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Govt pledges right to land for landless

- Jairam promises law to benefit rural poor, protesters call off march to Delhi
Protesters demanding a plot for every landless person celebrate after an agreement between their leader PV Rajagopal and Jairam Ramesh in Agra on Thursday; (above) Ramesh addresses the crowd. Pictures by Prem Singh

Agra, Oct. 11: Samaru Vanabasi’s struggle for a plot to build a house of his own in his Uttar Pradesh village marked a step forward today but the 50-year-old tribal is unsure whether he can realise his dream in his lifetime.

With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s approval, rural development minister Jairam Ramesh announced here today the government’s intent to bring in a law to make land a right of every landless person in rural India.

The promised law’s scope and purport brings it on a par with the rural job scheme and the forest rights act, but it remains unclear where the land to be distributed among the landless will come from.

At a meeting with thousands of landless poor, who were on a march to Delhi under the Ekta Parishad’s Jan Satyagraha demanding a plot for every landless family, Ramesh signed an agreement with the Parishad, which called off the agitation.

Ramesh said the Centre would draw up a National Land Reforms Policy in consultation with the states in the next six months. The policy will suggest how to provide land to the landless.

The government’s announcement may have satisfied Parishad president P.V. Rajagopal but it failed to convince Vanabasi. The resident of Madaripur Bhela in Jaunpur is sceptical about the government being able to keep its promise.

“I have heard many politicians make promises about the landless getting land and shelter, but none of the 50 families in my village has yet got a piece of land to build a house,” Vanabasi said.

He said all the families in Madaripur Bhela work as sharecroppers on the farmland of upper-class landlords, and live in shanties on community land.

“Some patches of community homestead land are under our possession, and these may be given to us. But can the government recover land from the illegal possession of the upper classes and hand it over to us for farming?” he asked.

The agreement signed between the government and the Parishad says the rural development ministry will try to bring in a law providing for farmland for the landless poor in the backward districts and homestead rights for the landless and shelter-less poor in rural areas.

“No (previous) government has made any such assurance to make land a legal right for the landless,” Ramesh said, adding that the enactment of the law may take two to three years.

He said nearly two crore rural families lack even a piece of homestead land. The government’s intention is to give them 10 cents (4,400sqft) to build a house. This means the government will need to find 20 lakh acres of homestead land.

Rajagopal, however, said that nearly 50 per cent Dalits, Adivasis and nomadic tribes lack homestead land — which would bring the number to over 20 crore.

“We are going to set up an 11-member task force, which will discuss how to arrange for the land to be distributed. The task force will also work on the land reforms policy,” Ramesh said.

But how much land is available for distribution?

“There is no accurate data. I have asked the Centre to prepare a database on the available land,” Rajagopal said. He presumed that enough land could be found for the landless.

“For example, many people have accumulated surplus land beyond what is allowed under the land ceiling act. Besides, plantation farms and religious trusts have huge surplus land. Nearly 50 per cent of Bhoodan land is yet to be distributed. There is wasteland and common properties in every village that can be properly distributed,” Rajagopal said.

On September 19, The Telegraph had reported a survey’s discovery that about 24 lakh acres from the land donated by rich landowners during Vinoba Bhave’s 1950s Bhoodan movement remain undistributed among the landless poor. The Centre is talking to the states to see how to locate and retrieve the undistributed plots, scattered across the states.

Ranjana, a Dalit from Ramnagar village in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur, said a mere assurance from the government would not satisfy the land agitators. “If there is no concrete action in the next six months, we will have to resume the agitation,” she said.

Rajagopal, who met the Prime Minister last month, said he had full faith in the government’s commitment.

“I do not doubt the government’s intent. Now we will speak to the state governments and seek their support towards the framing of the policy and the law,” he said.

Under the Constitution, land is a state subject. Ramesh asked the Parishad to impress upon the states to cooperate with the Centre in taking pro-active measures.

“You should put pressure on the state governments… to be pro-active on this issue,” he said.

The government-Parishad agreement outlines a 10-point programme that includes surveying the land records and setting up fast-track tribunals to dispose of land disputes.

The Parishad had in 2007 organised a similar satyagraha, after which the government set up a National Land Reforms Council headed by the Prime Minister. The council has not met at all during the past four years.

“I was part of the 2007 satyagraha.... How can we trust the government’s assurances again?” said Ramdev Dash, who had come from Badai village in Saharsa, Bihar.

However, Rajagopal said the crucial difference was that now the Parishad had a written commitment from the government.

“The last time, I had nothing (that was) written. Now I have an agreement. We will be after the government to achieve our objectives. If the government goes back (on its word), we will expose it,” he said.

“If the government can acquire land for companies, it has to acquire and distribute land among the landless too.”