In Retrospect

Kisan Long March: New dawn upon farmers' struggle

A historic procession of farmers to agitate against their dismal condition led to immediate government response. While the agitation has ended, it has opened a new chapter for the future of aggrieved farmers in India, writes Sayantan Ghosh.

At the dawn of March 6, 2018, while the whole country slept peacefully, the roads of Nasik in Maharashtra painted a different picture. Nearly 30,000 farmers hoisting red flags had gathered to voice their silenced demands. Women, men, children and senior citizens took to the streets to march 180 kilometers enroute Mumbai. The Kisan Long March shook the country's conscience and compelled the Maharashtra government to accept all demands.

Women in the Forefront
The massive march of several thousand farmers was peaceful with women in the forefront. Analysts have noted that the recent farm distress has adversely affected the families of the farmers. According to the last census, there has been a huge drop in the number of full-time farmers. Nearly 2000 farmers per day have left occupational farming to become agricultural labourers.
This change has had a detrimental effect on farmers' families with women facing the brunt. The series of farmer suicides had also broken down the lives of women. In this long march, the women stood in the forefront, voraciously echoing their demands.
Rural India in a Nutshell
Senior rural journalist P Sainath discussed this harsh reality in an article. "There are nearly 15 million farmers ('Main' cultivators) fewer than there were in 1991. Over 7.7 million less, since 2001, as the latest Census data shows. On an average, that's about 2,035 farmers losing the 'Main Cultivator' status every single day for the last 20 years. And, in a time of jobless growth, they've had few places to go beyond the lowest, menial ends of the service sector."
He further noted that Census 2011 tells us we now have 95.8 million cultivators for whom farming is the main occupation. That's less than 8 per cent of the population (down from 103 million in 2001 and 110 million in 1991). Include all marginal cultivators (22.8 million), and that is still less than 10 per cent of the population. Even if you calculate all cultivators and agricultural labourers together, the number would be around 263 million or 22 per cent of the population. However, according to Sainath, between 1981 and 1991, the number of cultivators (main workers), actually went up from 92 million to 110 million. The huge decline, thus, comes post-1991.
Farmers' Demands
Ajay Dhawale, the General Secretary of the All India Kisan Sabha explained the six primary demands of the farmers.
A complete and unconditional waiver of loans and electricity bills; All India Kisan Sabha has alleged that 1,753 debt-ridden farmers have killed themselves since June 2017;
Give a minimum support price of 1.5 times the input cost for farm produce;
Give land rights to Adivasi farmers under the Forest Rights Act of 2006;
Immediate implementation of recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission, which safeguards the interests of small farmers;
Compensation for crop losses due to unseasonal rain, hailstorm, and attack by pink bollworm witnessed in February;
Stop the forceful acquisition of farmlands in the name of development projects like the superhighway and tracks for bullet trains.
In the last five years, the country has witnessed its worst recorded drought which has adversely affected rural India, noted P Sainath, a senior rural journalist, in a speech. The Marathwada region of Maharashtra was the worst affected region in terms of drought and agricultural crisis.
Ashok Dhawale said, "We designed this agitation after nearly two years of planning and related protests. With the same demands, we first held the protest in March 2016 at Nasik, where nearly one lakh farmers joined. This took place in the aftermath of the series of farmer suicides in Marathwada. The second protest was held by nearly 60,000 Adivasi farmers, who gheraoed the Adivasi development minister of the Maharashtra government in October 2016. The third protest was held in June 2017 for nearly 11 days. Thereafter, we planned this massive rally." He added that this was the first time that the government has given them a written assurance in responding to their demands.
Government Concedes
"Kisan Long March" called off their stir on Monday, March 12, after Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis promised to clear all pending claims made by the tribals under the Forest Rights Act within six months and waive the loans taken by the farmers up to June 2017. Fadnavis told the legislative assembly that 95 per cent of those who have walked the 180-km distance were tribals who have never owned the farmlands they have tilled for decades, adding that the Maharashtra chief secretary would review all their claims including those declared ineligible for land transfer.
Forest Right Act 2006
The implementation of the forest right act was one of the major demands of the farmers. In Maharashtra, the implementation of this act was the worst according to various surveys and this lead to nearly a three year long continuous series of farmer agitations in the state.
"The Forest Rights Act seeks to accord rights to forest-dwelling communities including individual forest rights' and community forest rights, and through the forest resources, a livelihood," noted a report.
Suneet Chopra, a senior leader of the CPI(M) said, "Implementation of the Forest Rights Act of 2006 is one of the issues we have been focusing upon for a long time. Interestingly, this issue is not at all new but has been recurring since the time of the colonial rule. The lands of tribals were given to the forest department – a practice that is unconstitutional but still in exercise. With the implementation of the act, the tribals will own the lands which will bring them profit and also provide the freedom to work in their own way. The forest department deprives them of every aspect and they become mere labourers on their own land.
Waiving Loans
Waiving loans of farmers has been a year-long demand. The farmers all over India have raised the issue time and again. The agricultural analysts have explained that in three of the last four years, agriculture has seen a negative growth in Maharashtra, a state with a mere 19 per cent land under irrigation with major dependence on the weather and regular monsoons to irrigate the fields. Untimely and scattered rains, along with hail storms and pest attacks, have successively damaged crops, leaving little room for recovery. This has hit the farmers' incomes immensely, impacting not only their ability to pay off loans but also shrinking their basic disposable income.
"Not only this, Maharashtra has a lopsided allocation of resources that favours certain crops and orphans others, which further aggravates the issue. Frequent intervention in the form of support prices or resource allocation, many a time to gain political mileage, has disturbed the equilibrium within crops. The disparity between area and output is clearly visible," the note reports.
However, there is an economic and political angle to the issue. None of the political parties in India want to appear insensitive to farmers before and after an election. But, the complete loan waiver for farmers, every year, would need a different economic approach where agriculture would become the priority. But the political parties in India are apprehensive to enforce such a rule. The loan waiver for farmers will cost the state almost Rs 34,000 crore, which will definitely impact the state's treasury. Funding the waiver would entail cutting down other forms of investment like infrastructure.
Swaminathan Commission's Recommendations
The National Commission on Farmers, headed by renowned geneticist MS Swaminathan, who played a key role in India's green revolution, carried out an in-depth study to find out ways to help the farmers. The recommendations of its final report submitted on October 4, 2006, said that several policies for agriculture have been developed by the government of India from time to time, the last one being in the year 2002.
According to the report, it said that the time is therefore opportune for revitalising our agricultural progress by making agrarian prosperity, food security and sovereignty the bottom line for government policies and priorities in agricultural and rural development. Given an adequate investment and pro-small farmer public policies, we can reverse the decline and restore confidence in our agricultural capability.
Rural Agitations: Rationale
There are a number of reasons stirring the recent farmer agitations. To list the major reasons, the analysts observed that the sudden implementation of demonetisation continues to plague the rural economy. The implementation of GST and the outlook of the incumbent government on caste minorities has also played a major role. However, the climate factors are the primary reason causing farmers' distress.
End Note
The returning farmers of Maharashtra have left behind a number of questions. The farmers' struggle has not ended as the leaders assured, but it has gained new found momentum. Till the time the political parties in the government do not focus on the real issues of the farmer, the year-old profession will die every day. There might be another march and after that, it will repeat, but the agitations can only raise the question the problem-solving tool remains in the hands of the political parties and their respective outlooks.
(References from media reports, surveys and PARI have been taken.)

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