2020, year of the pandemic: Denied land allotted to her, a differently-abled woman from Sivaganga narrates her story of ostracisation
For Rajalakshmi, a woman with a locomotor disability, being forced to leave her rented house in the middle of the lockdown was only the latest chapter in a long story of stigmatisation
Editor's note: In 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak upended lives and livelihoods in myriad ways. The novel coronavirus threw up new and unprecedented challenges, especially for people from marginalised sections of society. In a multi-part series, Firstpost explores how individuals from different walks of life lived through the year of the pandemic. This is part three of the series.
The real struggle for Rajalakshmi wasn’t her fight for love. She won that struggle. It is her fight for land that drags on, from one unfair government official to the other. This unwarranted delay drove her to homelessness immediately after the country went into complete lockdown due to COVID-19 in March of 2020.
Rajalakshmi is a woman with locomotor disability from the village of Kattukudipatti in Sivaganga district. She is married to Rangarajan and is the mother of two young boys, Kishore Raj and Sarkuna Raj.
“This family that I have today, it didn’t come easy. I have been humiliated so much. My husband almost died for me,” says Rajalakshmi, recollecting the opposition that they faced from their families when she and Rangarajan shared their intention to marry each other in 2008. Her family didn’t think he was suitable for her but eventually her mother relented. Rangarajan’s family were dead opposed to him marrying a woman with a disability. Both of them decided to get married nevertheless. Soon afterwards, Rajalakshmi was pregnant with her first child. Rangarajan’s family offered a truce and invited them over, only to then kidnap him. Rangarajan was told that he won’t be permitted to lead a life with Rajalakshmi and that he will have to marry a person they choose.
“When he was taken away, my husband consumed poison. He told his family that he won’t live without me,” says Rajalakshmi.
Both of them decided to leave Kattukudipatti for good after this, not wanting to be in touch with people who weren’t supportive of their love. As they struggled to find accessible accommodation, and moved from one village to the other, Rajalakshmi submitted an application to the then Collector of Sivaganga, requesting him to allot a piece of land for her. After that, she submitted petitions to every Collector who served in Sivaganga district.
As a women with 90 percent disability belonging to the Scheduled Caste community, Rajalakshmi is fully eligible for such an allotment. In addition, Section 37 of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act of 2016 has specific directions to state governments to create schemes to facilitate land allotment to persons with benchmark disabilities. Sub section(a) of Section 37 provides for five percent reservation in allotment of agricultural land and housing in all relevant schemes and development programmes in operation in that state, with priority to women with benchmark disabilities. In Tamil Nadu in particular, there are land allotment and housing schemes in operation for the rural poor, with priority for landless persons from Scheduled Castes.
All the Collectors to whom Rajalakshmi sent petitions assured her of help but nothing happened till an officer named J Jayakanthan took over as the Collector in 2018. After she met him a few times, he summoned officers from the Singampunari Taluk Office and issued an order to allot a piece of land to Rajalakshmi. The village officer who was in office at that time was Karthik Kumaran. He got to work immediately and in less than three months, identified a piece of land within the Adi Dravidar colony that was suitable for Rajalakshmi.
“I had to ensure that it is accessible to her without difficulty, there is easy access to water and public transportation, and no socio-political issue arises out of the allotment I make for her,” says Kumaran. He got the requisite approvals from the tehsildar and the panchayat president following which he submitted the file to the Revenue Divisional Officer, for grant of patta.
“The Revenue Inspector told me that I’ll get my patta in 10 days. I was overjoyed that we were finally going to live in our own house. No more shifting, I thought to myself,” recounts Rajalakshmi. Her joy was short lived. The patta never came. VO Karthik Kumaran transferred out to another village. Revenue Inspector Saktivel refused to give Rajalakshmi a straight answer and kept evading her every-time she tried to meet him. A few times, he told her that there is opposition to her allotment and that it might not happen. In front of her, officials from the revenue department said that the patta won’t come through, as the people from the colony are opposed to it.
