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History

 In brief

1991 to 1998

1999 to 2000

2001 to 2006

Janadesh 2007

 

In brief

Ekta Parishad evolved as a people’s organization in 1991. Prior to that, it had been a loose grouping of NGO training institutes that had created a large base of community development work. It first articulated the agenda of “people’s control over livelihood resources” in 1996 in the process of consolidating its vision around the key issues of land, forests and water rights. The majority of the people in Ekta Parishad at the time of its inception, were tribals or adivasis, who had been increasingly alienated from their lands because of constant displacement. They were also suffering due to being barred from entering adjacent forest areas, because of the 1980 Forest Conservation Act. This problem was aggravated with hijacking of water resources for the use of industries and large-scale agriculture. Without land, forest and water, people (and especially forest-dependent communities such as the adivasi groups) could not hope to survive on the land. This was the impetus that brought the groups into a larger social formation after 1991. By the end of the 1990s, Ekta Parishad had gathered around it a constituency of about 2 lakh (200,000) members.

In 1999-2000, the first padyatra (foot-march), which traversed from western to eastern Madhya Pradesh (before the partition of Chhattisgarh), was organized. During this padyatra, Ekta Parishad discovered that “walking” was an enabling tool, one that allowed the marginalized people to participate readily and with dignity, since it only demanded their physical prowess and not funds or political patronage. The foot-march, like Gandhi’s Salt Satyagraha of 1931, was also a way for people to highlight their rights and become visible by attracting the attention of the media, policy-makers and the general public.

Following that first foot-march, about a dozen marches took place in different states of India on various issues. However, they did not have the desired societal impact. It was then decided to hold a national march in October 2007 in the Declared Year of Non-Violence, starting on the UN day of Non-Violence, October 2nd, which is the birth date of Mahatma Gandhi. The march was named “Janadesh”, which means “People’s Verdict”. A total of 25,000 people came together in Gwalior, a city about 350 kilometers south of the capital. For one month the landless poor, tribals, poor women, bonded labourers, children and old people walked along the national highway, attracting the attention of people from all walks of life. After the arrival in Delhi, the government reacted swiftly and promised to meet their demands. It was one of the largest non-violent actions in human history.

The success of this march is being followed by an international march in October 2012 called the Jan Satyagraha ("People’s March for Justice") when 100,000 people will again be walking to Delhi from Gwalior, and different actions will occur in 60 countries around the world. Through all of this, the main work of Ekta Parishad has emerged : the mobilization of people. This is critical for any kind of social reform.

1991 to 1998

The beginning of Ekta Parishad and development of its core issues
Ekta Parishad was formally established in 1991. The initial emphasis of the movement was on access to forest resources because of the large population of tribal communities. Later, it became evident that right to land was the most critical issue due to displacement. Without right to land, people were being constantly displaced, disenfranchised and debased. Focus now shifted to forced evictions, indebtedness, alcohol trade, and nistar rights (usufruct rights related to the collection of forest produce). Gradually, Ekta Parishad developed its capacity to mobilize communities to speak on their own behalf and strengthened its base for the larger struggles for land and livelihoods rights that would be the future of its work. Here are some of the main events that occurred during this period:

  • 1993-1994: Land problems were for the first time taken up at the state level. 7,000 applications were given to the Madhya Pradesh government for action.
  • 1994: Land Day was organized, during which the voice of the deprived communities was raised through many different rallies, demonstrations at the district and local levels across the state of Madhya Pradesh.
  • 1996: A big rally of 20,000 people was organized on the World Human Rights Day and applications were handed over in the form of a memorandum to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.

1999 to 2000

The padyatra becomes a main tool of social action
This period saw Ekta Parishad grow from a localized grassroots movement into a force that spanned all of Madhya Pradesh.

