Land rights and living wages

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2015: Eye camp in Dalit colony in a village in Andhra Pradesh,  where 2 decades ago Scheduled caste, Schedule Tribes and Backward Class landless families achieved  600 acres of land rights. Families from privileged castes who opposed the struggle at that time attended the eye camp.

“A unique feature of the Indian agrarian situation was the close interrelationship between the Hindu caste hierarchy and the agrarian structure: while the large landowners invariably belonged to the so-called upper castes, the cultivators belonged to the middle castes and the agricultural workers largely to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribal and other extremely backward communities”

This stark reality, documented by S.R. Sankaran, an IAS officer and Government of India Secretary in his groundbreaking work on Land Reforms In India, motivated activists in Andhra Pradesh to take up the issue of land and the rights of the landless as an effective way of breaking the oppressive hierarchy of caste and historic forms of oppression.

The majority of landless people continue to depend on land for their livelihood, often working on farms owned by others.  With the goal of demanding living wages  as well as land rights,  landless agricultural workers in several districts of Andhra Pradesh organized themselves under the banner of Coolie Sangham (Labour Union).  When registering as a trade union, the members collectively decided to discard the name Coolie and take the name “Vrittidharulu.”  The reason for this was that the term Coolie implied unskilled work.  The members wanted to assert that agricultural work involves skill as do many other kinds of work that are recognized occupations such as barber or carpenter. “Vritti” meaning “skill” or “occupation” was a more dignified way to recognize agricultural work.  Thus the union was called Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vrittidharula Union.

The group consciously recognized oppression in various forms based on caste, gender, religion, tribal or ethnic status, language and economic exploitation.   A core belief of the group is that “సాపేక్షంగా న్యాయం లేకపోతె సామాజికంగా న్యాయం లేదు” or “without relative justice there is no social justice.”  This means that while working for the cause of justice for Dalits and oppressed classes in the larger society, they also worked to address injustice within the Dalit community, stemming from factors such as gender or sub-caste hierarchy.

With P. Chennaiah and Ajay Kumar and others at the state level and coordinators at the district, mandal and village level, the APVVU has secured more than 10,000 acres of land for landless families, defended the land rights of people facing displacement,  in Srikakulam, Vizag, West Godavari, Chitoor and other Districts, and is working for recognition of the rights of adivasis living in “non-scheduled” adivasi villages.

On behalf of daily wage workers, APVVU has also approached the AP High Court and won important victories to ensure timely, living wages for agricultural workers, with annual increases to offset inflation.  One such AP High Court judgement was instrumental in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh providing for annual increases in NREGA wages, tied to the Consumer Price Index in January each year.  This took effect in 2011 and benefited all working rural families across India.

Volunteers from several AID-chapters have visited APVVU.  We learn from its work.   AID does not support APVVU financially and stands in solidarity.