Down to Earth
Notwithstanding the centenary celebrations of the Neel Satyagraha in Champaran, the epicentre of the first satyagraha undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi in the country, another similar movement is brewing in the region. The protagonist is the same—landless farmers struggling to reclaim land that supposedly belonged to their ancestors.
When the British were leaving the country, the land they had taken from kings and peasants to undertake captive farming of indigo was to soon become worthless to them. To profit from it one last time, they sold around 40,500 hectares (ha) in Champaran (now comprising East Champaran and West Champaran districts) to industrialists and landlords. Around 16,100 ha was bought by sugar mills.
Post Independence, the state government passed the Bihar Land Reform (Fixation of Ceiling & Acquisition of Surplus Land) Act, 1961, which put a limit on land one could own. The Act divided land in different categories on the basis of its quality and set separate ownership limits for each. The excess land was to be distributed among landless farmers after 1971—the deadline for marking out land and the allottees.
“This was done, but only on paper. A large number of farmers never got possession because landowners would take the matter to court where it would drag for decades,” says Pankaj, a 70-yearold Gandhian in West Champaran district. “The current protests are in response to this denial of justice. In West Champaran, nearly 55,500 ha is under illegal possession of landlords, industrialists and mills,” he adds.
According to the Bihar department of revenue, the state has around 1.7 million parchadharis or people who have been allotted land under the