Hunger and starvation deaths have been stalking the marginalised communities in the eastern parts of India’s most populous state Uttar-Pradesh for the last ten years. Every year people in the region die from Malaria and Japanese Encephalitis (brain fever); they have severe health problems because of severe nutritional deficiency and non existent health care.
The media and the sections of society which could make a difference have largely ignored the plight of these marginalised and dispossessed communities desperately looking for help, assistance and human solidarity. In this context, the Social Development Foundation, an IHEU Member organisation based in New Delhi, has taken a bold step to draw the world’s attention to the plight of these marginalised and the outcastes in Indian society.
In the scorching heat of North India’s summer, Mr. Vidya Bhushan Rawat, Radical Humanist, and Director of the Social Development Foundation started off on a 22-day Land Dignity and Freedom march (despite a leg injury) along with colleagues from the UP Land Alliance, Ambedkarite groups and Dalit community representatives, holding banners saying
“Religion is for the Gods, Humanism is for the Humans”,
“Women’s Right are Human Rights”
“Redistribution of Land is the first condition of Social Justice”
“Land is our Mother, and we will not compromise for it”.
Humanism and Grass Roots Activism
More than seven hundred villagers assembled at Tilawania village in Ghughali block of Maharajganj district in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, to see off the 20 padyatris (marchers) belonging to a network of NGOs and social movements termed as the Uttar Pradesh Land Alliance.
The villagers led a rally to Gughali town about 4km away from the village, shouting slogans favouring the re-opening of the Ghughali sugar mill, redistribution of land to landless farmers including women, and equal rights for men and women.
In a state racked by religious orientation of political parties and shameful pandering to fundamentalist religious attitudes by politicians, the slogans by the villagers showed a new direction, rejecting religion, and calling for real change. They chanted
“Neither Ram nor Rahim; we want honour, dignity & land.”
This is also perhaps for the first time in Uttar Pradesh in recent times that Humanism has been so closely associated with such grass roots activism.
Take Your Life in Your Hands
It is a well-known fact that the Musahar community (rat catchers) is a prime victim of religious exploitation & social oppression. They lead a life of extreme deprivation and social exclusion. In what could be termed as a historic occasion, the Musahar community of Tilakwania village occupied a very important piece of village land. Eve though the land is a small parcel, that 25 to 30 Musahar families could occupy this land is highly symbolic in several ways. At the meeting Vidhya Bhushan Rawat exhorted the community to maintain unity and to fight against oppression & discrimination. He said “by remaining silent against injustice we perpetrate it”.
Raising awareness on the issue of hunger and starvation of the masses is the key problem in the region and the countryside at large in India today.
The state of U.P. is passing through a phase of deep cynicism where people are rapidly loosing faith in the prevailing structures of governance and the ability of the state to improve their day-to-day lives.
People need to be made aware of their fundamental rights and they need to understand that things need not be left to destiny, that they are not merely the passive objects of history with no independence of action, and that in a democratic setup they do have some freedom to change their condition. When the padayatris do this, they get positive response. At places people listen attentively to their speeches. They sing songs in Hindi and Bhojpuri to keep up their spirits and encourage the participants.
70 Kilometres in 4 Days
The padayatris covered over 70km in Maharajganj and Kushi Nagar districts. V.B. Rawat writes: “It is amazing how the people in these areas have been persistently exploited and how the political class remain silent throughout about the degradation in the quality of their life. In Ram Kola, the town and villages have been severely affected by the erosion caused by the river Choti Ghandak. Hundreds of acres of land have been turned into wasteland. Eastern UP will pay a heavy price for this environmental negligence. The contaminated drinking water is lethal leading to several deaths and is the cause of several diseases amongst those who rely on it as a source of drinking water”.
The padayatris are planning to do a soial audit of Devria Pandy, a village in Padrauna block of Kushi Nagar district. Dalits, here are still waiting to obtain possession of land in this village, despite the fact that they are entitled to it. A number of documents have been collected and followup work is being planned. In Maharajganj district, the Jan Kalyan Sansthan, a local organization working on Poorest Areas and Civil Society program organised support for the padyatra (march) and selected the sites and local issues relating to land and livelihoods.
So far, 20 organization/individuals are currently proceeding with the padyatra. They include: Jan Kalyan Sansthan, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Gramdyog Sansthan, Ram Chander Prasad, Mr. D.P. Bodh form Lord Buddha Trust, Raj Kapoor Rawat from UPLA, Mr. Rajender Sahni, Machchu Kalyan sansthan, Mau district, Pradeep Shukla & Ganesh Shankar from Chitra Kut Seva Ashram, Chitrakut, Manisha & Preeti form Kaseya, Kushi Nagar district.
Many people have confirmed that they would join the yatra from next week. Local activists are continuously joining and leaving as the padyatra moves through their area and district. The International Land Coalition based in Rome, the International Humanist & Ethical Union, London have openly supported the aims & objectives of Padyatra and the Social Development Foundation as their national representative.
Due to the intermittent electricity supply and regular power failures, regular reports are not possible, but one thing is clear: the padyatra in this humid and hot weather is pricking the conscience of the people.