Efforts of Jairam and Jyotiraditya to talk them out of it fail

Dhanalakshmi, a 22-year-old from the Paliyar hill tribe of Tamil Nadu, is a long way from home. At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, she will join about 60,000 other landless poor, Adivasis and Dalits who have streamed into Gwalior from all parts of the country for a padayatra to the national capital, to present the demand that each of them deserves his/her own piece of land to call home.

On Tuesday, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh and Minister of State for Commerce Jyotiraditya Scindia flew to Gwalior in a last-ditch effort to convince the organisers — a land reform people’s movement called Ekta Parishad — to call off the march and accept the government’s promises that a draft National Land Reform Policy would be prepared within six months.

“Discussion is always a better option than agitation,” Mr. Ramesh tells the endless rows of squatting people. The multitude, which the organisers claim will swell to one lakh by the time the people reach Delhi on October 28, has the potential to dwarf last summer’s anti-corruption protests led by Anna Hazare.

“Go home … We will find the middle path,” says the Minister, enumerating the government’s existing measures to secure land and housing rights for the poor.

He had originally agreed to sign an agreement here, with time frames for initiatives such as a clear-cut policy, a land pool for the poor and fast-track land tribunals. However, two days ago, the Centre did a U-turn, refusing to sign. Since land is a state subject, Mr. Ramesh says, the Centre cannot impinge on the States’ domain and make promises that it cannot fulfil.

Dhanalakshmi won’t buy his argument. “We have already tried to fight for our rights in Tamil Nadu. But if we tell the Collector that we want our rights, he claims that there is no land, even though there is plenty of land for SEZs and industries. He says, you get an order from above. So we are going to Delhi to get an order from above,” she insists.

“Finding land may be the States’ job. But it is the Centre that sets policy for the States,” says Senthamizhselvi, an activist and organic farmer from Madurai. “If the Central government can set a policy to promote industry, and find 100 acres each for SEZs, they can set a policy to distribute land to the landless.”

Dhanalakshmi had never even been on a train until she squeezed into an unreserved compartment with 200 others from Tamil Nadu to make the long trip to Gwalior last weekend. But she is no stranger to the land rights struggle. Sitting amid a sea of green and white flags, with Hindi slogans rending the air and a posse of foreign documentary filmmakers roaming the vast pandal, she tells her story.

Driven into bonded labour on mango plantations after having been evicted from their forested mountain homes as a consequence of the Forest Conservation Act, a group of Paliyar tribals decided to take matters into their own hands in 2010. After two years of fruitless struggle to get title deeds as per their due under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, twenty-eight families went ahead and occupied a plot of land at Serakkadu at the foothills of the Bodi Agamalai, erecting small hutments. Despite threats by the Forest department to demolish their homes, Dhanalakshmi and her neighbours stood firm. A news report in The Hindu caught the attention of the Chief Minister who promised land and houses. Dhanalakshmi is now fighting for the rights of hundreds of other tribals to have the same.

“Before the forest rangers came, my people have protected the forests for generations. How can they push us out now,” asks Manjanan, a 55-year-old from the Muduvar tribe who hails from a village near Valparai.

He says the benefits of Central schemes such as the FRA and the MGNREGA are denied to tribals who have been forced out of their mountain homes, on the grounds that they no longer qualify as forest dwellers and still cannot prove their identity on the plains. Without land to back him up, even banks deny him a loan to educate his son.

Ekta Parishad founder P.V. Rajagopal and his team have spent the last four years preparing for this Jan Satyagraha. In October 2011, a yatra started in Kanyakumari covering 80,000 km and 352 districts, to spark local awareness and mobilise protesters, culminating in this 350-km padayatra to the capital. A similar march of 25,000 protesters in 2007 resulted in the setting up of the National Land Reforms Council, chaired by the Prime Minister.

“In almost five years, the Council has not even met once,” said Mr. Rajagopal. “The government needs to take this seriously and give legal backing to every citizen’s ‘right to shelter’.”

For the small group from Tamil Nadu seated far at the back of the pandal, Mr. Rajagopal and the Union Ministers on the dais are mere specks, making speeches in a language that is gibberish to their ears. They are surrounded by thousands of people chattering away in a babel of other tongues.

“I may not have very much in common with people from Madhya Pradesh or the Northeast or Orissa, but I know that if one hand claps, it cannot be heard,” says Malliga, a 35-year-old Paliyar woman from Kodaikanal taluk, quoting a Tamil proverb. “But if many hands clap, if we all join together, they will have to hear us.”

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