IT'S being billed as a new phase in the Dravidian Movement by DMK supporters. After championing social justice for nearly eight decades, the DMK now seems determined to deal with untouchability and oppression of the Dalits. Project Samathuvapuram (equality villages), an ambitious social engineering pro-gramme announced last fortnight by Tamil Nadu chief minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi, is seen as a first step in this direction.
The 'villages of harmony' scheme comes in the wake of serious caste riots which have plagued the southern districts of the state. Karunanidhi's grand plan is to evolve over a 100 villages in which people of all castes will co-exist peacefully. These equality villages will house about 100 families, of which 40 will be Dalits.
The government hopes to create each of these villages on 10-acre tracts. Each allot-tee will get 5 cents (100 cents=1 acre) of land and a subsidy of Rs 35,000 to build a house. An important precondition is that the immediate neighbour will be from another caste. But even as the chief minister's plan looks feasible on blueprint, critics wonder if a government-imposed social engineering exercise will actually work.
The first village to be identified for the project is Alagiyapandiapuram in Tirunelveli district. The village, with a population of 3,321, was an oasis of peace during the caste violence that rocked the district. Sandwiched between two highly-volatile towns—Rajapalayam and Kodiyankulam—this panchayat escaped the fury of the violence as elders in the village took preemptive steps to prevent fratricidal violence.
Says S. Sargunam, president of the panchayat and a prominent Dalit: "We're aware of the ills of caste discrimination. When other parts of the district got caught in the whirlpool of violence, the elders of all communities here impressed upon the youth that we were living in peace for years and we should not turn against each other just because others have become polarised." Naturally, the exemplary restraint did not escape the attention of the authorities. And when the government decided to launch its harmony project, Alagiyapan-diapuram emerged as the best place to begin the experiment. Says state law minister Aladi Aruna: "It's easy to consolidate existing goodwill in order to generate momentum for an ambitious social cause."
Karunanidhi's guidelines for the Samathuvapuram villages are fairly elaborate. There should be absolute equality among all residents of the Samathuvapuram; residents shall conduct their weddings and other rituals only in the community hall that would be established in the village—while every religious group can put up their places of worship within the land allotted to them, the community hall will be a common place of worship; there shall only be one burial and one cremation ground for the entire village and people will have to use only these common funeral places; there shall not be any caste-based funeral grounds; there shall be no statues of any leaders and none should permit or accept the installation of statues of anyone. Any violation will result in the guilty having to forfeit the house as well as refund of the subsidy.
But the project's not as simple as it looks on paper. The government is committed to creating at least 100 Samathuvapurams before the end of this financial year, but sheer procedural problems may slow the process. The problem of land acquisition may be a major hurdle. At Alagiyapandiapuram, veteran freedom fighter S. Dhanuskodi Red-diyar was the first to offer 10 acres of his land adjoining the main road. The minister promised to compensate him at the prevailing property prices. But once the project was launched, a conflict arose over the price of the land. While the state government is willing to pay about Rs 7,500 per acre, Reddiyar wants five times that.
Says he: "I support the idea of a Samathuvapuram. But that doesn't mean I give away my land for a pittance. The market price is about Rs 50,000 per acre and even the last registered sale deal was for Rs 28,000 per acre. If the government's willing to allow subsidies of Rs 35,000 for the new occupant, what prevents it from paying the price due to the landowner who is doing his bit for the noble cause?"
THE caste violence in southern Tamil Nadu is another cause for concern. The atmosphere is so vitiated that even a trivial incident is enough to spark off a major riot. Those involved in the caste clashes include Maravars—a sect of the dominant umbrella caste called Mukkulathoors—and Devendra Kulla Vellalars—the chronically oppressed Dalits of the region. Of late, there has been some measure of upward mobility among the Dalits due to money coming in from the Gulf, the government's reservation policy and a shift in land-owning pattern. The election of Krishnaswamy, a prominent Dalit leader, to the state legislative assembly has further consolidated the position of the Dalits and made them more assertive. So much so that they have become resolute to fight discrimination from the upper castes.
That discrimination is manifest in many forms. Dalits are denied access to village wells and temples; tea is served in coconut shells and not tumblers; no proper pathway to take the dead to the burial ground; separate classes for Maravars and Dalits, even under the National Literacy Mission; and complaints from Dalit panchayat union presidents that members of other castes absent themselves from regular meetings because of entrenched caste prejudices.
While an uneasy peace prevails after the last riots, the government feels the mere absence of clashes doesn't mean caste tensions do not exist. "As a political movement committed to social justice, we've to take proactive steps. Setting up Samathuvapurams is an attempt to establish a climate of genuine co-existence," said Karunanidhi while inaugurating the first village.
Needless to say, the move has left a section of the upper castes unhappy. Some Brahmins wonder how practical the scheme will be and if it will promote equality. Says A.G. Ramakrishna Iyer, a local resident: "The government has already said that 40 per cent of houses will be allotted to the Dalits. This means Dalits will be the single largest grouping, since the other 60 per cent will be from other communities. Where's the question of equality?" Reddiyar feels that the food habits of the various communities may create more tensions rather than harmony. "What will happen if someone cooks beef and has a Brahmin neighbour?" he asks.
The Dalits, however, are upbeat about the project. Says Annakilli, a Dalit ward member of the panchayat: "In urban areas, people of all castes live together; nobody has changed their food habits. When it's possible in towns, it's possible in villages. " Sargunam is more forthright. Says he: "The allotment of houses is going to be only among people who have volunteered. And they are those who have already accepted they have to live with people of other castes. All the volunteers are bound by one problem—poverty. When you live below the poverty line, issues like food habits scarcely matter."
According to S. Tharmaraj, panchayat assistant, the government's move to reserve 40 per cent for Dalits is justified. "The scheme is to make other castes treat Dalits as equals. For this, it is imperative to have Dalits in a sizeable proportion in each of the villages. However, my fear is different. Who will be the beneficiaries of this scheme?"
Tharmaraj fears that people with political clout will benefit from the allotments. According to him, the village panchayat should be given the task of identifying the deserving cases. "The district or the state administration should not bring in people from outside. Every panchayat in the state has enough people living below the poverty line and a committee of village leaders representing all communities should take up the task of drawing the list of beneficiaries. Otherwise, the entire scheme will attract corrupt politicians."
Despite the doubts, the intentions seem real. And none seems more confident than the chief minister himself. It is certainly his dream project. "These Samathuvapurams will transform Tamil Nadu into a big Samathuvapuram. And we will set an example the whole country can emulate," says he with a measure of pride.