The frustration behind the Jan Satyagraha, the long march of the landless to Delhi, was justified. Reforms meant to help the poor access land have been on the policy agenda since Independence, but the ground situation has hardly changed. Against the potential ceiling surplus of 21 million hectares, only about 2.7 million hectares have so far been taken possession of and distributed to the needy. As a result, the number of landless poor in rural India is still as high as about 18 million and half among them live without a home of their own. Frequent eviction and forced land acquisition have added to the numbers, especially of adivasis. It is in this context that Ekta Parishad, a federation of about 11,000 community organisations, proposed the march to highlight the persisting apathy. The swelling numbers of protesters brought the heat on the United Progressive Alliance government and forced a rethink. To his credit, Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development, though initially reluctant, accepted there were valid reasons behind the march. The 10-point agreement he signed with Ekta Parishad has the potential to lead to a comprehensive new policy that would reduce the number of the landless and enhance the protection of land rights of the marginalised.
For that to happen, though, the promises made have to translate into concrete and meaningful action. They should not slither into mere tokenism as in 2007, when a similar march was held. The government then promised to set up a National Council for Land Reforms under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister. This council has done nothing since its inception in 2008. Land is central to alleviating rural poverty. Wherever reforms have been implemented and plots even as small as 10 cents — 1/10th of an acre — allotted, they have enhanced the food intake and income of the poor and facilitated construction of dwellings. For these reasons, the Eleventh Five Year Plan had recommended that 10 to 15 cents of land be given to each landless family with priority given to “female-headed families.” The Plan envisioned that this process be completed by 2012, but that goal remains a distant dream. Land is a State subject and much will depend on the commitment of local governments. Barring a few States such as West Bengal and Kerala, others have not done enough. Of the 53.98 lakh beneficiaries who gained from land redistribution, West Bengal alone accounts for half the number. Protecting tenancy rights and preventing forced displacement are the other two critical aspects that need attention. Inclusive growth is impossible without an equitable and just distribution of land and it is imperative to achieve it through well thought out reforms.