When foodgivers walked 180 km in six days seeking enough food for themselves, they caught the attention of the nation. Jayashree Bhosale reports
Ajit Navale is busier than usual these days. The doctor has to attend patients at his hospital at Akole, a taluka place 20-km off the Pune-Nashik highway, as well as meet many a well-wisher who is walking in to congratulate him.
The achievement, though, is outside his profession.
The doctor who is familiar with distress that the agrarian community around him faces, has always been there to fight for farmers’ rights. He was part of the farmer strike that started spontaneously on June 1, 2017 from Nashik and spread to other parts of the country, and resulted in the death of some protesting farmers in police firing in Madhya Pradesh.
That strike had forced the Maharashtra government to announce a loan waiver scheme for farmers who could not repay their crop loans taken between 2009 and 2016.
Eight months since announcing the waiver, only about 40% of the 89 lakh eligible farmers could get at least some relief.
This was one of the triggers for the latest agitation.
The Maharashtra unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), at a meeting held at Sangli on February 15, decided to try another form of protest. It decided to hold a long march of farmers from Nashik to the state capital of Mumbai nearly 180 kilometres away, and picket the assembly when it was in session. Navale is the state general secretary of the AIKS.
The march started from Nashik on March 6 with participation of about 10,000-12,000 farmers. The number swelled to more than 30,000 by the time it reached Mumbai on March 12.
The AIKS, which is linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has its base mainly in the tribal areas of Nashik, Thane, Palghar and Ahmednagar districts. That meant, many of the participants of the march were tribal people. But, many of those who joined the march later didn’t even belong to the Kisan Sabha.
There was widespread anger among farmers, not just because of the slow implementation of the loan waiver scheme, but also over not getting remunerative price for their produce.
Fifty-year-old Krishnabai Jambukar from Akole, for instance, wants at least ₹15 a kg for the onions she grows as a sharecropper. She gets only ₹4-8 in the wholesale market.
Farmer organisations across the country have agreed on two common demands to raise with the authorities: a price of at least 1.5 times the cost for their produce and a full loan waiver.
The Swaminathan commission that studied the issue of farmer suicides had recommended the government to ensure a return of 1.5 times the cost of production. “A farmer commits suicide, because for generations he has been getting negative net returns. Farming is in loss because the government interferes and manipulates prices of farm produce to ensure urban consumers get cheaper food and industries get cheap raw material,” Navale said.
P Chengal Reddy, the chief adviser to the Consortium of Indian Farmers’ Organisations, linked farmers’ miseries with government policies. “For example, the import and export policies are always controlled by vested interests. Huge quantities of pulses and edible oil allowed to be imported in the country despite local farmers not getting remunerative prices for both,” he said.
A complete loan waiver is the other primary demand. Asking for loan waiver is neither begging nor asking for a favour, Navale said. “It is Loot Vapasi. Generations of farmers have been robbed of their rightful income. We are asking for its partial return by way of loan waivers.”
Senior journalist Sunil Tambe explained the economic rationale behind loan waivers: “The farmer has to pay upfront for buying inputs from corporates but has no control on market prices. He has to bear the risk of production and marketing. Loan waiver is that temporary relief which can help farming come out of the intensive care unit to the normal hospital bed.”
STRIKING A CHORD
The long march was unprecedented in the way it built up public pressure on political parties and the government.
“Apart from the sheer number of participants in the morcha, people could see that they were genuine poor, landless food givers asking for enough food for themselves,” said Ashok Dhawale, the president of the AIKS.
The decision of the protestors to walk during night-time to avoid any inconvenience to students appearing for board examinations, moved everyone.
The public pressure was so huge that organisations like the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, whose ideologies are diagonally opposite to CPM’s, extended their support to the march.
The urban middle class, too, became sensitive towards the conditions of farmers. Mumbaikars volunteered to provide food to the marching farmers, who had come to the financial capital as their voices from the hinterland had fallen on deaf ears.
The morcha achieved many objectives, including an assurances from the state government to widen the scope of beneficiaries and relaxing the terms of the loan waiver scheme announced last year for ‘mainstream farmers’.
The government agreed to extend the scheme, earlier restricted to defaulting farmers between 2009 and 2016, to farmers who had defaulted on loan payments from 2001 to 2009 and from June 2016 to June 2017. It will also waive long-term farm loan up to ₹1.5 lakh. Previously, it was restricted to shortterm crop loan.
The state also agreed to change beneficiary from family to individual bank account holder. Farmers had alleged that despite knowing that loan was normally taken by the male members of the family, the government prioritised waiver to loans taken by women to reduce its burden in the name of giving preference to women.
A major achievement, according to journalist Tambe, was the realisation that tribal people were also farmers.
The reference was to chief minister Devendra Fadanvis’ statement that it was a march mainly by tribal people demanding the right of ownership over forest land, and not by farmers seeking loan waiver.
The government agreed to dispose of about two lakh applications of tribal people regarding their rights over the forests land they cultivate.
The All India Kisan Sangharsha Coordination Committee, which has about 150 constituent organisations and was set up following the 2017 farmer strikes, plans to present two private member’s Bills in the Lok Sabha. Raju Shetty, the founder-leader of the Swbhimani Shetkari Sangathana and MP, will move the Bills, seeking debt relief and guarantee on minimum price. The coordination committee has organised a convention of political parties in New Delhi on March 29 to seek support of at least 50 MPs, which is required for placing a private member’s Bill on the floor of the House.