India's poorest march on capital

( AFP ) - A serpentine column of India's poorest of the poor is moving across cities, determined to reclaim their land taken over in the name of the country's heady economic boom.

About 25,000 landless farmers, many of them using plastic bags for shoes, are on the final leg of a march which will take them to their goal, the Indian capital New Delhi, on Sunday.

"Let's not be angry. Let's sing," came a shout as the marchers settled down for the night just south of the city. Women immediately crooned in dialects representing different parts of India, while volunteers worked tirelessly to find food and dig roadside toilets.

Some squatted with their clenched fists raised in protest against what some experts are now warning is a growing chasm between the drivers of India's galloping economic engine and the neglected farming community.

"Non-violent direct action has never been tried so effectively before and these people are living, walking and sleeping on highways since we set out," said Puthan Vithal Rajgopal, chief organiser of the rally.

The protest march, swelling each time it passes a town or village, began in the central India city of Gwalior on October 2 -- the day India celebrates the birth anniversary of its independence leader and peace icon Mahatma Gandhi.

Seven people have died of fatigue or illness during the 600-kilometre (372-mile) trek, doctors tending to the rally said.

Rajgopal, a 59-year-old engineer, said he and the people following him believed the lack of land reforms was creating "tiny pockets of vast wealth" in billion-plus India, where 73 percent of the population lives off the land.

The marchers want India to introduce iron-clad legislation on holdings, deeds and tenancy rights -- replacing the current system where ownership can easily be disputed and taken by the rich and powerful.

"Forty percent of Indians are now landless and 23 percent of them are in abject poverty," said Rajgopal, who heads a campaign group called Ekta Parishad, or Unity Forum.

Many of the marchers say debt-ridden farmers or those who lost their land did so because of the absence of clear-cut land rules.

"Such conditions have bred Maoist insurgency in 172 of India's 600 districts and farmers are killing themselves in 100 other districts," Rajgopal told AFP as the mass of misery reached Palwal, 70 kilometres from New Delhi.

"So we want to ask the government, 'What are you governing? Where are the fruits of the reforms in these districts?,'" he said.

A government plan to set up tax-friendly Special Economic Zones across thousands of acres of farmland in a bid to lure overseas corporations has also led to sometime violent protests in at least two states.

India's economy is expanding at around nine percent a year, with services and manufacturing clocking double digit growth.

Being left far behind at just shy of a few percent is the farm sector and activists are increasingly pointing at a widening gap between the few rich and the hundreds of millions of poor.

"We have the growth process and the re-distribution process, but banking on one will be a fatal folly," commented Ram Upendra Das, and economist with a New Delhi-based think-tank, the Research and Information System for Developing Countries.

"The challenge is to spread the positive reforms across the length and width of India and containing its ill-affects such as the widening of gap... We cannot have one at the expense of the other."

Among the marchers was Krishnand Prasad, who abandoned farming on a strip of land his ancestors had leased in the impoverished state of Bihar centuries ago. He was forced to give up after the landowner demanded 65 percent of the harvest.

"Once we reach Delhi I will tell the government to give me my land back," the 79-year-old farmer said, hobbling on the dusty asphalt, one quivering hand on the shoulders of his near-blind wife, Samudri Devi.

"Or else, we'll not go back home," she whispered.

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