On November 20, 2017, thousands of young farmers descended on Delhi to ask for better crop prices. Against the backdrop of a receding winter sun that shone feebly on the thousands of farmers assembled at Parliament Street in Delhi, 25 year-old Sukhwinder Singh struggled to communicate with Natarajan.V. Picking up a human skull from a pile of skulls and bones, Singh, a farmer from Haryana’s Fatehabad, spoke in Hindi to his counterpart from Tamil Nadu’s Tiruchirapalli, “What’s all this about? Is it a real skull?” Natarajan knew little English and no Hindi, so he answered in Tamil and every few sentences, repeated, “The government is anti-farmer.”
But despite the language barrier, there was enough solidarity between them. The Tamil Farmers Association has been protesting in the national capital since May this year. Their novel, if macabre, way of protesting has garnered them the attention of the national media. But for the many farmers like Sukhwinder, it was the first time that they came to know about the issues of farmers from across the country.
Janardan Choudhury from Basti, in Uttar Pradesh, couldn’t stop himself from posing with the skulls for a picture. Sporting dark shades, track pants, and long locks, he looked like any young and urbane man. “I will show it to people back home, we always think farmers from the south are richer and better-off. And I have never seen a protest like this, seems they are in big trouble.” Pinned on the shirts, blouses, Bundis, and sweaters of most farmers are their phone numbers and those of one of their friends.
At the other end of the Parliament street, the ‘Kisan Mukti Sansad‘ (‘farmers liberation parliament’) was being held. Jointly organized by over 184 farmers’ organisations from 20 states, the informal parliament consisted of statements being made by farmers (both men and women) from diverse fields. From fish-farmers to sugarcane growers, to tribals who have been evicted from their lands – the organisers had curated a rich mix of speakers to highlight the problems faced by the Indian agricultural community. The disparate groups, often aligned to different political parties, have converged on Delhi with two demands on which they all agree:
According to organisations working with farmers, nearly 1.5 lakh (150,000) farmers killed themselves in the last decade because of repeated crop failures and accumulated debts. Farmers who form the largest chunk of India’s electorate are politically crucial and no party can afford to be seen as being ‘anti-farmer’. But because the massive regional, cultural and class diversity among farmers, their electoral power is dispersed and thus their ability to push for pro-farmer legislation is limited to ad-hoc sops like loan waivers.
In the words of an activist who didn’t wish to be named as her organization “is already under the government’s scanner”, “We know the government won’t ever give us what we are demanding but at least it will make them realize that farmers are now uniting and won’t suffer in silence. It’s a huge moment for the rights of the farmers and farm-labourers in the country. We know the government is watching this very closely even though the media may not be showing it on their channels and in their papers,” she said.
The reference to a media blackout seemed valid when one scanned the homepages of the websites of major media outlets. More than 20,000 farmers in the heart of the national capital were outdone by the manufactured row over Padmavati, a Bollywood movie about a legendary Rajput queen.
The media-neglect hardly deterred vigorous speakers like Prabhavati from Bidar in north Karnataka. She was one of the farmers called on the stage to share her concerns. Her forehead marked with three horizontal lines denoting her devotion to Hindu God Shiva, she spoke in Dakkhani Hindi and minced no words in attacking the agricultural produce procurement policy of the central government.
Speaking in her high-pitched voice she started by attacking the ‘unjust’ minimum support prices for pulses and sugarcane. “Last year when the Toor (Peas) crop was bad, the government set the rate at ₹10,000. This year when the crop has been good, the rate is ₹3,000. Is this fair?” She asked the crowd, who responded with a resounding ‘no!’.
When I caught up with her off-stage she was joined by others who had come along with her from Bidar, a dry and arid region in the north of Karnataka. “This is the first time we have come to Delhi. We travelled without tickets so that we could participate in this rally. Our cost of production is more than the price we get in the private market or in the government market and nobody is bothered it seems,” Shobha, another farmer from Bidar said. The women’s group from Karnataka stood out in their colourful saris and holy-marks on their foreheads. But it was apparent that they were well-off and not facing the same crises as most of the other protesters.
All farmers attending the Parliament are united in their demand for higher rates for agricultural produce. However, some, like the 20 small-farmers from Morena in Madhya Pradesh, have come to Delhi to protest against the forced grabbing of their lands (in all 200 Bighas) by a dominant caste group six years ago. “Recently we went to reclaim our land but couldn’t do anything as the land-grabbers are politically connected and own guns and weapons. They have money and power. We are now forced to do share-cropping and are now finding it difficult to make ends meet. Some of us have left farming and moved to cities to work as daily-wage labourers,” said Hari Mahar, a hastily appointed spokesperson for the group.
By the day’s end, the informal parliament of farmers had passed two bills pertaining to a one-time farm debt waiver and fair prices. The organisers announced from the stage that these will be introduced in the real Parliament as Private Member Bills.
“The government is in a majority in the Parliament, they might not waive the loan off, do you think this will help?” I ask Ramaswamy, a barely-out-of-his-teens farmer from Telangana. “Of course! If they don’t help us, we won’t help them in the elections,” he said with a smile and walked away to ‘see the Rashtrapati Bhavan and India Gate’.