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Follow the march for justice

In October 2012, Christian Aid partner Ekta Parishad embarked on an epic journey across India which culminated in a month-long march; one of the biggest non-violent campaigns the world has ever witnessed.

Take stock of this incredible journey as we reflect on the impact the march across India has had after coming to a close.  

January 2014

Agasia Singh, from Umaria, Madhya Pradesh, marches for a piece of land in October 2012 Agasia Singh walked swiftly on the first day of the march, wearing a hat to shade from the scorching sun. ‘I want a small piece of land,’ she said.

‘I’m a tribal so no-one listens to me. I know that if I walk to Delhi, people will listen. Rajagopal [president of Ekta Parishad] said that and I trust him so I am walking.’

Marching feet

In October 2012, 60,000 landless poor people like Agasia began their epic 200 mile journey from Gwalior to India’s capital, Delhi.

Their cause? The right to land - to have their own home, to cultivate crops and earn a living.

The planned month-long march came to a triumphant halt after just a week as the Indian government agreed to meet the marchers’ demands.

More than a year after the Rural Development Minister signed the agreement on behalf of the government, what progress has been made?

Rights to land

We believe that ensuring a fairer share of India’s land and resources is crucial to lifting the country’s poorest out of poverty.

The Government of India have taken a number of steps to extend the opportunity for poor and marginalised communities to secure rights to land, including giving around 12,000 new housing plots to homeless families.

Christian Aid programme manager Subrata De says: ‘The new provisions regarding rural housing, legal assistance and forest land rights are vital to ensuring greater access to resource rights for excluded communities.‘

A bold step

Subrata continues: ‘The passing of the Land Acquisition Bill is significant. It sets a minimum requirement for fair compensation and proper rehabilitation and resettlement in the case of land acquired by the government.

‘We must congratulate the government on taking this step. As ever though, the challenge remains to ensure government policies, acts and bills lead to meaningful and lasting transformation for India’s landless poor.

‘There is a long way to go but we are very much on track.’

Charity not enough

In India, millions of people are at threat of being forced off their land due to schemes including mining, logging, nuclear power and even ‘golden birds’.

Yet many of these communities don’t know their rights, and so are often denied the opportunity to grow food on the land they’ve lived on for decades or access the forest resources that sustain them.

‘If we wait too long there will be nothing left for the poor people’ said Rajagopal PV, Ekta Parishad’s president.

‘No charity, no amount of other development activity is going to remove poverty from the earth unless people have control over land and livelihood resources’.

The March for Justice was organised by our partner Ekta Parishad who, mobilised 2,000 civil society groups around the country to add their voices and marching feet to this successful campaign.

17 April 2013

This past weekend, April 13-14, saw 3,000 activists from Ekta Parishad and 8,000 more from the National Alliance on Dalit Land Rights, gather in New Delhi, India, to keep the pressure on the Indian government about land rights.

It’s been six months now since Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh signed an agreement, on behalf of the government, to meet the demands of some 60,000 marchers and the time has come to identify what progress, if any, has been made.

‘If nothing happens in six months, we will assemble here in Agra and march to Delhi.’

Only the beginning

The historic moment in Agra on 11 October 2012, was only the beginning and despite March for Justice’s (Jan Satyagraha) success, Rajagopal PV, Ekta Parishad’s president, remained pragmatic and unequivocal.

Promises, promises

So, has the government kept its promises? In short, Christian Aid and our partner, Ekta Parishad, welcome the steps the Indian government has taken so far.

Over the last six months, a Task Force group, establised as part of the agreement and made up of members from civil society and the government, has been working to meet the the aims set out in the ten point programme.

The National Homestead Bill and National Land Reforms Policy are still to be finalised, but progress has been significant. Most notably, advising individual states on how to improve existing land reform measures and ensuring speedy resolutions of land disputes.

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

‘Heading in the right direction’

Anand Kumar, Christian Aid India’s country manager said: ‘The government is certainly acting on some of the key promises it made during the Jan Satyagraha and even though the process is moving slowly it appears to be heading in the right direction,’

Anand continued: ‘However, the government has yet to articulate a clear message on redistribution of agriculture land to the landless. Access to homestead land alone is not enough; the demand for access to agriculture land - crucial to securing the livelihoods of millions of poor and excluded communities in the country – must be met. We hope that the government of India address this key demand sooner rather than later.’

