Morena (Madhya Pradesh): One hot Friday in October, a 64-year-old man named P.V. Rajagopal is marching at the head of a procession of around 50,000 people on the highway from Gwalior to Delhi.

Rajagopal is slight and heavily sunburnt, and has walked tens of thousands of kilometres over the years, but he looks young, smiles easily, and walks at a pace that suggests the constitution of a man half his age. The distance to Delhi is around 350km, but this may well be Rajagopal’s most important march. By the time he reaches Delhi, he expects the crowd behind him to have swelled to around 100,000 with people from villages the march passes through joining in.

If Rajagopal has his way, and the government listens to him, it will agree to a new land reform policy that promises every poor family a small patch of land—the proverbial pot of gold that keeps his rainbow march going. Some of those joining the march genuflect before Rajagopal seeking blessings, others shower vivid orange and yellow marigold garlands on him, but he keeps walking.

In 2007, Rajagopal marched to Delhi at the head of crowd of around 25,000. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

And this march he is on now, the Jan Satyagraha, expected to reach New Delhi on 28 October, is as much the climax of two decades of protest marches as it is the sequel to the inconclusive march he led to India’s capital five years ago. It is a march that has New Delhi worried. Over the past year, even as he travelled to 352 districts across the country, covering around 80,000km in his effort to mobilize support for the Jan Satyagraha, Rajagopal says the Union government has had 10 inconclusive rounds of talks with him.

The first attempt

In 2007, Rajagopal marched to Delhi at the head of a crowd of around 25,000. The marchers were held for a day at the city’s Ram Lila grounds. The protesters had intended to march all the way to Parliament, but were held by the police at the maidan. Representatives from Ekta Parishad say 11 people died during the course of the 2007 protests; eight suffered heart attacks and three were crushed by a truck. The march and the protest were otherwise entirely non-violent.

A march of this scale takes money, about 25 lakh a day, according to Jill Carr-Harris, Rajagopal’s Canada-born wife and fellow marcher.

Ekta Parishad raised the money from contributions. And there were donations in kind. “ 24 lakh was raised by friends in Mumbai," says Carr-Harris. “Someone donated potatoes; someone mustard oil; there was so much donation."

Indeed, the money keeps coming in, says Rajagopal.

“As I was walking, someone gave 11,000; someone brought 501. There is a lot of goodwill and support from various parts of the country. At the same time, there is also a lot of solidarity from across the globe," he says.

The participants contributed about 5-6 lakh and 4,000 quintals of grains, an Ekta Parishad member said.

It is not clear whether Rajagopal has benefited from any politically affiliated donations, but he claims to have no political ambitions—a position borne out by his resignation from the core committee of India Against Corruption (IAC), Anna’s Hazare’s former team in October 2011. Carr-Harris stresses that Rajagopal “is not affiliated to any political party", and that Ekta Parishad doesn’t take any money from political parties.

She also adds that Rajagopal had to leave Hazare’s core team to focus on preparing for the march, at the heart of which is land, and the fight for it.

“Land is not just a commodity," Rajagopal says, walking down National Highway No. 3 from Gwalior to Agra. The police has blocked one half of the road and diverted all traffic, up and down, to the other half. “It has a lot more value. It gives dignity and identity to people."

That’s a realization Rajagopal came to before he founded Ekta Parishad, while working to rehabilitate dacoits in the Chambal badlands of Madhya Pradesh, the same landscape over which the Jan Satyagraha is winding its way. Even there, land was at the heart of the problem.

Rajagopal is convinced land and the lack of opportunities in rural India are leading to migration, the proliferation of urban slums, and violence.

And he is convinced the trend can be reversed by simply giving people their own patch of land, which they can cultivate, and on which they can live.

The road to New Delhi

New Delhi doesn’t appear to share Rajagopal’s concern or agree with his solution—at least, not entirely.

On 2 October, the 143 birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi, India’s rural affairs minister Jairam Ramesh met Rajagopal in Gwalior, but the meeting ended badly.

“That was a real U-turn," says Rajagopal. “After having so many discussions, so much of understanding, finally everything fizzled out."

He added that he and Ramesh had gotten along very well and that he had assumed they would “have a beautiful agreement on 2 October". But when the minister came to Gwalior, says Rajagopal, he came with nothing. “I think someone from the top is stopping him (Ramesh). Someone at the top punctured it," he says cryptically.

Ramesh declined to comment, instead forwarding by email a copy of his letter to Rajagopal dated 1 October. In the three-page letter, Ramesh lists seven points that seem to suggest that there are several existing schemes for the poor, and that it may well be impossible to accommodate Ekta Parishad’s demands.

“It is true that the central government has announced various policies from time to time like the National Forest Policy, National Water Policy, National Education Policy, National Health Policy, etc. Since land is a state subject, we will examine the feasibility and usefulness of having a Central Land Reforms Policy," Ramesh writes in his letter.

“At the very least, over the next six months, we will put out a set of suggestions/advisories for the state governments for public debate and consultation," he adds.

On Monday, representatives of Ekta Parishad again met Ramesh, and they will meet again on Tuesday.

