Rag-tag army demands land or jail
|CHARU SUDAN KASTURI|
Faridabad, Oct. 27: Divided into four neat queues stretching well over a kilometre, a mass of people heads to Delhi.
Walking along the side of National Highway 2, they shout "Give us land or give us jail", in a chorus that carries a blend of Hindi, Bhojpuri, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Malayalam, Tamil, Oriya and several dialects.
They are some of India's poorest addressing the government, and though they appear to be giving Delhi a choice, their numbers — over 18,000, say organisers — will make the jail option tough to implement.
Together, they are laying siege to Delhi.
"The government has ignored the rights of the landless for too long. If we don't receive a positive response by tomorrow evening, we will surround Parliament on Monday," said Anil Gupta, one of the organisers.
It's a rag-tag army of deprived, semi-starved people, but they plan to follow a man who shook what was the strongest military empire in the world without lifting a sword.
"This is a satyagraha. When we approach Parliament, police will try and stop us. We won't fight with them. Our battle is against the policies of this government, and we will make sure we are heard," Shankar Mahato, a 44-year-old former panchayat member from Jharkhand, said.
The marchers who started from Gwalior on October 2 walked through Rajasthan's Dhaulpur district before reaching Agra. From there, they trekked to Faridabad, on the outskirts of the capital.
There are fisherfolk from Orissa's Chilka region who are struggling to make ends meet. They say their archaic rods and nets are no match for the sophisticated gadgets used by multinationals allowed to fish in the Chilka's waters.
Tribals from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra have come in large numbers — nearly 5,000 — to protest against the Forests Rights Bill that they say threatens to make them aliens on their own turf by declaring forests "reserved".
The marchers from Tamil Nadu are protesting against the Sethusamudram ship channel project, which they say will lead to trawlers destroying the traditional areas where fish spawn.
It took three years, Gupta said, to organise the 350km trek.
They had started out with a strength of 25,000, divided into five groups. Each group has an ambulance of its own. There is also a sixth "common" ambulance.
The groups were further divided into sub-groups of a thousand each. Every sub-group has a self-sufficient kitchen — Eicher vans carrying utensils and gas stoves — and two water tankers with a capacity of 40 litres each. There are some "common" water tankers as well.
The padyatra, however, had run into a few rough patches. For instance, near Agra, one early morning, a 14-wheel trailer carrying cars rammed through the road divider and into a group of people washing their faces. Three died and nine were injured.
Yet, the mood remains festive. Land and livelihood, the protesters say, are their rights, after all.