On 8 February 2019, the Attappady Cooperative Farming Society leased roughly 2,730 acres of land to LA Homes, a Thrissur-based construction company, in a highly controversial decision. The society is a state-run project in the Attappady village of Kerala’s Palakkad district and was set up in 1975 to provide land to 420 Adivasi families. The pattayam, or title deeds, of this transferred land are in the names of these 420 families. However, the families found out about the transfer, which is effective for 25 years, in early 2020 when businessmen began touring the land. The families now feel deceived by the ACFS and accuse it of breaking a 44-year-old agreement between the state government and the society to protect Adivasi land and livelihoods. Since 2018, Adivasi groups in Attappady have organised major protests demanding that the full land be returned to Adivasis and these protests have intensified after locals found out about the deal with LA Homes.
As per the ACFS’s website, the society’s primary goal was to return land to Adivasi families, whose traditional lands had been forcibly acquired by governments and plantation owners over the past century. It had been established “with the aim of improving the life of 420 landless tribal families of Attappady.” The collective was formed under the Western Ghats Development Programme, a centrally funded project launched in 1974. An evaluation report of the programme from 1982, released by the Planning Commission, noted that the ACFS had helped to improve the economic status of tribal families “while taking care to maintain the ecological balance of the area.”
Almost four decades later, the ground reality is starkly different. Several local activists, a journalist, a farmers’ union leader and an Adivasi leader of the affected families told me that the cooperative, in collusion with government officials, has defrauded them of their land rights. The members of the society are entirely Adivasi but its governing body is made up of various government officials. Adivasi activists told me that D Balamurali, the district collector of Palakkad and the president of ACFS was present at general body meetings held in early 2019, where Adivasi members of the cooperative vetoed any proposal to bring LA Homes on board. They said the society still went ahead, leased the land and claimed that the Adivasi members had given their consent for the transfer. The activists also contested the government’s assertions about when these meetings were held. In addition, AK Balan, Kerala’s minister for welfare of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, has made confusing statements about the Adivasis right to the land and its ownership.
On 18 September 2020, fifty Adivasi activists, from various tribes of Attappady, filed a petition against the ACFS board’s decision before the Kerala High Court. On 22 September, the court stayed the contract for a period of two months, pending further proceedings. On 20 November, the court further stayed the contract for another three months.
The legality of transferring Adivasi land has always been hotly disputed in Kerala. Today, Dalits and Adivasis constitute 85 percent of landless people in Kerala but the two communities were largely ignored during land reforms enacted by the state in 1970. Since then, Adivasis in the state have organised widespread protests for land. The state government responded to these protests by creating farming collectives or cooperative societies, often with central government aid, in which Adivasis were given land and infrastructure to build a livelihood. The ACFS was one such project.