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A little plot of earth

In the same week that India celebrated the emergence of home-grown entrepreneur Mukesh Ambani as the world’s richest person, landless labourers and socially marginalized groups marched into its capital by the thousand, demanding a piece of the country’s new-found prosperity.

Ambani’s riches, now topping $63.2 billion, are a product of the economic miracle presided over by the business-friendly Government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former World Bank economist.

But it is a miracle that has not touched an estimated 70 per cent of India’s 1.1 billion people who eke a living out of farming and hard, unorganized labour.

According to World Bank estimates, more than 450 million Indians live on less than a dollar a day, and India has been witness in recent years to hundreds of impoverished farmers committing suicide after being caught in debt traps.

So at the end of October, 25,000 protestors assembled peacefully amidst New Delhi’s glass-sheathed malls and skyscrapers. They had marched 300 kilometres from the central city of Gwalior to ask for the very basics – small plots of land on which to farm. They said they had nothing to go back home for, and would wait as long as necessary for a satisfactory response from their Government.

The Government was shaken enough to make the gesture of conceding to their demands the very next day. It agreed to appoint a committee of experts, chaired by Singh himself, to consider ways of speeding up land reform – one of independent India’s long-forgotten goals.

Although Singh’s Congress Party-led Government came to power in 2004 promising to give a ‘human face to liberalization’, its policy of granting quick approvals for many ‘Special Economic Zones’, promoting agro-fuels and changing land laws has exacerbated a land-grab by the rich.

Edged off whatever land they held by relentless development projects, over 20 million people have become ‘internally displaced’ since independence, resulting in conflicts between farmers and corporate interests. After 14 farmers were shot dead by police in West Bengal state in 2007, a plan to acquire 8,900 hectares of land for a petrochemical complex had to be shelved.

‘In the recent years of economic liberalization, the programme of land distribution among the landless has been badly neglected, while hundreds of thousands of acres have been taken away from peasants for industries, mining, dams and other projects. Nonviolent struggle for protecting the land rights of the poor cannot be delayed any further,’ said PV Rajagopal, the main organizer of the march.

Jagdish and Srilal, indigenous Sahariya people from central Madhya Pradesh, explained why they were there: ‘Rich, influential persons have occupied the land which was to be allocated to us. We have been to the state capital to get justice, but failed. Now we’ve come to the biggest seat of power in Delhi to demand our traditional right over _jal, jangal, jameen_ [water, forest, land].’

Usha Devi and Sonakali travelled from the Arrah district of eastern Bihar. ‘We are Dalits [so-called ‘untouchables’]. We work as farm labourers from dawn to dusk for about 25 rupees [5 US cents]. Our men get slightly more, but our families can’t survive. We have come here to demand farmland, the houses and the wages the Government has been promising us for many years.’

New Internationalist issue 408 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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