P.V. Rajagopal’s mobile phone rings constantly. Among those calling are not just fellow activists and poor people with land-related grievances — as is typically the case — but also politicians. In Madhya Pradesh where agrarian politics dominates, support from this prominent land rights activist can be useful for electoral aspirants.
“Over the years we have come to trust individuals rather than parties. It is common for people to promise that they will support the land agenda and not to do anything about it after being elected. This time, we are asking them to declare what they stand for before contesting,” he says.
The four-pronged agenda involves retrieval of grabbed land allotted to weaker sections, regularisation of land holdings, redistribution of land and protection of land holdings. The most difficult of these is redistribution, he says.
So Mr. Rajagopal’s group Ekta Parishad encourages politicians to begin with a shelter agenda instead. “There are forty million people in the country living besides rail tracks and canals with constant fear of demolition. In Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, bonded labour in lieu of a homestead is common and this involves even rape by landlords. Our demand is that every family be given 10 cents or 460 square metres of homestead land. Kerala and Bihar have granted 3 cents, so far,” he says.
Madhya Pradesh, he says, is ahead in populist schemes. “But for how long can we spend public money on concessions to individuals? Populism is vote bank politics and not good policy. By giving land rights, we can move from a populist to a permanent solution,” he says.
Prioritising urban development over land rights and agriculture has led to distress migration to cities, which can’t sustain the growth in population, says Mr. Rajagopal. “The CM’s position that he is a farmer first needs to be articulated strongly. He shouldn’t let bureaucrats take over.”
In 2010, Shivraj Chouhan had supported Ekta Parishad’s Janadesh Yatra for land rights from Gwalior to Delhi. “He took a position on the tiger versus tribal issue, and said he was for tribals. In 2012, during the Jan Satyagraha Yatra from Gwalior to Agra, he promised homestead land. He has initiated the regularisation of holdings of people living on public land. But there is a huge trend of depriving farmers of their land in favour of powerful lobbies,” says Mr. Rajagopal.
He explains that the BJP was largely an urban party in Madhya Pradesh before it came to power in 2003. “To be a national party and rule in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand you need tribal support. Theoretically, the BJP is in favour of land reforms and farmers remain a top priority for Shivraj, but that is getting diluted fast. He needs to match rhetoric with action,” he says.
He explains that the party is now faced with the land reforms versus industry dilemma in MP. “It is hard for a party with a bania (trader) image to change its character overnight. The Congress has repeatedly exhibited that it is willing to make small concessions but not large-scale land reforms like the CPI(M)’s tenancy regularisation in Bengal.”
While land reforms for tribals got a fillip with the Forest Rights Act of 2006, Madhya Pradesh has witnessed several clashes between adivasis and the forest department since the Act. Mr. Rajagopal attributed the problem to the attitude among a large section of the forest bureaucracy. “The forest department is unwilling to give an inch. There is an inherent bias that holds adivasis responsible for destroying forests,” says Mr. Rajagopal.
He explains that schools in scheduled areas, run by the tribal welfare department, are a far cry from schools run by the education department. “The tribal department is inefficient and corrupt and the State looks at anyone taking up adivasi issues as naxalites. The problem is that the elected representatives from reserved seats have been unable to stand up for tribal rights effectively.”
Besides advising parties and candidates, Ekta Parishad is part of the Loktantra Bachao Manch which includes parties such as Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party, Andhra Pradesh’s Lok Satta, Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party of former RSS pracharak Shiv Kumar Sharma in Madhya Pradesh, and K.N. Govindacharya and Jagadish Shettar.
“The Manch was created to fulfil the need of a platform to identify pro-poor candidates. For the Lok Sabha election, we plan to have a people’s manifesto which candidates who want our support must sign. In Madhya Pradesh, we are encouraging candidates to take up land reform and push forward the new approach to development through small and village industries. Importantly, we need to make the State respect the space of the voluntary sector,” says Mr. Rajagopal.