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The Pussycat Dolls and A R Rahman
Not in Love
Jason Burke in Gwalior, Tuesday 9th October 2012 07:52
The bus left Badpura village, bounced down a dirt track leading to where the buffalo bathe, then along a narrow lane through scrappy fields and out on to the main road. From the vehicle's windows green and white flags flew.
Inside were a dozen or so landless peasant farmers, heading to Delhi, the capital, to confront their nation's leaders and press their right to land. So far the marchers, 50,000-strong according to the organisers, have covered around 80 kilometres, not even a quarter of the distance they hope to travel. Their march will take another three weeks.
They have come from Kerala in the south-west to Bengal in the north-east, all drawn from the poorest of the Indian poor. They had gathered at the northern town of Gwalior, and then set off last Wednesday, the anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth, inspired by the independence leader's own tactics.
PV Rajagopal, the veteran activist who organised the yatra (pilgrimage), told the Guardian that the participants' aim was not just to win a "right to land" but to fundamentally alter the direction of India's development.
"There is conflict at every level with the model we have now. Gandhi's vision in this country is being rejected every day. Now we have a capitalist, consumerist model. If India does not change this, the writing is on the wall," he said, explaining that a similar, smaller march in 2007 had had an insufficient impact.
There are many who argue that such views are naive and that India's development – and thus the eradication of poverty – depends on urbanisation, massive investment in infrastructure and the development of a manufacturing base capable of providing employment for huge numbers of people, especially the young.
Then there are those who argue that the sanctification of rural life inspired by Gandhi has contributed to the tenacity of poverty in India.
Rajagopal, who made his name negotiating the surrender of bandits in the rough countryside around Gwalior in the early 1970s, disagrees.
"Nearly 100,000 villages have been destroyed since India gained its independence. I cannot accept industrialisation at this cost," he said.
The inhabitants of Badpura exist on the margins of Indian society and economy. A cluster of mud-walled homes on a high, rocky ridge perched above the plains around Gwalior, it is home to around 100 families.
Some are from the lowest ranks of the caste system, the millennia-old social hierarchy that is still powerful in India. Others are so-called "adivasi" (tribals), who can trace their origins back to the subcontinent's most ancient inhabitants and who often live in forest or hill areas that are now prized by industry for their raw materials. At best the adiviasi have gained little from the two decades of economic boom in India. Often they have lost a great deal.
Certainly the "Shining India" of booming infotech industries and luxury car markets is a long way from Badpura. There is only a basic school, and healthcare is restricted to occasional visits by government health workers. One girl who can read and write her own name is proudly described as "literate". Meat is a rare treat. The villagers weed the local farmers' fields, earning 50 rupees (60p) a day. If they now have intermittent electricity, the villagers also suffer from soaring prices for basic foodstuffs and outbreaks of tuberculosis.
"It is tough but somehow we manage," said Sunder Bai, a mother of seven who did not know her own age.
The key question for the villagers, as for so many in this vast but crowded country, is land. They want deeds to the scruffy patches of semi-scrub around Badpura that they have tilled or grazed livestock on for decades. But, at least in legal terms, these few hectares hacked out of the forest belong to the government The villagers have to fight a running battle with local officials who seize their tools and destroy their crops. Several have even been taken to court.
"We, the adivasis, are the owners, not the government. We own the forest because we have lived in the forests since forever. The firewood is ours but they take if from us," said Bai.
Almost every group of marchers heading to Delhi has a similar story. Camped in a vast, derelict parade ground on the eve of the march, participants squatted around communal stoves to share rice or flat bread – their one meal of the day – before sleeping in the dust. Faded, frayed clothes hung from lines, drying in the dying rays of the sun.
Nandina Devi, from a small village of dalits, the castes once known as "untouchable", in violence-prone Bihar state, said when she spoke out against harassment by officials she was accused of being a Naxalite, one of the Maoist guerillas waging an armed insurgency against central government.
"There is not one Maoist among us. We just want recognition that we own our land," she said.
Kamdra Munda, a 45-year-old adivasi farmer from Chhattisgarh state, the heart of the Naxalite insurgency, said he too had been harassed. When he saw the masses gathered for the march he felt "happy and brave".
The demonstration is a problem for the ruling Congress party which has long drawn support from the rural poor. Their votes will be crucial in elections due in 2014. Jairam Ramesh, minister for rural development, travelled to Gwalior in a bid to persuade the tens of thousands to abandon their plans.
"Your claims are justified. We are working on these issues," he told the crowds.
With Ramesh, evidence of how little some things in India change, was a local Congress MP, Jjyotiraditya Scindia. The giant fort which dominates Gwalior was for centuries the seat of the Scindia dynasty. The MP is the grandson of the last maharajah.
The marchers did not listen to Ramesh's plea not to travel to the capital.
"The politicians pass laws which are never implemented. We will go to Delhi and we will not leave until we have what we want," said Ramtha Yadav, a landless labourer from Uttar Pradesh state whose socio-economic indicators are often worse than those of sub-Saharan Africa.
One problem for the Congress party is that the vast flagship subsidy programmes which are meant to ensure basic levels of nutrition and employment among India's very poor – and to gain their votes – are riddled with graft and inefficiency. Hugely expensive, these programmes often fail to reach the most needy.
"We get nothing, no rice, no employment, nothing but a couple of bottles of cooking gas if we are lucky," said Yadav, 26. "The government takes, but gives us nothing."
New legislation aiming to simplify the complex and archaic land laws in India and ensure fairer compensation for those displaced by new infrastructure projects or industry is stuck in parliament and unlikely to be passed soon.
The march has attracted attention from overseas. Karima Delli, a French Green MEP, said that European organisations were inspired by the marchers and their non-violent tactics.
"The earth can't take any more. Everywhere peasants are suffering, sidelined by the multinationals and big business. No silence, no violence," she said.
"I don't know about big companies," said Yadav. "I've just had enough of sleeping under trees."