When Rajalakshmi tried to find out what this opposition is, she figured that the Panchayat President Pugazhendi who had previously given his no objection to land being allotted to her, is the one stalling her allotment, citing opposition from the residents in the village. The section of land allotted to her was adjacent to houses of the Pallar sub-caste. Rajalakshmi belongs to the Paraiyar sub-caste.
“Firstly, he said it is because that land was already owned by somebody else. That is not possible, as it is government land. Then they said they want to build an anganvadi there. That is also not possible, as this is an Adi Dravidar Colony. Anganvadi has to be built on common land for all communities. I just didn’t understand where this opposition suddenly sprang up from,” says Rajalakshmi. She also informed this reporter that there are many from the Adi Dravidar colony who’ve sold the land to outsiders.
After this, the days kept going by and there was no progress in the land allotment. By then, Rajalakshmi had moved from one rented house to the other, across different villages, at least 12 times. Most of the houses were devoid of electricity or did not have facilities that were suitable for differently-abled people. The toilets, the kitchen, none were constructed in a way that she could use them. Enter March 2020 and a complete lockdown came into place. Hell broke loose for Rajalakshmi’s family when her landlord told her that she’ll have to vacate the rented house that they were staying in. It had been more than a year since she was told she would be granted land.
“I was driven to the road. Imagine being homeless in the middle of a lockdown. We didn’t have families to turn to, we had no money to even feed ourselves. I also can’t sit properly because of the complications I had during my caesarian. I didn’t know where to go” says Rajalakshmi, who took her family and took temporary shelter at a government school. As she sat there weeping for days with her family, an elderly person offered her family refuge at his commune on the edge of Sivagangai District.
“Since I’ve been homeless, every day after that in this lockdown, the only thought running in my head was — how did I end up in this situation, even after all these officials marked out a piece of land for me? Why am I living on charity and alms even after an order allotting land to me? From March, we’ve tried everything,” says Rajalakshmi.
The first step that she decided to take after she was driven to the road was to occupy the land marked out for her. She along with her husband and sons decided to construct the house, whether or not they had a patta.
Towards the end of April, in the middle of peak lockdown, she bought building materials and took a maestri along with her, to get started on the work. Within a few minutes, the residents of the village surrounded them. After facing a volley of abuses, the maestri ran away. Rangarajan picked up a shovel and got to work himself, only to be beaten by the villagers. When Rajalakshmi tried to record the violence on her phone, her phone was snatched away. Repeatedly, Rajalakshmi was called a derogatory word in Tamil for a person with locomotor disability and asked how she thought she had the tagadi (stature) to demand for land. She pleaded with them to let her husband go, but to no avail.
During the attack, Rajalakshmi was told that women like her cannot be allowed into the street as it would mean bad luck.
Rajalakshmi immediately questioned them, asking them why they were saying that and why they kept using a derogatory word to refer to her. “I asked them what they would do if a person with disability was born to one of them. They didn’t care. In front of my children and me, they continued to beat my husband. It crushed my soul to see him bleed profusely, lying on the ground. I haven’t returned to that piece of land after that,” she says.
After this, even as the country lived through a global pandemic, Rajalakshmi and Rangarajan kept going from the door of one official to the other, pleading for help.
The former VO Karthik Kumaran reiterates that it is not up to people in the colony to decide whether or not a person can be allotted land. “Every time a new person is allotted land, there will be opposition. If there is a law and order problem, it can be dealt with. The land marked out for Rajalakshmi is government land. Nobody can stake claim over it. As a person with 90 percent disability and as a member of a Scheduled Caste, Rajalakshmi’s case should have been fast tracked. That was the direction given to me by Collector Jayakanthan. I did what I had to, I submitted a file after inspection with the required officials, taking no-objection certificates and mapping of the area as soon as I could. Why the patta itself hasn’t come through and why the file was sent for re-inspection is something I don’t understand,” he adds.
RI Saktivel told this reporter that there is opposition to the patta being granted to Rajalakshmi but they are working on it and that it will come through soon. Balaji, the Tehsildar for allotments in the Adi Dravidar Colony said the same.
However, Rajalakshmi said, “Saktivel Sir has been saying this since 2019. Balaji Sir has been saying this since October. I continue to be homeless, helpless and landless.”
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