India's march of the dispossessed

They set off a month ago, 25,000 of India's poorest people who had decided to trek 200 miles to Delhi to highlight the inequities of the country's land ownership. Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent Online

Every day of her life Malti Devi gets up long before dawn to begin the tasks that stretch for endless hours ahead of her. She cooks for her family, then spends 10 hours labouring in the fields for as little as 20 rupees (25p) before returning for more domestic chores. She rises at 4am but is often still working at 11pm.

"I will only eat if there is anything left after feeding everyone else," she said, sitting in the red dust of a makeshift encampment in Delhi. "If we had some land of our own, it would be ours. Now we are working but we get such a small share and I cannot feed my children."

Mrs Devi and the thousands of other landless peasants who were sitting alongside her are among the poorest and most powerless members of India's vast population. But yesterday, remarkably, their voices were heard. In what campaigners say is a crucial breakthrough, the Indian government announced it would set up a national authority tasked with overseeing land reform across the country.

That the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to act was the result of about 25,000 people such as Mrs Devi, who this weekend arrived exhausted and footsore in the Indian capital after marching for a month. The marchers, made up of the poor, the landless and the so-called "untouchables" from across India, set off at the beginning of October, walking from the town of Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh.

Seven of them died over the course of the 200-odd miles; three were killed in a traffic accident that injured several others, and four expired simply from the exertion. Many had nothing but the thinnest of sandals to walk in. Some had just their bare feet. And yet the marchers were determined that nothing should prevent them from taking their message to India's political leaders. "My God, it's such a strength. I am not alone," said Mrs Devi, from the village of Usiri Sikapuri in the dirt-poor state of Bihar, when asked what it felt like to be part of a group that was 25,000 strong. "I came here for my rights. If my feet get burnt or even if I die then it is worth it. Back home we can die from hunger – why not die fighting for our rights?"

Though the marchers began walking four weeks ago, it was three years ago that the journey which brought them to Delhi and seized headlines normally dominated by stories of India's newly wealthy middle-classes began. The idea for the march – called Janadesh 2007, or People's Verdict – came from R V Rajgopal, a well-known activist and founder of a social justice movement called Ekta Parishad.

Mr Rajgopal, a veteran Gandhian and supporter of non-violent protest, has worked on land-rights issues for years. In a country where more than 70 per cent of the population is dependent on the land to survive, the fight for its more equitable distribution was crucial, he said. Across India, the evidence of a widespread sense of marginalisation felt by so many people – a feeling that at its most deadly is played out in violent and lethal protests over land being seized for industrial development – is steadily growing. And yet Mr Rajgopal said he found himself confronted by politicians who appeared interested only in promoting industrial development and the interests of corporations.

"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?" he said. "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."

Mr Rajgopal became convinced that the only way to make the politicians take notice was to bring to Delhi those people who traditionally have the least leverage in the city.

He envisaged an old-fashioned display of people-power aimed at bringing pressure to bear and he set about organising it.

In consultation with other grassroots organisations, the organisers focused on three key aims: the establishment of a national commission with the power to direct state governments to carry out land reforms; the setting up of fast-track courts to settle land disputes; and the creation of a "single window" system in each rural district to handle all land-reform issues.

"We talk of land but it really means livelihood," said Rajan Khosla, the India officer for Christian Aid, the British charity that is one of Ekta Parishad's partners. "With 75 per cent of people depending on the land, these are not big demands."

Mr Khosla said large areas of land owned by the government was lying fallow and that it was these areas that should be turned over to the landless. He said the organisers of Janadesh had carefully calculated what land was available. They were not asking for something that did not exist.

The marchers who were gathered yesterday in a fairground in northern Delhi had come from 15 of India's 27 states. Having arrived in the capital the previous evening, the plan had been for the campaigners to march to the grounds of the national parliament building and sit and wait until the government announced that it was ready to act.

But yesterday morning police had surrounded the park where the marchers had camped overnight and told them they were not free to move. Citing crowd control and traffic issues, the Home Ministry let it be known that the marchers would not be allowed to proceed, even though the organisers had filed details of their planned march two years before. The gates to the Ramlila fairgrounds were chained shut and scores of police equipped with riot control gear waited nearby.

The fact that the day before the police had easily managed to handle a half marathon and corporate "fun run" that required large parts of the city to be closed off was not lost on some of the organisers. Nor was the irony of the fact that these thousands of India's poor had been corralled just yards from the Delhi stock exchange. "It is a very bad sign that the government is curtailing these people's freedom of speech," said Jill Carr-Harris, a Canadian who has worked in India with Ekta Parishad for the past 20 years and who also completed the march. "We have been telling them about this march for two years. The last six months in particular we have been reminding them."

But with nowhere to go, the landless from across the breadth and length of India sat down with their tattered bags and blistered feet and quietly waited. The diversity of their clothes and languages hinted at the cultural richness of India, yet their poverty was all too evident.

Onkar Pandey was typical of those who had marched to Delhi and was patiently waiting to hear what the government was going to do. "Most of the people in my village are landless," said Mr Pandey, from a village in Madhya Pradesh. "There is day work and bonded labour. People forage in the forests. I get up at around 4am. By seven or eight I am in the fields and work until six."

Mr Pandey said he had four children. The most he would earn for a day's labour was 50 rupees while women earned considerably less. Not surprisingly, he said it was very hard to feed his family. "If I go back to my village with no agreement from the government people they will be depressed," he said. "But if the government does not act then we will make sure they will not stay in power ... This is a common problem. This is the common man's struggle." In the early afternoon yesterday Mr Rajgopal was called to the offices of the Ministry for Rural Development. Activists believed it was a sign the government was ready to act, even if it was not prepared to allow the marchers to walk to the parliament buildings.

Several hours later the minister himself arrived at the fairgrounds to announce that indeed the government was prepared to move on the issue. He said that within a month, the government would establish a new panel that would create policies, guide states and monitor the progress of land distribution. It would also be empowered to make rapid decisions about compensation disputes.

It was not everything the organisers had wanted but they believe it represented a landmark decision. "This is huge, it really marks a breakthrough," said Mr Rajgopal after returning to the fairground where people began to sing and dance. "In a world where everyone is issuing land to the powerful, we have asked the government to give land to the poor ... It has been a long struggle." Now, he said, the battle was to transform the policy into genuine results on the ground. "The works starts now."

The organisers said they also obtained another vital agreement from the government: the authorities will now help organise extra buses and trains to take home the 25,000 people who came to Delhi, fought against seemingly unstoppable forces, and won. This time, they do not have to walk.