Rajagopal himself didn’t participate; an aide said he didn’t want to leave the march.

While not much information on the specifics discussed at the meeting is available, it seems to have ended on a better note than the 2 October meeting. Carr-Harris said the meeting showed the government was still keen on finding a solution.

It is possible the government may meet Rajagopal halfway, at least geographically, and send representatives to Agra, Mathura or Palwal, where they can sign an agreement and stop the march from entering the Capital, but doing that may require making changes in a new land legislation.

The new land law

The Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill seeks to replace India’s Land Acquisition Act, 1894, with a more equitable and modern legislation. It was introduced in the Lok Sabha in September last year and is currently being reviewed.

In an attempt to ensure that people whose land is being acquired for an industrial or infrastructure project benefit from the steep increase in the price of land that follows such development, the Bill recommends that the minimum compensation be at least four times the market value in rural areas and at least twice in urban areas.

Ekta Parishad believes the focus of the Bill is wrong—that it is drafted from the perspective of land acquisition.

“The current Bill is about land acquisition and rehabilitation. I am of the opinion that land should not be acquired by the government. You are using force to acquire land from the people in the interest of the corporate houses. And this is not in the public interest," says Rajagopal. By taking land for commercial use, he adds, “we are transforming self-sufficient communities into completely dependent communities. This is not a good development model".

Yet some provisions of the Bill, such as the one that says at least 80% of people whose land is being acquired for a project need to approve the acquisition, are progressive, he admits.

The man himself doesn’t think he is asking for too much.

“We are fighting for a genuine cause, so that the poor get a small patch of land where they can build a small shelter," says Rajagopal. “Where they can cultivate enough food for the family. If these two problems are solved, I am willing to wind up the organization."

It is unclear whether this will happen.

“Yes, the poor should have access to land, but whether it is feasible or not, one doesn’t know," says Pralay Kanungo, head of the political studies centre at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), who adds that land-related issues come under the state governments.

Rajagopal’s solution: “I will keep walking. From today, we are all having one meal a day. Sacrifice is the only way to change; through sacrifice we try to win the hearts of people."

The dancer who walked

Born in Kerala, Rajagopal was trained to be a Kathakali dancer, but found his way to Seva Gram, Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha, Maharashtra, to study agriculture. Before the 2007 march, he had organized 10 smaller, state-level marches.

Back when he was a student, he set out on a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Gandhi. Since then, walking has been his preferred method of protest. In some ways, the Jan Satyagraha is an echo of the original protestor’s march to the sea in Gujarat.

On Friday, Rajagopal did 15 interviews with the media and looks set to become a household name in the country. He is dressed in a spotless white kurta-pajama with a white scarf for protection from the sun. He walks briskly, looking indefatigable in the heat and scorching sun, embracing villagers and thanking policemen with folded hands.

Comparisons to the other Gandhian who captured headlines, Hazare, are inevitable, but Rajagopal sees his movement as different. Hazare’s primary appeal was to the middle class, while Rajagopal’s is to the poor. And unlike Hazare, Rajagopal has a clear set of demands, or a clear demand—a piece of land for the poor.

He sees Ekta Parishad’s role as a balancing one. “When there are so many industry lobbies, we need to put pressure on the government from the bottom," he says. And he believes the single-minded promotion of big business is a self-defeating proposition. “When we became independent, we said we were going to have a mixed economy—agriculture and industry side by side; and you can’t have large industries at the cost of small- and medium-size industries."

The march is his way of applying that pressure.

The logistics behind walking

Ekta Parishad’s expertise in organizing protest marches is evident.

The marchers are divided into platoons of around 100 people each. Every platoon has a leader (who has a microphone) and its own water tanker.

Every marcher has an ID card, and a green sling bag (or jhola) for belongings. The marchers walk in three columns and rest every few kilometres. They are accompanied by ambulances and trucks with rations. At night, the marchers camp on the highway itself. Lunch is prepared by volunteers who reach predetermined halting places ahead of the marchers.

Massive woks fry puris and cook potatoes; every platoon has a designated halting place; and as evening falls, there are speeches and songs to keep up spirits.

“My father was a singer and was connected with this group for a long time. He is not well, so I have come here," says 22-year-old Kanchan Srivastava, a composer and singer who puts on impromptu shows for her fellow marchers.

A handful of foreigners dot the march and a few foreign journalists are seen documenting the event. “It is just to participate and say ‘we understand you’. For each person in the world to have a small piece of land is the solution, to have food and to have the beginning of dignity," says Edouard Rousseau, a farmer from France who is also the chairman of Coop de France Organic Cooperatives.

The marchers themselves hope to draw some international attention as is evident from their slogans, one of which goes: “Zamin ki ladai mei sari dunia ek hai (In the fight for land, the world is one)."

The dusty atmosphere is charged by singing, dancing and slogan-shouting. At the vanguard, women in glittering saris dance-step to tribal drumbeats reverberating along the highway, drowning out even the noisy horns of the trucks going past on the other side.

And Rajagopal keeps on walking.

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