land is under the position of the community now, the tribals are yet to receive individual land titles.  “The struggle will continue not for the land, but for the titles,” conclude the members.


The conflicts among the resource rich and poor communities are only an indicator of the complexities involved with the changing legal system, land ownership and registration practices and bureaucratic rules. The continuing land struggles and tribal unrest emphasize that the issue is not only of economic in nature. They reflect the nature of state interventions and legal structures provided to protect the interests of the tribals.  To survive in this kind of environment the tribal communities need to acquire the governance tools. We hope the experiences of Darbagudem tribals and the approach adapted by SAKTI will provide us useful tools in empowering the communities to gain access and control over their rightful resources.


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