Even as the region marks 100 years of the iconic freedom struggle, peasants and workers are still being denied access to land that is rightfully theirs.
The on-going celebration to mark 100 years since the famous Champaran struggle is a time to remember the inspiring moments from the freedom movement, as well as the relentless efforts of several activists and leaders. However, it is also equally important to examine the cases of extreme injustice against peasants and workers which continue to emerge from Champaran on an occasional basis. In fact, it is a cruel irony that such reports have increased in this year of celebration.
In recent weeks, the extremely painful and tragic deaths of two sugarcane mill workers – who had publicly announced and informed the authorities of their intent to immolate themselves to protest long-term neglect by their employers – has brought increased attention to these issues. It was widely expected that due to the prior announcement and written notice, the authorities would take preventive action to stop any self-immolation. But to the horror of local workers and residents, the announced incident actually took place on April 10. A large numbers of workers were also arrested and beaten. The two workers who immolated themselves died from the injuries they suffered.
The police was widely criticised for not saving the two union leaders. The police in turn blamed the workers for setting their own leaders on fire, a charge that was strongly refuted in an investigation conducted by senior leaders Swami Agnivesh, a 94-year-old former MP; Ramjee Singh, a former IPS officer; P.K.Siddharth and other members of an investigation team who spoke to a large number of local people to figure out what happened.
Sadly, the events of April 10 represent only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The workers immolated themselves only because their highly-just demands had been ignored for simply too long and they and their families had been left to starve. The workers’ problems are also related to the wider problems of land grab and land deprivation prevalent in the region. Some time ago, when I visited the area to report on flood victims in Champaran, I came across some glaringly obvious cases of deprivation. Well-informed local persons told me that the floods were only a part of the reason of this extreme poverty; land deprivation is the more deeply-rooted reason.
These problems can be traced back to the days when the colonial indigo planters were leaving Champaran. As the vast land– illegally occupied and/or cultivated – was of no use to them, they sold thousands and thousands of acres (some estimates suggest 100,000 acres) in an arbitrary manner. The land went to the richest buyers including sugar mill owners, other industrialists, big rural landlords – mostly absentee landowners for whom land was a source of profit and not a means of livelihood.
This in itself was completely unjust and could have only taken place in a colonial regime as the colonial planters had grabbed the land or brought it under forced cultivation in several illegal ways. It was only after independence that partial efforts to undo this injustice could be initiated – in the form of ceiling legislation and related land-reform efforts to take over control of the excess land beyond the ceiling limit and distribute it among the rural poor, particularly the landless.
Unfortunately, like in most parts of the country, land reforms were not implemented properly and so thousands of poor households got the papers but not the actual land. Their number is variously estimated to be between 10,000-40,0000. On the other hand, big landowners – including those who own sugarcane mills – have held onto thousands of acres of illegally occupied land, which by now should rightly have been handed over to the poor cultivators. As land values have escalated, so has the determination of land-grabbers to hold on to these properties by hook or by crook.
It is at this stage that the issues of land for landless peasants and wage arrears for mill workers get linked up with each other. Workers and activists have raised the question that if a mill-owner can have hundreds of acres of very high-value land then why can he not pay the wage arrears which amount to a much smaller sum. Similarly, the arrears of sugarcane farmers can also be paid.
The best way of celebrating the Champaran struggle is to ensure justice for the continuing demands and struggles of the workers and peasants of Champaran.
However, a recent report prepared by Swami Agnivesh, Ramjee Singh and others, has revealed that the authorities in the region have taken highly unjust actions which victimise workers further instead of helping them. Chief minister Nitish Kumar, who had promised justice to peasants and workers, should intervene effectively to ensure that justice is actually done.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.