In the 1950s, the plight of the landless was very much in the Indian consciousness. After political independence, economic independence became the priority. In a predominantly agrarian economy, a vast majority of the people depended on agriculture for their sustenance. The problem was that most of them were landless.
‘Land to the tiller’ was not just a slogan but a practical necessity. Mahatma Gandhi’s foremost disciple, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, took up the land problem as a national priority. Thus arose the Bhoodan Yajna, the Land Gift Mission. Bhave walked from village to village for 13 years covering over 50,000 kilometres, persuading people to share the land with their landless brethren.
Over a million hectares of land were collected as bhoodan, of which 40 per cent was distributed to the landless. The remaining could not be distributed because of reasons that included poor quality of land, legal disputes, encroachments and lack of persistence. After 20 years, the movement collapsed under the weight of fraudulent claims, in the absence of supportive legislation and political will.
The condition of the landless in India has actually worsened since then. While India saw unprecedented prosperity in the last 15 years, its foodgrain intake declined — millions more of its people now live in hunger. The nation’s consciousness has to return once again to the land.
A major source of the trouble in the countryside is the erosion of land rights. Traditional land rights of adivasis and small farmers are denied either in the name of development or through manipulations of the land mafia. More and more people are becoming landless. Easy loans for consumption have led many rural Indians into debt traps, depriving them of their mortgaged land and livelihood.
Restoration of land to the landless, whose livelihood depends on it, is the only sustainable solution to the problem. The government can and should prevent an impending catastrophe by following these specific steps:
* Document the details of the land lost by adivasis, Dalits and poor peasants and farmers, through takeover, debt and manipulation. Restore the land to those who depend on it for their livelihood.
* Prevent speculative buying of land and forcible government takeover by the rule of ‘eminent domain’ without community consent.
* Provide police protection, legal assistance and government support to people who are evicted from their land or prevented from using it, by adopting a proactive and enlightened policy.
* Identify speculative buying of land, benami transactions and outright encroachments by powerful entities and retrieve the land.
* Realise the aspect of land-grabbing involved in the recent practice of transferring land ownership to private monopolies through schemes of disinvestment of public assets and projects to promote private industrial development. Reverse the policy and restore control and land rights to local community of people.
* Identify surplus government land for distribution to the landless and arrange for its distribution with local community participation.
* Identify bhoodan lands in various states that are yet to be distributed. Provide legislative and other necessary support to responsible social workers to complete the distribution appropriately.
The government has to provide the leadership. Janadesh 2007 is a mass movement of non-violent action to project the people’s rights and obtain government commitment to immediate action. This is the culmination of five years of progressively intensified campaigns of the people under the Ekta Parishad.
The campaign has three specific demands around land reform:
* Establishment of a National Land Commission to provide a clear statement of land utilisation in India, identify the lands available for redistribution and strengthen pro-poor laws.
* Establishment of fast-track courts to settle past and future conflicts related to land.
* Establishment of a single-window system so that farmers can resolve land issues without wasting time, money and energy.
The demands of the marginalised people of India are quite reasonable. Let us hope that the governments — both at the Centre and the states — take immediate action. The landless people of New India deserve it.
NN Panicker walked with the Janadesh 2007 marchers for ten days up to Agra