Interview: P.V. Rajagopal

P.V. Rajagopal: ‘The minimum courtesy should be to consult people whose lives are affected’

Print edition : January 01, 2021

P.V. Rajagopal, founder, Ekta Parishad. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with P.V. Rajagopal, social activist and founder, Ekta Parishad.

A founding member of Ekta Parishad, a people’s movement for land rights, P.V. Rajagopal has worked in rural India for over half a century. Starting in the 1970s with stalwarts like Jayaprakash Narayan, Rajagopal has been part of diverse movements such as the mass surrender and rehabilitation of dacoits in the Chambal region, the promotion and generation of employment through village industries in Nagaland and the release and rehabilitation of bonded labourers. A champion of Gandhian social activism, he was vice-chairman of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, has worked with organisations such as Charkha, South-South Solidarity and South Asia Peace Alliance, and has been a member of international groups to address conflict and promote peace such as the Barcelona Consensus and the Palestine Tribunal. He has led long marches for land and forest rights through central India. In 2019, he led a “global peace march” from Delhi which was to cover 10 countries and culminate in Geneva. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

How has the agricultural sector changed since Independence?

At the time of Independence, it was agreed that equal importance would be given to agriculture as well as industries, but in course of time, industry got more attention and agriculture was neglected. Today we have come to a situation where being a farmer is seen as an inferior economic activity. Farmer suicide has become so common that the agrarian crisis demands immediate attention. I have heard farmers saying that they can’t get their daughters married off because no young man would like to join the family of a farmer.

Do you think India is facing an agrarian crisis? How long has this persisted? What are the reasons and what could be the solutions?

In 1929, the first royal commission on land titled their report “Uprooting Indian Peasants”. The report said that self-respecting farmers were brought to the cities and made to work as machines in factories. Rather than helping the self-respecting villagers live in the village and make a decent earning, they were forcing them to migrate to cities by ignoring the agenda of agrarian reforms. With the arrival of globalisation, this crisis has deepened further. Large areas are taken for Special Economic Zones (SEZ) and other developmental activities. The Land Acquisition Act was used to benefit corporate houses. During my trip to Haryana, I met many families who had lost their land; the money received as compensation had also gone.

In India today, 65 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, depending on agriculture. The economist will tell us that the government and private sector put together can employ not more than 5 per cent of Indians. The remaining population still needs to find a living in agriculture, fisheries, and in forest-related activities. Unfortunately, people are being forced out of their livelihoods and resources in order to benefit the corporate sector. The agenda of land reforms suffered the same fate as large areas of land were given to corporate houses while the landless people continue to struggle for a piece of land.

Also read: On the endemic contradictions in India's path to modernising agriculture

I understand that globally the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been trying to motivate various governments by issuing a document titled “Voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security”. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights was an effort on the part of the United Nations to motivate national governments to look at human rights from a different point of view. There are conventions in support of indigenous people. Any government interested in the agenda of good governance will grab these opportunities to advance their pro-people, pro-poor agenda. Unfortunately, what we witness in India today is a contradiction.

In many countries, within the agrarian reform agenda, developing irrigation was given great importance. In Israel, 99 per cent of land is under micro-irrigation; in South Africa it is 76.9 per cent, and in France 52.9 per cent, whereas in India it is only 13.01 per cent. This is just one example to show why we are facing an agrarian crisis. When the farmers are protesting for the implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission report, or the withdrawal of some Acts which they perceive as against the farmers, it is important that the government not make it an issue of prestige, but engage them in a dialogue.

What are your views on the new farm laws and the protests by the farmers?

A large number of Adivasi farmers have been displaced. They were never consulted when the government decided to take the forest away from them in the name of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. A large number of fisherfolk lost their jobs as their water resources have been taken for other activities. In a democracy, the minimum courtesy should be to consult people on matters where their lives are affected.

It is a welcome sign that the farmers have decided not to commit suicide but to fight the state and force it to change its policies. I remember after the long march from Gwalior to Agra in 2012, the then government brought about a new Act called Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013. The current government, which is opposing the farmers now, was responsible for trying to dilute this particular Act through an ordinance. This attempt was dropped because of the agitation outside and the noise inside the Rajya Sabha. The most disturbing aspect is that every government is trying to make policies in the name of people but without consulting the people. If the government feels that these two or three new Acts are in the interest of the farmers, why did they not consult them in the first place? If the farmers are agitating for so many days in this cold winter, why is it taking so long for a serious dialogue to resolve the issue?

Also read: Farmers' protests in India turn into a tidal wave of anger

Land fragmentation and food security are often cited as reasons for radical changes in India’s agrarian system.

Many studies show that the small farms are more viable from a food security point of view. What the government is trying is to invite corporate houses for corporate farming. This will not only destroy the soil and water but also destroy the food security of millions of people. Various studies indicate that in many countries, including Taiwan, Japan and Korea, effective land reforms have led to prosperity. No country can build a strong macro-economy without making the micro-economy strong. During my journey through India, I have seen how happy small farmers are even if the landholding is small, and I have also seen how angry people become when there are evicted from their own land in the name of land acquisition.

Thousands of farmers marching to Delhi from Punjab and Haryana are being branded as Khalistanis.

What the government is trying now is to make a false propaganda against the agitating farmers. In a globalised world it is natural that agitations in one part of the world will receive attention from other parts of the world. We are living in an age of digital communication. It should not be a problem for any government that the farmers are receiving solidarity from many parts of the world. Rather than spending time and energy in making accusations and propaganda, the state should be willing to engage them in a meaningful dialogue and solve the problem.

In the recent past, unfortunately it has become a trend to accuse everyone agitating against policies as anti-national or anti-development. If people have the capacity to elect a government, they also have the right to question the government.

It is heartening that farmers are using nonviolence as a method for their protest. The government should also use nonviolence as a method. Use of police and force against our own farmers will naturally invite criticism. It is important for the government to master the art of dialogue. Gone are the days when we continued to use force against innocent people.

Also read: Why are farmers in Punjab and Haryana angry?

The Gandhian way of life is based on social action which you have exemplified by leading thousands of people for the cause of land reforms. But is social activism a threat to the new India?

In India social work was glorified in the initial days. Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement is a great example of how he was able to contain armed conflict by organising farmers to give away a part of their land to the landless. Many interesting initiatives in India are the contribution of social workers. Unfortunately, in today’s India, rather than appreciating the contribution that the voluntary sector is making, they are seen and projected as a threat to the nation. I believe there is a clear vested interest as to why political parties look at voluntary organisations as opponents rather than as partners in the delivery of justice. The recent development of tightening foreign contributions to the voluntary sector is a clear example of the government trying to control the voluntary sector. Representatives of voluntary organisations repeatedly requested the government not to put them under the Home Ministry but to keep them under the Rural Development Ministry. Even this small request was not entertained by political parties in power. The fact that they are under the Home Ministry shows that they are seen from a security point of view rather than as contributors towards building a nation.

Gandhiji was keen that the development of India be a bottom-up process. He visualised thousands of self-sufficient and self-governed villages as uniting the nation called India. He said that India had won political freedom but was yet to win socio-economic and moral freedom. For him, morality was an important issue. When our own people are agitating around an issue, where they feel justice was not done, the morality suggests that the government should listen to them. Politics is the art of organising the society. Politics, as we understand it today, is very different from how politics was originally defined. This is the time for our Indian politicians to understand the meaning of politics and democracy and learn to engage people when they raise issues related to their lives.

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