By Miloon Kothari and Ramesh Sharma
Mayapur is a remote village of Sahariya tribes in Sheopurkalan district of Madhya Pradesh. The villagers are homeless/landless and forced to migrate to Jaisalmer for work for one to two months every year. Variations of this tragic story play out in thousands of India’s villages annually. The precarious nature of lives and livelihoods is now becoming more glaring as the rural poor are unable to access cities for work.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed, in tragic and graphic manner, the hard truth that millions of citizens in India exist with no recourse to a range of rights. We are now witnessing unemployment, hunger and a yearning for home unprecedented in the country’s history. Women, men, and children have been left with little or no food security, livelihood options and a secure home.
The pandemic has, in a stark manner, made it clear that the rights of people to food, housing, livelihood and land have to be addressed if we are to survive the current crisis. It has become clear that more stress needs to be placed on the rural economy, including the creation of livelihood opportunities. The need for greater self-reliance for individuals and families has never been more urgent as migrant workers, among others, look for the security of home, land and livelihood. Data collected by the Ekta Parishad shows that migrant workers comprise 55 per cent of India’s landless and homeless population.
The colossal scale of forced seasonal and casual migration, exposed by COVID-19, points to the lack of land reform in India. For the migrants returning to villages, an optimum solution would be to make land available to them so that their livelihood and housing needs are met. If this can be achieved, then many who are currently migrants would not need to return to the insecure and unpredictable life in urban areas. Urgent policy and legislative measures that would provide migrants with security and a sense of “self-sufficiency” regarding livelihood and housing need to be undertaken.
That the rights of people can be realised through policy and legislative avenues is not a theoretical and idealistic argument but a lived experience, achieved through mobilisation in the past three decades. Take the example of the Right to Homestead Acts. Bihar and Madhya Pradesh have laws for the allotment of homestead to the homeless and landless poor. In states such as Kerala, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Odisha, separate schemes exist for homestead rights, but these have not been extensively implemented.
In 2013, following a national campaign by the Ekta Parishad, a draft national Right to Homestead Bill was formulated. After 2014, this draft was under consideration with the Ministry of Rural Development, which played a leading role in the Act’s formulation. At a mass gathering of land rights activists in Gwalior in October 2018, the Minister of Rural Development gave a written assurance that GoI would move quickly to bring the Bill to Parliament.
Now is an opportune time to bring this draft bill for discussion in Parliament. There are several compelling reasons to bring forward this legislation. First, such an Act would operationalise people’s right to food, land and housing and fulfil our constitutional and international commitments. India has ratified a range of instruments, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and has supported the formulation and adoption of international “soft-law” such as the voluntary guidelines on the responsible governance of tenure of land, fisheries and forests in the context of national food security, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Rural Workers.
The codification of a national law on homestead rights would also allow us to comply with these international obligations and, in fact, also respond to recommendations that have emerged from the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process. India’s record of the implementation of its commitments to CEDAW (as elaborated in the CEDAW Committee’s general recommendation 34 on the rights of rural women) would also improve as a significant proportion of the landless in India are women agricultural workers.
Second, the Right to Homestead Act can begin the process of reversing the damage done by the failure of land reforms in India, especially for those whose land rights are not covered by the Forest Rights Act. For the large majority of poor in rural India, including those who have a small piece of land where they have built insecure and inadequate homes, the critical need today is upgradation of their houses and security of tenure of housing and land. This is possible with the implementation of state land laws bolstered by the Right to Homestead Act.
Third, the Homestead Act will align itself well with one of the government’s “flagship” national missions — for instance, housing for all by 2022. The Homestead Act will move this housing programme more in the human rights direction taking it away from a piecemeal “housing units” approach. This is critical considering that a significant number of rural poor do not have a secure place to live. The draft National Homestead Rights Bill (2013) provided for each and every landless family, not less than 1/10th of an acre of land.
Fourth, the Homestead Act can become a benchmark for the success of other laws, on food security, MGNREGA etc., especially if the Act includes, or leads to, a legal framework similar to the Forest Rights Act.
Take the case of Kanser in Gwalior district, also a village of the Sahariya tribes. After a long struggle, they were fortunate to get their land rights as well as rights over homestead land. Today, amid the pandemic, they are content in their homes and village, and self-sufficient in terms of food grains, unlike their brethren in Mayapur. The change that land rights have brought to their lives is palpable.
The powerful yearning for a home, to belong is evident in the voices of the migrants, who are willing to risk all to be able to return “home”. If this longing for security of home can be combined with the security offered by a piece of land and an opportunity to build livelihoods, then the nation would have demonstrated the sensitivity the migrants sorely missed during the Covid crisis. The Right to Homestead Act would be a key step in that direction.
Atmanirbharta (self-sufficiency) is not only an economic concept. This grand idea has to be based on personal self-sufficiency. The Right to Homestead Act can be the missing piece that will not only assist in alleviating the suffering of the abandoned migrants but more importantly, provide them a semblance of pride and identity they now lack since the only choice before them now is to make a living in an uncertain, insecure and alien urban environment.
Kothari is a former Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, UN Human Rights Council, and Sharma is with Ekta Parishad
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