The long road ahead

Print edition : April 13, 2018

When the marchers passed through Kaushambi village in Bhiwandi on March 9. Photo: Prashant Waydande

A woman protester being treated for foot blisters. Photo: PTI

Thousands of farmers crossing the JJ flyover in Mumbai at 5 a.m. during their Long March from Nashik, on March 12. Photo: Vivek Bendre

A section of the rally, on March 12. Photo: PTI

Dabbawalas distributing food to protesting farmers in Mumbai. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Distributing water bottles to farmers at Azad Maidan. Photo: Prashant Waydande

Using solar panels to recharge their mobile phones. Photo: Prasahnt Waydande

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Photo: vivek bendre

A massive march by farmers from Nashik to Mumbai makes the Devendra Fadnavis government sit up and make a fresh round of promises, but the crisis-ridden farm sector of Maharashtra needs much more.

BLISTERED feet, swollen ankles, torn footwear held together with string, dust-lined and dehydrated faces. These turned out to be the telltale signs of an agrarian resistance. Farmers, agricultural labourers and Adivasis, fired by a sense of purpose, bolstered by just demands, marched quietly into Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in the wee hours of March 12. As the day broke, it was a sea of red—red topis, red flags of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and here and there red shirts, sarees, bags and so on—in central Mumbai.

The participants of the Long March, which began with 25,000 farmers and Adivasis and culminated at Azad Maidan as a 50,000-strong rally, sat stoically in the 31° Celsius afternoon sun, listening to various speakers. Their sense of commitment was total even though the speakers repeated themselves and sometimes unleashed political rants that the audience did not identify itself with. When a journalist stood up and blocked the view of the audience, a man wearing a red topi tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to sit down. “If you’d walked for six days, you would understand,” he told the journalist. They did not want anything to come in the way of their demands. They could not miss any demand that was raised or any assurance that was promised. They had come to camp at Azad Maidan and present their demands to the Chief Minister.

The “Long March of farmers”, as it was called, wound over 180 kilometres of highways and village roads from Nashik where it started on March 6. Ashok Dhawale, national president of the AIKS, said its Maharashtra unit had planned the logistics of the march right down to the grains, oils and firewood that would be required along the way. He said water tankers were stationed at various points through the journey and an ambulance and doctors travelled with them for the entire six days. The marchers, old and young, men and women, sang songs, played musical instruments and shouted slogans as they marched. They slept on the wayside, and cooked and ate small meals. In some villages, people generously offered them food and water. “People cared for us and believed in us and that made us resolve on a firm course of action. We did not even realise that so many people would support us,” says Savitribai, an elderly participant marvelling at the gigantic event that she was a part of.

In June last year, the Kisan Sabha mobilised farmers who were caught in an unending debt trap. The worst affected were small and marginal farmers, that is, those who owned less than two hectares of land which was rarely irrigated. They were unable to borrow from cooperative societies because the banks that lent to them were bankrupt. Even if they did manage to get a crop loan, they could not get infrastructural loans.

Kisan Sabha’s demands

The demands raised by the AIKS in 2017 included a total loan waiver and implementation of the M.S. Swaminathan Commission’s main recommendation of minimum support prices (MSP) for crops at levels “at least 50 per cent more than the weighted average cost of production”. But the main grouse then was the government’s refusal to set an MSP for tur dal. After days of protest, which included a rasta roko, the Maharashtra government agreed to an immediate blanket loan waiver for those owning less than two hectares, with the option of immediately applying for fresh loans as well. The main issue of fixing the MSP, however, remained unresolved.

When Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis met farmers’ leaders last year, he agreed to a farm loan waiver amounting to Rs.34,000 crore. About 70 lakh small and marginal farmers were expected to benefit from this. But the government is yet to deliver on its promise. During the Budget session of the State Assembly in February, Finance Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar admitted that banks had been allowed to grant loan waivers amounting only to Rs.23,102 crore. So, in effect more than half the farmers did not get a loan waiver. Mungantiwar said that about Rs.13,000 crore had been distributed among some 35 lakh beneficiaries. Simple arithmetic shows that these beneficiaries received about Rs.40,000 each when the promised amount had been a cap of Rs.1.5 lakh. This naturally enraged the farmers and their leaders and resulted in the Long March from Nashik.

