India marchers demand justice for poor, landless and tribal people

By staff writers
11 Oct 2007

They are people seldom spoken of - the rural poor, landless and tribal people of India - at time when their country is being hailed as a new economic superpower. But last week they demanded to be heard, at the start of one of the biggest non-violent protests since Gandhi chased out the British - reports Christian Aid.

This time the target is the Indian government, and its intransigence on land reform. The plight of some of India's poorest is getting worse not better, say campaigners, as the land they rely on for food and income is being increasingly taken for industrial development and mining.

In Janadesh 2007, as the campaign is known, 25,000 marchers are walking for 28 days from Gwalior in central India to New Delhi. At the same time a group of 28 protesters is conducting a hunger strike outside the Gandhi memorial in the capital.

They want the government to form a land plan for the country, a strategy to address rural poverty and a fast-track legal process to solve land disputes - which can currently drag on for years.

Among the marchers will be Mani Ram and his fellow villagers from the Sarguja district of Chhatrishgarh state, who says that his and four other villages are being threatened by plans to build a 100 megawatt power station on 950 acres of land they currently cultivate for rice.

Some compensation was offered when the scheme was first announced three years ago - on the basis that if they refused the land would be taken anyway. But they refused and are still refusing despite sometimes violent intimidation.

"We are still on that land", said Ram. "We won't leave it, even if they take our lives."

Such an air of defiance is evident at the old exhibition site in Gwalior, used as the assembly point for the march.

Groups of men and women, chanting and flying banners, marched in after arriving from the railway station and before being organized into groups of 1,000 for the long way ahead.

Everywhere there were stories of threats and intimidation from government officials, of 'powerful people' either trying to seize small plots of land from tribal and dalit communities or to deny the claims of the landless.

Also there were stories about the more recent impact of Special Economic Zones, where land is simply acquired by the state for industrial development.

At a rally to launch the event, the thousands of marchers crowded into a huge white tent to hear speeches of support and anger and to join in more chants and songs, accompanied by dalit drums.

The man behind the protest is P. V. Rajagopal, whose Ekta Parishad organisation is a Christian Aid partner and has spent three years building up to the march.

Janadesh, meaning 'People’s Verdict', has been joined by many dalit and 'adivasi' tribal peoples’ organisations from all over India and has attracted support from many parts of the world.

"The government talks only of industrial development and dismisses agriculture. But 73 per cent of India's population depend on agriculture. What are they to do?" asked Rajagopal.

"Development cannot only be for the benefit of the richest people, it must be for all the people - starting with the poorest. First agricultural and land reform, then the rest."

Rajagopal has been working with India's poorest people since the early 1970's, setting up a Gandhian ashram' community in the then lawless Chambal region – made famous as the home of Phoolan Devi, the 'Bandit Queen'.

Despite being threatened and badly beaten, he stayed on. Eventually he persuaded 600 outlaws to surrender their weapons and accept a non-violent life.

More recently Ekta Parishad’s work has led to almost 350,000 people being granted land rights in Madhya Pradesh state.

Visiting the Chambal area with him in the days before the march was like travelling with a gentle pop star. At every village on the road there was a welcome of garlands and gifts from poor people and farmers supporting his brand of militant non-violence.

"You see only the good side of my work. There is another side," said Rajagopal, in a soft-spoken manner.

'Whatever we ask for, be it land or a fight against corruption, it is always against vested interests. Many people hate what we do.'

His reason for continuing, and building such support for the landless movement, can be seen at the village of Berhai, high in the forest region of the Chambal.

Here the poverty is shocking, and the talk is not of consumer goods but of getting enough to eat. One small boy said that he had only eaten a cup of buttermilk and a little maize all day. Many children looked severely malnourished.

But the people of Berhai are also joining the Janadesh march, having saved a handful of rice and one rupee a day for two years in order to be able to make the trip.

"We will put our life into Janadesh," said a young man, prostrating himself before Rajagopal. "But can you please make sure we have enough to eat in the future."

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With acknowledgments to Christian Aid.
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