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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 15

Implementing Janadesh—The Task Ahead

Saturday 29 March 2008, by Bharat Dogra

The Janadesh foot-march of 25,000 ‘oppressed of the earth’ from Gwalior to Delhi received a lot of well-deserved attention and praise. I talked to many of these members when they reached Delhi, when they were sitting on dharna and when they were about to take the train back home. All of them had been away from home for over a month, most of them had been walking constantly for 27 days in difficult conditions. Yet not even one of them complained about the numerous difficulties they had faced. They said that they participated in this march as they hoped that this will help them to improve their land and livelihood conditions.

I also asked a particularly provocative question: aren’t you aware that even if the government in Delhi is sympathetic, it is unlikely to immediately give you land or even promise land. Then why did you endure so much hardship to come here? This is how a landless woman Saraswati from Ganjam district of Orissa replied with quiet dignity: “Yes we are aware that such things are not done so quickly. But I’ll be satisfied if as a result of this march, our picture enters the mirror which the government holds. The rulers of Delhi have seen us. We want that when they look every day at the mirror, they see our picture there and do not forget us. Then surely soon they’ll do justice, we will get land, Indira Awas and better wages.”

I cannot also forget the sight of the group of marchers I met at the Nizamuddin railway station as they were waiting to board a train back home (Katni district of Madhya Pradesh). They were all very tired and weak and they had not achieved anything tangible for their thirty days of labour that they could show folks back home, but they had dignity, pride and hope which came from their understanding that the march had indeed created conducive conditions for land reforms and egalitarian change, and that they had contributed to this.

It is these intensely felt yearnings of the majority of our rural people for equality and stable livelihoods that should be tapped to fight hunger and poverty in India. It is rural people like the Janadesh marchers—willing to work hard and endure hardships for genuine egalitarian change—who can provide a strong base for any genuine effort aimed at distributing land to the poor, protecting their land and livelihood rights and ensuring honest implementation of existing government schemes.

THE government had been so far depending heavily on its employment guarantee scheme and other rural employment schemes to fight and reduce poverty and hunger in villages. As the latest available statistics show all too clearly, our performance in fighting poverty, hunger and malnutrition has been quite weak and we must find other ways of broadening the campaign against poverty and hunger.

The demands emphasised in the Janadesh yatra provide some of these missing components. Its foremost demand is large-scale distribution of farmland among the landless and near landless rural households. As a first step, all those rural households who have already obtained land under various schemes but could not cultivate it (all too often due to the obstacles placed by powerful persons in the village) should be enabled to occupy and cultivate land in a time-bound programme. All rural poor households should get homestead land, a demand already accepted by the government but not yet implemented for lakhs of rural households. Lack of their own homestead land at present exposes several rural families to exploitation by landlords who claim ownership of the land on which the rural poor are living.

Another important demand raised by Janadesh is to strengthen the land rights of farmers, particularly tribal farmers. The government has already enacted a land-right law for tribals, but still too many complaints of eviction of tribals are being received. The implementation of this law in the right spirit needs to be speeded up. Care should be taken to minimise the threat of displacement and eviction of farmers, particularly while enacting new laws or amending old ones.

In several imaginative ways the existing government schemes can be linked to the newly revised agenda of land reforms. New land allottees badly need small-scale irrigation projects as well as soil and water conservation work, and this can be taken up under the rural employment guarantee scheme. The Forest Department has vast stretches of degraded land. Several existing schemes can be used to provide wages to landless tribals to help to regenerate the greenery of this land. Later, the people who grow and nourish these trees should get complete rights over the minor forest produce that can be gathered from these trees without harming them. Tribals and other villagers can be also involved in the protection of wild life, so that wild-life protection projects provide them additional livelihood opportunities instead of evicting them or reducing their livelihood opportunities (as is the case presently).

All these possibilities should be explored adequately and then implemented in a strict time-bound manner so that the hopes aroused in the course of the Janadesh march can be fulfilled. Now that a new Council on Land Reforms and an experts committee to assist it have been set up, the government should not be short on ideas.

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