Three Critical Days in the Struggle for Land Reform in India

The government of India made a remarkable promise on October 11 last year. It was bold and broad, and it has the potential to strike a fundamental blow at the plague of landlessness and poverty that blights millions of Indians.
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The government of India made a remarkable promise on October 11 last year. It was bold and broad, and it has the potential to strike a fundamental blow at the plague of landlessness and poverty that blights millions of Indians. They have just three days left to deliver a plan to make true on their promises.

The agreement is nothing less than a package for fundamental reform of India's land laws. It was signed by the Rural Development Minister, Shri Jaiman Ramesh, and represents a new high-water mark in this government's ambitions for land justice. But it did not come easily. The final document was signed only after 50,000 people marched on Delhi, in the Jan Satygraha (Sanskrit for 'peaceful soul force', this is a broad movement of civil society groups that follow in Ghandi's tradition of non-violent protest).

The agreement is based on a 10-point plan developed through years of patient work by groups like Ekta Parishad and many others, travelling the country, working with thousands of communities and hundreds of thousands of individuals to understand the problems that underpin landlessness and land-related poverty, and what was needed to fix them.

The demands have thus emerged from the country and its people; from the poor and landless; the women who lose all their rights after their husbands die; the farmers who cannot farm because their land has been taken from them by corporate developers, without their consent and without compensation; and from the marginalized castes who, for centuries, have been forced to accept a position in society that keeps them beholden to others for their livelihood.

If implemented, the agreement will mean millions of people can start supporting themselves on their own small plots of land. It will give fresh life to long neglected legislation that should be protecting the rights of poor and marginalized communities, like the Land Reform Acts from the 1950s and the more recent Forest Rights Act of 2006. Most importantly, it will require state and national governments to work together in new ways to ensure landless poor and marginalised people can secure their rights.

There is no doubt that this is a daunting promise for the government to make. Land rights touch on so many parts of Indian life -- it is not only the lifeblood of the local and village economy, but it is critical to many vested interests, and becoming more so as global pressure for land intensifies. As such, land deals are often mired in corruption, and the political and social complexities can appear overwhelming.

But it must be remembered that, despite all of the economic and financial interests who will inevitably resist change, for the vast majority of Indians, land is life. Land is shelter, security, identity, home. For farmers, it is the bedrock of a self-sufficient livelihood. In towns and cities, land and a secure home are the only sure way to establish an identity and connect to society and economic opportunity. Equitable access to land for the poorest and most marginalised is an essential pre-condition to a stable and prosperous society.

We call on the Indian government to meet its promises. It has shown more leadership on this issue than many of its predecessors but so far it has only made a start. It cannot falter at this critical moment.

We are also calling on ordinary people around the world to support our efforts this week by signing a petition of support -- a virtual Jan Satyagraha. This is not just about land rights in India. This is part of a global struggle for who has control over land -- large, moneyed interests focused on maximizing returns or local people who depend on land for their livelihoods.

This will prove to be one of the most important issues of our time. It will only be exasperated by climate change as arable land becomes more scarce. It affects citizens from Brazil to Botswana, from the United States to the United Arab Emirates. If you care about justice, or the rights of the poor and marginilized, stand with us in solidarity.

This article was written in collaboration with Rajagopal PV, leader of Ekta Parishad.

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