The months ahead

As Rajagopal PV says: ‘the absence of pro-poor land governance in a country where 70% of people generate a livelihood from the land, has exacerbated poverty, mass outmigration, expansion of urban slums and led to high levels of violence.’ The months ahead will see Ekta Parishad intensifying its advocacy and lobbying with the aim of ensuring land rights and the land reforms agenda finds a place at the heart of every political parties’ manifesto for government.

10 December 2012

As we sit back and take stock of the resounding success of the Jan Satyagraha march, India’s March for Justice that came to a victorious end two months ago, the hard work for Ekta Parishad is far from over. In fact, it ratchets up a notch.

Ramesh Sharma, Etka Parishad’s Jan Satyagraha Campaign Coordinator, is one of six civil society members who now sit on the Task Force group – half civil society, half government – set up to ensure the terms laid out in the agreement signed in Agra on 11 October are acted upon.

Just one week after the signing, the Task Force met for the first time, and on that very evening I met with Ramesh to review the gripping events of the previous weeks, and to put to him the question on everyone’s lips: what comes next?

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'The Satyagraha [will] never finish because Satyagraha is a fight for truth and justice,'

When asked why he feels so confident that this time the government will deliver on its promises, Ramesh explains, ‘We have given the government of India six months. “Whatever you have committed to in Agra, let’s perform [against that] in the next six months. If you don’t fulfil [those promises] we’re free to continue the march where we left off from 11 March [2013]”.’

Ramesh goes on to explain the three essential components of the negotiations and agreement - a timeline, a mechanism and a commitment of resources - that he says are designed to ensure the results of new land reform policies are felt in the lives of India’s rural poor, landless and homeless very soon.

‘The campaign is not yet finished. The Satyagraha [will] never finish because Satyagraha is a fight for truth and justice and we know that even after this commitment [that’s been made], we will need a lot of strength and energy to percolate all the promises down to the ground, to the people’, he reflects.

11 October 2012

Tens of thousands of marchers converging on the Indian capital Delhi in pursuit of land reform called off their protest today following Government agreement to their demands.

Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh publicly signed the agreement in front of marchers as they gathered in Agra, Uttar Pradesh this morning. 

Some 60,000 marchers, mainly socially marginalised dalits and tribal people, began the 200-mile Jan Satyagraha march from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to Delhi last week. They were due to reach the capital later this month.

Land rights

'This is a true example of people’s victory through peaceful negotiation.'

The new deal gives statutory backing to the provision of agricultural land to the landless poor in the poorer districts. In addition, the Government will urge states to protect the land rights of dalits, tribals and 'all other weaker and marginalised sections of society', and fast track land tribunals will be established to resolve land issues quickly.

The march was organised by Christian Aid partner Ekta Parishad, which mobilised some 2,000 civil society groups around the country to provide marchers.

Anand Kumar, Christian Aid's Country Manager in India said: 'Congratulations to Ekta Parishad and the marchers. This is a true example of people’s victory through peaceful negotiation. 

'The Jan Satyagraha has demonstrated its confidence in the parliamentary democratic process and was able to engage with the Government to realise just demands for poor and landless in this country.

‘We are grateful at the extreme care and sensitivity shown by the Minister for Rural Development and the Indian Government in resolving some of the key demands.’ 

Years of planning

The march was the culmination of four years planning by Ekta Parishad which in recent months has held numerous talks with government as it pressed for the implementation of the previously agreed National Land Reforms Policy.

Anand added: ‘This year’s march built on the successes of one held previously - Janadesh 2007 - when the National Land Reform Committee was established, but they never met to put an agenda in place.

‘This time these negotiations must continue between the government and organisations working with the landless poor. Institutional arrangements must be put in place and sufficient time and resources allocated to put this agreement into action.’

Access to land is critical for the eradication of poverty. We hope that today’s success will give hope and inspire other land struggles in other parts of the world.'

Land reform in India

The land reform task force is due to meet on October 17 2012 when they will begin to prepare and roadmap for land reform in India.

 

5 October 2012

This week saw 50-60,000 Indians, mainly dalits and tribal people, start the Jan Satyagraha march for land rights.

The march, which will cover 300km from Gwalior to Delhi, is the culmination of four years of planning and preparation by Christian Aid partner Ekta Parishad. Thousands more marchers are expected to join over the coming days and weeks as the march approaches Delhi.

The people's search for truth

Jan Satyagraha means 'the people's search for truth' and the march aims to give a voice to the poorest communities of India.

The main demands of this huge non-violent action are a new land reform policy, which would guarantee access to land and livelihood resources for all, regardless of wealth or caste, and a law establishing the right to shelter.

