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JOHN ABRAHAM

India,

John Abraham is leading the rural poor in Maharashtra to occupy and stake a formal claim on unused government land, with potential legal, economic, and political implications nationwide.

This profile below was prepared when John Abraham was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.

INTRODUCTION

John Abraham is leading the rural poor in Maharashtra to occupy and stake a formal claim on unused government land, with potential legal, economic, and political implications nationwide.




THE NEW IDEA

John is concerned by how, all across India, and particularly in the state of Maharashtra, laws originally intended to benefit the landless poor are being misused by the government to benefit corrupt landlords and businessmen. Vast amounts of land under government title are lying fallow while people starve. In response, John is establishing a new legal right for impoverished rural groups to own and cultivate unused government land–over which they have had no prior claim–through a coordinated scheme of occupation and farming, political pressure, and legal maneuvering. John's approach working with adivasis (exploited indigenous peoples) is unique among land rights battles in India, in that he has organized people to take over large tracts of government-owned land outside their traditional areas. Whereas other battles are being fought in forest regions that adivasis have inhabited for centuries and the government is now trying to depopulate, John has recognized that the root issue lies in giving people the economic and legal power they need to assert their rights through owning any land, anywhere. From observing scattered adivasi families quietly eking out a living on fallow government land, he has built a campaign of simultaneous overt encroachment, public advocacy, and creative courtroom proceedings.

The key to success for a legal claim to land lies in having the claimants physically present on the contested site. By motivating large numbers of adivasis to come together and occupy big expanses of land, then exercise a legal claim to its title, John intends for the campaign to have a dramatic effect. The size of the people's presence puts weight behind their demands, allowing them to lean on weak parts of the government machinery. The adivasis also gain strength when drawn together, through cultural celebrations and programs to improve their livelihoods, literacy, health, and awareness of their legal rights. In so doing, they develop a newfound dignity and self-esteem, as they at last find free expression of their right to choose their own lifestyle.

John's simple premise–that vacant government "ceiling land" originally intended for landless people should in fact be theirs to own and cultivate–may have enormous ramifications. While his work at present is restricted to Maharashtra, similar legal and social conditions exist throughout much of India, and the campaign can easily spread if a working precedent is set. As John remarks, "The implication of winning this case is that the legality of the last 50 years of all state holdings will be in question." But his opponents are powerful persons whose privileged positions depend upon their ability to dominate India's millions of rural poor economically, legally, and politically; John and his colleagues, then, are preparing for a hard drawn-out fight.




THE PROBLEM

Whereas laws enacted after India's independence were intended to reduce inequities in land ownership, they have never been properly implemented. Many state governments introduced "land ceiling" acts in the late 1950s and early 1960s: in Maharashtra, the government passed the Maharashtra Agricultural Land (Ceiling on Holdings) Act in 1961. These acts placed a "ceiling" on how much land any one person could possess and manage. Lands in excess of the ceiling would fall under government control, with a view to redistribution among landless farmers. The new laws were intended to enhance the development of a cooperative rural economy and increase the number of small cultivator-owners, rather than tenant farmers.

In Maharashtra and a number of other states, however, much land was not redistributed. Landlords in collusion with corrupt officials avoided regulations by partitioning land or transferring it illegally. Furthermore, in Maharahstra, rather than redistributing the land among the poor, the government set up the Maharashtra State Farming Corporation and gave it cultivation rights over ceiling land. Yet the corporation has never cultivated about 35,000 acres under its control. The land is officially recorded in revenue records as having lain fallow for the last four decades.

Additionally, the laws are now being reengineered to favor landowners. A 2001 bill for amendment to the Ceiling on Holdings Act has effectively set aside earlier arrangements for distribution of land to the poor, and is likewise attempting to bypass the constitutional provisions under, and for which, the original act was set up. This is despite the landlords already having been adequately compensated for excess lands taken by the government.

For years, adivasis in Maharashtra occupying small parcels of unused government land have been involved in confrontations with officials and powerful local interests. Being among the most marginalized people in India, the majority living as semibonded laborers, the adivasis have in the past had little hope of success. In the 1980s and 1990s, lawyers and rights groups began representing individual cases in the courts, but as the piles of petitions grew, they became bogged down in India's cumbersome legal system and again the victims suffered. Small disorganized groups of squatters were easy prey for the police. They would be arrested and then have great difficulty in getting bail. They were constantly called in for trivial legal proceedings. As John remarks, "Harassing the adivasis through court cases became entertainment for the state authorities." Again, there was such an imbalance between the government agencies and vested interests behind them on the one side, and the individual claimants on the other, that these attempts to obtain land by small litigants were frustrating rather than achieving their aspirations.




THE STRATEGY

John set up Bhumi Hukka Andolan (Land Rights Movement) in 1995 to spearhead the adivasis' unparalleled legal, political, and moral challenge to the management of ceiling lands in Maharashtra.

The legal campaign starts from the position that by leaving 35,000 acres of ceiling land fallow, the farming corporation is grossly violating the objectives and spirit of the Ceiling on Holdings Act, not to mention the provisions of the Constitution of India under which the act was constituted. In 2000 the campaign lodged an application with the Bombay High Court for consideration of title over ceiling lands occupied by adivasis, under a 1990 ruling permitting landless encroachers (on vacant government land) certain rights to stake claims of ownership. In 2001 the court ordered revenue officials to assess the claim; however, the District Collector rejected it on a technical point. A formal appeal has now been lodged against that decision. Meanwhile, a second writ petition is being prepared for the High Court challenging the constitutional legality of the 2001 bill permitting the state government to transfer ceiling lands back to landlords. If this petition fails, John intends to challenge the initial distribution of land after 1961 and expose the massive malfeasance that occurred at that time as a means to throw into chaos any talk of "redistribution" back to landlords.

