1 lakh farmers and farm labourers plan to march towards Parliament on November 30. But what do they want?

By Rishi Majumder in Mumbai
The Farmer’s Rights Convention organised by the All India Kisan Sabha at the Yashwantrao Chavan Centre in Mumbai on November 12.Photo by Rishi Majumder

We, who are not farmers, tend to think of farmers as a catch-all word. A word that signifies to us a people who work to cultivate something. I have no idea why. I can never see ‘journalists’, for instance, as a catch-all word, even if some others do. This is because I have been a journalist and having seen journalists up close can testify that there are no two journalists I know who are alike. Farmers are like that.

There are farmers’ movements, farmers’ markets and farmers’ issues. This seems to unify them, but it also dehumanises them by a collective othering.

For “us”, it creates a “them”. Farmers may not be “us”. But they aren’t “them” either.

This became apparent to me when I spoke to 24-year-old Shankar Uttam Guhadi at the Farmer’s Rights Convention organised by the All India Kisan Sabha at the Yashwantrao Chavan Centre in Mumbai on November 12.

Guhadi is from Jamrun Andh in the Hingoli district in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad division.

He lives on land bordering a jungle where he and his fellow villagers have been farming for several generations. Yet the government refuses to give them title deeds for the land.

Guhadi, in a white shirt with a fading grey mosaic printed on it and a white cloth that has an ornate but similarly faded border draped around his neck, tries to talk to me in Marathi, then broken Hindi, then holds up several documents that he has amassed to prove his and his family’s claim over the land.

His village elders follow suit. It is a paper trail from the government that they cling on to dearly, hoping these documents will one day lead them to their own land.

There are over 5,000 farmers and agricultural labourers from 23 districts of Maharashtra at this convention.

Those who could not fit into the main hall had been accommodated in two other halls with a screen. Still others could not find a place in either. They were sitting in the porch and lawns, listening in to what was being said on an old but loud speaker.

Many of those present participated in the march eight months ago when around 25,000 farmers and agricultural labourers began walking in Nashik on March 6. Six days and nearly 200 km later, the march ended in Mumbai with over 50,000 participants. The march took not just Mumbai, but India and the national media by storm.

The government accepted some of the significant demands of the marchers — though a lot of these are yet to be implemented. It reminded me of lines from Mahadevbhai (1892-1942), a play that I was a part of many years ago: “If Gandhiji had gone by train or motorcar to make salt at Dandi, the effect would have been considerable. But to walk for 24 days and rivet the attention of all India. To trek across the countryside subsisting on chana mamada saying, ‘Watch, watch, I’m about to give a signal to the nation.’ And then to pick up a pinch of salt in publicised defiance of the mighty government required imagination, dignity and a sense of showmanship of a great theatrical artiste.”

One of the key resolutions that was passed in this month’s convention was that there would be another march organised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, a coalition of over 200 farmer organisations, to Delhi. One lakh farmers and agricultural workers, not just from Maharashtra, but from all over the country would come together.

They would gather on the outskirts of Delhi on November 29 and march to Ramlila Maidan. On November 30, they plan to march to Parliament Street to demand a three-week session of Parliament to discuss the agrarian crisis.

Constituent units of this movement in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai are mobilising not just farmers and agricultural workers but journalists, students, bankers, tech workers, anganwadi, building and domestic workers’ unions and even policemen groups and associations to support their cause.

The underlying message is simple. If over 3,00,000 debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide in the past 25 years, then the agrarian crisis is no longer an economic one. It is a moral crisis. It cannot be allowed to continue.

According to the 2011 census, 144.3 million Indians live by agricultural labour and 118.7 million Indians are farmers – those who own or rent the land to farm on.

Shankar Uttam Guhadi at the convention in Mumbai.

Shankar Uttam Guhadi at the convention in Mumbai.Photo by Rishi Majumder

In order to explore the contours of this crisis and understand how the long march to Mumbai came to be, the best reading material is available on the internet for free. The Kisan Long March in Maharashtra contains an essay by Ashok Dhawale, currently heading the All India Kisan Sabha, which tells us how the success of the long march drew from years of work and smaller mobilisations in Maharashtra. Also, the Swaminathan report from the National Commission on Farmers is available for download, but a short, succinct summary of it is also online.

By reading these as well as the Dilli Chalo! site constructed for the march to Delhi by a group called Nation for Farmers, one can identify the clear priorities of farmers and agricultural labourers.

Farm loan waivers

Everyone has heard so much about farm loan waivers, and perhaps understood so little that the perception of the farmer in national media has become one of the gambling alcoholic, who is also suicidal and always asking others to pay his/her debts. But read the Swaminathan Report carefully and you will understand how the systems of credit in our country are actually weighed heavily against the poorer and less literate farmers and farm labourers.

The devil lies in the detail.

Holistic awareness of access to credit and its timeliness in rural India has been abysmal. A comprehensive approach to credit, including insurance availability and aid with technology and marketing, is missing.

