Vivasayigal Thozhilalargal Munnetra Sangam (Workers and Peasants Progress Organisation) is a mass organisation based in the Nilgiris District of Tamil Nadu. VTMS was founded in 1996 in order to organise the people of the area, particularly the talukas of Gudalur and Panthalur, in their struggle against exploitation and state repression. With a base among Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates, adivasis, Dalits and other small cultivators and estate workers, the organisation now has a membership of 12,000 families – a significant proportion of the population of the two talukas where it mainly works.
VTMS emerged out of the efforts of a section of left leaders in the Gudalur area to build and strengthen the land struggle. This group was also subsequently joined by dissidents from a repatriate mass organization who also differed with the group’s leadership over questions of the use of funds and the failure to organise other communities.
Today VTMS is a political presence in the Nilgiris District, capable of influencing other political actors and having an impact on state policy. In an intensely politicised area, it has shown an ability to remain autonomous and to rapidly expand its base, proving its relevance to the struggles of the people of their area and their aspirations for social change.
Over the years since 1996, VTMS has organised and led a series of struggles on several issues.
In many ways the core of VTMS work, the struggle for secure land rights has dominated the organisation’s agenda since it was founded. There have been two aspects to this struggle:
- Land for the landless;
- Secure land rights for smallholders, who are vulnerable to eviction and harassment at any time.
The former was the primary focus in the early years of the organisation. Initial mobilisations focused on the Forest Department to end harassment of land holders, aside from occupying government lands frequent demands have been raised by VTMS to break up the estates and hand over their lands to landless workers. As the organisation was increasingly able to protect members and others against evictions, land occupation drives began to be organised. VTMS also demanded basic facilities for estate workers (Estate Workers’ Rights & Tea Cultivators’ Rights), and for handover of failing estates to worker cooperatives. Such land occupations continued through the 1990’s and, at a slower pace, up to 2005. according to VTMS, official figures indicated that landlessness in Gudalur stood at 68% of the population in 1996; by 2005, an internal survey by the organisation found a landlessness rate of 46%. This change is largely attributed to the land occupation drives.
The land occupation drives began to decrease, and essentially stopped in 2006, as the organisation’s focus shifted towards securing title for smallholder’s lands. The lack of secured titles in Gudalur reflects a number of different processes, which in turn benefit different interests. The forest bureaucracy, at the local, State and national levels, is resistant to any settlement of rights in an area that has become a central symbol of their overarching control over “forest lands” as a result of the Godavarman case. The district administration too has shown no interest in losing the bribes they are able to extort as a result of the confused land situation. The estates cannot easily grab additional land if a clear survey and settlement takes place, and hence they too have opposed a final settlement of rights.
In light of these multiple interests, VTMS has followed a strategy of targeting each such force in a different manner. Some of the strategies adopted include:
- Frequent demonstrations, public action and demands at times of elections, aimed at putting pressure on the ruling party and on other parties seeking votes. As a result, in most elections the land title issue features on manifestos of all candidates.
- Using the press to expose land grabbing activities and to oppose the land mafia and the estates, linking the failure to recognise rights with land grabbing. In 2002, VTMS activists coordinated a fact finding by the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry) into land grabbing ; the report produced by the fact finding team was then used extensively with the press and with government officials.
- Targeting the forest bureaucracy through the linkage to national moves towards recognition of forest rights. In 2001 and 2002, a first attempt in this direction was made through the filing of thousands of claims under the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ 1990 guidelines, which recognised the rights of landholders who had occupied forest land prior to 1980.
- In 2009, a new demand was also introduced, for a government order that would recognise people’s lands through a certificate
As on date, land titles remain unsettled in the area.
Environmental Protection and Democratic Resource Control
Environmental and forest protection have been made explicit agendas of VTMS work from the time of the founding of the organisation. The group made a link between the Forest Department’s canards against the people of the area, the denial of land rights and the people’s own need to protect the forests against the land grabbers and mafias operating with Department connivance. This has remained a central theme of VTMS’ struggles, and has been strengthened by its close connections to the national forest rights movement since 2003.
Some of the major tactics adopted in this struggle include:
- Exposing poaching, wildlife killings and illegal tree felling through the press and through public meetings. The chief aim in such exposes was to target the intense corruption in the Forest Department and undermine its claims to be a legitimate law enforcement arm of the state.
- Targeting land grabbers for forest destruction.
- Organising public camps and trainings on environmental issues, particularly focused on youth.
- Involvement in the national forest rights movement by establishing networks with national forums like Campaign for Survival and Diginity. As the Campaign expanded in size and became the major national front in the struggle for the 2006 Forest Rights Act, VTMS became the lead organisation in Tamil Nadu in the struggle, joining national mobilisations and organising protests in support of the law.
- Despite this, VTMS has continued to the use the Forest Rights Act on multiple fronts. For instance, an agitation was raised after the Central government made an illegal attempt to rush through declarations of “critical tiger habitats” in tiger reserves in December 2007.
VTMS has also cited the Act’s provisions to block illegal evictions and stop harassment of smallholders. It has also organised declarations of community control over forests (using sections 3(1)(i) and 5 of the Forest Rights Act, which authorise community management and protection of forests) in more than fifty villages, each accompanied with a board stating the boundaries of the community forests and the contents of the declaration. The Forest Department resisted the boards when they were put up on reserved forest lands, but was unable to stop the action.