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Agence France Presse

India's Poorest March on Capital for Land Rights


NEW DELHI - Thousands of poor farmers, landless workers and indigenous people reached the Indian capital Sunday after a month-long protest march to highlight the plight of those marginalised by India's economic boom.

Men, women and even some children from India's neglected hinterlands walked in orderly lines waving green and white flags or carrying photographs of freedom icon and revered "untouchable" leader Bhimarao Ramji Ambedkar.1028 05 attract foreign investment to maintain its scorching growth of more than nine percent.

For millions like the estimated 25,000 marchers who began their 600-kilometre (370-mile) journey from the central city of Gwalior on Gandhi's birthday on October 2, India's "economic miracle" is meaningless.

"Forty percent of Indians are now landless and 23 percent of them are in abject poverty," march organiser Puthan Vithal Rajgopal, who heads a group called Ekta Parishad, or Unity Forum, told AFP.

"Such conditions have bred Maoist insurgency in 172 of India's 600 districts and farmers are killing themselves in 100 other districts. So we want to ask the government, 'Where are the fruits of the reforms in these districts?'"

The marchers want India's government to introduce iron-clad legislation on holdings, deeds and tenancy rights -- replacing the current system where ownership can easily be taken by the rich and powerful.

Many have lost land because of the absence of property deeds among people who have long lived on their traditional lands, including indigenous groups in forest areas, or because of corruption.

One farmer said a local official issued a deed putting part of his land in another's name after being bribed.

"We filed reports, attended courts but nothing happened," said Santok Devi. "And some 39 bighas (around an acre, half a hectare) are stuck in the controversy."

A government plan to set up tax-friendly special economic zones across thousands of acres of farmland in a bid to lure overseas corporations has also led to sometime violent protests over displacement in at least two states.

"For tribals there is no place left to go," said march coordinator Mrityunjay Sanjay. "They are getting displaced for factories. There is no place left for poor people to go in this country."

On Monday, the protesters will march to India's federal parliament to press for the setting up of a single land authority and fast-track courts for land disputes.

"People are still coming," said march coordinator Mrityunjay Sanjay. "Their basic meets are not met -- they don't have land, they don't have food, they don't have water. What are they supposed to do?"

Sanjay said they were waiting to see if the government showed concrete signs Monday of addressing their demands.

In spite of their deep-seated anger, marchers kept their spirits up by singing inspirational songs and dancing as they camped in the old part of the capital for the night.

Copyright © AFP 2007

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