Recalling the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi, 50,000 mostly lower-caste Indians marched over 120 kilometers to secure a comprehensive government agreement on land reform.
A ten point document in lieu of a promised National Land Reform Act was signed by Indiaâ€™s Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh and movement leader P.V. Rajagopal in the presence of cheering protestors.
Rajagopal is the founder and president of Ekta Parishad, a non-violent social movement working for land and forest rights. Several hundred other Indian and international community-based groups, civil rights organizations, NGOs, and aid organizations also supported the march.
It was a struggle â€˜for dignity, security, and identityâ€™, according to Rajagopal in an Ekta Parishad press release.
The connection to Gandhi was deliberate. The march began on October 2, Gandhiâ€™s birthday, which is also the International Day of Non-Violence.
Imitating Gandhiâ€™s 1930 Salt March to the Sea, Rajagopal assembled landless, lower caste Dalits and tribal Indians from throughout the country in the city of Gawlior, 350 kilometers south of New Delhi. By October 28 over 100,000 protestors were expected to present their demands in the capital city.
Dalits are traditionally regarded as untouchables within a largely Hindu social structure in India. Although a majority of them are Hindus, in several provinces they have converted to Buddhism or other religions.
Recently, several smaller civil anti-corruption movements have disrupted New Delhi and other cities. Not wanting to see another mass descent on the capital, the Indian government began negotiations even before the march commenced.
The agreement was signed along route in Agra, over 200 kilometers away. As the crowd celebrated and dispersed, the government bought itself a six month window for implementation.
â€˜The deprived people are often silent spectators to their own misery,â€™ stated Rajagopal in a movement blog. â€˜They often need someone to help them voice their concerns and fight for their rights.â€™
In rural India land is both a means of economic sustenance and a denominator for citizenship. A lack of property deeds is a cause of poverty, often preventing citizens from obtaining insurance for crops, loans from banks, and access to other government services.
Though few would dispute the need for a better system, even government statistics do not present uniform data for analysis. The 2009 Report by the Committee on State Agrarian Relations and the Unfinished Task in Land Reforms is a prime example.
The report quotes surveys from different government studies, including the 1997 Draft Plan Paper. It establishes 77 percent of Dalits and 90 percent of the indigenous tribes are either de jure or de facto landless.
Despite its internal contradictions, however, the report reveals the appalling social gap inherent in rural Indiaâ€™s entrenched feudal hierarchy. Large landowners invariably belong to the upper castes, while cultivators belong to the middle castes. As for lower caste agricultural workers, they found representation in the march.
Without land title, Dalits and others are subject to exploitation. Once uprooted from their homestead, many move to the slum pockets of urban centers as unskilled laborers.
Some take to violence and join armed rebel movements. In 2006 Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh called such insurgencies the â€˜single biggest internal security challenge ever facedâ€™.
These challenges and statistics belie the fact that Indiaâ€™s socialist-leaning policies are enshrined in the constitution, which guarantees indigenous people the right to own the land they live on. Yet according to a 2001 report from the Indian Rural Development Ministry, only 1.3 percent of arable land has been redistributed.
Past pressures on the government have not succeeded in enacting reform. Rajagopalâ€™s October 2 march follows up on earlier non-violent protests organized by Ekta Parishad.
A 2007 march consisting of 25,000 people also marched 350 kilometers to highlight the plight of landless Dalits. They disbanded following a government promise to study the issue. Two different committees submitted reports to the National Land Reform Council in 2009, but it never met to examine the recommendations.
This time, government signatory Ramesh assured his personal support for the demands, though he cautioned not everything could be implemented. Still, the promise of a national land reform policy within six months is a significant improvement. An Ekta Parishad press release states this could assure land title for up to 2.5 million people.
An extra 75,000 protestors makes a difference. It also reflects the philosophy of Rajagopal.
â€˜A country like India where problems are so many will demand larger mobilization to bring about basic change,â€™ he states on Ekta Parishadâ€™s website.
â€˜We are trying to address change at the social and economic level. We are also interested in strengthening a process of participatory democracy and responsible governance.â€™
Responsible government is best assured through transparent institutions, but Rajagopal is prepared to continue the mobilization as necessary.
â€˜If nothing happens in six months we will assemble here in Agra and march to Delhi,â€™ he stated to the Indian press.
Considering the abysmal record of land reform over 65 years of independence, it remains to be seen how much the government can accomplish in six months.
If not, Agra is just a hiatus in a long struggle.
All photos courtesy of Ekta Parishad