Nearly 55,000 members of Dalit and tribal communities from villages across India have embarked on a Jan Satyagraha march to demand their land rights.
Led by the Ekta Parishad, the marchers -- comprising landless and impoverished farmers -- started off from Gwalior on October 3. They plan to reach Delhi on October 27 and hold talks with the central government to seek a framework for the national land reforms policy.
In an interview with rediff.com's Priyanka, Ekta Parishad chairman P V Rajagopal states that the marchers are simply demanding clearer guidelines on the allotment of land for industrial purposes and its distribution among farmers who have little else.
Who are the people who have joined you in the march?
These are people from villages across the country. These are Adivasis, Dalits and tribals, whose life and sources of livelihood depend on natural resources like water, land and forests. They have no land to till for a living or build their homes on.
How did you organise such a large-scale march?
This is not the first time we have organised a march and we have been working on this for many years. In 2007, we had marched towards Delhi with 25,000 people. We had demanded a national land reforms policy. A committee was formed after the march in 2007. But not a single meeting has been convened in the last five years.
Nearly 12,000 people marched towards Parliament in 2010, informing the government politely that it needs to hear the voice of the tribals, Dalits and Adivasis. But the government did not listen to us.
We from the Ekta Parishad have been traveling to villages across the country in the last one year and trying to educate people.
We now have the support of 2000 tribals, Adivasis and ground-level groups in this march. Organisations such as the Sarv Seva Dal, Dalit land right organisations and the Adivasi Ekta Parishad are all here with us.
What are your demands?
Tribals, Adivasis, Dalits do not have land to build their homes; they do not have land to farm. The government should guarantee the right to land; they should give land to the landless so that they can build their homes and farm.
We are demanding rashtriya bhumi sudhar (national land reforms policy). This policy should give directions and guidelines on how land in a given area should be used -- whether for industrial purposes or for farming. It should also lay down guidelines on which piece of land should be given to Adivasis, Dalits and tribals to build their homes on.
Laws for the protection of land and rights of Adivasis should be strictly followed and implemented. In this march, there are people from Odisha and Madhya Pradesh whose land has been taken away by big companies.
We are demanding that the government create an infrastructure to implement the land reforms policy. There should be fast-track courts so that the cases related to land rights don't drag on for years. And the government should ensure that this is achieved within a set time-frame.
We are ready to work with the government. They should take the help of people who have worked for land movements at the ground level and include them in the committee for the national land reforms policy. We are not fighting against the government; we are fighting for the rights of the poor and the landless.
Are you going to meer Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh?
That was the plan before the padyatra had even started. The government had asked us to meet its representatives in Delhi on October 11, but only if we called off the march. We had worked with the government's representatives and prepared a draft of the policy. But the government did a complete U-turn and gave a letter to us instead, saying they will consider the demands. It was a real setback for us.
The government will neither do anything itself nor does it want people conducting marches like this to demand their rights. You will see people here in chappals or without, and in torn clothes; some are walking with their children. These are deprived people who are fighting for their land. Let the world watch them.
Has there been any word from the government about holding talks?
There has been no communication, no invitation to hold a talk or dialogue with the government. We will be reaching Agra on October 11. If the government wants to hold talks, we are open to any discussion.
What about the next few days of the padyatra? Are you going to talk to the state governments on your way to Delhi?
We will be in Madhya Pradesh on October 5-6. We will then be in Rajasthan for the next two days. We will be traveling through Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. We will reach Delhi on October 27.
We will be talking to the state governments as well, but it is better if there is a well-defined policy at the top. We can then talk to the state governments about implementing it.
Image: P V Rajagopal | Image courtesy: Ekta Parishad/Wikimedia Commons