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Gujarat Dalits off Somnath protest forcible eviction from the land they were cultivating for decades

Dalit representatives demonstrate in Veraval
By Our Representative
Unrest has gripped Dalit villagers surrounding a fast-expanding town off southern Saurashtra coast in Gujarat, not far away from famous Somnath temple. Thousands of villagers, mainy of them Dalit representatives of Saurashtra, gathered outside the district headquarters of the newly-created Gir-Somnath district at Veraval early this week to protest against the state forest department’s move to forcibly occupy hundreds of acres of land being cultivated by Dalits for more than four decades. A representation to the district collectorate, Somnath-Gir, said, “The forest officials entered the fields illegally and removed standing crop. Worse, these officials, who are responsible to take care of environment, removed 30 years old mango trees the Dalits reared.”
The land, according to sources, belonged to the state forest department, but it was all plain, had no trees on them. In fact, the forest department never took care of the land ever. The Dalits of the area had been cultivating the land, considering it as their only source of livelihood. Instead of applying the forest rights Act (FRA), which makes it mandatory for the government to hand over land any forest dwellers were cultivating since 2005, the sources said, the forest department decided to swoop on them. “These forest dwellers should have been made legal owners of the land under the Act. But their plight was never taken into account”, a senior activist who is know of things said.
“The forest department’s illegal occupation of the land has come about at a time when the Dalit cultivators have no other source of livelihood”, the representation said, adding, “Faced with such a situation, three Dalit representatives first sat on a relay fast between June 27 and 29, and have now begun fast until death to get back the land they had been cultivating for so long. Their main contention is that, their demand towards keeping intact their only means of livelihood should not have been violated.” The representation was prepared by Veraval Dalit Adhikar Andolan, set up by the Saurashtra Dalit Sangathan. Those who took leadership were Deven Vanvi, Jayanti Makadia and Gova Rathod.
Dalit meeting ahead of demonstration
The representation, which carries an eight-point demands, said that in Paldi village, the standing groundnut crop on Survey No 4, which was being cultivated by 23 Dalit families, has been destroyed by the forest department officials without serving any notice. “Responsible officials should be punished”, it insisted, adding, “Similarly, the groundnut crop on the land of Survey Nos 52 and 53 was destroyed by these officials. Apart from taking legal action against the officials concerned, the farmers should be fully compensated against.”
Insisting that the state government should apply the anti-atrocities law against responsible officials, the representation further said, “The land which the farmers were cultivating should be immediately transferred to the Dalit farmers who were their actual occupants. The transfer should take place under the forest rights Act, 2006, under which the farmer cultivator occupying any plot in reserved forest, cultivated since 2005, is entitled to be its legal owner.” At the same time, the representation added, a standing order should be issued to ensure that the “forest department officials do not harass anyone who is cultivating any area which comes under reserved forest.”
Especially emphasizing on the manner in which mango trees were cut down in Ramnechi village, the representation said, “These trees were being reared by the Dalit occupants for decades, and there was little reason to remove them. The farmers who reared these trees should be adequately compensated, and land titles should be issues to the farmers. There has been large number of complaints about Dalit farmers being harassed by forest department officials in the recent past. They are stopped from using irrigation facilities, especially wells.” The representation concluded: “In case the Dalit farmers’ demands are not satisfied within the next seven days, the district collector will be held solely responsible for any steps that the Dalit representatives of Saurashtra take”.

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