Janadesh - Part 2; Delhi 29th October 2007Joining the march….
We were driven by jeep to meet the march, a human wave of 25,000 people that was snaking it's way down a dusty highway some 50km outside of Delhi. Packed and prepared with water, hats and sunscreen in our bags, full of anticipation. I'd been caught up in all the excitement surrounding the yatra (march) in Delhi-I'd read about Janadesh, heard about Janadesh, seen pictures, but the whole concept was still so alien to anything I'd ever been involved in before. I wasn't sure what my feelings and reactions would be on joining the yatrees (marchers).
Dropped at the front of the march we could see the road full of marchers, a mixture of coloursreceeding into the hazy distance. Thousands of India's poorest people, tribal people, so called 'untouchables' and landless labourers. I stood at the side for a moment to let some groups walk past; emaciated old men and women, mothers with babies in their arms, young couples, teenagers quietly walking along in their disciplined rows, waving their green and white flags and chanting slogans incessantly as the midday heat beat down on their thinly covered backs - 'Water, forest, land / Be under the control of the people'. The sounds, smells, strength and solidarity all hit me at once.
At the front of the march a group of Buddist monks from an order called 'Nippondzan Myohoji' lead the way slowly, chanting a prayer continuously and beating their drums in steady unison. A calming focus to those at the front. Behind them walked Ekta Parishad's leading members and the group of foreign marchers.
At every brief stop Rajgopal P.V and his wife Jill are adorned with garlands and tilaks and showered with petals. It's strange as a westerner to see someone that isn't royalty, or a Hollywood film star being treated with such reverence. Rajgopal is clearly a highly respected figure, quietly enigmatic and steadfastly confident, he seems to be a natural leader. It's not hard to imagine a younger Rajgopal persuading bandits in central India to lay down their arms in the 1970's.
All along the route Ekta Parishad's marketing machine churns out leaflets and banners, spreading the word, gathering more supporters. As Rajgopal himself said, 'we could march with 100,000 people if that's what it takes.' This is a movement that will not back down and it has started to make waves outside of India as well. People have come from all over the world to join in with Janadesh, many of them involved in lands rights issues in their own countries.
Anna and Vanderlu travelled from Sao Paulo in Brazil to show their support. They are part of Brazilian land rights movement MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). Janadesh has only strengthened their believe that the poor suffer the same problems across the world. In Brazil about 2 per cent of the people own 50 per cent of the land. MST organised a similar movement to Janadesh where 12,000 people marched demanding land reforms.
Gerald has come from Kenya and is part of a delegation representing the Kenyan Land Alliance, an organisation leading a similar movement to Ekta Parishad in Kenya that is pushing for new comprehensive land reform policy. 'We have the same problem, the people have no security, they will be given land by the government one year and forced to move off it the next. We really need to bring tribes together in the same way that Ekta Parishad have done here in India.' (PHOTO)
I feel like I have living in ignorance to the plight of a lot of people. Hearing just a few stories makes the whole issue of land reform seem so much more vast, is it one that can ever be solved completely? Looking after the poor and conserving land are the last things on the minds of the governments that are leading the way for these countries. Industrialisation, money, power….these things don't go hand in hand with land rights and traditional livelihoods.
Talking to the marchers…
Walking along with the foreign contingent at the front, it would have been very easy not to have any contact with the marchers themselves but ever so often groups of us would dip back and walk in line with some of the other groups. The 25,000 marchers were split up into 25 groups of up to 1000 all from different areas of India. A few personalities soon stuck out such as the young dalit drummers from Orissa that kept their group motivated with their energetic rhythms and formations and the tribal communities from Chattisghar that walked along carrying their bows and arrows. (PHOTO)
Walking along in line I felt I got more of a sense of what these people had been living for days, but only to a small degree. We went back to hotel beds and running water at the end of the day, it was hard to comprehend that these people had been eating, washing and living by the roadside for weeks.
In the afternoon when the marchers stopped at their evening resting place, usually around 3-4pm, student translators from universities in Delhi were on hand to enable foreign participants to speak to some of the yatrees. Most of the marchers say that their dire situation is because they have no deeds (pattas) to their land. They are unable to farm on their ancestral land but have no patta in order to access state welfare services.Sometimes, regardless of deeds, their land is being grabbed by local mafias and corrupt officials. These people are all fighting a losing battle against poverty and every single person had their story to tell…..
Nito has come all the way from the Kabardta region of Chattisgarh. She has never been out of Chattisgarh before but for the last 24 days she has walked the highway from Gwalior with her husband carrying her three year old boy Chaitu all the way.
The tattoos over her body and beads around her neck show she is a member of the Baiga tribe that traditionally live in forests of the region. For hundreds of years the tribe have famed the land, growing millet and maize and harvesting biri leaves for herbal medicines but now they don't know from one day to the next if they will be removed from their homes. Since last year several big companies have been given free reign to take over land and many of the poorest people in the district have already been removed from their land and livelihoods, left with no option but to migrate away and find some other way to subsist.
There are 25 families in Nito's village living in fear every day. They have nothing to prove the land they live on is theirs, only years of traditions and family stories passed down the generations. Nito, her family and another family from her village (Chhuinuara) are walking to get their papers (deeds), something, anything, that they can hold in their hand and use to prove that the land they work on, farm on, live on and die on is theirs.
When asked why she decided to take part in Janadesh, she looked up and said quietly, 'To do or die.' (PHOTO)
Basant Bahlza is an Adavasi from the Khurda district of Orissa. He has a house but no land to his name and works as a labourer for other landlords in his village growing rice and pulses. He is paid 50r/s a day (about 60p) barely enough to support and feed his wife, three children and elderly father.
Farming only pays for two seasons of the year, January to March and July to September, so in the months in between Basant and his family all move to Mumbai or Delhi so he can get employment as a construction worker.
Basant's three children, 2 girls and a boy, are 8, 12 and 14. They get some schooling when they are home in their village but they are also old enough to do some paid work in the fields to help to support their family. Basant would much prefer for them to get a full time education but there is little choice with six mouths to feed, the family need the extra income.
Basant proudly tells me that he is a teacher in the local school. He applied to be trained on a government scheme and now teaches some classes, but he gets no money for this and the children in the area often don't attend school because they are working. This situation is all too common in India. You can't help thinking how different the life of Basant and his family could be had they some more opportunities and options open to them.
When I ask Basant why he chose to leave his family for a month and come on Janadesh he says that he didn't feel he had a choice. He has nothing to his name, no land to farm, nothing to live off, he is always struggling. He hopes Janadesh achieves some positive government policy that will mean just a little bit of help. (PHOTO)
How it ended….
The Janadesh march finally entered Delhi on the 28th November and settled at the Ramlila ground, safely away from prying eyes and rush hour traffic. On the morning of the 29th, the last day of the march, the plan was for everyone to walk from the Ramlila ground to the parliament building in Delhi and present their demands to government. But marchers awoke to find a 3000 strong police presence blocking them into the ground. They would not be allowed to march.
In response Ekta Parishad president Rajagopal P.V told the police that if they were not allowed to go to parliament they would stay fasting in the Ramlila ground until their demands were heard - 'be prepared to receive our dead bodies because we will stay here and starve if you refuse to receive us and hear our demands.'
After hours of uncertainty there was an announcement that the Rural Development Minister, Dr Raghuwans Prasad Singh would be coming to talk to the waiting crowds. Dr Singh in his speech compared Janadesh with Gandhi's non-violent struggle for independence and called it an 'historical movement' before saying that the government had accepted the demands of Janadesh. There was jubilation and perhaps just a smidgen of disbelief that filtered through the ecstatic marchers.
In practical terms what this actually means is that a 'National Land Reform Committee' will be set up within one month, this will work as part of the Rural Development Ministry. This committee will take the document for a new national land policy that has been drafted by Ekta Parishad and finalise it into apolicy and legislation. Crucially 50% of the members of this new committee will come from social and civil society organisations involved in the land rights struggle and will be selected by EP.For the single window system and fast track courts that EP demanded state action needs to be taken. A lot of Indian legislation works on a state level but the committee will be able to put pressure on state governments to put appropriate legislation in place.
Janadesh has raised the profile of the land reform issue in India and has made the government sit up and take notice of the issues and concerns of the poorest people across India but unfortunately the struggle is far from over - in fact this is just the beginning of the battle. Land reform in India has been littered with broken promises and failed legislation and Ekta Parishad's work now is to ensure that the government lives up to it's word. Activist Ramesh Sharma is confident Janadesh is something that the government won't forget in a hurry -'The government will work with us because they have seen that we are capable of mass mobilisation. If they fail to live up to their promises we can pressure them with the threat of another mass action.' - Hopefully that threat will be enough to keep the government in check because change needs to happen at a national and a state level and we can only hope this happens sooner rather than later.
My final thoughts…
I couldn't help but wonder how many of the villagers that marched for the 29 days went home disappointed. How many walked believing that at the end they would return home jubilant with their land papers in their hand and all their problems solved? This has been a major event in these peoples lives. We might hear about an anti-war march and decide to take a few hours out of our busy day to show our support - these people have been saving and planning for over two years to ensure they could afford to come. Mothers, fathers, children, grandparents, old, young, disabled all walking because sacrificing a month of their lives is worth it, even if it leaves just a glimmer of hope that their lives may improve, that they can have some land to farm, that they can have access to the lake their ancestors have fished on for hundreds of years, that they can get food to eat and water to drink. Janadesh was literally a matter of life and death to these people and a small part of me is worried that even though all demands have been agreed to, that it's just not enough. Legislation is all very well but how long is that going to take to filter down to the people that need it most?