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March for justice: seeking land rights for the poor of India

24 July 2013 | By Ramesh Sharma

In India, a country heavily influenced by deep-rooted beliefs of social hierarchy, there's an incredibly strong country-wide movement lobbying to gain land rights for poor, vulnerable, and socially excluded communities such as dalits and tribals, seeking action from the government to make rights and opportunities fair.

Land rights march India

Ekta Parishad campaign

In April 2013, Ekta Parishad's persistent campaigning led to 3,000 of our activists, joined by 8,000 more from the National Alliance in Dalit Land Rights, gathering in New Delhi to remind the government to keep the issue of land rights at the forefront of their agenda.

March for justice

This gathering took place six months after the historic moment when 60,000 campaigners met on the hugely successful 200-mile 'Jan Satyagraha' march for justice from Gwalior to Agra last October.

During the march, representatives from 2,000 civil society organisations, including landless and small farmers, came together to protest for their right to land.

Currently, the absence of an equal distribution of land in a country where 70% of people generate their way of life from the land has exacerbated the poverty affecting poor communities.

Importance of land

A great victory, this mass mobilisation saw India's Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh publically sign an agreement to meet land right demands.

Many De-notified Nomadic Tribes, a majority of whom are landless or homeless, decided to take action and joined the march.

This label has deprived such communities from access to rights and social justice, forcing them to migrate all year round, and making them consequently some of the poorest in society. They are also facing the stigma of being classed as a criminal community - a label given during colonial times, which hasn't diminished - and are consequently often harassed by local officials and police.

Access to land would change their lives dramatically, giving them somewhere to call home.

Yet, this was just the beginning.

The task force: after the march for justice 

Since the agreement was signed, members of Ekta Parishad joined a task force of civil society groups and government ministers, which was set up to work together, and six months on, we marched on Delhi again to see what progress government officials had made.

If acted upon, the agreement would give backing to the provision of agricultural land to landless poor communities, as well as requiring the government to establish fast track land tribunals to quickly resolve land issues, like land grabbing and disputes over land boundaries.

Giving fresh life to long neglected legislation that should be protecting the rights of poor and marginalised communities - such as the Land Reform Acts from the 1950s - the agreement would also require state and national governments to work together in new ways to ensure the landless poor can secure their rights.

Land policy

Thankfully, progress has been made. The government has been working to meet the aims set out in a new 10-point programme, including a national land reforms policy, enhancing land access and land rights for the poor, and work on forest and revenue boundary disputes.

The government has also agreed to double the budget allocation for its housing programme for the poor, leading the way for local state governments to do the same.

Involving tribal communities

It was inspirational to hear from Shikari Baiga, a member of a primitive tribal community in the Central Southern hills of India, who joined the march to inspire others in his community to register their claim to land.

Local heroes

Similarly, Chandrakala Das, who belongs to a fishing community in Chilka, Orissa, is now mobilising the women in her community, encouraging them to claim land for their housing. She is instrumental for keeping constant pressure on the local government to get their land rights.

Government asks

Yet, there is still work to do. We're waiting for the government to articulate a clear message on the redistribution of agricultural land to the landless, giving poor and excluded communities the opportunity to grow their own crops to feed their families and earn a living.

Just giving them homestead land isn't enough. We hope the Indian government will address this key issue sooner rather than later.


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'Jan Satyagraha' march for justice

Ramesh's blog was also published in The Huffington Post


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About the author

Ramesh Sharma is the Jan Satyagraha (march for justice) campaign coordinator for Christian Aid partner Ekta Parishad in India. He is one of six civil society members who sit on the task force group – half civil society, half government – set up to ensure the terms laid out in the land rights agreement signed in Agra on 11 October are acted upon.

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