Fri, Oct 26, 2007 - Page 5 News List

Indian protesters form human train

THE GUARDIAN , NEAR DELHI

On a hot, dusty highway some 70km from Delhi, a human column snakes its way towards the Indian capital carrying a unique message of defiance to the country's leaders: "Give us back our land."

Some 25,000 of India's poorest people -- tribal peoples, "untouchables" and landless laborers -- have stopped traffic for nearly three weeks on the road that links Delhi and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. Headed by a group of chanting Buddhist monks, the marchers say they aim to shame the government into keeping its promise to redistribute land.

The human train has been eating, living and washing by the road since the beginning of the month and by the end of the week will arrive at the Indian parliament, vowing to remain a public embarrassment until the government relents. Last week three marchers were killed by a speeding lorry.

With fists and voices raised, the scene is a world away from Indian newspaper headlines about the country's new luxury goods market or its soaring stock markets. Nowhere is this process of concentrating wealth in a tiny segment of the population more visible than in the ground beneath Indians' feet.

India has one of most iniquitous systems of land ownership in the world. Last week India's biggest real estate baron made a paper fortune of US$1 billion in a single day.

Most of the marchers say their dire condition is because they have no deeds to their land. Unable to grow produce on their ancestral land and with no deed to access state welfare services, the villagers are now fighting a losing war against poverty.

"I haven't got any rights on my land," said Prem Bai from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. "I have got four boys and can hardly manage the family with few days' work laboring on others' fields. If we go to forests then the forest department arrests us."

Some say their land is being grabbed by local mafias and corrupt officials. Shikari Baiga, 25, says land his family was cultivating was grabbed by local officials to grow biofuels on.

"I was put in jail for one year for demanding our land back. Fourteen families lost 75 acres [30 hectares]. But they tell us: Where are your [deeds]? We can do nothing. That is why we are going to Delhi to get justice."

The march is the brainchild of veteran Gandhian P.V. Rajagopal, who built a name by persuading bandits in central India to lay down their arms in the 1970s.

Rajagopal says the human caravan is a warning shot.

Rajagopal says there is a rising tide of violence in the country as the poor "are being driven out of villages and slums in cities."

In the country's rush to industrialize, he said, "we've seen alarming examples of outsiders seizing land on vast scales while the local rural poor are denied land. The result will be bloodshed and violence on a massive scale unless the government acts."

The issue is increasingly an explosive one in India, where incomplete reforms have left much of the country in the hands of a few. Extreme leftwing groups have tapped the rising anger in rural areas to wage low-intensity guerrilla wars.

In March an attempt to hand over 9,000 hectares of farmland to big business ended in pitched battles and half a dozen villagers dead in Bengal.

Some say that the problem lies in the Indian state's indifference to its poorest people, the "tribals" and the Dalites, or "untouchables."

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