K'taka govt attempts to solve grave issue of burial land

In the recently concluded Karnataka legislature session, revenue minister V Srinivas Prasad sought the consent of all MLAs to enable him to introduce a common burial ground system in villages across the state.

Surprisingly, not even one discordant voice was heard. On the contrary, many law makers made valid suggestions while supporting his view that at least after death, caste system should be buried.

Probably after the ban on manual scavenging (carrying night soil) in 1970, the state is all set to see one more major social reform through the introduction of common burial facility. But the minister, with his rich experience in public life and hailing from a backward district like Chamarajnagar, is well aware that the caste system is so deep-rooted that no change can be thrust upon the people.

Therefore, he repeatedly told the Assembly that he could take a leap forward provided he gets the support of MLAs in their respective constituencies.

The government is not attempting to bury the caste system at least in burial grounds arising out of a new thinking.

It is just that the government is severely constrained to meet the demand seeking sanction of land for exclusive burial places by various castes/religions. Let alone sanctioning land for caste-based organisations, the government finds it tough to safeguard its own public burial grounds even after fencing them to thwart encroachments.

The minister told the legislature that the burial grounds in 13 districts have been encroached upon and efforts are on to repossess them. The government has lost not less than 500 acres to land sharks. The highest encroachment – 377 acres – has been detected in Kolar, while in Bangalore city, it is 32.37 acres.

Who are the most aggrieved over the shrinking public burial grounds? It is the marginalised sections of society like the poor scheduled castes, tribes and other backward classes. The heat is not felt in cities like Bangalore or Mysore or Mangalore because people of all castes and creed find it an advantage in using electric crematoria rather than hunt for an elusive piece of land for burial. Unmindful of the customs, urbanites are more inclined towards using electric crematoria.

But it is not so in the villages. By and large, people go by their tradition and opt for burial. While the land holders and caste-based, money-rich associations have private burial grounds, Dalits are finding it tough to carry out the last rituals due to non-availability of land.

Dalits’ demand

The staging of protests by Dalits demanding land for burial is not uncommon in the state. In 2013, villagers of Nelagetanhatti in Challakere taluk of Chitradurga district had staged a dharna before the deputy commissioner’s office urging him to clear encroachments on the village’s burial ground.
The agitators’  grouse was that the Dalit population was inconvenienced because of the encroachment as they could not find an alternative place to perform last rites.

Prasad says that assertion over conducting last rites do lead to major clashes in villages. Emotionally charged situation sometimes leads to law and order problem. This is mainly because of the prevailing caste system and also lack of caste-wise burial grounds. He is categorical when he says it is impossible for the government to sanction exclusive land for burial purpose for each and every caste and religion. Keeping the paucity of the land in view, he has decided to create government common burial ground with basic facilities like assured water supply and shelter.

In all most all villages, according to legislators, the so-called upper caste people or landlords do not allow Dalits to use their community burial grounds or agricultural fields. So they invariably have to depend on the government burial grounds which are hard to get.

Prasad has given direction to the deputy commissioners of all the 30 districts in the state to identify government land or purchase private land in each and every village for a burial ground. A deadline will be set to create this basic facility in villages. He is ready to purchase land by paying market price for land.

Each village would require a couple of acres for this and up to about 12,000 villages would have to be covered. He says the government can’t provide electric crematoria in rural areas because even at taluk level there is no assured power supply.

Prasad is also firm on not allowing erecting of memorial plaques in common burial grounds because there can’t be permanent structures or ownership in a public place.

No doubt Prasad’s initiative is laudable. But he has posed a tough challenge for officials to look for land for burial grounds. The government is hardly is in possession of land for public purposes anywhere in the state. Classified lands like Gomala, Bharkas, etc. can’t be diverted for any other purposes. So what is the way out?

Retired IAS officer K R Niranjan, who had worked as DC in Kodagu, says directions to officials to purchase land would remain on paper. The government must go in for public-private partnership and involve villagers to take up setting up of burial grounds as a community project. Villagers would not mind chipping in money to help the government acquire shallow lands (cultivable land but not to put to use) from private holders. This would also help in keeping the grounds clean, he says.

In the government cemeteries, there will be no room for nostalgic trip for near and dear ones because one can’t leave any grave markers.

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