There is long history of struggle for access to land and livelihood in India, and it has always been the most vulnerable communities that find themselves left out of the political dialogue for change. Control over livelihood resources and land lies in the hands of the State. The vague and ineffectual campaigns of the past have done nothing for the development of a true village-level democracy that can bring the needs of the landless to the forefront of the political agenda.
Struggling for years, Ekta Parishad has worked along side these communities to help create the changes necessary to bring an end to land seizures, to ensure equitable land distribution, also to protect access to natural livelihood resources.
The spirit of a people’s movement like Ekta Parishad was born with the following activities:
- In the early 1970s with the rehabilitation of dacoits (outlaw communities) in Chambal (1970-76),
- The release of bonded laborers in the south from 1985-92,
- And ten years of work with tribal communities of Madhya Pradesh (1980-88) and the dalit communities of Bihar (1990-99)
Five institutions in different regions of central and eastern India were established to provide training for youth on non-violence, and people began organizing themselves under the common struggle for land reform in India. The vision of a powerful and united force of poor people from across the country was the beginning of what is now known as Ekta Parishad. This network was the base for what is now a massive social organization spanning more than twelve states.
Let us take a few examples of Retrieving people’s dignity actions…
Chilghat was a denuded tract of land that was taken over by people who had no land. Vimla, a woman with a history of marital discord and a mother with growing children, joined Ekta Parishad. Some years ago she was sent to Chilghat to organise its people.
Those who tilled the land faced multi-pronged harassment at the hands of authorities. People tilling the land had no land rights on paper. In legal terminology, they were transgressors and hence liable to punishment. Forest guards and police would destroy their crops.
But the legal system went against the natural rights of the people. Vimla’s role was to organise people so that they could fight the state repression in a united fashion. Now not only are they tilling the land for crop cultivation but they are also going in for plantation, which is enriching the forest. (2005)
The state of Chhattisgarh is a wonderful land for agriculture – it is known as India’s rice bowl – but it is also a land full of resources as well as a forest area. This has been well understood by industrials and the Government. While the firsts set up their industries to exploit the natural resources, the Government has declared a large part of the State as natural reserves under the Wildlife Protection Act. But this land is also the life long habitat of many Adivasis (tribes). As the Government went along with the implementation of sanctuaries and industrialization, tribal people who had been living on forest land for long were evicted, sometimes with a lot of violence, even murders. But the Baiga tribe from Bokarabahar was not ready to give up their land and dignity. With the help of Ekta Parishad, they non-violently occupied the land from where they were dispossessed. They got back this land. This action and its result gave the hope and power to 27 other Baiga villages to do the same and get back their land.
When communities that depend on natural resources - land, forest and water - for their livelihoods are excluded from resource management, the result is their political and economic marginalization. Approximately 70% of India’s population depends on access to land and its natural resources for their livelihood. Without any legal claim to these lands, thousands of people are forced to migrate to urban centers everyday where they are left with no choice but to become manual laborers without rights or financial and life security. When farmers are denied the ownership rights of the land they have occupied for so long they become vulnerable to what many people think to be so-called “development” and “progress”. We have to ask ourselves how, in a country where democracy rules and an increasingly prosperous market has brought wealth to so many, there can still be so many millions of people left out of the growth that has made India one of the world’s fastest growing economies.
Thousands of people in India have united to free themselves from the oppressive hold that the land policies of this country have over their lives. Ekta Parishad provides a platform for people to share their experiences and ideas with the confidence that their voices would be heard.