Peasants' revolt: Rural India marches on Delhi for rights to live off the land

Andrew Buncombe joins tens of thousands of country's 'landless poor' during protest march to the capital

They marched in lines – noisy yet disciplined, footsore but determined. At one point, the marchers and their green and white banners stretched for more than two miles.

Tens of thousands of India's poorest citizens are on a march to Delhi to demand the government to give them land on which to live and from which to earn a livelihood. They insist it is a fundamental right and that they will besiege the capital unless their demands are met.

"We don't have any land. I'm here today because we are landless," said Ram Pyari Bai, a 60-year-old woman, her grey hair tied back beneath a red-and-white scarf. "I voted for the government and now the government should give me land and water to drink."

Across the developing world, clashes between the landless and the authorities are increasingly common. From Indonesia to Brazil, to Burma and Thailand, land-rights activists have been harassed, jailed and murdered. Almost every week, a new confrontation takes place as more people are displaced from their land for industrial projects, mining or else slum "rehabilitation".

There are fewer places where the plight of the landless is more pressing than in India, where more than 70 per cent of the population still relies on agriculture.

After India gained independence in 1947, the authorities did enact some reforms, unlike in Pakistan where feudal landowners remain commonplace. But activists estimate that today more than 20 per cent of the population is without land. It is a situation that is resulting in conflicts as well as vast mass migration to overburdened cities. The situation is further complicated because land reform is an issue for both the federal and state governments.

Earlier this year, a group of security experts and former bureaucrats told a conference in Delhi that land reform could halt the spread of Maoist-inspired rebels, who have increasingly taken a grip in the most remote parts of the country. The march to Delhi has been organised by an activist group, Ekta Parishad ("Unity Forum"), and its founder Rajagopal P V. The aim of the non-violent movement is to force the government to enact comprehensive reform and help the most marginalised within society. It insists there is plenty of land available to meet its demand.

"When people say there is no land for the poor, why is it that when Tata or Vedanta or any other big company says they want land, they can find 5,000 or 10,000 acres in 15 minutes," said Rajagopal, sitting beneath a yellow awning as marchers took a break for lunch. "Why is there no land for the poor, but land for the rich?"

Without land of her own, said Ram Pyari Bai, who had come from a village in Madhya Pradesh, she was obliged to work on other people's acres. She laboured for eight hours a day and in exchange received a 5kg bag of wheat or 100 rupees (£1.18). If her family – two sons and a husband who could no longer see – were particularly hungry she took the wheat, but if there were things she needed to buy she opted for the cash. She and her family lived in a shack made of twigs and plastic sheeting.

Her situation was not unusual. Also among the estimated 45,000 marchers was Sanju Devi, a 40-year-old woman who had travelled from Bodh Gaya in Bihar for the march. Mrs Devi, who has three children, said she and her husband worked land belonging to other people. In exchange she received 2.5kg of wheat while her husband earned 3kg. They were never given the option of being paid in cash.

The Indian authorities have suggested they intend to respond to the marchers' demands, perhaps as early as today. Whether they are prepared to meet all the demands – including around one-10th of a hectare to build a house for all those without land – is unclear, but reports in India's media said the government will agree to land reforms within six months and a new land census. The Rural Affairs Minister, Jairam Ramesh, indicated to reporters earlier this week that some sort of deal could be announced in Agra, saying: "The nation will get happy news from the city of the Taj Mahal."

Khet Singh, a gap-toothed farmer from Madhya Pradesh, was also among the marchers who set off from the town of Gwalior at the beginning of October. He was unsure of his age and when asked, he stroked a white beard and replied: "You tell me."

Mr Singh said he had neither land nor a house and that his sons had moved to the city of Nagpur in search of work. He said as he had got older, the occasions on which he was hired to work in other people's fields had become increasingly rare.

He was lucky if he received two meals a day. "My true prayer is that today we are going to get our demands and that they will listen to us," he said, adding: "If the government does not give us land then I might as well hang myself."

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit