July 09, 2023

Telangana: The Struggle for House-sites

S Veeraiah

THE struggle of poor people in Telangana for houses, and for house-sites (homestead land) is intensifying. They have constructed huts on the vacant government lands. Despite facing police repression and intimidation from various quarters, large numbers of homeless poor are joining the struggle. They remain steadfast, fighting for their right to house pattas. The people fear that if they delay in occupying vacant government lands, they may not have any land left for themselves in the future. They perceive it as a "now or never" situation, as the government itself is selling off vacant lands or allocating them to big businesses under the guise of development. On the other hand, real estate land grabbers are colluding with revenue, police, and municipal officials to occupy these lands unlawfully.

In light of these circumstances, the Struggle Forum of Telangana Mass Organisations organised a bus jatha to instill confidence in the people engaged in the struggle. More than 50,000 families have constructed huts on government lands across 64 centres in 19 districts. A team of eight leaders from the Struggle Forum, led by its convenor S Veeraiah, embarked on a bus jatha, visiting each of these centres. They shared meals and stayed alongside the residents in these huts. This experience was a stark departure from what the residents were accustomed to, as they had only seen leaders staying in expensive hotels and guest houses with air conditioning. The 10-day bus jatha was inaugurated by Brinda Karat, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, in Mahabubabad district and concluded on June 27th in Rangareddy district, with BV Raghavulu, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, present as the chief guest.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi fails to understand the importance of privacy for women. The Government of India has not constructed a single house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana in Telangana. However, they are spending a staggering Rs 467 crores on constructing a lavish building for the prime minister in New Delhi. It is truly shameful! The state government is also prioritising the construction of a grand residence for the chief minister and the state secretariat building, rather than fulfilling their promise to provide double-bedroom houses for the homeless. These poor people have been neglected for decades, even during the rule of the Congress party in united Andhra Pradesh.

Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life, and the Delhi High Court has affirmed that the right to have a place to live is an integral part of the right to life. Poor people do not wish to encroach upon private property; rather, they rightfully believe that it is their entitlement to receive a piece of government land and assistance to build a house. The majority of working people in this country do not receive minimum wages. The Modi government has set the floor level minimum wage at Rs 178 per day. However, the state government has not revised the minimum wages for any of the 73 scheduled industries. The impoverished population is unable to afford a plot of land in their lifetime, let alone construct a house. It is the responsibility of both the central and state governments to ensure housing facilities for all.

The BRS government had made a promise to provide double bedroom houses to all homeless people, but this promise has not been fulfilled. Instead, the government is attempting to divert people's attention with the 'Gruhalaxmi' scheme, which has proven to be impractical. According to this scheme, if a plot of land is registered in a woman's name, the government will provide Rs 3 lakhs to assist in the construction of a double bedroom house. However, it is common practice for land to be registered in the name of men in this country. Furthermore, the allocated amount of Rs 3 lakhs is insufficient to construct a house that meets government specifications. In fact, the government itself states that they spend Rs 8.5 lakhs on each double bedroom house in large-scale construction projects, which naturally would be doubled for individual constructions. This is why the people are demanding Rs 5 lakhs from the state government and Rs 10 lakhs from the central government.  But the government remains silent on the issue of lakhs of people who do not even possess a piece of land.

While this is the situation of the poor people, the officials, in collaboration with land grabbers, have resorted to attacking the residents of slums. These land grabbers employ JCBs (earth-moving machines) to demolish the huts. Shockingly, even pregnant women were not spared of police lathicharges. To date, the police have filed criminal cases against 530 people, including women. Additionally, 35 people have faced SC/ST atrocity charges, which is surprising considering that many of these poor people belong to the SC or ST communities. Moreover, 212 individuals have been subjected to bindover at the tahsildar’s office. Furthermore, 54 people, half of whom are women, have been imprisoned. In an alarming incident, an adivasi boy has been arrested under the Prevention of Dangerous Activities (PD) Act. The police lathicharge has resulted in injuries to 248 people, with women also being subjected to physical assault within police stations. Additionally, thousands of huts have been set on fire by the police.

