How farmers woke up the Maharashtra government

Last Updated: Wed, Mar 14, 2018 15:06 hrs
Farmers' protest

What began as a march a week ago from Nashik, culminated in Mumbai. Anywhere between 15,000 and 40,000 farmers, depending on sourcing, walked from Nashik to Mumbai demanding unconditional loan waivers, transfer of forest land in the name of landless tribals and compensation for a pink bollworm attack which affected lakhs of farmers. The march was organized by the farmer’s wing of the CPM.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis accepted the demands of the farmers saying in part, “We have agreed to most of the demands raised by farmers and tribals”. According to him, a special team would process the request for transferring of forest land. The upcoming bullet train project would require a lot of land and he assured that any acquisition will be done as per the law and with the consent of the farmers.

While the march was certainly a sight, with thousands walking the street, the issues being put forward are wholly significant and have economic implications. Journalist Parth M.N., in a column for the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI), gives an on the ground account of the farmers march. As one farmer states, regarding the minimum support price –

In spite of promises [to give land rights to Adivasi farmers under the Forest Rights Act of 2006] we are not owners of the land. The production cost for an acre is 12,000 rupees. If the rains are good, we get 15 quintals of rice [per acre]”.

The farmers in Maharashtra have asked the government to implement a pension scheme for the farmers. This was addressed by Parth in his column as he states that farmers, while fighting for land rights; also had many financial difficulties to bear –

…farmers have repeatedly talked about such issues as the enforcement of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations of a minimum support price, a blanket loan waiver, and reliable irrigation”.

A minimum support price (MSP) is the buffer offered by the government in case the price of crops suddenly and sharply decline. The government essentially buys farm produce when there are no other buyers in the market. A commission headed by agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan recommended the MSP should be fixed at 50% profits over the farmer’s cost of production.

However, the implementation of this has been sketchy. A report in 2015 highlighted that fewer than 6% of agricultural households are able to sell their produce to the government. Other shortcomings of the mechanism are that the some states do not have funds to procure crops, when they do purchase farm produce it does not get channeled into the public distribution system.

One of the demands has been the allocation of lands under the Forest Rights Act, which stipulates that a maximum of 4 hectares can be allocated to a family if they are already cultivating a piece of forest land. The reality however is that even for those have been cultivating 4 hectares, the lad allocated is not adequate. The Hindustan Times editorial stated that no state can ignore the agricultural and financial crisis that farmers now face –

The state’s farmers have voiced issues similar to those from the rest of the country; only the magnitude and the specifics differ. More than 70% of agricultural laborers are in debt. Consequently, the suicide rate among them is higher as they do not have access to the formal loan economy”.

The budget last month did not mention programs such as the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) which were announced last year. This year, the MSP was announced. A favored policy proposal is loan waivers. In September of last year, thousands of farmers protested in Rajasthan demanding a complete loan waiver and implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission among other things.

The debate over MSP is unlikely to end soon as there are several schools of thought on what the best formula should be. Huge loan waivers have a significant impact on a state’s economy as it adversely affects other infrastructure investments”.

There is a political angle to the march; something that seemingly would be apolitical – the plight of farmers. However, the march was organized by the CPM. Harnidh Kaur, in an op-ed for The Print writes on how an apolitical Kisaan march is an extension of middle class arrogance –

To claim that the Kisaan Long March is political isn’t just correct, but imperative, because that’s what it is. An extremely political act of democratic dissent by stakeholders who have found themselves cornered with no possible way out”.

The case for calling this particular march political or apolitical is an interesting debate. The central and key players who have actual stakes are the farmers. An argument can be made that, for them, irrespective of the party at the state level, their demands and livelihoods are what matter.

The amount of political investment villages across India have is important to understand and reiterate because the villages have most to lose if someone without their interests at heart is voted to power”.

The broader context would be analyzing the plight of farmers under different governments, to ascertain whether there farmers and the agricultural sector as a whole thrive under a particular ideological government rule; be it left or right. The march has been branded as a communist stunt. Pratyasha Rath, a consultant in the public sector, in a column for the right leaning Swarajya magazine, writes on how the marches was about optics –

This is how the Left performs a protest from college campuses to television studios to the streets of the financial capital. Carefully selected images, exhibits of pain and deprivation, moral high standing that triggers the guilt in most”.

A point to be noted here is that political parties use communities of various strives as a vote bank.

Tailoring a message specific to farmers is not wrong or new, it’s the co-opting of their message to fit a political narrative that becomes problematic. The marches and protests by farmers is essentially an economic issue; it involves financial resources being allocated, distributed etc by the government. For it to be branded political is fair considering the organizers; the results of the demands being met will also be political as Fadnavis now bears the responsibility to ensure that results are delivered.

More columns by Varun Sukumar