Rallying forces

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

Over 25,000 Dalits and tribal people from 18 States march from Gwalior to New Delhi to fight for land rights.

in Ballabhgarh and New DelhiThe Janadesh yatra

WORK for every hand, bread for every stomach, land for the landless, protection for small farmers and traders, change in the present economic policies. This summed up the demands of 25,000 landless Dalits and tribal people, from over 18 States in the country, who marched to New Delhi last month.

The padayatra, called Janadesh 2007, began in Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh on October 2, Mahatma Gandhis birth anniversary, and culminated in New Delhi on October 28. In the process, the marchers proved that Gandhian satyagraha can achieve results even today. They were to march to Parliament House the next day and gherao it. Overawed by their sheer number and determination (they had declared that they would stay put in the capital until all their demands were accepted), the government announced the formation of a committee to look into their demands, thereby stopping them from marching to Parliament House.

The committee on State Agrarian Relations and The Unfinished Task in Land Reforms, which will be formed within a month, is to be headed by the Rural Development Minister and will have on its panel experts from the field and rights activists. It will submit its report to the National Land Reform Council, which is headed by the Prime Minister. The committee, whose recommendations would be advisory in nature, will look at various livelihood issues related to land. Among other things, it will come up with a national land reforms policy and ensure its implementation within a time frame.

Sceptics may say that the best way to sweep an issue under the carpet is to form a committee to look into it. But the fact that the marchers forced the issue of land reforms into the Central governments agenda is an achievement by itself, particularly in an age in which big dams displace thousands from their lands and big industries drive farmers out of their croplands.

The marchers at

Satisfied with the government move, the marchers celebrated the day as victory day and dispersed for their respective destinations after making it clear that they would return with another movement called Joto Jeeto (plough and earn the land) in case the government failed to solve their land problems.

P.V. Rajgopal, president of the Ekta Parishad, which organised the padayatra, welcomed the government announcement and said his movement would wait for the outcome before deciding the next move. The Ekta Parishad has three main demands: formation of a national land commission to sort out land-related issues; establishment of fast-track courts to resolve land disputes pending in courts for years; and the setting up of a single-window system to take care of administrative procedures in land-related issues.

More than the committee, what is actually remarkable about Janadesh 2007 is that in true Gandhian style, 25,000 people walked for 26 days, covering 350 kilometres, without causing any major disruptions in the cities and villages they crossed even though the yatra occupied a minimum of five to six kilometres on the road while on the move. They walked 12 km every day and camped on the highways at night.

The preparations for the yatra had been going on for the last one year. Every minute detail where and how they would eat or relieve themselves without creating a mess on the roads, or how they would walk was worked out. In fact, a smaller yatra of 500 people traversed the same route and the same distance a year ago in order to work out the details and create awareness about Janadesh 2007.

Peoples support was overwhelming. In fact even those who had nothing to do with land issues came out in support and helped us in whatever way they could, such as by arranging for food and shelter, said yatra coordinator Mrityunjay Sanjay. The cooperation from State governments, too, was adequate, and at no point did the marchers come across any hurdles created by the authorities, he said. Except, of course, in Delhi, where the marchers were barricaded inside the Ramlila Grounds, their camping site, and prevented from marching to Parliament House.

It was actually their Gandhian style that won them the enthusiastic support of Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad, who went out of his way to persuade the Prime Minister to give the satyagrahis sympathetic consideration. They walked, despite grave hardships, in true Gandhian style, totally peacefully, without creating any chaos anywhere. It is our duty to give their demands due consideration because their demands are absolutely justified. Landlessness has emerged as a big problem in our country and it is our duty to tackle the problem at the earliest; otherwise it will breed discontent and violence in the rural areas, he told Frontline.

Women participants shout

The naxalite problem, described as the biggest internal security challenge by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is basically a result of unresolved land issues. According to an assessment by the Planning Commission, land-related issues constitute the basic factor contributing to the growth of naxalism. The Commission has listed eight basic reasons for the growing naxal menace in tribal areas: sale and transfer of land to other tribal people; indebtedness, causing sale of land for inconsequential amounts; eviction of tribal people by non-tribal people or government authorities; conversion of land from community ownership to individual ownership; treatment of tribal people as encroachers on forest land, their traditional source of livelihood; failure to give title deeds for government land distributed to tribal people but not possession deeds on them; environment-disturbing developments in tribal areas that force tribal people to move out; and large-scale displacement because of development projects such as multi-purpose irrigation projects, power plants, mining projects and urbanisation.

In fact, every single marcher that this correspondent spoke to during the yatra whether Malthu from Kosalpur in Madhya Pradesh, or Puran Chand from Chhattisgarh, or Shobh Lal of Bihar, or Ram Dulari of Uttar Pradesh (incidentally she came carrying her four-month-old baby in her arms) were all victims of landlessness, having lost their lands to either the government or some big business house for some project or the other. Some had had their lands taken over by forest department officers who claimed that these were forest land. From being farmers, they had suddenly found themselves reduced to being labourers working for daily wages; and they had no forum to seek redress. Complaints to authorities yielded no results. No wonder they came on the yatra with a do or die spirit; they had nothing to lose and this yatra at least held the promise of hope for the future.

Remarkably enough, over 250 foreign nationals from 12 countries, either representing various rights groups or in their individual capacities, marched with the procession. It gave them a rare opportunity to participate in a truly Gandhian satyagraha. This is the closest that one can get to the concept of Gandhian satyagraha. Besides, the sufferings of these people have moved me enough to join the yatra, said 67-year-old Jacques Vellut from Brussels, who has worked for the deprived all his life.

One can only hope that the Indian government, too, will be equally moved to deliver what it has promised these people.

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