Yavatmal (Maharashtra): On February 8, 1995, an enthusiastic, 35-year-old engineering-cum-management graduate arrived at Paradh, a small village in the Yavatmal district, to address a group of around 2,000 farmers - an event that would bring their plight onto the world stage.
Sadly, nothing has changed as around 110,000 farmers have committed suicide in the state in the past 25 years. Of this, around 18,000 suicides have occurred in the past five years.
Kishore Tiwari, the technocrat, who had learnt of the farmers' plight through the local vernacular media stressed the 'right to exist' and not the "government doles' at the meeting.
The tiny spark lit 25 years ago by Tiwari and his supporters turned the global attention towards farmers' suicides and also made it one of the biggest social, economic and political issue after the 1989 Mandal Commission report.
"Tomorrow (February 8) I am going to the same village to meet farmers and pass the same resolution that we did 25 years ago. Nothing has really changed," said Tiwari.
Ancestors of Tiwari, 60, migrated from Uttar Pradesh to Pandharkavda, Yavatmal, nearly seven decades ago. He lost his father to the plague when he was barely two years old. His grandparents sold vegetables in the local markets for a living.
Stung by the huge farmers' turnout in a remote village, then Chief Minister Sharad Pawar put Tiwari behind the bars along with around 1,000 farmers. Female members of the congregation were detained and let off later.
A month later, a Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition led by Chief Minister Manohar Joshi took office. For the next three months it refused to release Tiwari, until the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court freed him.
Over the years, Tiwari set up the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS), an NGO, that ventured deep into the agrarian crisis in Maharashtra, its neighbouring as well as other states across the country.
To help resolve the crisis, Tiwari gradually adopted a holistic approach, which included promoting related issues like food security, health security, right to education, problem of unwed tribal mothers, rehabilitation of farmers' widows and orphans through education, jobs and entrepreneurship.
"As per official records and our own data, in the past 25 years, more than 110,000 farmers, including 10,000 women farmers, have committed suicide in Maharashtra. There are 125 recorded cases of young girls ending their lives as their debt-ridden parents could not bear the cost of their education or marriage. It shook me to the core. Now I have dedicated myself to the cause of farmers' upliftment," said Tiwari.
Initial studies revealed while earlier farmers' suicides were largely limited to Vidarbha (eastern part of the state), it spread to entire Maharashtra, barring the lush Western parts of the state.
"Today the scenario is pretty bad. Besides Maharashtra, the issue now affects practically every state in India. The worst-hit are Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and surprisingly, even Punjab, which was the cradle of the Green Revolution around 1960," said Tiwari.
Plight of farmers affected him so deeply that Tiwari, also a lawyer, who had worked in several companies, decided to dedicate his life to the cause despite stiff opposition from family.
For political parties, Tiwari's passion became a handy tool to be exploited during elections to come to power and then "forget about it", he lamented.
"In the past 25 years, only one panel, led by M. S. Swaminathan, was set up in 2004 to enquire into the agrarian crises by then Agriculture Minister Rajnath Singh in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-headed BJP government at the Centre.
The panel submitted its report in 2008 to then Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar (NCP), but it was left on the self to gather dust.
"It suddenly catapulted into national limelight when Narendra Modi raised the issue, promising to implement the Swaminathan report, as part of his 2014 election campaign. Naturally, sensing hope, farmers voted hugely for the BJP. Once again the matter was relegated to backstage, and now has now been revived for the 2019 elections," Tiwari rued.
Tiwari has, so far, has spent nearly 16 months in jail for espousing the farmers causes.
His agitations brought the farm crises to the front pages of the Indian media and into living rooms in urban centres. Today, most Indians are aware of the farmers' plight, he said.
"In fact, after reading several series of articles in IANS, many people from all over the world have connected with us to help the cause. They include prominent personalities like Cyrus Guzder (Mumbai), Krishnakumar Taori (Dubai), Rohit Shelatkar (the UK) and Suresh Ediga (the USA)," Tiwari said.
The revelations were shocking, which forced the global media outlets to cover it extensively. The US, German and Australian television networks have made documentaries on the subject, including "Bitter Seed" and "Dying Fields", while several Indian films and television serials were made on the topic.
Though he claims that he has not been able to do as much as he wanted to ease the life of farmers, he turns to wife Smita in gratitude who stood by him through all his stints in jail and hardships to keep the family and ensure decent education for two daughter -- Abha, now an engineer with a US multinational company, and Apoorva who works in Brisbane.
The high-profile campaign for farmers earned him nominations for various national-international awards/honours, but Tiwari politely declined them, saying "it belittles my cause".
(Quaid Najmi can be contacted at email@example.com)