The campaign to occupy ceiling lands involves documentation, community renewal, advocacy, and support for the legal battle. At present, there are over 300 families on the contested land, and another 200 actively involved. Bhumi Hukka Andolan records family details and documents claims in full. Each family is registered for up to five acres, and ownership of land is split evenly between husband and wife. Every family contributes what it can afford to the legal fight. More importantly, people also lend practical support: when government officials dragged their heels after the 2001 court order, for instance, one application after the next was sent demanding action. When this failed, an indefinite hunger strike was declared outside the office, and at that point the bureaucrats agreed to act without further delay.

The coming together of adivasi households is also a cause for celebration and reawakening. As people free themselves from semi-bonded labor and get a sense of a common future, their cultural life is revitalized. Soon after occupying land, adivasis often rejoice with spontaneous outpourings of song and dance. These are not nostalgic acts, but rather the expressions of people again relishing the fullness of life and kinship. They are statements of renewed human dignity that arise from a feeling of control over land and destiny. Recognizing this, John is devising a local curriculum based on adivasi songs and stories, as well as their keen familiarity with the natural environment. He has also begun work on livelihood projects for women.

John is keenly aware of the need to take advantage of the media, lobby groups, umbrella organizations, and personal contacts, both to forward the campaign and insulate it from attack. He provokes the attention of newspapers and television, prepares publications, communicates with others working on land reforms and seeks to strengthen local groups by building up district and regional support bodies. At the state level, he meets with persons and groups that can pressure the government and make it realize the extent and seriousness of the campaign. He also presents the case personally to numerous government officials. At the national level, he is in contact with land rights campaigners, political activists, and Ashoka Fellows throughout the country. The initial writ to the Bombay High Court, for instance, was filed with assistance of Ashoka Fellow Colin Gonsalves's Socio-Legal Information Center. He has relied on national as well as international links not only to advance the work, but also to protect him and his associates when threatened. For example, on one occasion when he was detained by the police, release letters and appeals arrived on the station's doorstep from ex-president K. R. Narayanan, Amnesty International, and the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, among others.

An important element in the strategy is compromise. Because the ceiling land does not have any unusual innate value for the adivasis–it is not, after all, their ancestral territory–they are willing to negotiate with the government to move elsewhere, despite having spent years clearing and tilling the land. John is acutely aware of the needs and desires of the 300 families currently at the center of the dispute, and he wants to see their lives stabilized as quickly as possible. However, he is not worried that a negotiated local settlement would spoil the prospects of statewide and nationwide impact; if the government were to reach a deal, it would implicitly validate the adivasis claims. "The moment the 300 moved off," says John, "I would have thousands more come and occupy some ceiling lands elsewhere with the same expectation."

Politically, many opportunities and challenges lie ahead. John's first objective is to get a large enough population of adivasis into the area contested to obtain leverage on local councils–possibly to see the establishment of a new local council dominated by adivasis. At recent local elections, a member of their community ran for council, and although unsuccessful, John was proud that he ran strictly on the issue of land rights and refused to be co-opted by groups with their own political agendas. Indeed, the supporters of the campaign have on the whole not been swayed by professional ideologues and party organizers, because their interest is simply in getting land, not political grandstanding.

John always has his eye on the national level, but he is acutely conscious of the organizational difficulties there. The land rights campaigns taking place in India are deeply fragmented and politicized. John is concerned by how ideological and personal agendas get in the way of a single objective: obtaining land for landless people. As a result, he says, "We are winning battles, but not the war." So far as the ceiling land campaign is concerned, there are numerous other states in which similar work could begin, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, and Karnataka. Ultimately, John envisions concerted nationwide action aimed at getting the landless out of poverty and putting wasted land to use–with positive consequences for the national economy and society as a whole.




THE PERSON

John first became socially active during the nationwide fishermen's struggle in 1983. That year, he left a Catholic seminary in Tamil Nadu, adjacent to his native Kerala, and was brought into the movement by Jesuits. John's awareness of social injustice was heightened, but he felt poorly equipped to analyze the problems he saw. He took up economics, and having graduated with outstanding results went on to complete a Ph.D. comparing the economic and social conditions of India's urban and rural settings in 1992. Throughout this period, he was active in student politics, but he eschewed the hard left-wing views of his peers and preferred to apply the tools obtained from his learning to examine issues discretely and nonideologically. During university breaks, he stayed in villages, working as a casual laborer and learning more about rural life. Throughout this time he wrote many research papers, some of which were published.

After completing his studies, John was keen to get back to the countryside; a chance meeting with an organic farming specialist gave him the opportunity. He traveled to Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra, where he lives to this day, and began researching for Asha Kendra, an organic farming group. John soon realized that local people were locked in desperate struggles for land. The daily atrocities visited on adivasis by the police and hired thugs of the local elite shocked him. He soon became involved, filing complaints of violence and lodging cases to stop evictions. His formidable education and creativity quickly led him to the forefront of the movement, and in 1994, he formed an umbrella body over about 14 local groups working on land rights.

It was during this period that John saw the possibility of launching a legal challenge to obtain title over ceiling lands. In 1994 he organized the first big ceiling land encroachment in response to news of the government's plans to return it to landlords. In 1997 he was asked to leave Asha Kendra, as Bhumi Hukka Andolan, set up in 1995, was by that time attracting considerable attention. John was himself the subject of police harassment and assassination attempts. He has since made a livelihood from farming, receiving some support from generous friends.

John is a determined person with a can-do attitude. For instance, finding that the land rights campaign is spending too much money on lawyers, he has now registered to study law, with the intention of representing cases personally. As always, he has the courage to put himself forward in a volatile political and social environment. He understands that for real progress to be made toward economic and social equity in India calculated risks must be taken.




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