India's Landless Demand Compensation For three weeks, a human column has been weaving its way across the landscape toward New Delhi. Led by a posse of chanting Buddhist monks, tens of thousands of India's poorest people are on their way to the Indian parliament, where they'll demand compensation for lost land.
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India's Landless Demand Compensation

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India's Landless Demand Compensation

India's Landless Demand Compensation

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There have been many stories about India's booming economy and its swelling middle class. And the news today reflects that as the Bombay Stock Exchange reached record levels.

But today, there was also an outcry. Twenty-five thousand people - people who have not fared nearly so well - marched to India's capital, New Delhi, from the countryside.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports they were demanding help from the government.

(Soundbite of protest)

PHILIP REEVES: Some walked barefoot, some tend in flip-flops. Together, they formed an indignant army, plodding across India's landscape. Now, tired and dusty, they've reached the capital city.

(Soundbite of music)

They've brought with them their rural dances and songs.

But above all, says march organizer Raj Gopal, they've brought a message.

Mr. RAJ GOPAL (Organizer, Ekta Parishad): India is 73 percent farmers or farm laborers. The consumerist world in the West, they don't really understand what is happening to the poor people of this country, so it is time for them to wake up and understand all that you see shining is not really true.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: The march is walked from the city of Gwalior, a journey of nearly 200 miles. It took them almost a month. They're from India's bottom rung -illiterate, malnourished, dispossessed farmers and laborers who've come from the forests and villages to ask for laws protecting their land rights.

The city around them sprouts billboards advertising finance plans, luxury apartments and mobile phones - a world from which they are entirely excluded. Each marcher has a story.

Badri Rahm(ph) is a dalit, a category once known as untouchable. He's from the impoverished, dysfunctional state of Bihar.

Mr. BADRI RAHM (Protester): (Through translator) We are landless. We live by the roadside. And sometimes a farmer will say, go away from here. They'll push us from here, they'll push us there. We have nowhere to go. We work in the day, and what we earn, we eat that night.

REEVES: Kosneti Devi(ph) is also a Bihari. Her family was surviving by leasing a plot of land, until this summer's floods.

Ms. KOSNETI DEVI (Protester): (Through translator) Now, there is nothing. There's nothing to eat because the crop is gone.

REEVES: Devi joined the march, knowing that at least this meant she'd get a free meal once a day, but also hoping her presence would, in its own small way, help pressure India's government ministers.

Ms. DEVI: (Through translator) We just hope that the minister will give us something enough to eat, enough to survive - some means to live.

REEVES: Many of the marchers are tribal people forced off their lands by India's economic boom.

Mr. BANDIA SAMIA(ph) (Protester): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Bandia Samia says government officials came to his village one day and seized all his land, saying they needed it for a factory. He says they promised compensation, but have yet to pay up.

(Soundbite of music)

REEVES: The mood of the marches seems festive. That's part of the plan. Organizer Raj Gopal says the idea comes from Mahatma Gandhi and his nonviolent campaign against British colonial rule.

Mr. GOPAL: See, Mahatma Gandhi taught us all these. Walking is a key component. Walking cannot be prevented because that is your right. You can walk in this country. So we are only walking and talking.

REEVES: Walking and talking has paid dividends. Today, India's government responded by agreeing to create a panel to try to speedily settle land and compensation issues. Yet land reform is, in India, a highly contentious issue, the source of deadly clashes between India's government and its citizens. It may need more than this to dampen the protests of the dispossessed.

Gopal is worried about what'll happen if the nonviolent Gandhian approach eventually fails.

Mr. GOPAL: If we don't succeed, there are people, others, waiting with a gun.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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