Remunerative prices and MSP

These are viewed as relief mechanisms, offering marginally better deals than the market. But when the markets are in free fall, the duty of a government is to link remunerative pricing to the cost of production, not the market value. Else, “minimum support” is as good as no support at all.

Land rights and the Forest Rights Act

The National Commission on Farmers found out that 50 per cent of rural households that are among the poorest own only 3 per cent of the farmland, whereas the top 10 per cent own 54 per cent. You may think that similar distributions exist with regard to money too, and no one is raising a hue and cry about that. The difference is that the land, as opposed to money, is the only means of earning for vast swathes of India’s rural population.

Also, a lot of the inequality in distribution of land is because of blatant disregard of the law.

The commission also recommended the re-distribution of ceiling-surplus land — something that should be done by law but is not being implemented — and wasteland, access to forest land for tribals and pastoralists and mechanisms to regulate the sale and use of agricultural land. Corporates and governments blatantly violate the forest rights act, blocking land rights to tribals and farm workers like Guhadi. Included in this subhead are the rights the rural populace is demanding over temple and pasture land. Pastures or grazing land in Maharashtra have generally been cultivated by Dalit peasants.

Despite laws being enacted to vest such land in their names, these laws are seldom implemented. Also, peasants cultivating land owned by temple trusts — this comprises many lakhs of acreage in Maharashtra — don’t get crop loans, irrigation scheme benefits and relief for damage caused by natural calamities because the land is not vested in their name.

Drought relief and pension schemes

The urgency of providing adequate drought relief where huge numbers of our population still exist at the mercy of nature is obvious. As for pensions, we have had state pensions for those below the poverty line and those who are old and disabled for a while now.

The rural poor are in dire need of these pensions for survival. But the pensions on offer are woefully inadequate, so is their distribution. The JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and mobile) schemes brought in to facilitate, among other things, the distribution of such pensions, has only made matters worse. There are thousands of cases of pensioners who have been struck off the beneficiary lists without just cause. Second, age and manual labour has rubbed off the fingerprints of many pensioners so that these don’t match with those registered in the database. Alos, point of sale machines often don’t work because of poor connectivity in rural areas and low literacy has left the beneficiaries vulnerable to the middlemen or business correspondents who administer the POS machines for delivery of pension.

These are the key issues that unite farmers and landless labourers across the country.

This isn’t just a farmer’s or landless labourer’s issue but an issue of human rights. A country that cannot protect its poor, its old and its disabled should really remove the word “socialist” from the Preamble to its Constitution. It should also remove the words “Justice” (economic) and “Equality” (of opportunity).

Besides the challenges listed above, there are other issues equally significant, but which may affect certain farmers and landless labourers in some areas more than others.

These include compensation for losses caused by hailstorms, floods and pest attacks, the forced acquisition of farm land for bullet train projects and super highways, and an inadequate implementation of the public distribution system.

In states such as Maharashtra, river linking schemes submerge the land of tribals and denies water supply to multitudes of farmers.

A pressing issue is the malnutrition of children, especially tribal children. We have to call a spade a spade here. Starvation deaths witnessed in this population group cannot be called anything other than an assault on our Constitution’s Article 21 – the right to life – in its most elemental sense.

But the most important issue, as always, is implementation. An account of a victory rally held after the long march to Mumbai by Sudhanva Deshpande, the managing editor of LeftWord Books, quotes Maharashtra’s only CPI(M) MLA Jiva Pandu Gavit telling farmers assembled there: “While this is a historic victory, there is every reason to be vigilant. The track record of this government, and previous governments, hasn’t been anything to write home about. Farmers have been betrayed again and again. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. You have forced the government to concede your demands, but don’t think the implementation will happen without struggle.”

Gavit, who is from a tribal community, is today one of the tallest farmer leaders in Maharashtra. But before joining politics he had worked as an assistant in Maharashtra’s Employment Guarantee Scheme, where he stood witness to how benefits hardly ever reached the beneficiaries.

Yashwantabai from Palghar district at the farmers' convention in Mumbai.

Yashwantabai from Palghar district at the farmers’ convention in Mumbai.Photo by Rishi Majumder

Gavit’s words resound in the image of Yashwantabai from Wada in Palghar district that is in Maharashtra’s Konkan division.

Yashwantabai is over 70 years old. She is wearing a dark green sari, a light green blouse and her face wears an expression that is a mix of anger and confusion.

She calls a man who knows Hindi to help her convey what she is trying to say. “The government has decided that my village in Wada is not drought affected,” she says, “whereas it is.”

She can’t believe that something that was, to her, the most obvious fact, could be written over with the stroke of a pen.

Yashwantabai’s tale of disbelief and despair is the tale of the over one lakh farmers and farm labourers who will be marching to Delhi. They are ever vigilant. They will not stop walking.

Rishi Majumder is a freelance writer. He has worked as the managing editor at Vice India, senior editor at The Big Indian Picture and principal correspondent for the Tehelka magazine.