India: thousands march on Delhi in fight for land rights

marksimonbrown mark at
Thu Oct 25 11:05:47 BST 2007

Poor but defiant, thousands march on Delhi in fight for land rights

The rush to industrialise has left tribal people and 'untouchables'
far behind 

Randeep Ramesh in Palwal
Thursday October 25, 2007
The Guardian 

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

With fists and voices raised, the scene is a world away from Indian
newspaper headlines about the country's new luxury goods market or its
soaring stock markets. Nowhere is this process of concentrating wealth
in a tiny segment of the population more visible than in the ground
beneath Indians' feet.

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

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

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."

Global gathering

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.

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