Maharashtra Farmers’ March Sets the Bar Through Discipline, Peace

Till conditions are created for profitable agriculture, a monthly relief cheque to farmers would ease their pain.

Updated
Opinion
5 min read
Farmers participate in a long march organised by the All Indian Kisan Sabha (AIKS) at Azad Maidan in Mumbai on 12 March.
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A striking aspect of the ‘Long March’ of Maharashtra’s farmers – that began in Nashik on 6 March and ended in Mumbai’s Vidhan Sabha precincts on 12 March – was their concern for their fellow citizens despite the hardship that had forced them to undertake the 180-km-long walk, enduring sore feet and hot sun.

This was in contrast to the hooliganism that one saw during Haryana’s Jat agitation for job reservation in February 2016 and the violence that followed the farmers’ agitation at Mandsaur and Indore in Madhya Pradesh in June 2017.

In September 2016, farmers pouring into Bengaluru from Kolar and Chikkaballapur broke police barricades and caused a lot of damage.

Maharashtra Govt Accedes to Farmers’ Demands

The last leg of the Maharashtra farmers’ journey in Mumbai towards the Vidhan Sabha was covered on the night of 12 March, as the farmers were keen not to inconvenience students taking the Secondary School Certificate examinations the next day.

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“We felt they were our children”, said Ashok Dhawale, a doctor and the president of the Communist Party of India- Marxist’s All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which organised the march.

The fortitude, orderliness and restraint of the agitators in the face of debt, and deprivation of entitlements to forest land they had cultivated for generations, drew a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy from the public at large. There was support from political parties too.

Sensing the mood, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis readily conceded to their demand for the extension of loan waiver, and quick implementation of the Forest Right Act, 2006, which gives tribal farmers title to a maximum of ten acres of land they have been cultivating.

This time the state’s Chief Secretary gave them an assurance in writing, which was tabled in the Legislative Assembly. “It is part of the record of the proceedings”, Dhawale said.

Indomitable Spirit of the Farmers

The decision to undertake the march was taken at a meeting of the AIKS at Sangli on 16 February. For the next 15 days, a campaign was launched to register farmers. At any given time, there were 25,000 marchers, Dhawale said. The numbers swelled along the way and almost doubled in Mumbai. Most of the marchers were from Nashik. They also came from Palghar, Ahmednagar, Pune, Thane and Nandurbar.

Contributions of rice, dal and oil were collected before the march. The route was surveyed three times and the halts were marked. About 12 tempos loaded with food, firewood and cooking utensils accompanied the protesters.

The cooks would set out early in the morning and reach the designated halts by about 8 am. The food would be ready by the time the marchers arrived at noon. About 15-20 km would be covered in the morning and the same distance after lunch.

The marchers relieved themselves along the roads, except in Thane and Mumbai, where arrangements had been made with municipal corporations for mobile toilets.

How this Protest Stands Out

Unlike Kirori Singh Bainsla, leader of Rajasthan’s Gurjar agitation, Gujarat’s Patidar leader Hardik Patel, the state’s Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani, or those of the Karni Sena protesting the release of the film ‘Padmaavat’, Dhawale was not conspicuously visible. But he has a record of activism.

Hailing from a family of medical doctors, Dhawale, who is based in Thane, cut his political teeth in the Students Federation of India while studying medicine in Mumbai, and doing his MA in Political Science from Mumbai University. He joined the AIKS in 1993, inspired by Godavari Parulekar, who led the pre-Independence Warli Adivasi revolt. In 2017, Dhawale became the president of AIKS.

Maharashtra farmers (and those of adjoining Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) have been restive for some time. In the past four years, Maharashtra has seen three years of negative agricultural growth because of successive droughts.

A year of plenty saw the price of pulses slump. Cotton has been damaged extensively by the pink bollworm.

Neo-liberal Policies or Not, Farmers Bear the Brunt

In June 2017, the state’s farmers agitated for 11 days. They refrained from selling milk, vegetables and fruits to cities, resulting in the state announcing a loan waiver. In March 2016, thousands of tribal farmers sat-in at the Nashik Collectorate to press for their demands. In October 2016, they laid siege to the Adivasi Development Minister’s residence in Palghar.

Dhawale admits that loan waivers will provide only temporary relief. The solution to agrarian distress, in his view, is the “complete abandonment of neo-liberal policies followed since 1992”. These policies, he says, have led to four lakh farmers committing suicide – 70,000 of them in Maharashtra alone.

By neo-liberal policies, Dhawale means open cross-border trade in agricultural commodities and the sale of inputs (like potassic and phosphatic fertilisers) at market prices.

But open trade actually helped Indian farmers during the global commodity boom of the last decade. It is only after 2013, when commodity prices slumped that farmers have suffered. Domestic policies that privilege the interests of urban consumers over those of farmers must be blamed too. When prices rise, the government shuts the door on exports to quell prices, but when they slump, it does not provide price support. Farmers suffer on both counts.

Guaranteed Irrigation Will Guard Against Crop Failure

The Maharashtra government told the agitators that the Centre has made a commitment to procure cereals, pulses and oil seeds at cost plus 50 percent. By “cost” Dhawale means all cash expenses incurred in production, the imputed family labour cost and also the rental value of land. But economist Ashok Gulati has shown that this will raise the minimum support price of groundnut, soyabean and maize by 40 percent. If procured at those prices, they will have to be sold at a loss.

Assured procurement at such prices will make farmers ignore market signals and grow crops regardless of demand. Instead farmers should be assured of irrigation.

This is the best insurance against crop failure. Large river-linking projects, which the government proposes, will be disruptive. The AIKS has given a proposal for small dams and lift irrigation. Construction of wells on a large scale, harnessing of rain water and micro-irrigation for frugal use of scare water might be better solutions.

Farmers also need to be provided with seeds that are resilient, that is, those that can survive long dry spells, or resist pest and disease attacks. The most promising technology is genetic modification, but both the communists and the BJP government are opposed to it, even though farmers are adopting these technologies clandestinely.

Short-Term Solutions

Tribal farmers need to be given land titles quickly. Dhawale says thousands of applications have been rejected, and even when accepted, titles are given for half-an-acre or one acre. He attributes this to the callousness of officials and the apathy of government leaders. He says the government will be held to its promises this time, and its action will be monitored.

Most tribal farmers do subsistence farming. They grow rice and ragi (finger millet) for a part of the year, and migrate to cities for jobs. Till conditions are created for profitable agriculture, giving them a monthly relief cheque, to relieve distress might be a better option.

(Vivian Fernandes is editor of www.smartindianagriculture.in. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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