In October tens of thousands of landless poor people from across India marched over 200miles from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to the capital, Delhi, to demand a fairer share of land and resources. Photographer Simon Williams travelled across India with Christian Aid's partner agency and march organiser, Ekta Parishad, which has spent the last year encouraging people to take part in the Jan Satyagraha march for justice
For the past year, Ekta Parishad, a non-violent social movement in India that works on land and forest rights, has travelled the country drumming up support for the march on Delhi. In October thousands of marchers, drawn from each of India's 28 states, walked in hot and humid conditions, many barefoot. Sleeping in basic conditions, they missed out on a month’s income they can’t really afford to lose in order to demand a fairer share of land and resources. The marchers put aside two handfuls of rice a week to feed their families whilst they were away.
Through its work, Ekta Parishad has built a movement of people from different backgrounds. The organisation believes more equitable access to land and resources could lift an estimated 400 million people out of extreme poverty.
Marchers turned out to welcome the Ekta Parishad team in Burhi, Jharkhand state, carrying placards reading: ‘Fight against hunger, we are together. Fight for water, we are together’. Five years ago, 25,000 rural poor people marched the same 350km path to demand their land rights from the Indian government.
A pot containing a soil sample collected from Gandhi Samadhi (Gandhi's Memorial) at Rajghat in Delhi, where Mahatma Gandhi was cremated. During its year-long trek, Ekta has been given samples by the landless people it has met, representing the struggle of each community. These are on display in Delhi this month.
More than 350 samples were collected. The 2007 march led to the creation, within 12 months, of the National Land Reform Committee, a first step to creating equitable land reform. Progress since has been slow, says Christian Aid.
In each state it passed through, Ekta Parishad connected with grassroots organisations, drumming up support for the march. Those who joined the trek demanded that existing pro-poor policies are put into action.
Supporters made donations to the Jan Satyagraha campaign in Sarwan, Deoghar District, Jharkhand. Organising and financing 100,000 people to march for a month is no mean feat. Ekta Parishad relies heavily on donations from the communities visited on its journey, regardless of whether or not they march.
At each location, people donatde – whether to support their own struggle for local land rights, to back Ekta Parishad’s campaign, or with both motives in mind.
Despite India’s strong economic growth, and extensive efforts by the government to make society more equal, the country continues to be challenged by widening inequality and remains home to a third of the world’s poor. Economic development in India has not generated enough jobs for all and, in rural areas especially, many people depend on land for their livelihoods.
In India, millions face being forced off their land to make way for mining, industrial development, nuclear power plants, wildlife sanctuaries and other interests. Many such projects are supposed to bring benefits such as electricity, improved infrastructure and jobs. In reality, more people are being displaced – often after receiving minimal compensation – and the promised benefits are failing to materialize.
After 20 years of activism, Ekta Parishad enjoys a huge nationwide following, having helped tens of thousands to remain on land on which they have lived for decades.
'We are constantly interacting with people who feel they are being cheated,' says Rajagopal, the founder of Ekta Parishad, who – to avoid being associated with a caste – only uses his first name, and who has been on the road daily, meeting communities and highlighting the plight of the landless poor, since 2 October, Gandhi's birthday. 'They are losing hope and nearly giving up. Many have been beaten down to a point where they cannot even think of fighting anymore. It is a struggle just to survive'.
‘People want to make themselves visible and stand up for their rights, so policymakers will wake up and act on their behalf,’ says Rajagopal.
Bringing people together in such large numbers ensures the government has ‘no option but to listen to the voices of the people,’ says Rajagopal.
All photos by Simon Williams/Christian Aid