Poorest of India's poor march for land rights

NEW DELHI - Tens of thousands of Indian peasants began a 350-kilometre march Wednesday to New Delhi to protest the plight of marginalised communities excluded from the country's economic development.

The gathering of the poorest of the poor left the central city of Gwalior and is set to reach India's capital in 26 days, the organising activist group Ekta Parishad (Unity Forum) said in New Delhi.

"Some 35,000 people have started off from Gwalior and by the time they reach New Delhi we expect the number to swell to 100,000," Parishad spokesman Aneesh Thillenkari told AFP.

Parishad chairman P.V. Rajagopal put the number at 50,000 with people drawn from 25 states of India.

The trek is the second since 2007 when 25,000 poor and debt-ridden farmers travelled the same route on foot to press for land rights. Eleven of them perished en-route, organisers said.

The marchers comprised small farmers, people from marginalised tribes, "untouchable" Hindus from the lowest castes and fishermen, with some 2,000 advocacy forums spearheading the march-for-land drive.

"We demand that agriculture land must be used exclusively for farming and a national land reforms policy, which currently does not exist, is made," Thillenkari said.

"When the poor wants land the central government says it is a state subject, but it acquires land for use by corporates or to set up Special Economic Zones," he argued.

The clash between India's industrial expansion and small landowners has become a test of how the government deals with development that is transforming Asia's third largest economy.

Some 73 per cent of India's billion-plus population live off the land, but major industrial projects - seen as vital by the government to create jobs - are frequently delayed or even abandoned due to land acquisition problems.

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