Jan Satyagraha: Walking for land rights in India

Naomi Millnerby Naomi Millner, University of Bristol

A visitor to Bristol recently turned my attention to a mass demonstration for agrarian reform he has been involved in publicising. Jan Satyagraha (‘People’s March for Justice’) is a 350km walk by 100,000 small farmers, landless labourers, tribal people, and activists. Organised by the grassroots social movement Ekta Parishad, it will take place in October of this year in India, and be accompanied by actions in sixty other countries. The march follows a route from Gwalior (near the Taj Mahal) to New Delhi, following the example of Gandhi’s famous 1930 Salt March, and builds on the experience of two highly successful walks in 1999 and 2007, both organised by Ekta Parishad.

In this post I want to consider whether (and how) the action of walking effectively raises the issues faced by landless people and small-holders in India – particularly when the new forms of enclosure that affect them are tied up with new expressions of global capitalism, as in the carbon market and agri-business industry, for example (see Harvey 2003; Glassman 2008; Bond 2011). I suggest that the benefits of the march are above all to be found in the opportunities it offers for the making, sharing, and translation of forms of knowledge based in indigenous ways of living and eco-social holisms. The shaping of these forms into collective claims offers a powerful riposte to justifications of land acquisitions in terms of ‘sustainable futures’, replacing two-dimensional renditions of ‘the environment’ with nuanced accounts of many forms of livelihood which are compromised through enclosure.

The situation in India shares common aspects with the waves of dispossession faced by farmers in Brazil, China, and South America, whose land is being appropriated for new ‘agribusinesses’. Agribusiness is based on the production of monocultures on large estates, secured through investments by transnational corporations and national governments, which the IMF and World Bank claim will provide rapidly industrialising countries with the means to cope with growing food crises (Rosset 2008). They insist that that increased trade (and more exports) will enable governments to import food, so they don’t have to invest in producing it, whilst also (apparently) increasing efficiency and technological improvement. But instead, agro-industrial profits have soared, whilst previously self-reliant countries have become food-insecure, and are forced to sell off more land to foreign investors. A recent Oxfam report uses data from the collaborative Land Matrix Partnership to estimate that up to 227 million hectares of land worldwide have been sold or leased to corporations since 2001 as a result of such pressures (Zagema 2011). The consequences for small-scale farmers, who depend upon the land for their livelihood, have also been dire. In India alone, whilst the economic output has doubled, progressively poorer harvests, depleted soils, debt, spiralling prices for pesticides and chemical fertilisers, and dispossession have been linked with large-scale displacements and even mortalities amongst the rural poor (Ekta Parishad and Ekta Europe 2011). Government figures suggest that more than 17,000 farmers committed suicide each year between 2002 and 2005.

Ekta Parishad was set in motion by Rajagopal P.V, who has spent much of his life fostering the development of self-reliant village communities in tribal areas, inspired by Gandhi’s vision. From the basis of a loose grouping of NGO training institutes, the organisation was consolidated in 1991, with the fundamental aims of building community-based governance (gram swaraj), local self-reliance (gram swawlamban), and responsible government (jawabdeh sarkar). From 1996 onwards, especially as tribal people became increasingly alienated from their land, this vision was synthesised into the key issues of land, forest, and water rights. The eviction of farmers from land, the privatisation of forests through the 1980 Forest Conservation Act, and persistent hijacking of water resources for industrial and large-scale agricultural use set an agenda for campaigns. The tactic of foot-marching was mobilised by the movement in the spirit of Gandhian non-violent protest, and draws together the three wings of Ekta Parashad (which focus on women’s rights, awareness-raising through story-telling and performance, and establishing a rural ‘peoples’ economy’) to articulate collective grievances.