Bhu Adhikar Satyagraha Padyatra 1999

A six months march beginning in December 1999 in Sheopurkalan and ending in June 2000 in Raigarh mobilized more than 10,000 villages and 300,000 people. Despite the challenges posed by marching in remote areas, the spirit of the people carried them through 5 regions (Chambal, Bundelkhand, Baghelkhand, Mahakoshal and Chhattisgarh, which is a state since 2001) of Madhya Pradesh, covering 8,000 villages and more than 3,800 kilometers. The results were the following:

  • 24,000 grievances were submitted to the state government that dealt with hundreds of issues raised by the public.
  • The state government announced the formation of a two-tiered task force; the state level task force was responsible for land redistribution policies and the district level task force dealt with the land redistribution process.
  • For the next four years Ekta Parishad worked to establish task forces in each district of the state, and saw the distribution of about 350,000 land entitlements. 558,000 charges for forest-violations were dropped by the Forest Department against tribal people, significantly impacting the focus of the state’s pro-poor agenda.
  • It helped to increase the pressure from village to district to state levels, with task forces acting as a monitoring mechanism. The padyatra forced the state government to work with Ekta Parishad in 30 districts of Madhya Pradesh and this success brought the strength of other states into the organizational fold. People sought Ekta Parishad strength across the country, including Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

The development of task forces became a priority in 2 other states (Orissa and Chhattisgarh) in order to monitor the work of district collectors and revenue officers. Ekta Parishad activists held a number of seats in each task force, helping to counter the highly lethargic and corrupt Revenue Department officials and to promote land re-distribution, as well as the redress of disputes between the Forest and Revenue Departments by exerting pressure at the state level.

Conflicts over whether land should be classified as Forest or Revenue land was a major stumbling block and is still an issue today. These disputed lands, or orange lands, became an issue for the courts when Ekta Parishad took the problem to the Supreme Court (PV Rajagopal vs. the State of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, 2003-04). Ekta Parishad argued that the Forest Department had a huge quantity of “orange” land without actual tree cover that they had not de-notified to allow for redistribution as Revenue Land.

2001 to 2006

From local to state level of action
After the success of the first padyatra, other long padyatras were carried out in Bihar (September 2001), Chambal (April 2002), Chhattisgarh (February 2003 and 2005), Bundelkhand-Baghelkhand (September 2003), Orissa (February 2004 and 2005), and Kerala (2005).

Rebuild Bihar March (2001):
This padyatra, organized during September 2001, showed how broken was social fabric, due to violence, corruption and weak governance. Without saying so, Ekta Parishad gave a positive spin to the state administration so that they would be interested to bring development to remote areas where public government facilities like schools, health clinics, roads and bridges simply did not exist. Villagers welcomed activists as they felt they were given the opportunity to voice their concerns.

Some of the post-padyatra actions included:

  • Campaign to divert the waters of the Mohane Nadi Dam so that local farmers could benefit from irrigation. 10 different small campaigns (morchas) were taken up in various parts of 6 districts (Jamui, Navada, Nalanda, Jahanavad, Gaya and Patna).
  • Set-up of 2 camps in the Gaya district
  • Support to enhance the capacity of Ekta Mahila Manch on women and land issues in Bihar
  • The establishment of a task force and the formulation of a master plan, named as the Bandopadyay report. However efforts have been stymied by the state government. Because of their unwillingness to respond, efforts are still being made to ensure full implementation of land distribution reforms).
  • Efforts have been made to distribute housing plots to landless and homeless people.
  • Efforts have been made to reactivate the Bhoodan Committee for land distribution.
  • Strengthening of the “Rebuilding Bihar” campaign

Chambal Peace March (2002):
The non-violent yatra in Chambal lasted over two weeks in April 2002. It was preceded with an international meeting on non-violence and development in Gwalior as a way to help spell out the elements of non-violent action in marginalized areas like Chambal. The yatra traversed the Chambal ghati (from Morena to Gwalior) and those areas that are dry ravines south of the Chambal river. These are well known because of infamous outlaw-dacoits such as Man Singh, and others, and Bollywood icon, Phoolan Devi. The Chambal region is an arid zone with animal husbandry and small cultivation as its distinguishing feature. Chambal is a central part of Ekta Parishad’s work because of the historic contribution made by Mahatma Gandhi Seva Ashram and Rajagopal in rehabilitating the terrorizing dacoits and giving them land from which to do farming in the 1970s.

The aim of the yatra was to help small cultivators with adequate inputs (i.e. land-leveling, access to water and electricity) to assist these communities to remain peaceful (not returning to the violent behaviour of being dacoits) because of active development of the region. The yatra also dealt with issues of land tenure and landlessness. This forced the government to respond to the task force in the districts of Chambal on land distribution. There was a strong response from the District and Divisional Magistrates that led to more active development programs in the region.

Madhya Pradesh Bhu Adhikar (Land Right’s) Sanvad March (2002):
The Bhu Adhikar Sanvad yatra was held over 15 days between September and October 2003 in Bundelkhand and Baghelkhand, the central region of Madhya Pradesh. Beginning in Damoh and ending in Katni was an effort to raise a host of local issues related to land and livelihood. It was also important to pressure the state in carrying out of the Task Force on land distribution, which was at its height as this time. It was also prior to the state elections and this was a strategic effort to get members of the legislative Assembly (MLAs) involved in the land application process. During this yatra, thousands of landless people gave applications. In Bundelkhand, the issue was primarily low caste or dalit problems whereas in Baghelkhand, it was tribal land alienation.

Chhattisgarh Sambad Yatra (2003):
The Chhattisgarh yatra took place in February 2003. Initially it was a van (jeep) yatra and after about 10 days, news came that an accomplice of the forest department had axed to death one of the local workers of Ekta Parishad, Birju Baiga, a tribal headman in a remote region near Pandaria town. This caused the van yatra to change course and become a dharna (sit-in) in the town of Pandaria for the next 8 days. Pandaria was a sub-district town that provides transportation links for mineral and other resource-based extraction companies. In the center of Pandaria town, there was a small temple across from the District Forest Department (DFO). Here the dharna began on the 10th of February 2003 and over the course of the next few days, baiga tribal people came down from the remote villages from hill areas. By the 13th of February there were more than 1500 people, eating, sleeping and meeting in front of the DFO’s office to remind them of the consequences of assassinating one of the members of their community. Eventually when the district officials could not appease the people, the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh state (himself a tribal) called a meeting with the family members of Birju Baiga and Ekta Parishad and slowly a resolution was negotiated. This included:

  • Distributing land to 6,100 families
  • Dismissing a District Forest Officer for the murder of Birju Baigas, a tribal who defended his ancestral rights to the forest
  • Provisioning of 2 lakhs (INR 200,000) to the family of Birju Baiga

This incident was contrasted by another showdown in Kerala that occurred exactly in the same week. In Kerala, Janu, a tribal rights activist the government police with force and she was put in jail, and much of the issue was lost thereafter. Although the incident with Janu got more press than that of the Birju Baiga case, this was an important learning within the non-violent struggle of Ekta Parishad and its efficacy in Chhattisgarh.

The accomplishments in Chhattisgarh have been quite significant with the government distributing land to 6,100 families and dismissing a District Forest Officer for the murder of Birju Baiga, a tribal who defended his ancestral rights to the forest. Efforts were focused on the following areas:

  • Industrialization versus the rights of tribal communities
  • Strengthening the non-violent action campaigns (this was particularly important given the expansion of violent groups in the state and the migration of more than 100,000 people from Bastar due to violence in the area)

Orissa Bhu Adhikar Chambad March (2004):
The Orissa yatra was carried between 30 January and 24 February 2004 and was a combination of jeep yatra and foot-march. The jeep yatra covered a large area from Kalahandi to the Barbara Forest Reserve. Then the padyatra began at Laligarh, the Vedanta site, a large bauxite mining company that disregards the salutary development of tribal communities. It then proceeded to Kalahandi from which there was a long march of three days into the state capital of Bhubaneswar. The outcome of the padyatra was that the Chief Minister set up a task force to look into the land claims of tribal communities. Unfortunately, he put this task force under the State Tribal Affairs Ministry, which has little clout in the face of the industrial lobby. In Orissa, dozens of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) are being signed by the government to have resource extraction industries free reign in the rural areas. These areas happen to be tribal pockets that are governed under the Fifth Schedule and require permission for industries to gain access. The state government in their enthusiasm to develop, were violating all legal norms, and ignoring this legislation. This was one of the key themes of the van yatra and padyatra carried out by Ekta Parishad.

  • Attendance of the Chief minister of Orissa at a public meeting in Bhubaneswar, which gathered 5,000 members of the region’s deprived communities, and creation of a task force to resolve the land problems of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
  • Awareness raised amongst local population (youth camps and rallies), at state level (e-mail campaign and press conferences) and internationally (direct involvement of international representatives).
  • Huge increase of land rights campaign in Orissa through local mobilization activity.
  • Collections of petitions detailing land issue grievances.

The Orissa yatra was carried between 30 January and 24 February 2004 and was a combination of jeep yatra and foot-march. The jeep yatra covered a large area from Kalahandi to the Barbara Forest Reserve. Then the padyatra began at Laligarh, the Vedanta site, a large bauxite mining company that disregards the salutary development of tribal communities. It then proceeded to Kalahandi from which there was a long march of three days into the state capital of Bhubaneswar. The outcome of the padyatra was that the Chief Minister set up a task force to look into the land claims of tribal communities. Unfortunately, he put this task force under the State Tribal Affairs Ministry, which has little clout in the face of the industrial lobby. In Orissa, dozens of Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) are being signed by the government to have resource extraction industries free reign in the rural areas. These areas happen to be tribal pockets that are governed under the Fifth Schedule and require permission for industries to gain access. The state government in their enthusiasm to develop, were violating all legal norms, and ignoring this legislation. This was one of the key themes of the van yatra and padyatra carried out by Ekta Parishad.

The padyatra ended with a public meeting in Bhubaneswar that was attended by the Prime Minister and, which had gathered 5,000 people of the state’s deprived communities. This is when the task force was created to deal with the land problems of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.

Chhattisgarh Bachao March (2005):
This yatra was carried out at the height of May in 2005 between Raigarh and Raipur for 10 days as a result of government policies. Ekta Parishad had for many years opposed the Jindal factory in Raigarh as it paid no heed to the damage it was doing both to the land and livelihoods of tribal communities, and to monopolizing the water resources in the Kelo river. Although EP spent over ten days in the grueling heat of 46 degrees, there was little movement from the government in changing their industrial policy. This policy presaged the large scale signing of MOUs in the state that has accelerated industrialization and land grabbing.

Janadesh 2007

Janadesh 2007: To the national level
Janadesh brought together 25,000 people representing communities from all over India in an unprecedented social action. This amazing social experiment of the poorest people walking over 340 kilometers to the capital with unparalleled determination was historic. They walked with the knowledge that they had worked for a generation in building up this movement, and it was culminating in one of the biggest non-violent actions since Independence. Its commencement was marked by the United Nations’ International Day of Non-Violence and the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. To witness communities united in a display of non-violent civil disobedience evoked memories of the satygrahas of Mahatma Gandhi that inspired civil rights movements throughout the world. Support came from all over, with 250 satyagrahis from international organizations showing their solidarity with each step that they took. More than 100 members of parliament supported Janadesh, including the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh who announced the establishment of a Land Commission and his plan to redistribute land to the landless communities in the region. The constant media coverage brought the voice of the satyagrahis to people all over the country and social activists pledged their solidarity with the satyagrahis of Janadesh.

In the final hours of the Janadesh, the Prime Minister agreed to complete the “Unfinished Land Reform Agenda”, by having a policy formulated and setting up a high level implementation committee. The Government also provided the implementation rules for forest land distribution to tribal people and other forest dwellers.

Achievements Of Janadesh and Further Challenges
On October 29th, 2007 the Government of India announced that it would move to get people land rights within the Framework of the Unfinished Land Reform Agenda that had been started after Independence. What was achieved was that the Prime Minister had agreed to chair the newly established National Land Reforms Council that would negotiate through a Land Reforms policy framework that land would be distributed. This policy framework was to be developed by a committee of experts. While it was possible that the government would renege on their promises, there was also recognition that after years of struggle, something new had been achieved at a high level. The mechanism for achieving land reform had the participation from civil society organizations.

The people on the Janadesh march had created a workable form of political action, which was a powerful tool in their hands that could pressure government into action. It was not something that gave instantaneous results, but it showed that people had power and in a democratic state, governments always respond if people have power. The success of this historical display of non-violent action gave Ekta Parishad a reason to celebrate, but we must remember that the struggle was not over and needed to be vigilant.

Since Janadesh 2007, there have been dozens of local padyatras that have kept the heat on the administration. Among these have been the Namuetha Urumaimannu (‘This is our own land’) yatra in Kerala 2010 and the Madhya Pradesh 2010 yatra. These social actions are preparing the ground for the and many other yatras will prepare the ground for the Jan Satyagraha March - 2012, the march of 100,000 people planned for 2012.

Communicating the View from People in the Bottom One Billion, Jill Carr-Harris
"The story of Janadesh is the struggle of millions of people. These are the people that economists refer to as the “bottom billion”, those that have been left out of mainstream development. What I have seen in more than two decades working among India’s poor is that in their struggle for rights, they are creating a script, a language, a set of grievances and proposals for change. Without a trained ear to their songs, slogans, speeches, and different social actions one can easily miss the point. It is a hieroglyphic, which people can decipher if they have time to step back from their a priori assumptions about development and hear them.

If I try to gauge the impact that this Janadesh has had both in making an indelible impression on the next generation of those who were marching and also, on the citizens of India and beyond. What the Janadesh has exemplified is that not only is social change possible but also that a non-violent movement of the most marginalized people on earth, actually works.

Throughout many years of working in a social movement, I have always had a healthy skepticism about whether social change among the “poorest of the poor" was possible. It is commonly believed that people who are part of any reform or revolutionary movement generally come from the middle-classes. The poor invariably do not have the means to do any kind of actions, in addition to which they are usually ensconced in a set of oppressive relations that makes it difficult for any freedom of action. The Janadesh has proved that this is a fallacy. Only when landless and other marginalized people stand up for their rights can genuine change occur.

Observing Ekta Parishad as a social movement over a generation has shown me that poor people do act but they must do so in measured step in order to be able to sustain themselves in the process. Building a “bottom-up” mass base took 20 years to achieve, not less, and in some cases it can take more time. It needs an engagement from the people, based on their interest and commitment and this is mediated through social action, in India at least, first at the village level before fanning out to numerous villages, district-levels, state-levels and finally as in the case of the Janadesh, to the national level. For the leaders to sustain this kind of progression of social action requires a unique quality of detachment where there is not a spirit of competition. The leadership in India may be unique as it evolves out of the traditions of the society, but like anywhere, it is the vortex of the movement and it triangulates the organization and the people with multiple events that make the social movement.

For the struggles to be carried out non-violently requires a formation. In Ekta Parishad the formation was initially given to young activists who stayed on in the movement over decades because they had a stake in it. Their formation was rigorous and based on service and voluntary sacrifice. This attribute of being able to withstand pain and difficulty was a necessary condition for resisting the injustice in the society. The activist leaders had to exemplify these virtues to the local people so that they could build a collective resistance and therefore a sufficient social power to carry forward an action.

Ekta Parishad began taking up state level padyatras (long marches) from 2000 in different provinces of India and this was a way to build up the capacity for resistance. For instance in 2003 the indigenous people known as the Baigas (hunters and gathering people) stood up against a state government that was forcing their people off forest land and, by assembling as a community for eight days on the road-head the Forest Officer responsible was punished (Dukakis 2004).

The Janadesh was a similar kind of resistance, yet it required a huge amount of endurance to sustain for one month. To create that level of people’s power is a moment comparable to that of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; or the people’s movement that removed Marcos as dictator in Philippines."

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