'We do not have land for housing or for livelihoods'
India's lower-caste Dalits are increasingly asserting their claims over land so they can bury their dead, human rights activists said on Friday, as their traditional burial grounds are targeted by real estate developers and higher-caste Hindus.
Last year, a viral video of Dalit men lowering a dead body by a rope from a bridge after an upper-caste community in the southern state of Tamil Nadu refused to allow the funeral procession to pass through their land, sparked a public uproar.
In other states, Dalits sometimes have to keep their deceased relatives for several days until they can resolve where to bury or cremate them, said Lalit Babar, general secretary of the National Federation of Dalit Land Rights, an advocacy group.
"We do not have land for housing or for livelihoods. Now, we are being denied land for dying," he said.
"We have launched campaigns in several states to demand that our traditional burial grounds be returned, or new land be allotted," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the sidelines of a land conference in Delhi.
India banned caste-based discrimination in 1955, but centuries-old biases against lower-caste groups, including Dalits persist, making it harder for them to access education, jobs and homes.
More than half the country's lower-caste population is landless, census data showed. While several states have laws aimed at giving land to Dalits, few have done so, according to Dalit activists and leaders.
Meanwhile, a growing population and rising pressure on land to build homes, highways, airports and industry is triggering conflicts, with farmers and lower-caste citizens most affected.
In rural areas where caste biases are most entrenched, Dalits have lost their burial ground to village elites, Babar said.
"Even where we do have land, there are no facilities like water and electricity. Or we are not allowed to pass through the village with the body to go to the burial ground," he said.
After a recent campaign by Dalit rights groups, authorities in the western state of Maharashtra have allocated small plots of land for cremation in villages with Dalit populations, he said.
A broader national campaign by Dalit activists has long demanded for 5 acres (2 hectares) of land for each Dalit family - enough for a home and small farm to live off.
Government officials in Tamil Nadu, in response to a court hearing after the viral video, said there was no discrimination against Dalits.
But there is a long-standing battle in the state over so-called panchami land, which was allocated to Dalits during the British colonial era.
Of an estimated 1.2 million acres (486,000 hectares) of land allotted, less than 10% is in the hands of Dalits, according to human rights groups.
Without land of their own, Dalits are forced to cremate their dead along riverbanks or on public land, said Richard Devadoss, a convenor for the South India Coalition for Land Rights, an advocacy group.
"Without land, they have no power, no dignity, even in death," he said.