Frustrating India

Indians keep on postponing the hard work for the solution search of a problem, and wish time or someone else will automatically solve the problem. In recent years, the problem of rehabilitation of the people uprooted by a new project is one such problem. Be it Sardar Sarovar or Tata Motors’ Singur project, the compensation and rehabilitation had been at the worst. Media these days are reporting about a unique protest March.

25,000 of India’s poorest and most powerless-adivasis, Dalits, bonded agricultural labourers, fisherfolk- from different states are marching to Delhi on October 29 to demand their right to livelihood. For them, eight-lane highways, more railway tracks, national parks and power projects or world class manufacturing companies are not what they are to the urban middle classes-symbols of a better future, welcome signs of an India ‘catching up’ with the West.

They perceive the ‘development’ as dangerous as that is snatching away their land without compensation. To them, the states are impertinent and indifferent to protect them against their traditional oppressors.

They are marching a grueling 350-km Janadesh (‘People’s Verdict’) Walk for Land. They will conclude it at Rajghat in Delhi on October 29, to let the capital, the seat of power hear, see, appreciate, and find solution to their age-old problem accentuated by so-called globalization or unimaginative and uncompassionate development strategies. Will the rally that is supposed to be an extraordinary outburst of pent-up frustration and fear solve their problem or go in history as another tamasha?

Ekta Parishad, a Gandhian mass movement that works in 4,000 villages in eight states has organized this march to help the poor retain their rights to livelihood and resources they depend on for survival. As Ekta Parishad sees it, these rights are being sacrificed for a development model that fails to take into account the needs and aspirations of the poor. Its national convener P.V. Rajagopal says: “The public distribution system isn’t working, government schools and hospitals aren’t working and the system is corrupt and inefficient. Yet, there’s so much enthusiasm for anti-poor laws, like SEZs and the Land Acquisition Act. Is development intended to help the poor? Or is it just a profit-making business?”

In 2003, the adibasis of the forests of Kanha had all been served an eviction order, due to the expansion project of the Kanha National Park. Nearly every month since the notice was served, they have sent a delegation to the district magistrate, who refuses to read their petition. Why can’t the DM be more compassionate?

Adivasi families in many areas have been terrorized and exploited for generations by a clan of land-grabbing zamindars, who forbid them from touching the fruits on the trees they have planted, force them off their fields and steal their crop. Some even slap a slew of false cases such as rape and theft, ensuring that every month they waste time and money they don’t have on court hearings. Why is the local administration so insensitive about their problems?

An Adivasi farmer from Joglia in Madhya Pradesh and fellow tribals have to pay local authorities a monthly ‘fee’ to keep their land-anywhere between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,500-for which they never get receipts. If they refuse, their bulls and ploughs are confiscated and they are thrown off the land. And to ensure they no longer have a claim on it, trees or jatropha crops are planted, or ditches dug into their plots. As most of the tribals are hardly literate, should they be exploited and harassed to the extent that they become rebels or join Maoists?

Even in this twenty first century, landless Dalits from rural Tamil Nadu are subjected to a ‘dual caste system,’ which forbids them from walking on roads, taking water from wells, entering temples and strangely enough, even rearing male dogs. A child from a high caste still call the dalit child by name and the dalit just can’t open his mouth. Even though elected as panchayat head, one remains just as a dummy and is never allowed to see the files or enter the panchayat building due to a powerful high caste landowner who still retains control of the village. And even the collector calls it “a social norm” without helping the man.

Here is another story. Ganesan belongs to one of the 19 families among whom 19.8 hectares of land was earmarked for redistribution following the 1961 Land Ceiling Act. Four decades later, after a bitter court battle, they have got pattas in their name. Yet, the land remains in the possession of rich politicians and contractors and they aren’t being allowed to occupy it. Why couldn’t the Prime Ministers or Chief Ministers and the bureaucrats over decades find a solution for these ills?

Ekta Parishad wants the central government to set up a national land commission to implement land reforms, to implement a single-window system of administering land claims, and arrange for fast-track courts to settle longstanding land disputes. Will it happen or even after another 60 years, someone like me will write almost the same story in some different language?

On October 29, the marchers will no doubt attract the attention of irate motorists of New Delhi and NCR. But will anyone who matters take notice, and will the march lead to any concrete action? Rajgopalan says, “With all the international pressure on India to industrialize rapidly, ordinary people have no voice. With this march, we’re just trying to raise our voice and get it heard.” I don’t think the march like many will leave any imprint on the mind of the administration. Even media will never do anything to follow the issues up, as they will keep on getting more hot news items to cover.

Why can’t the Prime Minister sit with all the chief ministers and political leaders of all parties who matter find a permanent and acceptable solution for the problem of land acquisition that can be uniform for all the states. Even 50 times more compensations will not make the projects unviable. But will it solve the problems of the people and the country? Will the companies like Posco keep on waiting for the land for years to start work on the project or decide to leave after getting frustrated?

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