John Abraham

Ashoka Fellow
India,
Fellow Since 2003
Bhumi Hukka Aandolan

Citation

This profile was prepared when John Abraham was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.
The New Idea
John is concerned by how, all across India, and particularly in the state of Maharashtra, laws originally intended to benefit the landless poor are being misused by the government to benefit corrupt landlords and businessmen. Vast amounts of land under government title are lying fallow while people starve. In response, John is establishing a new legal right for impoverished rural groups to own and cultivate unused government land–over which they have had no prior claim–through a coordinated scheme of occupation and farming, political pressure, and legal maneuvering. John's approach working with adivasis (exploited indigenous peoples) is unique among land rights battles in India, in that he has organized people to take over large tracts of government-owned land outside their traditional areas. Whereas other battles are being fought in forest regions that adivasis have inhabited for centuries and the government is now trying to depopulate, John has recognized that the root issue lies in giving people the economic and legal power they need to assert their rights through owning any land, anywhere. From observing scattered adivasi families quietly eking out a living on fallow government land, he has built a campaign of simultaneous overt encroachment, public advocacy, and creative courtroom proceedings.
The key to success for a legal claim to land lies in having the claimants physically present on the contested site. By motivating large numbers of adivasis to come together and occupy big expanses of land, then exercise a legal claim to its title, John intends for the campaign to have a dramatic effect. The size of the people's presence puts weight behind their demands, allowing them to lean on weak parts of the government machinery. The adivasis also gain strength when drawn together, through cultural celebrations and programs to improve their livelihoods, literacy, health, and awareness of their legal rights. In so doing, they develop a newfound dignity and self-esteem, as they at last find free expression of their right to choose their own lifestyle.
John's simple premise–that vacant government "ceiling land" originally intended for landless people should in fact be theirs to own and cultivate–may have enormous ramifications. While his work at present is restricted to Maharashtra, similar legal and social conditions exist throughout much of India, and the campaign can easily spread if a working precedent is set. As John remarks, "The implication of winning this case is that the legality of the last 50 years of all state holdings will be in question." But his opponents are powerful persons whose privileged positions depend upon their ability to dominate India's millions of rural poor economically, legally, and politically; John and his colleagues, then, are preparing for a hard drawn-out fight.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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