Jan Satyagraha – The people’s movement

In the fight against hunger; we are together It is our struggle; it is our leadership. We are half of the world We should get half of the land

(voices of poor farmers, men and women, raising against the apathy of the government in providing them secure land rights).

Approximately 70% of India’s population depends on land and its natural resources for their livelihood. Without any legal claim to these lands, thousands of people are forced to migrate to urban centers everyday where they are left with no choice but to become wage labourers without rights and life security. Thousands of people in India are uniting to free themselves from the oppressive hold that the land policies of this country have over their lives.

Supporting this struggle is Ekta Parishad, a non-violent social movement in India working on land and forest rights. For Ekta Parishad, land is the key issue, since it provides the possibilty for the poor to live a life of dignity and well-being.

Tribals have been increasingly alienated from their lands because of constant displacement. They also lost access to adjacent forest areas owing to the 1980 Forest Conservation Act. This problem got aggravated with hijacking of water resources for the use of industries and large-scale agriculture. Without land, forest and water, for people (and especially forest-dependent communities such as the adivasi groups) there is little hope to survive on the land. This was the impetus that brought the groups into a larger social formation. Thus, Ekta Parishad evolved as a people’s organization in 1991.

Ekta Parishad which started as a loose grouping of NGO training institutes that had created a large base of community development work, today is a federation of approximately 11,000 community based organizations and has thousands of individual members, majority of them being tribals and adivasis. Currently, it operates in 10 states working with India’s most marginalized communities (tribals, dalits, nomadic communities, agricultural labourers, small and marginal farmers, etc.).

The two main activities of Ekta Parishad are to interact with the government at the state and national level and mobilize the villagers at the grassroots level. Ekta Parishad developed its capacity to mobilize communities to speak on their own behalf and strengthened its base for the larger struggles for land and livelihoods rights.

Padayatra, as an enabling tool

In 1999-2000, the first padyatra (foot-march), which traversed from western to eastern Madhya Pradesh (before the partition of Chhattisgarh), was organized. During this padyatra, Ekta Parishad discovered that “walking” was an enabling tool, one that allowed the marginalized people to participate readily and with dignity, since it only demanded their physical prowess and not funds or political patronage. The foot-march, like Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha of 1931, was also a way for people to highlight their rights and become visible by attracting the attention of the media, policymakers and the general public.

The six months march beginning in December 1999 mobilized more than 300,000 people from 10,000 villages. Despite the challenges posed by marching in remote areas, the spirit of the people carried them through 5 regions (Chambal, Bundelkhand, Baghelkhand, Mahakoshal and Chhattisgarh, which is a state since 2001) of Madhya Pradesh, covering 8,000 villages and more than 3,800 kilometers. Owing to this, around 24,000 grievances were submitted to the state government.

The state government announced the formation of a two-tiered task force; the state level task force was responsible for land redistribution policies and the district level task force dealt with the land redistribution process. It helped to increase the pressure from village to district to state levels, with task forces acting as a monitoring mechanism. The padyatra forced the state government to work with Ekta Parishad in 30 districts of Madhya Pradesh and this success brought the strength of other states into the organizational fold. People sought Ekta Parishad strength across the country, including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

For the next four years, Ekta Parishad worked to establish task forces in each district of the state, and saw the distribution of about 350,000 land entitlements. 558,000 charges for forest-violations were dropped by the Forest Department against tribal people, significantly impacting the focus of the state’s pro-poor agenda.

After the success of the first padyatra, other long padyatras were carried out in Bihar (September 2001), Chambal (April 2002), Chhattisgarh (February 2003 and 2005), Bundelkhand-Baghelkhand (September 2003), Orissa (February 2004 and 2005), and Kerala (2005).

Understanding a farmer’s relationship to the soil

There are many ways to describe one’s own soil. Almost every day I meet people who describe their soil differently. Often I am deeply impressed by people’s affection and attachment to the soil to which they belong. Here are a few examples.

Farmers in Andhra Pradesh said – “it took many years to develop the soil as it is right now. Over years we have understood our soil and its behaviour. If you give us another soil, it will take years for us to understand the nature of the soil and adjust ourselves with that particular soil”. I was suddenly waking up to a reality that it is not just soil but many years of relationship with the soil that makes someone a good farmer.

A group of landless women in Tamil Nadu have been growing crops by taking drylands on lease. When asked as to why they were wasting their time on dry land, the women said that the many varieties of millets they grow on that dry land serve as food for a period of 6 months in a year. For an outsider, this is just a piece of dry land but for the women this dry piece of mother earth is good enough to provide food, if it can be made available to them.

A group of people in Bastar in Chhattisgarh do not plough their land because they feel putting a piece of iron on the chest of mother earth is not a dignified behaviour. I have also seen many farmers who ask for apologies from mother earth before they put their foot on it in the morning.

It is only through interaction with people who work on soil one can understand the depth of attachment people have for their own soil. The modern world has lost its ability to relate with nature with respect and dignity. The corporate houses that are buying and selling land and builders who are grabbing the land understand only the market value of the land. For them, these are mere resources which can be used for making profit. This profit is used for seeking greater pleasure, again at the cost of nature. On one side, they continue to debate about climate change and sustainable development but on the other side they destroy the very globe on which they are living. Future of the world depends on our capacity to understand this contradiction and apply corrective measures.

The land rights campaign intensifies

Following that first foot-march, about a dozen marches took place in different states of India on various issues. However, they did not have the desired societal impact. It was then decided to hold a national march in October 2007 in the Declared Year of Non-Violence. This land rights campaign called Janadesh, or the People’s Verdict was aimed at helping the poor gain control over their livelihood resources, especially land, water and forest.

