Poor but defiant, thousands march on Delhi in fight for land rights
On a hot, dusty highway some 40 miles (70km) from Delhi, a human column snakes its way towards the Indian capital carrying a unique message of defiance to the country's leaders: "Give us back our land."
Some 25,000 of India's poorest people - tribal peoples, "untouchables" and landless labourers - have stopped traffic for nearly three weeks on the road that links Delhi and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Headed by a group of chanting Buddhist monks, the marchers say they aim to shame the government into keeping its promise to redistribute land.
The human train has been eating, living and washing by
the road since early October and by the end of the week will arrive
at the Indian parliament, vowing to remain a public embarrassment until
the government relents. Last week three marchers were killed by a speeding
India has one of most iniquitous systems of land ownership in the world - much worse than China. Last week India's biggest real estate baron made a paper fortune of £500m in a day. Government figures show that the average expenditure of countryside household India to be just 500 rupees a month or about 20p a day.
Most of the marchers say their dire condition is because they have no patta (deeds) to their land. Unable to grow produce on their ancestral land and with no patta to access state welfare services, the villagers are now fighting a losing war against poverty.
"I haven't got any rights on my land," said Prem Bai from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. "I have got four boys and can hardly manage the family with few days' work labouring on other's fields. If we go to forests then the forest department arrests us. Our life is very difficult."
Others say their land is being grabbed by local mafias and corrupt officials. Shikari Baiga, 25, says land his family was cultivating was grabbed by local officials to grow biofuels on. Hailing from the Baiga tribe, a people with a distinctive language and culture in India's Chhattisgarh state, progress - and land rights - have eluded his community for hundreds of years. "I was put in jail for one year for demanding our land back. Fourteen families lost 75 acres [30 hectares]. But they tell us: where are your [patta]?. We can do nothing. That is why we are going to Delhi to get justice."
The march is the brainchild of a veteran Gandhian, PV Rajagopal, who made his name by persuading bandits in central India to lay down their arms in the 1970s. He says the human caravan is a warning shot to the "establishment".
Mr Rajagopal says there is a rising tide of violence in the country as the poor "are being driven out of villages and slums in cities". In the country's rush to industrialise, he adds, "we've seen alarming examples of outsiders seizing land on vast scales while the local rural poor are denied land. The result will be bloodshed and violence on a massive scale unless the government acts".
The issue is increasingly an explosive one in India, where incomplete reforms have left much of the country in the hands of a few. Extreme leftwing groups have tapped the rising anger in rural areas to wage low-intensity guerrilla wars in 172 of India's 600 districts.
Riots and armed insurrection are now prominent features of attempts to industrialise much of India. Earlier this month four directors of a South Korean company - which was handed 1,600 hectares to build a £6bn steel plant in mineral-rich eastern India - were kidnapped by tribal people protesting over the loss of their historic homelands.
In March an attempt to hand over 9,000 hectares of farmland to big business ended in pitched battles and half a dozen villagers dead in Bengal.
Even India's most important development agency, the planning commission, is blunt about how little has been done to tackle the issue of land redistribution.
"Land reforms seem to have been relegated to the background in the mid-1990s. More recently, initiatives of state governments have related to liberalising of land laws in order to promote large-scale corporate farming," it stated in its 10th plan.
Mr Rajagopal met Sonia Gandhi, India's most powerful politician and president of the ruling Congress party, earlier this month to press his case for immediate land reform for the poor.
He says the manifesto that saw Ms Gandhi elected pledged new land-ceiling laws, limiting the size of landlords' holdings, and tenancy rights, but none has arrived.
Some say that the problem lies in the Indian state's indifference to its poorest people - "tribals" and "untouchables".
"There are 120 million people who have no rights in this country," says Balkrishna Renake, chairman of India's national commission for denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes. "They are still waiting in independent India for the right to vote, to have schools and teachers, and for their land."
He estimates that redistributing just 2.5% of India's total area would be enough to allow the country's poor to exist "with dignity".
"The question is not whether we have the land but whether the government has the moral courage."
Land is an important and sensitive issue in most developing countries and growing numbers of poor people are demanding reform of its ownership and use after centuries of inequitable distribution.
The Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil has an estimated 1 .5 million members who have occupied and farmed many millions of acres of unproductive land in the past 20 years.
The MST is now mirrored across Latin America with growing peasant and indigenous groups in Ecuador and Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay and Chile taking back land. They are supported by powerful international peasant groups such as Via Campesina which now works in 87 countries where land reform is recognised as a major problem.
Land reform in Africa is led by the Landless People's Movement in South Africa which argues that the official redistribution process is not fast enough for landless rural people. As in Brazil, land reform in Africa is seen as critical in redressing centuries of dispossession.
Many land reform groups are now linked and an international political movement is emerging. Almost all landless movements lobby for the right to grow food for themselves and not for export, ecological agriculture and an end to GM farming
Article from: www.guardian.co.uk