Seventh Update from Rajaji: Week One in Maharashtra

The Jansatyagraha team was happy to enter into Maharashtra as many of them were starving to speak Hindi all along. They had some luck in Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Belgaum but by and large they were finding it difficult to communicate with local people without translation. This is not to say that the Hindi speaking group will find it easy to interact with the Marathi speaking group but by and large, Marathi population will understand Hindi. Kolhapur was our first entry into Maharashtra. There is an ongoing tension between Maharashtra and Karnataka on the border issue between Kolhapur and Belgaum. There was some protest even on the day we entered into the state because of a statement made by a Kannada poet. Our welcome was organized jointly by a group of social activists belonging to different ideological camps. In Maharashtra people generally speak about Shivaji Maharaj, a king who ruled large parts of the state in the seventeenth century. They also speak highly of Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar who gave voice to the dalit community. The Sarvodaya Gandhian group will speak about Vinobha and his land reform movement. Of course there are many important social reformers in Maharashtra who fought for the liberation of the oppressed. After the press conference we were led to a village where a very traditional welcome was waiting for us. People from many villages came together to discuss their land problems. We understood that landlessness is a common issue among the dalits and marginalized communities but interestingly the dalit groups are more organized in Maharashtra compared to other states of India.

The next day we were in the district of Satara. This is where the Dalit movement began many years ago. The program of the day was held in the memorial hall of Ambedkar ji’s mother. Her body was cremated at this place. This was a very inspiring meeting and the speakers gave an account of land problems that the adivasis and dalits are facing in this region. While expressing their solidarity for Jansatyagraha many of them were apprehensive about the possibility of redistribution of resources in a globalizing world. The issue of funeral ground for dalit communities came up again for discussion.

From Satara we travelled all the way to Sangli. Satara and Sangli were part of one district but was divided recently. The interaction with students of a law college was an interesting event. The agenda of caste free, corruption free, hunger free India was the focus of discussion. Young people are generally impressed when they hear about this agenda. But the question is, how can each one of us play an important role in creating an India that will be caste free, hunger free and corruption free. Representatives of different organization were invited for a discussion in the office of Mazdoor Kissan Sabha. The participants in this meeting expressed their solidarity with Jansatyagraha and also expressed their commitment to participate in the 2012 action. The entire program for Sangli was put together and coordinated by Gauri Kulkarni. The day ended with a grand dinner in Gauri’s house.

Day 3 in Maharashtra was a long drive to Ratnagiri where after a press conference we visited a village affected by Jattapur nuclear power plant. Village Nata welcomed us into their community hall. The majority of the people present in the meeting were from the muslim community. The entire village makes a decent living through fishing. They also generate employment for 2000 people from outside–out of which 1000 are from Nepal and another 1000 from the Southern part of India. Village Nata is on the coastal line of the Arabian Sea. About a month back, people of this village protested against the nuclear plant and in the police firing one person got killed and six were wounded. The atmosphere was very charged as speaker after speaker said  that they will not give up their right over land and water. One interesting question that came up in this discussion was related to compensation for water rights. Land can be measured and compensated but people who are into fishing, the sea is their land.  How can the government or companies calculate a compensation for the fishing communities. Another question that came up for discussion was whether the government has made enough exploration into other forms of energies before deciding on nuclear energy. People were also questioning the non-participatory methods of the government in announcing projects . In our thank you statement we informed them about our visit to Koodamkulam agitation against the nuclear power plant and agreed to link those struggles not only in India but also with struggles outside the country.

