In an agreement with Jan Satyagraha, Centre promises to initiate land reforms

Thousands of landless poor aborted their march to Delhi on Thursday, accepting the government's promises to initiate land reform and the possibility of statutory backing for the right to shelter, homestead and agricultural land.

Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh signed a 10-point agreement in Agra — barely 10 days after refusing to sign a similar deal at the march’s starting point in Gwalior — which promises a draft National Land Reform Policy in the next four to six months.

P.V. Rajagopal, founder of the march organisers Ekta Parishad, signed on behalf of the Jan Satyagrahis.

As reported by The Hindu on Tuesday, the agreement also envisions homestead land of 10 cents for all landless rural poor households by doubling funding under the Indira Awaas Yojana, fast-track settlement of land cases through dedicated tribunals and legal aid and enhanced land access for adivasis, Dalits and other vulnerable groups through better implementation of the existing laws. A task force headed by Mr. Ramesh to put the agreement into action will hold its first meeting on October 17.

Since land is constitutionally an issue for the States and not the Central government to tackle, the agreement emphasises a “dialogue process,” “proposals” and “detailed advisories” to the States, rather than making promises the Centre does not have the power to enforce.

Pressure States too

“Ekta Parishad should continue putting pressure not only on the Centre, but also on the State governments,” Mr. Ramesh told the green flag waving crowds.

The Centre has felt the pressure over the last 10 days as about 60,000 people set out from Gwalior on a 350-km padayatra, threatening that their numbers would swell to one lakh by the time they reached the capital later this month. However, in actual fact, numbers have dwindled, and only about 20,000 people were present in Agra to watch the signing of the agreement.

Not all those people are happy about the end of the march. “Did we come all this way just to get a signature on a piece of paper?” asked Ram Narayan, a satyagrahi from Madhya Pradesh. “The government has made false promises over and over again. Until we actually see something trickling down to us, we cannot believe it.”

Déjà vu for some

For some activists, the agreement is a case of déjà vu, recalling Ekta Parishad's 2007 padayatra, which resulted in the setting up of the National Land Reforms Council, chaired by the Prime Minister. In the last five years, the Council has not even met once.

Malliga, a Paliyar tribal woman from Tamil Nadu who had spoken to The Hindu at the start of the march in Gwalior about her determination to go to Delhi, was not impressed by the promise of 10 cents of land. “What will I do with one-tenth of an acre? What can I grow on it? If I throw my seeds on that land, can my children eat from it?”

But Mr. Rajagopal says that the movement for land reform is a long and gradual process, in which each small victory is cause for celebration. “This is the first step, to get 10 cents of land for shelter. A homestead is a huge thing for poor people. It means that you can put up your own hut or even a plastic tent and feel safe, knowing that you cannot be evicted or thrown out of your home,” he pointed out. “The next step is the fight for agricultural land. We want a guarantee of one hectare of farmland for every rural household.”

It takes time: Ramesh

Mr. Ramesh also pointed out that every key social legislation had taken time. “It took three-and-half years from the time we promised a job guarantee for all rural poor to the time [MG]NREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] was enacted. Right to Information, Right to Education, Forest Rights Act — they all took time,” he said. “Today, I am saying we will start the process for a similar statutory backing for the provision of land. Today, we are starting the process.”

While Mr. Rajagopal originally issued a six-month deadline before he would gather protesters for another march to Delhi unless action was taken, Mr. Ramesh urged him to take back his threat. But as the huge pandal empties out, many satyagrahis themselves are prepared for another rally.

“Today, I'm going to go see the Taj Mahal before I go home,” says Dhanalakshmi, a tribal woman who spoke to The Hindu earlier about her struggles for land rights in Tamil Nadu. “But if the government does not keep its promises, we will bring more people from our villages and we will come back.”

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