In the early hours of Sunday, thousands of farmers clad in red Gandhian caps thronged the streets of Mumbai in a peaceful march to mark their protest against the apathy of the government towards the brewing agrarian distress in the country. Weary with exhaustion as they marched towards Azad Maidan in the sweltering heat with blistered feet, this group of protesters walked hundreds of kilometers in an attempt to be heard by their own elected representatives.
The indifference of the civil society and the disregard of the political class towards the plight of the farmers precipitated the crisis which culminated in this long march starting from the Kalwan constituency of Nasik and ending in the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha, Mumbai. Organised by the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha (ABKS), tribals and Dalit farmers were the majority amongst the protesters . It was meticulously organised with letters sent one month before the march urging farmers to join the struggle. 35,000 farmers participated in this nearly 200 kilometre long march spanning six days.
A core issue behind the protest was the low rate of increase of minimum support prices. There has only been a very minimal increment (about 20 fold) in the support prices at the time of their inception (decades ago) and today. This was why one of the main demands of the protesters was the implementation of the Swaminathan Committee’s recommendations which called for, amongst other things, setting the MSP at levels at least 50% than the weighted average cost of production.
The protesters also wanted a loan-waiver scheme since some of them had failed to qualify for receiving financial relief under the state government’s 2017 initiative which promised the implementation of a loan waiver of over ₹30,000 crores. Adivasi cultivators who participated in large numbers demanded the implementation of the Forests Rights Act (2006) which ensures that lands already under cultivation (as of December 13, 2005) will be legally transferred to their names. They also wanted the government to not encroach and forcefully acquire farming land for developmental projects.
The march has brought to the fore the agrarian distress in Maharashtra. Having in equal measure bustling metros, sprawling high rises, glamorous cities as well as unelectrified, underdeveloped and poor villages, Maharashtra also has the dubious distinction of being one of the regions worst affected by farmer suicides in the country. Protests here have largely resorted to aggressive sloganeering or violence to gain attention from the general public. Large mass movements usually involve total disruption of public life with police often turning to the use of force to quell such protests. So, when an advisory was issued from the traffic police alerting citizens of the incoming 35,000 agrarian dissenters, the people expected life across the metro to come to a virtual standstill.
However, in stark contrast to the norm, this group of protesters marched towards Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in the dead of the night in an attempt to avoid disrupting the life of people. What was different about this protest was the manner in which the protesters conducted themselves. They acted with poise and dignity even in the face of the abject hardships imposed on them by an exploitative market, an apathetic citizenry and a myriad ineffective policies furnished by different governments in power.
And as the agrarian dissenters reached the Maidan, their distress was conveyed effectively and made intelligible to the middle-class intelligentsia with pictures of their calloused hands and blistered, wounded and aching bare legs, which proliferated on social media and on the front pages of national newspapers. Regular citizens reached the Maidan and distributed water bottles, biscuits and even shoes and slippers (for replacing the worn-out footwear of farmers). As politicians from all sides of the political spectrum started visiting and declaring solidarity to the cause, the mounting pressure forced the government to accede to the demands of the farmers.
Most of farmers were elated to just have their demands heard. However, with a history replete with promises broken and assurances backed off from, many of them were only cautiously optimistic as they prepared to return to their villages.
The haunting images of tired farmers traversing great distances, overcoming fatigue and exhaustion in the hopes of being heard, paint a grim picture reflecting the dire reality of the situation. In this juncture, it is imperative to scrutinise and reflect upon the crisis engulfing the primary sector of the economy.
The protest had very specific demands which the government ultimately promised to fulfill. But the fact remains that even if the powers-that-be deliver on what they have assured, there is no guarantee that it will put an end to the farmer’s plight. The agrarian crisis engulfing the country is a deep-rooted and multifaceted issue, which requires a comprehensive in-depth solution. With more than 50% of the population involved in the primary sector, the sheer magnitude and daunting complexity of the issue, compounded by a number of impediments hindering its resolution, makes it a formidable task.
Many farmers resort to suicide as a means of escaping the choke-hold of improvishment and debt, which entrap generations of farmers and gives rise to a vicious cycle of poverty from which breaking out is a distant possibility. The average Indian farmer struggles to sustain a livelihood as an exploitative market, unfair pricing policies and inflation weigh down heavily on him.
This wave of agrarian unrest transcending state boundaries has also been aggravated by the drought and famine in recent years. Farmers ’ agitations in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere have added to the high incidence of farmer’s suicides, and are symptomatic of the deep-rooted problems plaguing India’s primary sector. Besides the issues of contention raised by the farmers, other problems include the fragmentation of land caused by a rising population which pushes down the man-to-land ratio in rural areas, the inefficient policies and regulations of the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) established by the government and the recurring fluctuations in crop prices which add to the misery of farmers.
In light of these obstacles, it stands to reason that to sensitise the civil society and the political class about the plight of the farmers is the first step towards addressing this crisis. An increased focus on mitigating the effects of unruly weather which causes havoc in the lives of farmers should be encouraged . Technological means are to be adopted and promoted across the spectrum of the farming sector – and ideas like cooperative farming, where farmers pool land together and practise joint agriculture (things which are already popular in countries like Germany, Bangladesh and Italy) should be considered.
While the Mumbai protest succeeded in bringing the problems afflicting the agrarian sector to the fore, the fact remains that the resolution is a long road ahead. And with the curtains falling on the agitation, this dignified dissent has begun its descend into the annals of history, perhaps to be forgotten. In the future, what remains to be seen is if the message and the magnitude of the struggle will at least be understood, if not appreciated.