March for land

Print edition : November 16, 2007

The Janadesh Yatra marching into New Delhi on October 28 after covering 340 km. It started from Gwalior on October 2. - SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The Janadesh Yatra has given the movement for land rights fresh momentum and also captured the popular imagination.

The Janadesh Yatra

THIS may go down as the year when land reforms were finally put back on the nations policy agenda, after decades of relative neglect and even reversal. For 20 years or so, the question of progressive land reforms including implementing ceiling laws effectively and redistributing the surplus land has been more or less ignored except by the Left-ruled States of West Bengal and Tripura.

Central government documents and policies had even stopped paying lip-service to the issue. And in official policy circles in New Delhi, when land reforms were mentioned, the desired reforms were typically of the opposite variety: lifting of land ceiling to allow acquisition for corporate farming rather than providing access and land rights to dispossessed cultivators.

But the tide may be turning. Already, the many protests across the country against enforced acquisition of land for special economic zones (SEZs) and other purposes have forced the Central government to consider a compensation and rehabilitation policy that explicitly recognises the rights of small cultivators. The struggle of landless rural people in Andhra Pradesh for land rights, which has been met with brutal state violence, continues, with the fervent demand for immediate redistribution of vested and surplus land. And now, a peaceful and disciplined peoples march across hundreds of kilometres has brought together many disparate groups and forced national policymakers to take note.

The successful culmination of the Janadesh Yatra from Madhya Pradesh to New Delhi to demand policy action for land and livelihood may be seen as something of a watershed, if only because the Central government was forced to pay heed and concede at least some of the demands. No matter that this amounted to no more than starting the process of delivering on some of its own promises. The point is that land reforms have once more taken centre stage as a crucial policy issue.

The remarkable and impressive mobilisation of the Janadesh Yatra involved more than 25,000 people from 18 States. It was organised by the Gandhian organisation Ekta Parishad, but it brought together many other groups and thousands of Dalits, tribal people and other landless people. It also actively sought, and managed to get, support from across the political spectrum not only from the Left parties, who have traditionally supported this demand, but even from prominent members of the ruling Congress party.

The march itself was a very disciplined display of determination against all odds. The participants, who came from the most destitute and marginalised sections of society, were undeterred by adversity, even as seven marchers died en route or on arrival because of exhaustion and exposure and another three were killed in a road accident. To them, it was a question of survival as human beings and no sacrifice was seen as too large. But it was a completely peaceful march, with no threats of violence coming from the marchers.

Despite this, the administration in New Delhi seemed to be nervous about allowing this large group of determined poor people into the heart of the city, near Parliament, where they had originally been given permission to march. Instead, the marchers were confined to the Ramlila Grounds where the police had gathered in a display of official force that reeked of insecurity.

The stated reason for this was that such a huge procession inside the city would disrupt traffic. But just the day before, large parts of the same city had been cordoned off, and traffic had been hugely disrupted, to cater to the requirements of a half-marathon of 14 km organised by a private company, in which several film stars and page 3 personalities participated.

Although they were not able to enter New Delhi, this extraordinary march still ended successfully as Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh visited the marchers and assured them that their major demands would be met.

One of the important demands of the Janadesh Yatra is the creation of a National Land Authority to revive and promote the implementation of land ceiling laws and assure effective and fast-track redistribution. The Central government has announced the setting up of a national Land Reforms Council, which will look into issues of land reform distribution of vested, ceiling surplus and waste land and registration of and open access to information on land titles and related matters and also come out with a national land reforms policy.

The ready acceptance of this demand may have come as a surprise to some, but the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had committed in its National Common Minimum Programme that landless families will be endowed with land through implementation of land ceiling and land redistribution legislation. No reversal of ceiling will be permitted. There is also a growing realisation within government that if these just and legitimate demands are not met, frustration with peaceful protest will lead to violence and instability, as is already evident in naxal-dominated areas.

This concession by the Central government is therefore an important measure, but of course, it is still no more than a beginning. Land reform remains a State subject, and State governments have to be brought on board.

Aside from Kerala, where land reforms have ensured more equitable holdings, and West Bengal, where land reforms and redistribution continued through the 1980s and 1990s, governments in most of the other States are still in possession of large amounts of cultivable land that they have not distributed.

In many places, land records have not been updated for decades (sometimes from even before Independence) and contain many anomalies. They also regularly ignore female cultivators even when they are acknowledged within their local societies to be the holders of the land. Computerisation of these faulty records would create more problems and actually lead to effective dispossession of many small holders, so it is important to do a survey-based verification of land holdings. Of course, such verification has to somehow avoid being subverted by local power elites.

Further, news reports make no mention of the new council looking into the issue of more effective implementation of land ceilings, but this is one of the major problems in many States, where holdings of several thousand acres have emerged because of lax ceiling implementation. Work done by scholars such as Vikas Rawal of Jawaharlal Nehru University, using National Sample Survey Organisation data, shows that there is substantial potential for land redistribution in Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, where a substantial portion of land continues to be in the hands of large landowners.

All these issues are deeply divisive and, therefore, deeply political, and it will require continued pressure from the people to ensure that even the minor promises are kept, while there will surely be fierce resistance to the actual takeover of surplus land and its subsequent redistribution. At the same time, the pressures from the opposite direction of corporate takeover of agricultural land are unlikely to abate any time soon, especially with a large bourgeoisie recently enriched by stock market gains itching to transfer some of their variable financial assets into real physical assets.

So, this movement for land rights for the people is clearly going to be a long haul. The good news is that it has got a fresh momentum and also captured the popular imagination in many parts of India.

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