Jairam Ramesh concludes two days of intense negotiations

The Central government will come halfway — literally — in its bid to prevent the thousands of landless poor now marching along National Highway 3 from actually reaching the capital.

After two days of intense negotiations with the march’s organisers Ekta Parishad, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has decided to head to Agra — slightly before the halfway point of the Jan Satyagraha — and is likely to sign an agreement on land reforms there on Thursday.

“Happy news soon”

“The nation will get happy news from the city of the Taj Mahal,” Mr. Ramesh told reporters after meeting with Ekta Parishad representatives here on Tuesday. He added that the government was taking a “constructive view” on the marchers’ demands.

“If the agreement is signed and our demands are met, then yes, maybe we will stop the march,” Aneesh Thillenkery, National Advocacy Coordinator of Ekta Parishad, told The Hindu.

These demands — including homestead rights and fast track land tribunals — have been the subject of months of parleys with the Central government, as Ekta Parishad founder P.V. Rajagopal organised a year-long yatra starting in Kanyakumari and covering 80,000 km. It all culminates in this 350-km-padayatra — or foot march — of at least 60,000 people from Gwalior to New Delhi, with Ekta Parishad insisting that one lakh people will reach the capital on October 28.

M.P. CM to join struggle

Political and civil society groups are also starting to take an interest in the march. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan plans to join the Jan Satyagraha on Wednesday. Communist Party of India leader Brinda Karat and civil society activist Aruna Roy are likely to address the protesters as well.

The negotiators almost reached a deal late last month, with Mr. Ramesh initially prepared to sign an agreement in Gwalior on October 2.

However, Mr. Rajagopal says “pressure from above” caused a U-turn in the government’s stance, and Mr. Ramesh’s last-ditch effort, telling protesters to “go home” at Gwalior, came to naught.

This time, Ekta Parishad has ensured that “the PMO has given the green signal to sign,” according to a representative of the organisation. V. Narayanasamy, Minister of State for the Prime Minister’s Office, himself came to meet Ekta Parishad representatives on Tuesday morning in a bid to thrash out their differences.

An 11-point agreement has now been formulated after two rounds of two-hour long meetings with the Ministry of Rural Development. To start with, the government will agree to bring out a National Land Reforms Policy within six months in consultation with State governments and civil society groups. A task force will be set up, to be headed by Mr. Ramesh, to implement the other items on the agreement.

(A similar padayatra by Ekta Parishad five years ago resulted in the setting up of a National Land Reforms Council. Headed by the Prime Minister, and including Chief Ministers, that eminent body has not met even once.)

Other items

Other key items of the agreement, accessed by The Hindu, include Centrally-sponsored fast track land tribunals and legal aid, and a national database on land ownership to monitor those owning property beyond the land ceiling limit.

The Central government will also agree to persuade State governments to guarantee homestead rights for the poor. This means that every landless poor family will be given ten cents of land in rural areas. This would be done by doubling the current Rs. 10,000 provision under the Indira Awaaz Yojana scheme to provide for 10 cents of land apart from housing.

Drops demand

One demand that Ekta Parishad has given up is the setting up of statutory State Land Rights Commissions to monitor the progress of land reform.

A series of other measures, including effective implementation of existing legislations, will be taken to enhance land access for Dalits, tribals, women, nomads and other special groups.

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