But what does walking do? The first march mobilised by Ekta Parashad in 1999 saw more than 10,000 villages and 300,000 people take part in a campaign culminating in 24,000 grievances being submitted to the state government; around 350,000 land entitlements being distributed; and 558,000 charges for forest violation being dropped by Forest Department (Ekta Parashad 2012). So in particular instances, even where such demonstrations do not result in the transformation of large-scale land management structures, they may generate the pressure to force amendments to existing legislation, to the benefit of the poor and dispossessed. Ekta Parashad has also pointed out that walking enables otherwise marginalised people to participate with dignity and without patronage.

But what about the transnational influence on the setting of such legislation – the markets and corporate pressures which are constantly pushing state decision-making in the other direction? Critically, such campaigns also forge unique platforms for exchange, knowledge production, and international solidarity, which challenge the very imaginations of the environment such markets depend upon. They focus on rural life and the village as fora for debate, besides the city space (which has received much attention as a site to be disrupted through tactical walking – most notably by de Certeau 1984), but link emergent demands both horizontally and with movements working in disparate land rights issues around the world. Thus, Jill Carr-Harris (quoted in Ekta Parishad 2011), who has observed Ekta Parishad over the 20 years since its formation, writes that:

in their struggle for rights they are creating a script, a language, a set of grievances and proposals for change…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”.

Whilst we might problematise the sense of agency given to those who ‘decipher’ in the above description, I like the idea that a walk forms a kind of hieroglyphic. Through taking part in an expression of personally-held ‘wrongs’ (see Rancière 1999), a common language and set of collective claims emerge which speaks directly from individuals’ embeddedness within dynamic eco-social systems, which also include rivers, seeds, tree-roots, village histories, schools, algae, tribal customs, rice, etc. These claims re-invest land with the richness of relations which already exist there, forming a basis from which to establish collective rights in new terms.

The power of such claims to force legislation in the direction of transformative change has also been suggested within recent geographies of agrarian struggle, which have highlighted the power of practical actions like walks and occupations to challenge the spatial imaginaries which underpin prevailing practices of land management (on the MSF in Brazil, see Wolford 2004, 2007; on the Chiapas in Mexico, see Bobrow-Strain 2004).Whilst it would be reductive to set up such emergent forms of knowledge production (which some are calling ‘agro-ecology’) as an unproblematic and bottom-up alternative to the models of the environment presumed by agro-business, I do think that Ekta Parishad’s work offers a powerful example of a key strategy for reclaiming a collective ‘commons’. Walking as a form of sharing (a daily meal, a conversation, an experience), of exchanging and connecting grievances, and of making visible whole systems of forgotten livelihood, is a key way in which activists of the past have achieved large-scale change, and it remains today a critical tool for the articulation of versions of land, water, and forestry rights over and above those which support and sustain existing legal frameworks.


Bobrow-Strain A (2004) (Dis)accords: The politics of market-assisted land reforms in Chiapas, Mexico. World Development 32(6):887-903

Bond P (2011) Emissions trading, new enclosures, and eco-social contestation. Antipode doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00890.x

de Certeau M (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press

Ekta Parishad (2012) About us. http://www.ektaparishad.com/about-us (last accessed 17 February 2012)

Ekta Parishad and Ekta Europe (2011) Achieving People’s Control Over Land and Livelihood. New Delhi/Bhopal: South-South Solidarity/Ekta Parishad

Glassman J (2006) Primitive accumulation, accumulation by dispossession, and accumulation by ‘extra-economic’ means. Progress in Human Geography 30(5):608-625

Harvey D (2003) The New Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Johnston J, Biro A and MacKendrick, N (2009) Lost in the supermarket: The corporate-organic foodscape and the struggle for food democracy. Antipode 41:509-532

Rancière J (1999) Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Rosset P (2008) Food sovereignty and the contemporary food crisis. Development 51(4):460-463

Wolford W (2004) This land is ours now: Spatial imaginaries and the struggle for land in Brazil. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94(2):409-424

Wolford W (2007) Land reform in the time of neoliberalism: A many-splendored thing. Antipode 39(3):550-570

Zagema B (2011) “Land and power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land.” Oxfam Briefing Paper, Oxford, UK