A government U-turn

It was hoped that the march was going to succeed even before its departure. In final two weeks of September, Ekta Parishad had numerous positive meetings with government officials and the Minister of Rural Development came to address the marchers on 2 October 2012 at the Mela Exhibition Ground in Gwalior.

As the minister left the stage, Ekta Parishad invited leaders and representatives from the different districts, tribes and social movements, to come together to discuss the government’s response. This discussion was broadcast live to the tens of thousands of marchers gathered so they could listen.

The general consensus was that the Minister's response fell short of expectations and was trying to buy the government more time. Therefore it was decided that the march should go ahead to keep the pressure on the government.

 

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And they’re off!

The march started at 7am on 3 October 2012, a day later than planned due to the speeches the previous day. On this first day, the marchers covered 22km along the national highway leading to Delhi.

Over the next month they will be walking, on average, between 10 and 12km per day.

However, the marchers are facing scorching sun and temperatures reaching 36°C. There is also a lack of resources including food-– they only have enough provisions to last for 10 days.

Hope

On 11 October 2012 the Indian government have invited Ekta Parishad to meet with them in Delhi and it is hoped that at this meeting they will be able to reach an agreement on the demands.

If they are able to reach an agreement Ekta Parishad will review the progress of the march. However, if they are unable to reach a decision, then the march will most probably continue.

 

Thousands of rural Indians are currently making final preparations to join Ekta Parishad's Jan Satyagraha march that begins in less than two weeks' time.

Meanwhile, Ekta Parishad’s leadership team have been heavily involved in discussions with representatives of the Indian government.

President of Ekta Parishad, Rajagopal, met with a member of the planning commission of India as well as individual representatives including the minister for rural development whom he briefed about the key demands of the march.

Ekta Parishad is also in touch with a few members of the National Advisory Committee (NAC) made up of various experts, civil society activists and representatives who advise the Chairperson of the UPA government. Senior member Sonia Gandhi is acting as Chair of the NAC.

100,000 people marching together

The prospect of 100,000 people marching at once is daunting and so the Government appears keen to reach some kind of agreement, according to Ekta Parishad sources.

Some of the march's main demands are not new, but are simply being reiterated, as promises made following Ekta Parishad's 2007 Janadesh march remain unhonoured.

The Land Reforms Council that was set up as a result of the 2007 Janadesh march was supposed to be headed by the Prime Minister himself. However, for whatever reason, the committee has not yet convened.

Praveen Jha: on land and poverty

Recommendations put forward by members of the Land Reforms Committee also seem to have been paid no attention to as yet by the Government, much to the dismay of those such as Professor Praveen Jha of Delhi's Jawaharlal University who told me when I met him how he spent months researching, travelling and collating data to inform the report.

Ekta Parishad's key demands

Ekta Parishad's key demands are laid out in an open letter  to the Indian Prime Minister

'The Government seems keen to explore how they can meet the minimum requirements to satisfy these demands' says Anand Kumar, Christian Aid’s India representative 'but it is too early for us to say whether there will be any clear outcome'.

What is clear, Anand maintains, is that Ekta Parishad are determined to secure ‘stronger legislations and some serious commitment from the government.'

With 90,000 people already signed up for the march, and 10,000 more being mobilised by other solidarity groups across the country, Ekta Parishad feel confident the Jan Sataygraha march will take shape as planned.

Lack of basic resources

Yet a lack of resources for things such as food, safe drinking water, toilets, and mobile health clinics remains a concern.

'It may be that not all the marchers march for the entire journey’ speculates Anand. 'We pray to God that Ekta Parishad meet their financial targets in time.'

Read Ekta Parishad's open letter to the Indian Prime Minister here.

 

With just one month to go until the Jan Satyagraha March begins, on 2 October 2012, it would be fair to wonder why Ekta Parishad's leadership is willing to face arrest.

And why there are 100,000 people, many already hungry, who are prepared to march 8-12km a day for a month, many barefoot, on such little sustenance as crushed, soaked rice with onion, potato and chilli salt, one or two times a day.

Forced from their land

In December last year I visited communities with Ekta Parishad as they prepared them for the march.

One fishing community on India's stunning western coastline told us that they are being forced off their land, with increasing violence, by local state forces.

Detained for hours

As we were leaving, we were stopped by the police, detained for hours and made to delete video footage we'd taken of their story.

The fisherfolk of this community were opposing the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Plant development, set to displace thousands and affect tens of thousands of people.

They were refusing to be bought (for minimal compensation) or bullied off their land. As a result, their surrounding paradise setting had become a daily nightmare.

