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Mainstream, VOL L, No 40, September 22, 2012

Land Reforms and the Significance of Jan Satyagraha

Friday 28 September 2012, by Bharat Dogra

At a time when land reforms, and in particular the land rights of the poorest landless people, are being increasingly pushed to the margins, it requires a lot of courage and a firm faith in one’s convictions for any organisation to pour all its efforts and energy into a nationwide movement for land reforms. But this is precisely what Ekta Parishad has done, organising a continuing series of foot-marches in 338 districts, an effort that is ongoing for one year (October 2011 to October 2012).

Ekta Parishad and its many sister organisations, spread over 124 districts of 17 States of India, together constitute one of the biggest organisations in the world which has been fighting for the land rights of the rural poor and deprived sections at the grassroots. Issues relating to land reforms and equality have been emphasised very consistently by the Parishad for several decades. Even when these issues faced neglect and apathy at various levels, Ekta Parishad never lost its sense of priorities. As a result, it has emerged as perhaps the most important group involved in non-violent struggles on this question. Its impact has become broader with growing active collaboration with about 1000 people’s organisations and movements and the widening of its horizons to include more issues of pastoral groups, nomads, fisherfolk, dam evictees and the urban poor. 

Ekta Parishad’s previous foot-marches in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar as well as other struggles have brought justice and land rights to tens of thousands of families. Building on this strength, with the help and cooperation of several other organisations and individuals this Gandhian organisation embarked on its famous initiative called Janadesh in 2007 when 25,000 people marched from Gwalior to Delhi to assert the land rights of the poor. Specific demands included the constitution of a Land Reforms Council and enactment of a ‘National Land Rights Act’.

These demands were met at least half-way by the government, but implementation and follow-up was poor. Meanwhile Ekta Parishad continued its efforts to forge a broader alliance on the land rights issue.

Ekta Parishad’s co-ordinater P.V. Rajagopal says: “At the same time the assault of big mining and other projects for catering to a global market increased to such an extent that in our work area small farmers, and in particular tribal farmers, appeared to be increasingly threatened by the possibility of losing their land. The issue now was not just demanding land for the landless but also protecting the land rights of those who always had some land. We felt that the scope of our work should expand.”

During 2008-10 about a thousand organisations and movements were contacted to form a broader alliance for land rights. At the same time community leaders and activists from the weaker sections were trained for peaceful movements and ‘sataygraha’.

ALL these efforts culminated in Jan Satyagraha 2012. Providing the basis for its biggest effort so far, this movement said: “If the government fails to implement land reforms effectively the disadvantaged communities, who have been denied justice and rights over land, forests and water, will start a ‘Jan Satyagraha Samvad Yatra’ on October 1, 2011. This will cover 338 districts in 24 States, culminating at Gwalior on October 1, 2012. After this one lakh people will march to Delhi to get justice.”

This land march has also secured the support of about 50 international land rights movements in various parts of the world.

Starting from Kanyakumari and passing through several volatile regions facing difficult land rights issues in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, the North-East region, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and other States (24 States in all), the foot-marchers have held many important public meetings and initiated a dialogue on several critical issues. The inter-action was particularly useful in States like Odisha and Jharkhand which are in the middle of some critical land rights struggles.

Two special strengths of the Jan Satyagraha deserve special notice. Firstly, as a result of several years of the dedicated efforts to contact various marginalised and deprived groups, hold public hearings and prepare reports on them, the activists of the Jan Satyagraha have been able to incorporate a very wide range of problems and concerns relating to land struggles as well as other problems of the marginalised communities. It is seldom that one sees such a consolidated effort which brings together the problems and aspirations of tribal farmers, landless Dalit, farm workers, fisherfolk, dam evictees, other displaced persons (or threatened by displacement), land allottees who were not allowed to cultivate their land, urban slum dwellers and numerous other marginalised groups.

Secondly, the recent Jan Satyagraha Samvad Yatra in 338 districts of 24 States has not only made available invaluable information on the latest situation of land-grabbing, displacement, deprivation and other injustices, it has also given new hopes to many completely neglected communities who are in a serious crisis. “People were thankful that, even if ultimately we don’t succeed in helping them, we at least came to listen to their woes and show our solidarity,” says P.V. Rajagopal. This is why many even completely impoverished people expressed a desire to join the satyagraha’s great march in October.

At a time of general apathy and neglect towards such important issues, it is a very great achievement of Ekta Parishad and all the constituents of the Jan Satyagraha that such a nationwide effort has taken place so that new initiatives can emerge from the darkness of apathy and neglect.

It is a strength of India’s democracy that such a huge, nationwide march can be mobilised by activists who remain committed to peaceful forms of struggle even in the middle of grave provocation and serious threats. Such efforts should get widespread support not just for the sake of land rights (which are very important) but also for strengthening grassroots democracy and peaceful resistance in India.
People committed to justice and democratic forms of protest will be looking forward eagerly to the progress of this march in the months to come.

The author is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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