Another reason for the march was the agricultural grief that visited in myriad forms. Pesticide poisoning resulted in the death of some 50 farmers and agricultural labourers. Many more were affected, and the cumulative effect was a decrease in income for agricultural families during peak season. Nature played its part to add to the grief by way of unseasonal heavy rains and hailstorms, which destroyed crops that were ready for harvest. The pink bollworm destroyed vast swathes of cotton crop. By the government’s own estimates, this ranged from 30 to 60 per cent of the crop, depending on the district. In December last year, during the winter session of the Assembly, the government promised the cotton farmers compensation of Rs.39,000 a hectare. This, too, has remained an empty promise.

With the government failing to keep its promises, the AIKS decided to organise the Long March. The participation in the march surpassed the hopes of its organisers. When the march began, there were about 25,000 farmers and Adivasi people. (The agenda of the march was expanded to include Adivasi rights over forest land that they had been tilling.) Nashik is a tribal district and so Adivasi farmers joined the march. As the march moved through other districts, its ranks began to swell and by the time it wound its way into Mumbai there were about 50,000 farmers and farm workers.

Morchas are the bane of Mumbai. The linear island city is cramped for space, and protests on arterial roads can be a nightmare for commuters. When Mumbaikars realised that more than 50,000 people were headed for Azad Maidan in the heart of the city and the business district, that too on a Monday, they were stunned. The intervention of the police in the matter resolved a potential crisis. The police told the farmers’ leaders that the 10th standard board examinations were on and a day-time protest would severely inconvenience the already stressed students. The leaders immediately promised that they would not cause any disruption. So the farmers, tired as they were, decide to march the whole day on Sunday and reach Azad Maidan after midnight without a night’s rest. The understanding shown by them made the city grateful to them and their cause. Public anger (temporary though it was) at the government’s disregard of the farmers’ troubles was palpable.

Individuals and groups organised themselves to provide water, food and footwear. Groups of people were seen distributing water bottles and food all through the day. Policemen on duty along the way and at Azad Maidan were gentle with the protesters. They themselves had been on 18 hours duty, but said they supported the farmers’ demands.

The government’s callousness continued. Some ambulances were on standby and, indeed, there were cases of dehydration and exhaustion. But beyond that mandatory support, little else was provided.

Azad Maidan is surrounded by trees and most day-long protesters head for the shade at some point since pandals are rarely large enough to cover all of them. But now the maidan, which is one of the few open public spaces in the city, has been taken over by construction equipment for the underground metro rail, a project billed as being for the “greater good”. The heat, noise and dust of the project work are exacerbated by the fact that the trees have been either cut or are fenced in by project walls. The government’s apathy is seen in small things such as this—a public space largely used by protest groups is allowed to be taken over by a private project, but the plight of the State’s farmers does not even warrant a visit by the Chief Minister.

The farmers were determined to sit in protest until their demands were met. A sign that the government was taking the rally seriously came when the Chief Minister, Ministers Chandrakant Patil, Girish Mahajan, Eknath Shinde, Pandurang Fundkar, Subhash Deshmukh and Vishnu Savra and senior bureaucrats of various departments held discussions with Dr Ashok Dhawale; J.P. Gavit, Member of the Legislative Assembly; Narasayya Adam, CPI(M) State secretary; Kisan Gujar, president of the State council of the AIKS; Ajit Nawale, State secretary of the AIKS, and others. The farmers’ cause got support from the opposition parties, which were represented by Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, Dhananjay Munde, Ajit Pawar, Sunil Tatkare, general secretary of the Peasants and Workers Party Jayant Patil and many others.

At the end of the three-hour-long discussion, Dhawale said: “Concrete assurances have been given by the government on the AIKS’ demands concerning the implementation of the Forest Rights Act [FRA], the river-linking proposal that would adversely affect the tribal people in Nashik, Palghar and Thane districts, the waiver of farm loans, remunerative prices, and issues concerning temple lands, pasture lands, old-age pensions, the public distribution system, compensation to lakhs of farmers in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions who have suffered huge losses of cotton crops owing to pink bollworm pest attacks and hailstorms.”

The State is one year away from elections. Such a show of strength should normally have brought the Chief Minister to Azad Maidan, but the farmers accepted the written assurances. One of the protesters, Gola Waghare, remarked wryly: “If we had smashed buses and set fire to public and private property and staged a rail roko and immolated ourselves, then maybe he would have come; or maybe not, after all we don’t matter. No one cares because they feel they can gain nothing from us.” When asked whether he felt farmers could show their strength during the election, he replied, “We are not an organised group for that”, a reference to the fact that vote banks are based on criteria other than professions.