Ekta Parishad speaks to the people

The people were living in the daily shadow of terror that any morning they could wake up to be physically forced from their coastal land... and lose everything they had.

Young and old crowded into the community building to hear the community leaders share their plight and hear Ekta Parishad's words of encouragement.

People were hanging through the open windows and peering in through the wrought-iron work in the walls. Hundreds more gathered outside to listen over loudspeaker.

'Mark the tension on their faces' said our Delhi colleague as he explained that a man had been shot dead and a handful more injured by police during a public demonstration here.

The people were living in the daily shadow of terror that any morning they could wake up to be physically forced from their coastal land, homes and livelihoods and lose everything they had. 

Fishing is all they know.

Largest democracy on Earth 

After five hours we were released, and received an apology for our wrongful detention the next morning.

As unsettling as our detention was, it did nothing but bring to stark clarity the force and intimidation that, in this the so-called largest democracy on Earth, affiliates of the state appear willing to employ to get their way.

Journey gives hope

This sense of powerlessness was balanced by the incredible energy, hope and organisational zeal that over the last year have been breathed into hundreds of communities by Ekta Parishad’s journey and tireless campaign.

Their exhausting daily endeavours this year drive home the very real, urgent need to ensure that the voices of the poor – a large majority of India's population – are listened to, considered and acted upon.

Video: India's march for justice

 

Holding banners on the march We’re receiving news that Ekta Parishad are facing two major threats to their October Jan Satyagraha march continuing as planned.

The first is political pressure, allegedly from Government affiliates to cancel the march, citing concern it will lead to civil unrest.

The government initially appeared to welcome the campaign but Etka Parishad say they have been more recently been subject to police harassment and accusation on their journey. Despite this, Ekta Parishad's leadership feel the march must continue

‘Ekta Parishad are willing to risk being arrested and taken to court, rather than cancel the march’ reports Ekta Parishad activist, Ran Singh. 

‘In a democratic country people should have the right to voice their dissent against any process of development, especially affecting their lives’ Ekta Parishad's president, Rajagopal told me when I met him at his journey’s start. 

The second challenge is a deficit of food to feed the marchers. The marchers have been encouraged to save precious grains over the last year, but these only comprise half of what’s needed.

Frustratingly, Indian legislation restricts us as an international agency from funding this campaign directly, although Christian Aid do give them an annual grant for their land development work.

Instead we are appealing to Indian friends and contacts to support them.

‘If the deficit is not met’, says our India rep, Anand Kumar,, ‘Ekta Parishad believes the marchers will be prepared to continue on just one simple meal a day, rather than diminish their opportunity to be heard. 

‘The success of the Jan Satyagraha march will be based on how much solidarity support we are able to get’ Rajagopal told me.

‘We will prove that some struggles can succeed, and those successes will inspire more people, and that is how you build a better world.’ 

Show your solidarity and join a march in the UK  

 

Group at rally I knew, of course, about Ekta Parishad’s journey before travelling to India, but it was only when we spent four days following their van across the country that I realised just what a personal sacrifice and strain each of the travellers had committed to.

A group of 15 are travelling across India for a year in a van. On its side, a banner bears the faces of Etka Parishad’s leader Rajagopal and Gandhi, whose philosophy of non-violent action they follow.

Ramesh, Ekta Parishad’s campaign co-ordinator, joined us in our vehicle to share the challenges of this extraordinary journey.

‘Every day we hear more than 100 voices, all sad voice,’ explains Ramesh. ‘Every day holding that pain, at night you can’t sleep properly.

'The physical challenge is much easier – the mental accumulation far more difficult.’

The team often get delayed and find communities waiting patiently for their arrival, eager to share their stories and to hear the Etka Parishad representatives speak. And then they get to bed late, and catch a few hours of sleep – often restless – before rising early to give their all to the next press conference or community gathering.

We left the group after just four days, completely exhausted ourselves and unable to imagine a whole 365 days of the same routine. We also left utterly inspired and with the feeling that we had met a group of people capable of changing the course of history for hundreds of millions of impoverished Indians, and inspiring many more across the world through their solidarity networks.

We followed Ekta Parishad to press conferences and community meetings, where journalists expressed concern, and where young and old crowded in to share their stories and hear Ramesh, Rajagopal and their colleagues speak.

And we caught a glimpse of the hope their journey brings; that Etka Parishad will bring people’s voices and struggles to the national and international level.

'Until each and every homeless and landless poor person in this country get their land rights, our journey, our mission is not going to stop' said Ramesh of the team's devotion to the difficult journey. 'We can feel the campaign building, day by day.'

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