Meenakshi Nair Ambujam is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva (Switzerland). In her doctoral project, Meenakshi explores how documents, particularly title-deeds, land records and registers, perpetuate and sustain conditions of landlessness they otherwise seek to remedy. Apart from short stints of preliminary fieldwork spanning a few months, Meenakshi’s thesis draws on 13 months of ethnographic and archival research in adivasi hamlets and state-bureaucracies in Telangana, India. Her dissertation research has benefitted from the support of the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Title-deeds, Land Records and Paradoxes: Making Sense of ‘Landed Landlessness’ in Adivasi Life, Telangana (India)
Why and how do adivasis or tribal populations in Telangana (India) continue to experience conditions of landlessness? I explore this question by focussing on adivasis who were awarded land title-deeds through state-sponsored land distribution programmes and yet, remain landless. By situating the anthropological gaze on documentary artefacts— specifically, title-deeds, land records and registers— I demonstrate how land and land rights are constructed and assembled through an infrastructure of paper.
Grounded in ethnography, I argue that examining adivasis’ land relations, through the infrastructure of paper, allows us to delineate the discursive and representational ways through which contemporary forms of landlessness manifest— particularly through the creation of ‘paper-lands’. Consequently, the focus on titles and land records provides the scope to view land as an entity that is actively assembled an d crafted through writing practices—thereby producing lands that constantly escape one’s possession. This permits me to conceptually engage with experiences of title-holding landless adivasis in Telangana.
Advancing the notion of ‘landed landlessness’, I illustrate how documents simultaneously render adivasis both landed and land less. Further, I demonstrate how landed landlessness enables adivasis to claim entitlements from the state— crop insurance, seed and fertiliser subsidies— for the lands that are not in their possession. In doing so, I show how documents also allow adivasis to creatively engage with the state and lay claims to other material benefits that are solely reserved for the landed. In doing so, I illustrate the variegated ways in which land and land rights are experienced and realised by adivasis.
Affiliation: Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Switzerland