High levels of landlessness and deprivation need to be reduced for achieving positive national and global development

Janadesh brought together 25,000 people representing communities from all over India in an unprecedented social action. This amazing social experiment of the poorest people walking over 340 kilometers to the capital with unparalleled determination was historic. They walked with the knowledge that they had worked for a generation in building up this movement, and it was culminating in one of the biggest non-violent actions since Independence. Support came from all over, with 250 satyagrahis from international organizations showing their solidarity with each step that they took. More than 100 Members of Parliament supported Janadesh, including the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh who announced the establishment of a Land Commission and his plan to redistribute land to the landless communities in the region. The constant media coverage brought the voice of the satyagrahis to people all over the country and social activists pledged their solidarity with the satyagrahis of Janadesh.

In the final hours of the Janadesh, the Prime Minister agreed to complete the “Unfinished Land Reform Agenda”, by having a policy formulated and setting up a high level implementation committee. The Government also provided the implementation rules for forest land distribution to tribal people and other forest dwellers.

On October 29th, 2007 the Government of India announced that it would move to get people land rights within the Framework of the Unfinished Land Reform Agenda that had been started after Independence. What was achieved was that the Prime Minister had agreed to chair the newly established National Land Reforms Council that would negotiate through a Land Reforms policy framework that land would be distributed. This policy framework was to be developed by a committee of experts. While it was possible that the government would renege on their promises, there was also recognition that after years of struggle, something new had been achieved at a high level. The mechanism for achieving land reform had the participation from civil society organizations.

 Present Demands

– Land reform policies of October 2009 to be implemented by Land Reforms Council

– Land reform recommendations for Bihar (D. Bandopadhyay) and Land reform recommendations in Orissa (Task Force) to be implemented

– To have guarantees that the Forests Rights Act will be implemented involving the gram sabha (local government or traditional councils) and providing their land entitlement

– All Government Acts and Policies meant to provide assets, entitlement and benefits to the rural and urban poor (including Adivasis, landless, homeless and small cultivators) are to be implemented

– Land Reform laws to be implemented in order that other acts such as Mining Act, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, and Land Acquisition Act, are not in violation with Land Reform laws

Marching ahead – the Jan Satyagraha movement

After the Janadesh campaign, the Government agreed to formulate a land reform policy and then implement it under the leadership of the Prime Minister. Also, on 9 January 2008, The Ministry of Rural Development instituted a ‘Committee on State Agrarian Relations and Unfinished Task of Land Reform’ which submitted its report to the Government in 2009. Since Janadesh 2007, there have been dozens of local padyatras that have kept the heat on the administration. Among these have been the Namuetha Urumaimannu (‘This is our own land’) yatra in Kerala 2010 and the Madhya Pradesh 2010 yatra. But there has been little movement on it so far. Indeed, after the decline of the event’s media coverage in the following months, the Government’s efforts to follow through on their promises became more and more scanty. Rather than work on the land issue, the government has spent more effort fighting against the legitimacy of social movements. This strengthened the resolve of Ekta Parishad to launch the 2012 Jan Satyagraha March.

The 2012 March builds on its experience of the Janadesh 2007. The Jan Satyagraha 2012 March is based on the Gandhian Salt Satyagraha of 1930. The 2012 March is a disciplined formation of people acting out non-violence in an effort to bring a large number of people together to show the strength of rural India, the importance of agriculture, of food production –as a base for urban India, and to build a common destiny of all people. The people will raise the issue about land, it being a key asset in development and poverty reduction, and that high levels of landlessness and deprivation need to be reduced for achieving positive national and global development.

The people are the main component of the Jan Satyagraha 2012 March. People are being mobilized across the country starting from October 2011. An army of 100000 people are expected to join this march. This march will last one year and will start in Orissa.

The coordination of the Jan Satyagraha 2012 March is being carried out by a management committee. It has already created the structure of the organizational team – 100,000 Padyatris (Foot-Marchers); 10,000 Village Leaders (Dustan Nayaks) – one village leader for every 10 padayatris or 1 village; 2000 Section Leaders (Jathan Nayaks) – one for every 5 villages; 200 Group Leaders (Dal Nayaks) – one for every 10 section leader; 20 Camp Leaders (Shivir Nayak) – one for every 20 group leaders and Senior Leaders.

Mr. Rajagopal who has been leading the land rights campaign over years, will walk from village to village in 12 states in order to mobilize and involve people in the March. He will gather grievances but also attract media attention for the issues of the marginalized poor. He will finish his walk in Gwalior, just in time for Jan Satyagraha 2012 March, after having covered more than 6,000 kilometers.

Gains till now

One of the successes of Ekta Parishad’s history is that people have found a social space in which they could come together and demand their rights. In normal society, it is not easy or possible for a marginalized person, like a single impoverished woman, or a bonded labourer, to stand up for their rights. Ekta Parishad is guarding democratic space by bringing groups together in a mass organization. It is constantly reminding the government their role in providing people their basic human rights and freedom.

Through these campaigns, people have created a workable form of political action, which is a powerful tool to pressurize government into action. It is not something that has given instantaneous results, but it has shown that in a democratic state, governments always respond when the power is with the people. The success of this historical display of non-violent actions has given Ekta Parishad a reason to celebrate, but it is very well aware that the struggle is not yet over but has just got strengthened.

P V Rajagopal
President- Ekta Parishad
Member- National Council for Land Reforms,
Government of India
House No. A2/3, Second Floor,
Block A, Jangpura,
New Delhi-110014, India
E-mail: info@ektaparishad.com
Website: www.ektaparishad.com; www.jansatyagraha.org


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