The fourth and the fifth days of our yatra was in the districts of Raigarh and Thane and these are districts close to the city of Mumbai and has a substantial population of adivasis. It took no time for us to realize that the villages of this district will be totally eaten up by the city of Mumbai as the city is expanding  very fast. There are many projects coming up in this area. A new airport, the Mumbai corridor, the Mumabi-Ahmedabad super highway, dams for the supply off water to Mumbai are some of the projects in this area. Many people in Mumbai are buying land for farm-houses. Anybody who knows the history of Mumbai will know that much of Mumbai is now standing on adivasi land and these are those adivasi villages that slowly became slums in front of skyscrapers. While the five star hotels in Mumbai will consume too much water to flush their toilets or for the swimming pools, people are lining up with buckets for drinking water in many villages across Thane and Raigarh.  While the local struggles are very strong, the leaders of the struggles understand that they are up against a formidable set of global forces that resists all efforts to conserve local resources for local consumption.

Village Gagode is in Raigarh district and this is where Acharya Vinobha Bhave was born. This village is not a memorial that is being visited by hundreds of people everyday. For the sake of those who are not introduced to Vinobha Bhave, let me devote a paragraph to describing him. Vinobha was the spiritual disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. He was also selected as the first satyagrahi by Mahatma Gandhi during the freedom struggle. Vinobha Bhave led the land-gift movement. He walked across India for 14 years asking for land that can be given to the landless and deprived communities. He thought that the problem of landlessness needs to be solved not through the power of the gun or through the power of law but through the power of compassion. He received about 4.3 million hectares of land. He also fought against cow-slaughter because he believed  the cow is the backbone of Indian agriculture. By destroying the cow we will introduce tractors and chemical fertilizer in our agricultre and will kill the soil forever. He is an inspiration for many people in India and as a result preserving his birth place was important for people who believed in his philosophy. Because of the dam that was coming up in this area, this memorial was also acquired by the government. It was only after a long struggle by the local people that they were   able to save the land and the building of Vinobha Bhave while everything around this memorial was acquired for the dam. I am told that a cement factory set up very close to Gandhiji’s ashram in Sevagram is also going to destroy the ashram in Sevagram. India has already given up much of what Gandhi wanted India to be. Now there are systematic efforts to get rid of their memorials so that we can forget them completely.

Various struggles groups in the area who participated in the public meeting in Thane gave us an idea of the number of struggles taking place in and arround Raigarh. They are making their final effort in order to protect the land and livelihood sources. Rather than migrating to the slums of Mumbai, they are making a concereted effort to protect their livelihood resources. On the 5th we were in Mumbai, interacting with the students of different colleges, representatives of different media houses and also interacted with representatives of different organizations and struggle groups. Mumbai is growing as a gigantic disorganized mega-city. It is almost like a battle field  between the slums and sky rises. Though the population of poor people is as high as 60-70% of the total population of Mumbai, they are only holding on to 8% of the total land in Mumbai. People are moving so fast that there is no time to discuss how the resources can be distributed equally in a free India.  Whether it is landless people’s movement or the Narmada movement or an anti-corruption movement, there are many middle class and upper class people in Mumbai who are supporting those struggles. This is an indication that among the middle class and upper middle class there are many who feel uncomfortable with their own lifestyle.  When they look around and see so much poverty and deprivation, they are compelled to act. Ekta Parishad has been lucky to have supporters like Yatish Mehta, Kundanbhai, Paramjeet Singh, Tilak and many others who appreciate and support the non-violent struggle of Ekta Parishad. They want us to succeed in our struggle for people’s control over land and livelihood resources.

On the 7th we were in Pune. While Swami Agnivesh came to Mumbai to express solidarity with Jansatyagraha, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey came to Pune to express their solidarity. A press conference and a public meeting were the two events in Pune. Dr. Baba Adav who has tremendous amount of work amongst the unorganized labourers and is highly respected in Maharashtra and across the country gave his full support to the Jansatyagraha campaign. Formation of a Ekta Parishad unit in Pune by a group of journalist and social activist was something that happened unexpectedly.

One long week in Maharashtra has brought us closer to many groups, many have expressed their solidarity with the yatra and by now we have covered much of the larger cities like Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai. Much of our travel through Maharashtra for the next 3 weeks will be in the rural areas.

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