The demand for loan waiver is just the tip of the iceberg called agrarian crisis. It is a symptom and what needs to be looked at is the cause. Farmers themselves are unhappy that their situation has reached a stage where they have to “go about with a begging bowl”. Loan waivers are the last stop on a road not travelled by the government; a road that the farmers have been pushed to walk and that has ended in suicides for many. Loan waivers, though essential, are a knee-jerk response to the problem. The cycle of drought, crop failure, poor returns and debt is well known, and though structured loan waivers are an essential part of the solution, real issues require intensive involvement and budgetary allocation by government institutions.

The recent history of agriculture needs to be reviewed to understand the present situation. The Green Revolution brought in high-yield seeds. These required higher inputs of pesticide, fertilizers and water. The extra demand on water was catered to by digging borewells to unregulated depths. These added demands started the cycle of debt. By the 1980s, there was a second generation of environmental impact on farms. Sustainable farming practices were ignored and soil and water resources were strained to the maximum. This resulted in depleted crop returns. Cash crops took a major beating. Simultaneously, the government’s inputs for agriculture began dwindling. Public sector investment in agriculture dropped and the prices of produce became unprofitable. Farmer suicides, to the extent that we know, began sometime in the late 1980s.

The government’s reaction was to provide financial relief packages, a solution that was necessary for the short term. Unfortunately, the government now seems to view agriculture only in terms of loans, credits and loan waivers instead of tackling the intrinsic problems of low yield, irrigation, poor returns and absence of sustainable practices.

In 2004, the Centre constituted the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) under Dr M.S. Swaminathan, the agricultural scientist. The NCF submitted reports in December 2004, August and December 2005, April 2006 and October 2006. The gist of the reports’ recommendations is that farmers be paid 50 per cent over and above the cost of the crop as MSP. This was a direct helping hand to assist in their economic recovery and to make farming profitable.

This was not done because the government apparently felt it would result in price distortions in the agricultural markets. This unwillingness to help farmers has not gone unnoticed. At the Mumbai rally, Vikas Shankar Gogate said his son was not keen on farming. “I do not encourage him either,” he said. “What is there in it? We take all the risks, but the profits are only in the air. The government doesn’t help at all. Our profits are low or non-existent whether there is a good or a bad crop. It really hurts when there is a good crop and we still make low profits because the prices drop since there is a glut of produce in the market. Why doesn’t the government help us like they help industry?”

Some help at the policy level has been forthcoming. In 2008, when the Centre introduced the agricultural debt waiver and relief scheme, Maharashtra passed the Money Lending (Regulation) Act, 2008. This regulated private moneylending to farmers. The Act was inadequate as was seen by the continual borrowings and suicides. During 2010-14, when the State was ruled by the Congress, there was a move to improve local irrigation schemes such as check dams and wells to manage water resources and to raise the groundwater table. This gave a boost to rural employment and may have turned out to be a worthwhile exercise but for the fact that Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan spent much of his time battling coalition politics.

When Fadnavis took over the reins of power in 2014, he decided to stick with water issues and essentially continued what his predecessor had initiated except that he chose to give it a new name and thereby made it a Bharatiya Janata Party project. His Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan claims that the State will be made drought-free by 2019.

A paper jointly authored by Ajay Dandekar and Sreedeep Bhattacharya of Shiv Nadar University in May 2017 and published in Economic & Political Weekly argues that indebtedness of farmers resulting in them killing themselves is a situation that has to be seen in the context of the broader crisis that agriculture is embroiled in.

The paper says: “Drawing connections between farmer suicides, landholding patterns and outstanding debt, our narrative approach emphasises the kinship dimension of indebtedness, which creates a greater social and moral obligation to repay loans that are borrowed from relatives. While highlighting the shame of indebtedness, we argue that there are multiple factors that conjointly account for such tragedies, including faulty cropping patterns, rising input costs, nature of borrowings and informal sources of credit, as well as the aspirational consumption of farmers who often borrow money for non-agricultural purposes.”

The authors add: “As formal credit sources are not equal to the task of serving farmers, a large number of individuals who were not traditionally associated with lending have entered the moneylending business.”

This highlights the other desperation of farmers, that of borrowing at usurious rates as well as the very real possibility of bodily harm when they are unable to repay the money.

Good policy and planning tends to study past experiences as a prototype for new strategy. When Mungantiwar announced an increase in farm and allied sector spending in his 2018 Budget, it turned out to be a mere Rs.23,621 crore, that is less than 6.5 per cent of the total outlay of the Budget.

Considering the immediate and vast outlays that are required to boost the agricultural sector and considering that Maharashtra has about 1.37 crore farmers, it cannot be said that the State has a comprehensive strategy for the long-term upliftment of the sector or the welfare of its farmers.