Farmers in Rajasthan win a significant victory as the State government agrees to stay the hike in power tariffs.T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Jaipur
THEY came in determined droves. On September 1, more than 50,000 farmers representing a cross section of communities congregated in Jaipur in a rally stretching across four kilometres, demanding a rollback of the hike in the new power tariffs in Rajasthan. They poured in from at least 14 districts of the State, though the large majority were from the Mewar and Shekhawati belt of Sikar, Jhunjhunu, Churu, Nagaur and Jodhpur. The farmers were on a mahapadaav, the term given to denote the size and scale of the protest. For eight days, they stayed on, with more and more farmers joining them. They had come armed with the bare essentials, unsure as they were of the response of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Vasundhara Raje Scindia.
Finally, under the banner of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and led by the State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the farmers wrested concession of most of their demands. The hike in electricity rates were stayed; some of the farmers arrested in July in Sriganganagar district during an agitation for water were released, and there was an assurance that the others would also be freed later.
Until September 8, the sea of humanity held on patiently under the open skies. Editorials in the regional press frowned at the indifference of the government and commented favourably on the agitation. As for the State government, it maintained an ostrich-like stance even as farmers from rural Jaipur, where the AIKS is yet to make a meaningful foray, joined the rally. The Rajasthan Kisan Union, which is active here, joined the mahapadaav.
The Congress, despite being the main Opposition party, preferred to stay on the sidelines and waited for a formal invitation to join the protest. For all practical purposes, it was a confrontation between the Left, represented by the CPI(M) and the BJP government. The CPI(M) has only one legislator in the Assembly, Amra Ram, and he has been repeatedly elected from the Dhod segment in Sikar. A formidable leader, Amra Ram, as vice-president of the State branch of the AIKS, played a crucial role in mobilising farmers from the Shekhawati belt. The presence of veteran communists such as Vasudev Sharma, State secretary of the CPI(M), Ravinder Shukla, Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) leader and Sheopat Singh, CPI(M) State secretariat member, and Dhuli Chand Meena, president and general secretary of the State AIKS, respectively, gave the movement its direction and the desired impetus.
The demands were straightforward. When the rates were revised for domestic and agricultural operations last December, the CPI(M)'s State unit made up its mind to oppose it. Big industrial units had been spared. Soon after, the panchayat elections took place and the hiked rates were put on hold. The BJP performed very well in the elections. But the power bills according to the revised rates began coming in June-July this year. With hardly any rainfall, the farmers, who had already taken a hit when the kharif crop was destroyed, were not prepared to accept the enhanced rates.
Nearly 25,000 villages were already in the grip of a drought in the beginning of the year.
The sowing was done with the understanding that there would be a six-hour uninterrupted electricity supply every day. In August, when there was hardly any rain, the demand for power went up but it was available for only two or three hours. It is estimated that crops worth Rs.1,000 crores were destroyed.
"In the tubewell irrigated area, electricity forms a large part of the total cost of production and the farmer has to consider this," said Dhuli Chand Meena. While the domestic consumer adjusted to the hiked rates by cutting down on the consumption of power, the farmer did not have that choice. In 1986, there was a similar agitation when the tariff went up by six paise a unit; this time it was 20 paise a unit. The AIKS secretary calculated that if all the various heads were considered, it was a nearly 40 per cent increase. When the State Electricity Board was dismantled and three corporations were created, the explanation offered was that the losses would be reduced and consumers would have to pay less. But while the production cost for every unit from the Kota and Suratgarh Thermal plants actually went down, the load on the consumer increased.
Among the main demands of the farmers were: a rollback of the tariff hike; provision of connections to farmers on application; creation of a generalised category of agricultural power connections instead of specialised categories; and an end to the harassment of farmers by unscrupulous employees of the Electricity Board who misuse vigilance checking reports. "We declared the movement an indefinite one and that paid off," said Vasudev Sharma.
The new rates will now be decided by a Cabinet sub-committee, which will have representatives of the AIKS. All new connections will be provided under the metered system, instead of the earlier flat-rate one. There were at least 48,000 farmers who had applied for connections and deposited the money but who did not get the connections within the stipulated 120 days.
The government has now promised that this will change and the farmers will get new connections within a definite time-frame. A farmer penalised by a vigilance checking report will have the right to appeal. The farmer now also has the right to transfer his connection within a panchayat samiti area. Nine of the 12 demands of the farmers have been conceded.
Resentment has been brewing also in Sriganganagar district, where six farmers were shot dead last October during an agitation for water in the areas irrigated in the first phase of the Indira Gandhi Nahar Pariyojana (IGNP). The agitation, which was led by a broad coalition called the Kisan Mazdoor Vyapari Sangharsh Samiti, was called off after an agreement with the government in December 2004. It seemed at first that this four-month-long agitation had ended in success. But after the government reneged on most of the demands, the agitation resumed in June-July when the quantum of water released was found insufficient for irrigation.
The monsoon has failed farmers all over the State this year. Twenty-five of its 32 districts have received deficient rainfall and nearly half of the sown kharif crop has been destroyed. Farmers started sowing in June, when it had rained a little, but there was no rainfall after that. The crop withered. The government's dilly-dallying on drought relief made things worse. Agricultural labourers and small farmers were the worst hit.
As the agitation resumed, the government decided to take harsh measures. The police beat up farmers and their families. All the leaders of the agitation were rounded up, beaten and arrested. Among them were the former CPI(M) legislator and fiery leader Hetram Beniwal, Sant Lekha Singh and Vallabh Kochhar. Hundreds of farmers courted arrest in protest against the behaviour of the State police. About 700 of them were reportedly lodged in various jails. Hetram Beniwal was addressing a meeting in Ghadsana on the broken promises of the government on July 18 when the police beat him and smashed his hands. He was reportedly denied water for a long time while he was in police custody.
While Hetram Beniwal and some others were released on September 10, others continued to languish in jail under cases filed last year. The AIKS is resolved to struggle for their release as well.
In village MD 22, the police beat up even women and children on July 29. A three-member team of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), led by its president Subhashini Ali, and Central Working Committee members Sehba Farooqi and Pushpa Sharma, confirmed this. The majority of the residents are Dalits. According to the AIDWA delegation, at around 5 a.m. on July 29, a large police contingent, including some policewomen, descended on the village. Residents told the delegation that some of the policemen were drunk. They first went looking for Tara Singh, a farmer leader. His wife Dayal Kaur was beaten up in order to make her reveal her husband's whereabouts. His sister-in-law and daughter-in-law were thrashed with iron-coated lathis. Their house was ransacked.
On August 3, when Dayal Kaur gave her statement to the Ghadsana Magistrate and on the Magistrate's orders was sent to the district hospital to get her arm X-rayed, the police reached there as well and arrested her. All night, she was kept in the Raisingpur jail. It was only on August 10 that she was released. Ranobai, Manjeet Singh, Sakhpal Kaur, Lakshmi, Gurmeet Kaur, Bhirwabai, Vidyadevi, Sheelobai, Bachni Devi, Sahiba Devi, Deepo Bai and Joginder Kaur were other victims of police excesses. The police allegedly looted their homes and beat them up when they resisted.
Nearly 70 people were arrested from the village, including several minors. Most of them happened to be the sole bread-winners for their families. The three-member delegation submitted a detailed memorandum to Girija Vyas, Chairperson, National Commission for Women, in the hope that some action could be initiated against the administration. But the NCW did not take any concrete steps in this direction.
In August, the Chief Minister addressed what was supposed to be a farmers' rally in Anoopgarh division, one of the worst affected areas which is part of the first phase of the area irrigated by the IGNP. Both the Chief Minister and Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria hinted that the agitation was led by the land and liquor mafia. Kataria reportedy said that "if the government knew how to give water, it also knew how to stop its supply". The government also started making a list of all farmers who owned land disproportionate to the ceiling levels. This incensed the farmers even more.
The government gave the impression, through various statements, that if the farmers were given the quantum of water that they wanted for irrigation, seven or eight districts would have to go without drinking water. Farmers who had been distributed land in the first phase of the IGNP found that irrigation water was not reaching them. They were all small farmers, beneficiaries of the land distribution in the 1970s that came after a long struggle. Dhuli Chand said that farmers were told that less water had been released to prevent salinity in their lands.
When talks started, the government constituted an expert committee that included four representatives of the Sangharsh Samiti, which was conducting the agitation. But the talks fell through.
Curfew was imposed in Ghadsana, Rawala and Anoopgarh once again, a year after the last agitation. The farmers did not take this lying down. In Gram Sakhi, a village on the India-Pakistan border, they enforced their own curfew - government officials including police personnel were prohibited from entering the village. Defying the official curfew, the Mazdoor Kisan Vyapari Sangharsh Samiti held a meeting in the village.
From August 22 onwards, farmers began courting arrest voluntarily. This was the Jail Bharo Andolan. From Rawatsar, Bikaner, Khajuwala and Ghadsana, more than 500 farmers courted arrest. The events in this belt and the recent administrative excesses against farmers in Sohela in Tonk district - where five people lost their lives - had an impact on the power tariff agitation in the Shekhawati and Mewar regions.
It may be a little early to predict the political consequences of this agitation, but the growing disaffection of farmers with the BJP and the Congress is fairly clear.