India land deal pledge leads to end of long march

The marchers, led by an activist organisation Ekta Parishad, had insisted that for India's poor the ownership of land to earn a livelihood should be a fundamental right.

A landless rural India woman cheers after PV Rajagopal, the leader of thousands of farmers, signed an agreement with Indian Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, in Agra.
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NEW DELHI // Tens of thousands of poor Indians calling for land reform ended their march to Delhi yesterday after the rural development minister Jairam Ramesh agreed to draft a land policy to help marginalised communities.

The 35,000 protesters - mostly low-caste labourers, small-scale farmers and tribal people - gathered from across India eight days ago in Gwalior, intending to march 350 kilometres to the capital.

The marchers, led by an activist organisation Ekta Parishad, had insisted that for India's poor the ownership of land to earn a livelihood should be a fundamental right.

Mr Ramesh met activists in Agra yesterday to sign an agreement on land reform and although it fell short of Ekta Parishad's demands, he pledged to draft a national land reforms policy and push state governments, which control land distribution, to help the landless poor.

The proposed measures include the provision of agricultural land to India's vast numbers of rural, landless poor, who have felt little benefit from the country's economic rise since the 1990s.

After the agreement was signed, the marchers dispersed, although PV Rajagopal, the founder of the Ekta Parishad, said: "If nothing happens in six months, we will assemble here in Agra and march to Delhi."

Activists claim corporations and industries continue to acquire land, often by force and against the public interest, while hundreds of thousands of agricultural labourers, tribal people and villagers from the Dalit caste are landless.

"There is no substitute or alternative to land-based livelihoods at this point of time in India," said Subodh Wagle, a professor of resource policy at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. "There is a vast population that is dependent on land.

"There is a huge amount of distrust of the corporate sector. We have to find a rational way to allocate land in a democratic manner where people will get their due share."

DL Sheth, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi, said that the issue of land reform had now become crucial in India for two reasons.

"Private companies are surreptitiously hoarding land … that can justifiably be given to those willing to till the land," Mr Sheth said. "And the great pace at which cultivatable land is becoming urban land is alarming."

Ekta Parishad has lobbied the federal government for land reforms for months.

An agreement had seemed in sight in early October. But Mr Rajagopal told the Economic Times after that meeting that "the government backed out at the last minute … It was almost finalised, but … the government did a U-turn".

Land acquisition in India is, at present, governed by an act dating back to 1894. A new piece of legislation, titled the land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement bill, is designed to bring the act up to date.

Introduced into parliament a year ago, the bill is under review. It is this bill that Ekta Parishad and other civil society groups will now make submissions for.

Among other clauses, the draft bill requires that industries must acquire rural land at four times its market value, and that 80 per cent of the people living on a tract of land must approve its acquisition.

Siddharth Singh, an economist who runs the opinion page at the business newspaper Mint, agreed with some of Ekta Parishad's demands, such as the fast-track tribunals. He also admitted that the acquisition of agricultural land for suburban housing projects was a matter of concern.

He said, however, that unlike housing projects, when industries acquire land, "they're contributing something back to the economy. If you go in for this kind of process, where industries find it hard to acquire land, it'll cause very serious problems for both agriculture and industry".

"If you have a rule saying that land can be acquired only at four times the market price, then employment-generating small and medium industries will be priced out," Mr Singh said. "The only people who will be able to buy land are large groups like the Tatas and the Ambanis."

But Mr Sheth argued that small landowners were, at the moment, being cheated of a fair price for their land, with the government facilitating such sales as "some sort of paid agent".

"This is not just about poverty but about hunger and dignity," Mr Sheth said. "These are the issues that he [Mr Rajagopal] is trying to highlight."

* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse