Patna: Ignoring the freezing winter winds and away from whatever warmth their thatched huts provide, hundreds of poor and marginalised men and women in Bihar are marching towards Patna demanding land reforms. The state, in the cusp of major changes, has seen landlessness increase over the two decades.
The "Land March," which began at the historic Bodh Gaya in Gaya district, entered its sixth day Friday and is gaining popular support. It will end in Patna Dec 28.
The marchers` main demand is the immediate implementation of the D. Bandopadhayay Commission report on land reforms that was submitted last year but has not led to any action. The commission has made recommendations to protect sharecroppers and to put a cap on land owning.
"Most of the marchers are angry and keen to force the Nitish Kumar government into immediate action on the commission`s land reform recommendations," Satyanarayan Madan, an activist associated with the march, told reporters from Jehanabad.
Madan said after Nitish Kumar made a historic return to power last month, poor people in Bihar were expecting a lot from their chief minister. The implementation of the commission report will benefit the landless in a big way. It will be a turning point for Bihar`s development," he said.
According to Ashrafi Sada of Mushhar Vikas Manch who was one of the marchers, land reforms are a must for Bihar`s development. "Without it the state will continue to lag behind in overall development," he said.
The Land March under the banner of the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan started with a mass meeting of around 5,000 people at Bodh Gaya. It has passed through the villages of Gaya and Jehanabad districts, attracting increasing public attention.
Another land activist, Karu, said the march is passing through areas where land battles and even massacres have occurred. These areas are dominated by upper caste landlords with private armies that unleash terror among the landless.
The march is receiving an overwhelming response from Dalits, other backward communities and women. "Hundreds are joining and extending their support to the march," Karu said.
The D. Bandopadhayay Commission set up in 2009 has recommended that the state government bring in a new act to protect sharecroppers. It has also proposed a cap on land ownership and computerising of land records.
The report says the root cause of social and agrarian unrest in Bihar is the lack of forward-looking land reforms. It says once land ceiling is implemented, the state can provide 1.10 acre of land each to all the landless families in state.
The report has been kept in cold storage. It was presented in the Bihar assembly, but no follow-up action has been initiated.
Ironically, none of the political parties took up the issue in the assembly elections.
The marchers also have other demands, such as allocating 0.10 acre land to all homeless, making all the new titles in the name of women and distributing Bhoodan land - the land donated during the Bhoodan movement launched by Acharya Vinoba Bhave in April 1951 - among the poor without delay.
According to the National Sample Survey Organisation, landlessness in Bihar has increased from nine percent in the early 1990s to 10 percent at the end of the decade.
In a survey conducted in 12 villages, the figure was 52 percent. Ekta Parishad, an organisation working among the landless poor, says that even though the survey is not representative of the whole of Bihar, it is indicative of the depth of the problem.
Nearly 50 percent of Bihar`s 83 million people live below the poverty line (BPL), the highest in India, according to a World Bank report.