On the very first day, the police attempted to obstruct the jatha's progress. When the leaders of the jatha visited the site in Mahabubabad where the police had demolished huts, the police tried to prevent their entry. However, the leaders persisted and managed to reach the site forcefully. In response, the police arrested two of our leaders and mistreated the bus driver and photographer before confiscating the jatha bus. Their actions were met with resistance from the hut dwellers, forcing the police to retreat.

In addition to police interference, upper caste landlords also sought to impede the jatha in certain areas. They established "village development committees" in several districts of Telangana, comprising leaders from different castes. These committees, led by upper caste landlords, operated parallel to the gram panchayats. In Jangampally, Kamareddy district, all villagers were instructed by the committees not to cooperate with the bus jatha. Those who defied this order would face expulsion from their caste and would be denied services within the village. However, the organisers of the jatha stayed with the hut dwellers and consumed whatever food they offered, catching the oppressors off guard.

In Korutla, Jagityal district, the owner of a function hall refused to provide a venue for the meeting due to pressure from the village development committee. As a result, the public meeting had to be held in the rain. The poor people living in these huts endure the presence of venomous snakes and scorpions. Instances of a cobra entering huts in Chennur, a python in Yellandu, and a large scorpion found on a bed in Amarachintha have been reported. Furthermore, during a meeting in Kapugallu, a snake managed to enter the gathering.

Certain elected representatives and officials are making arguments that go against the principles of the constitution. The MLA of Mahabubabad, for instance, claims that people who have migrated are not eligible for house sites in that area, despite the fact that the MLA himself is not a native of that constituency. Similar arguments have been put forth by ward councilors in Korutla. Many officials argue that valuable lands should not be allocated to the poor. According to their perspective, the value of the poor will not increase, but only the value of the privileged people owning the land will grow.

In the village of Gaggalapalli in Nagarkurnool district, people have constructed huts on their own lands. However, officials are demanding their eviction to make way for a dumping yard, showing a clear disregard for the welfare of the people and valuing mere dust over human lives. In Amarachintha, when the CPI(M) led the panchayat, they allocated 14 acres of land for housing sites for the poor. However, at present, officials state that they require the land to construct government offices, thereby disregarding the needs of the underprivileged. This same story is repeated in the village of Dindi Chinthapalli.

In Jagityala, several families from nomadic communities have settled for the past 20-30 years. They possess identification documents such as Aadhaar cards and ration cards. Despite this, officials are pressuring them to vacate their dwellings. The jatha has encountered numerous instances of such issues, highlighting the ongoing struggles faced by marginalised communities.

Women have played a prominent role in this struggle, taking up positions at the forefront. In some centres, women activists have emerged as leaders, actively staying alongside the hut dwellers day and night. The requirement of privacy and a sense of security is strongly felt by them.

During the jatha's visit to Chennur, the hut dwellers warmly welcomed the jatha with traditional dances, nomadic cultural expressions, and songs. The Korutla centre where huts were put up, has a significant population of Muslim minorities. When Muslim women chose to stay on the land day and night, some individuals attempted to argue that it was against the principles of the Quran. However, the women responded by asking those who were provoking their husbands, to allow them to build houses there so that they could live respectfully, in accordance with the directives of the Quran. Despite attempts to incite communal tensions, Hindus and Muslims stood together and fought against such divisive forces. Upon the jatha's arrival, Muslim women felicitated the team with red towels and their traditional caps, while Hindu women presented them with 'Bathukamma' (a flower bowl), a traditional cultural form in Telangana. This unique experience symbolised the spirit of communal harmony, the unity of different cultures, and the path of struggle.

In Kothagudem, the hut dwellers welcomed the jatha with Kolatam (a traditional dance form), songs, and music. The atmosphere was festive, with celebrations continuing late into the night.