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India's landless bracing up for grand battle

Oct 20, 2008

To commemorate the first anniversary of Janadesh 2007, representatives of Ekta Parishad met to take stock of the past year’s achievements and prepare strategies for future struggles. They decided to storm India’s capital once again with a bigger force if the government did not listen to their demand of land reforms.

Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh: Ekta Parishad’s charismatic leader, P.V. Rajagopal announced on Sunday in Gwalior that if Indian government did not fulfill its promise of land distribution, he would again storm the national capital – this time with a force of 100,000 people rallying behind him.

He said: “We will march for people’s liberation or janmukti in 2012, if the government does not listen to our demands.” He, however, clarified that this did not mean no struggles would be carried in the interregnum.

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“We would continue to fight at local levels against forced evictions and displacements and continue to press the governments to redistribute those lands, which are less disputable, such as the already available bhoodan and village panchayat lands.”

The exhibition ground on posh Race Course Road in this historic city was abuzz with people this weekend. Around 6,000 people had gathered in there, coming from as many as 15 different states of India to commemorate the first anniversary of People’s Verdict 2007 or Janadesh.

State representatives and members of Ekta Parishad, a Gandhian organisation claiming to have 2.5 lakh primary members, had assembled for a two-day national-level dialogue on land issue.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan also addressed the gathering. The dialogue ended with a huge rally on the second day at Phoolbagh.

Intercepted by songs and slogans, proceedings started with leaders of respective states giving accounts of the progress made so far and took stock of the achievements and failures on the ground. The occasion was also used to pay tribute to those 11 comrades who had lost their lives during last year’s march.

Reviewing the progress

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Even while recounting achievements in terms of more awareness among villagers about entitlements and a new-found zeal to carry forward their struggles, each of the speakers also spoke of no or little progress in implementation of laws and policies on the ground.

Ransingh Parmar, national convener of Ekta Parishad said in his address that it was unfortunate that people continued to be denied of their rights.

They lamented that the process of redistribution of land was not just painfully slow but in many cases the government had even taken away whatever little patch of land they had in the name of various developmental projects.

Shanti Behan, who had come from Jharkhand, wanted to know why was it that despite so much investment of both public and private capital, more and more people in her state were getting poorer by the day? “In the name of development, this government is playing the dance of destruction,” she retorted.

Ram Swaroop hailing from the same state, mentioned how people in hundreds of thousands of villages across the state were getting affected by several ongoing and up-coming projects. These companies, which include both private and public sector units, are vying with each other to acquire prime agricultural land.

At Asanboni in East Singhbhum district, people are engaged in struggle against Jindal Steel, which wants to set up 5 MT steel plant over 3,000 acres of land with an investment of Rs 20,000 crores.

In the same district, Bhushan Steel has been recently forced to suspend work at its Potka project site due to stiff opposition from villagers over anomalies in the sale of land.

Arcelor Mittal group, touted as the world's largest steel maker, has plans to set up a US$ 8.2 billion plant in the mineral-rich state. The company is demanding 11,000 acres for the 12 MT plant and an industrial town.

People are also opposing this proposed steel project, saying that they need food, not steel. They are determined to give up their lives but “not an inch of their farmlands.”

Tough struggle ahead

K.B. Saxena, a former top bureaucrat and currently the member of National Land Reform Committee, said that it was ironical that all policies of the central government went against land reforms.

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He pointed out that on one hand there was increase in the number of landless in the country, and on the other the governments of the day are busy acquiring land for the industrialists instead of carrying out genuine land reforms.

He advised the people gathered to continue pressurising the government to take steps in the right direction.

“Today the struggle for land rights has become much more complex, tough and dangerous. Earlier the fight was against only the landlords but today powerful capitalists are in the fray with governments often found to be helping them,” he warned.

Janadesh 2007

Last year 25,000 landless villagers, majority of whom were dalits (Scheduled Castes) and adivasis (Scheduled Tribes), from different parts of the country had arrived in Delhi, covering a distance of 340 kilometers over a month-long torturous journey, to demand land for the landless.

In this long march, they had lost 11 of their comrades on the way – three dying on the spot when a speeding truck had run over them and eight others succumbing to ailments like cholera, diahorrea and fatigue.

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The rally had culminated in old Delhi area’s Ramlila ground. The government at the centre eventually paying heed to the demands of rallyists, announced setting up of a National Land Reform Council to be headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The central government also announced a committee on the State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Land Reforms, which was to be headed Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, to look into all land-related issues including land reforms; make recommendations on a detailed land reform policy; distribute land to all eligible persons; and ensure speedy disposal of land-dispute cases. These recommendations were to be submitted to the council headed by Prime Minister.

A draft national policy on land reforms is ready and soon will be presented to Prime Minister, informs Ramesh Sharma, one of the members of the committee.

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