11 April 2022

Documents, Bureaucracy and Land: Examining Adivasis’ Landlessness

In her PhD thesis, Meenakshi Nair Ambujam examines how well-intentioned land distribution and redistribution policies, in favour of adivasi or Scheduled Tribe communities of Telangana in India, paradoxically perpetuate the very conditions of landlessness they seek to remedy. 

How did you come to choose your research topic?

My dissertation emerged from a general sense of wonderment about a few sentences I kept encountering while reading and researching about land rights, dispossession and landlessness in the context of adivasi life. The issue of title-holding adivasis devoid of land has been documented before – both in academic literature and newspaper articles. Thus, it is not, by far, absent or even unheard of in India. However, these episodes are chronicled as one-off incidents, loosely mentioned without adequately looking at whether there is a larger pattern to these issues. During the early stages of my preliminary fieldwork, based on conversations with NGO activists, lawyers and adivasis, I was acutely made aware of how even after securing titles, for many, the quest for land and land rights continued – for a variety of reasons. This pushed me to probe what happens after titles have been distributed following land distribution and redistribution. Moreover, I was curious about how these schemes are implemented, how lands are actually transferred, and how bureaucracies, paper and land interact. Herein, I saw the opportunity to productively examine and interrogate taken-for-granted assumptions related to land distribution as well as land rights, landlessness and land itself. When I ran these early ideas by my thesis advisor, Professor Shaila Seshia Galvin, she was incredibly encouraging and supportive. Thanks to her careful and thoughtful engagement, feedback and questions, I was able to confidently move forward with the unconventional approach of pursuing the question of land and land rights from the vantage point of paper and bureaucracy. 

Can you describe your thesis questions and the methodology you use to approach those questions?

At its core, my thesis is guided by the following questions: How and to what extent may processes of land distribution, redistribution and restitution coproduce conditions of continued landlessness? How may the possession of documentary artefacts like title deeds, which confer ownership of land, affect how adivasis navigate categories and subject positions such as “landless” in negotiating their claims to land? To that end, what does it mean to be landless, and how do we conceptualise landlessness? 

Precisely because my questions are centred around the entanglement of land, paper and bureaucracy, I argue that understanding the experiences of title-holding adivasis devoid of land requires a methodological shift: one that recentres and dislodges the anthropological gaze from land (alone) onto paper. This allows me to view the title deed and other related documentary artefacts not as the culmination or end point of land distribution/redistribution practices but as avenues that can help trace how landlessness is generated and sustained through paperwork. This methodological shift meant that my fieldwork practices entailed not only speaking and collaborating with adivasis, bureaucrats, retired government officials, lawyers, NGO leaders and activists but also working with documents and considering them important protagonists. Therefore, my research is anchored in ethnographic fieldwork in adivasi hamlets and state bureaucracies as well as in archival research and the analysis of land documents and registers, digital and physical maps, petitions, policy documents and court orders. 

What are your major findings?

By drawing attention to the plight of title-holding landless adivasis, my research demonstrates how lands slip, slide, stretch and shrink through the crevices of paperwork. My thesis finds that while receiving titles to lands already in one’s possession can embolden land rights, the same cannot be said of titles that are issued to adivasis for lands that are not currently in their possession. This sequence is consequential for the struggle to gain possession of these lands could well continue. My thesis elaborates on the many reasons that make it difficult for adivasis to possess lands for which they hold titles – for example, boundary disputes and unclear borders, infrequent land surveys, absence of internal boundaries within larger land parcels making it difficult to identify smaller plots, social relations of power (e.g. caste) that prevent adivasis from gaining meaningful possession of restored/distributed land. etc.  For the purposes of this conversation, however, I choose to focus on a few theoretical and conceptual arguments/findings. 

  1. First, my research departs from dominant scholarship that conceives dispossession and the resultant landlessness as outcomes of coercive redistribution or violent land grabs. Instead, I argue that contemporary landlessness and dispossession manifest as quieter and subtler processes enlivened through the production and circulation of documentary artefacts. 
  2. Second, my research shows that land, and by extension land rights, is actively crafted and assembled through a range of material practices, some of which are textual in nature. Because of land’s inherent materiality, in that it cannot be “rolled up like a mat” (Li 2014: 589), land distribution, redistribution and restitution schemes rely on the production of bureaucratic paperwork – like land registers, titles and other documentary artefacts – to render these schemes tangible. In doing so, bureaucratic documents generate a papery version of land, one that is distinct from the physical immovable kind – the earth, soil, and life above and beneath it. While title-holding landless adivasis are able to access and possess the bureaucratised papery version of land, their inability to possess or gain access to the physical land is obscured by bureaucratic paperwork. These manifestations of landlessness go beyond sociolegal or literal definitions of the term. In this way, my research shows that while title deeds and titling mechanisms are indeed extremely important, it cannot be simply assumed that they will automatically overcome or prevent landlessness and dispossession. Instead, these documents can very much contribute to producing nuanced conditions of landlessness. Therefore, I argue that the nature of landlessness one experiences and endures is inherently related to how one conceptualises land: the physical immovable, the social (shaped by memory, agrarian practices, history, affectual ties, etc.), the bureaucratised papery kind, or something else.
  3. Third, my ethnography shows that title deeds are far from insignificant. Because they symbolise legalised recognition, these documents are prized possessions and are very much coveted. In fact, title deeds are a privilege, especially since a sizeable population of adivasis are still struggling to access and possess these documents. Titles also create opportunities to avail other benefits: seed and fertiliser subsidies, cash transfers, crop loans, etc. Therefore, land documents – whether or not they lead to the physical possession of land – permit other forms of claims-making that are also extremely important. 
  4. My research also finds that textual and material practices, though expected to “fix” land and award unambiguous land rights, contribute to rendering it inordinately fluid, elastic and mobile. For instance, errors in noting acreages, shifting boundaries, infrequent land surveys, or even mistakes in documenting land fragmentation can contribute to artificially stretching and shrinking it, thereby leading to a mismatch between what is “on paper” and what is “on the ground”. These disconnects, in turn, affect how bureaucracies and adivasis relate to and conceptualise land in terms of possession. 

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Meenakshi Nair Ambujam defended her PhD thesis in Anthropology and Sociology of Development in December 2021. Professor Filipe Calvao presided the committee, which included Associate Professor Shaila Seshia Galvin, thesis director, and Professor Nayanika Mathur, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford, UK.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Nair Ambujam, Meenakshi. “‘Landless with my Title Deed’: Rethinking Landlessness in Adivasi Life, Telangana (India).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022. 

For access, please contact Dr Nair Ambujam at

Banner picture: excerpt from an illustration by WiP-Studio/
Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.