Outside In | Whose land is it anyway6 min read . Updated: 27 Feb 2015, 12:57 AM IST
Both inside Parliament and out on the street, opposition to the land bill changes is growing, and not just from the dispossessed
On the day India’s Parliament began its budget session this week, Rajinder Oraon, Ram Prasad Oraon and Sarju Ram Oraon—men who looked to be in their forties—sat down on a kerb close by the stage at New Delhi’s protest square, located just over a kilometer from the Parliament building.
Oraon are a large group of aboriginals spread across central and eastern India. Areas they inhabit include forest lands, like the villages Rajinder, Ram Prasad and Sarju Ram come from—in Kaimur district of Bihar.
The three men joined several other groups of tribesmen and women who had collected at the square, Jantar Mantar, to protest against plans by the central government to make changes to the law that lays down the rules by which farmland can be acquired for non-agricultural purposes, including in matters such as consent and compensation. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) voted for it back in 2013 when it was in opposition; but now in power, it wants to amend key provisions to make it easier for businesses to acquire agricultural land.
Tribals such as the Oraon, at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid, are hit the hardest when land is acquired from them—“acquired" being a well-known euphemism for “grabbed" by muscle power, “stolen" by subterfuge or “prized out" with financial inducements. Tribal lands are remote, far from the metropolitan centres of political power and patronage; but they are also often rich in natural resources: flush with rivers, forests, and sitting on deposits of minerals and coal. Clashes turn violent when armed Maoist insurgents step in.
“Our land was taken away by the forest department for the forest sanctuary," said Rajinder Oraon.
“We are five villages," said Ram Prasad Oraon. “We farm and plant trees on what we have left." What trees? “Mahua and tendu." The versatile mahua is used for making soaps and detergents, vegetable butter, fertilizers and a popular alcoholic drink. Tendu leaves are used to make bidis—thin hand-rolled Indian cigarettes.
“We live like wild animals out there," said Sarju Ram.
Do you have a school in your village?
“Yes we do. It’s like a cowshed."
“There is one that is 20km away. It has one doctor and no equipment. People die on the way."
What do they do to make ends meet?
“Some of us migrate here, to Delhi or Haryana, to work as labourers."
Opening the budget session, President Pranab Mukherjee told members of Parliament (MPs), “Our Parliament is the sanctum sanctorum of democracy. The people of India, particularly the poorest of the poor in the remotest areas, have reposed unflinching faith in this institution for the fulfilment of their hopes and aspirations."
I asked one of the men what they expected from their journey to New Delhi. “We have come to demand our adivasi adhikar (aboriginal rights)," said one. “We asked (Bihar chief minister) Nitish Kumar for his help to return our land, but nothing happened."
These men own no land, work as labourers on or off farms and, when they can manage it, do some subsistence farming on what used to be their traditional or common tribal land.
They had come to hear the veteran anti-corruption activist, Anna Hazare, who is leading a stir against the government’s land acquisition amendment bill. The man sat on the stage all by himself, a small figure in a white Gandhi cap.
Walking through an audience thick with anticipation and a square plastered with posters announcing “Anna is Back" (in English), I had half expected Hazare to make a late, busy and grand entrance.
Instead, here he was, the 77-year-old, sitting patiently on the stage all by himself, appearing to be reading from something, surrounded not by acolytes but by dozens of waiting television cameramen.
Sometimes you just have to wait.
A dozen or so rows down sat a group of middle-aged women dressed in brightly coloured saris and the “I am an Anna supporter" white cotton caps. I sat next to one of the women, introduced myself and asked her name. “Konsa Bai," she said, “and we are all from Katni district, Madhya Pradesh."
“We are all Bhumiyas," she flashed a broad smile.
Why are you here? What do you know about this land movement?
“We have no land."
“Only big people have land in the village."
What big people?
“People like you, what else," she laughed loudly.
She and everybody else around her—that would be Bubu Bai (three sons, no land), Salu Bai, Battu Bai and Samundri Bai, who held on to two pieces of printed paper in her right hand.
Without exception, every one of the women spoke of their family first—sons without a job, daughters of marriageable age, husband who had died early—and linked their destitution to the absence of agricultural land. Not politics, but household bills for water, electricity.
Samundri Bai’s rolled-up papers turned out to be two electricity bills she has been served with—one for ₹ 4,053 dated December 2014, and the other for ₹ 3,763 for November 2014. I don’t know what she wanted done with those unbelievably large bills—perhaps she expected Hazare or some “big people" in Delhi to pay them.
Both inside Parliament and out on the street, opposition to the land bill changes is growing, and not just from the dispossessed. Hazare’s anti-graft campaign was unique in the way it drew all classes and sections of people who were sick of corruption, which is why his intervention is significant.
Many of them now pledge support to the land movement. Kamlesh Bhadauria, well-dressed and -spoken, said, “I am a farmers’ daughter, so I can feel their pain. They get no compensation for their land. Every morning I see them lining up for jobs outside the mill in the village (outside Delhi), then I see them working without so much as a tea break. I can feel their sadness."
This dispute over land is only the latest in a long history of debate on the matter in independent India and in the years leading up to independence, specifically in the framing of the right to property as a fundamental right—now taken away—in the Indian Constitution. Much of the early debate was over the future of the system of Zamindari—a system of feudalism enforced by the British state through landowning village squires.
Land would need to be taken from them, but for what purpose and with what compensation—did the state have police powers in property expropriation? Was it morally just? And did the centre have powers over states? These were some of the questions that Indian lawmakers discussed.
A starring role was played by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fellow-Gujarati and political hero, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had earned the title Sardar (chieftain) for his role in a Satyagraha against British land tax in Bardoli in 1928. The Sardar wasn’t quite the “Iron Man" he is worshipped as today when it came to land acquisition issues. Although a strong advocate of the abolition of Zamindari, he opposed “violent expropriation" of land, comparing it with chori and daka (theft and banditry).
Today, when so much of India’s industrialization plans seem to hinge on acquiring land, that same courtesy and flexibility must be shown to India’s poorest by Samundri Bai’s “big people" of Indian politics.
The crowd had begun to swell at Jantar Mantar. Hazare had yet to start addressing the rally.
A massive water cannon stood on the ready, its two nozzles pointing at the crowd, and even the policeman looked sheepish when I asked why.