As rapid industrialization and development in India requisitions land, and the government grapples with a legal framework to deal with the displaced, activist group Ekta Parishad, whose name means “forum of unity” in Hindi, has campaigned on behalf of the landless and homeless.
The extensive work of Ekta Parishad in the most impoverished rural areas of India was recognized in a meeting with Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh, on 15 April, 2013, affirming an earlier agreement with the government in favor of the landless, and the poor in general. The organization applies the Gandhian principle of non-violent action to help the population to better control the resources which allow them to survive: land, water and forests.
The most impoverished people in India, the Dalits and Adivasis, especially women, are not only forgotten, but are also the main victims of rampant growth [fr] in recent years, which is centered primarily around industrialization. In February 2013, the National Dalit and Adavasi Women's Congress was cited in a recent blog article by Sujatha Surepally, which also denounces this sad reality:
The hall is echoing with the furious voice of Dayamani Barla, veteran Adivasi activist from Jharkhand. She is trying to unite people against mining in Jharkhand, around 108 mining companies are waiting to destroy Adivasi life in the name of mining, first they come for coal, next they say power houses, it continues, we are pushed out and out further. How do we live without our land? Spectacular speech for an hour, pin drop silence all around, everyone is identifying with her pain and agony. At the end of it, what is she is trying to convey? Humko Jeene Do! Let us live our own life! If this is called development, we care a damn about it!
Marches for Justice
Based upon transfer of important natural resources to industrial investors, both Indian and foreign, this growth has hindered the path of commitments to environmental matters. Local populations, of whom 70 percent still live in rural areas today, and who are dependent on natural resources for their survival, were often displaced by land grabs, made without any compensation.
Given the 60 million people who were displaced without compensation between 1947 and 2004, and the 25 million hectares of land requisitioned, activists from Ekta Parishad organized Janadesh – the “People's Verdict”, in 2007, which was a month-long march of 25,000 people from the city of Gwalior to the national capital, Delhi, to demand rights for the landless. These videos describe Janadesh [fr] and its Indian and international support [fr]:
The Bill stated: “For the first time in the history of Indian forests, the state formally admits that, for long, rights have been denied to forest-dwelling people, and the new forest law attempts not only to right that ‘historic injustice’ but also give forest communities’ role primacy in future forest management.” Forest-dependent communities that were being pushed deeper and deeper into what remained of the forests were pleasantly surprised by the passage of FRA 2006, although forest-rights activists were cynical about the state’s intentions. Many called the Bill “a paper tiger”, like so many other pieces of legislation in India.
Despite these progressive laws, few achievements have been effectively realized since they were passed. This led Ekta Parishad and more than 2,000 other organizations to organize in October 2012 the Jan Satyagraha, or “The March for Justice”, again from Gwalior to Delhi, which was attended by 50,000 people on its first day.
The video below, subtitled in French, “Act or Die,” summarizes the alternatives for these people:
According to the blog Rexistance Inde [fr]:
Difficile de dénombrer les marcheurs, mais il faut compter presque cinq heures pour voir défiler l'ensemble du cortège. (…) Nous traversons (…) quelques villages où les gens accueillent la Marche avec des colliers et des jets de pétales de fleurs jaunes et orange.
It was difficult to count the number of marchers, but it took almost five hours to watch the passing of the entire procession (…) We passed through (…) some villages where people welcomed the March with necklaces of yellow and orange flowers, and by throwing flower petals.
Promises to keep
The petitions of 2007, which had focused on landless rural people, were this time expanded to include the homeless, the effective application of laws against poverty, the technical means for such application, and finally, a precise timetable for the fulfillment of these promises. The summation of these demands was written in the 10-point agreement between the marchers and the Indian Government [fr] on 11 October, 2012, and was confirmed by a new meeting between the authorities and the marchers in April 2013.
The blog Rexistance Inde [fr] stated in an article on 31 December, 2012:
Le gouvernement fédéral s'engage à plancher sur une politique de réformes agraires et à faire pression auprès des gouvernements locaux – l'allocation de terres étant leur prérogative – pour permettre aux populations marginalisées de rester sur leurs terres, ou d'en obtenir de nouvelles pour y travailler. Et pour y vivre ! Car l'une des clauses centrales, et nouvelles, de l'engagement consiste à inclure le droit au logement pour chaque famille pauvre et sans terre. […] Mais Ekta Parishad n'est pas naïf. Au contraire, fort de l'expérience de la Janadesh en 2007 dont le peu de promesses obtenues n'avait pas vraiment été tenues, le mouvement reste vigilant, à tel point qu'il lance dans la foulée de la signature de l'accord un appel à soutien international pour signifier au gouvernement que les “invisibles” ne le lâcheront pas d'une semelle, et que l'œil de la conscience citoyenne veille, partout dans le monde.
The federal government is starting a campaign of agrarian political reforms, and to put pressure on local governments – since the allocation of land is their prerogative – to allow marginalized populations to remain on their land, or to find new land where they can work. And where they can live ! Since one of the new, and central, clauses of the agreement consists of the inclusion of a right to housing for each poor and landless family […] But Ekta Parishad is not naive. On the contrary, given the experience from Janadesh in 2007, from which few of the promises obtained have truly been kept, the movement remains vigilant. To the point that, in the wake of the signing of the agreement, it launched an appeal for international support, to signal to the government that the “invisibles” will not retreat an inch, and that the eyes of civic consciousness are watching, throughout the world.
The support initiatives, at the Indian, European and international levels, were also redoubled during recent months, to ensure that the agreement will be respected by the Indian government, as stated in a collective letter sent to Minister Jairam Ramesh, thanking him for his actions since the beginning of the year on behalf of the most impoverished, but also encouraging him not to turn back from such a promising path.
Hope and caution
The agreement reached between Ekta Parishad and the Indian government may well represent the promise of a new paradigm for development and distribution of natural resources within India, and perhaps elsewhere. On the eve of general elections in India, it is time for mobilization and hope, but equally well for caution.
V. Rajagopal, President of Ekta Parishad, confirmed that the movement intends to make its voice heard clearly during the electoral campaign which is now beginning in India, in an online article on Firstpost India, on 12 April, 2013:
2014 is an election year, and all political parties are drafting their manifestos. And our effort is to make land reform figure prominently in their manifestos. We are talking to different political parties. And keeping the next election in mind, we have come up with a slogan – Aage zameen peeche vote, nahi zameen toh nahi vote (first land, then vote; no land, no vote).