12, Mar 2018 | CJP Team
In a possible relief to farmers and Adivasis from across Maharashtra who had gathered in Mumbai demanding basic rights, the Maharashtra Government has agreed to look into and address their basic demands. Over 30,000 farmers and Adivasis started the Kisan Long March from Nashik on March 6 and covered a distance of nearly 200 kilometers before reaching Mumbai on March 12. The Kisan Long March culminated in a peaceful protest at Azad Maidan.
A delegation of farmers met and explained their demands to a team from the government and have reportedly called off the protest after Irrigation Minister Girish Mahajan said that the government agreed to their demands. “The government has agreed on 100% demands, including transfer of land titles,” said Mahajan. The government has given its acceptance in writing, said state minister Chandrakant Patil. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis said the Chief Secretary will oversee the follow up.
Bouquets and Brickbats
Earlier, in a show of compassion for students appearing for their tenth standard SSC Board exams, the farmers walked overnight on the intervening night between March 11 and March 12, in order not to cause them any inconvenience by way of traffic jams. The farmers received huge support from Mumbai citizens, as people from different communities serving food and water at various points of the journey.
However, the farmers were met with resistance and downright hostility by a section of the government that has questioned if all those marching are farmers. While BJP MP Poonam Mahajan claimed that the movement was propelled by Urban Maoists, other right wing Twitterati went on to label these farmers and their supporters as ‘Urban Naxals’! But these men and women, many of whom have been walking bare feet day and night don’t wish to cause any disruptions. Here’s what the farmers actually want and why they are facing an agrarian crisis in the first place.
Farmers’ Key Demands
The first thing all farmers want is a complete loan waiver. Two previous droughts, followed by unseasonal showers and hail storms, had destroyed a large chunk of their crops leading to huge losses. If the loans are not waived they will sink deeper into debt and many will be forced to commit suicide as there is no way for them to repay the loans.
The farmers are also demanding that the government reconsider the abysmally low Minimum Support Prices and fix an amount that will allow the farmers to earn enough to live with dignity. Currently a quintal (1000 kgs) of produce gets them a measly Rs 1,000/-. The farmers want an MSP to be fixed as per recommendations of the Swaminathan Committee Report.
The farmers have expressed solidarity with their Adivasi brethren who have been deprived of their right to the forests they inhabit. Their income depends on forest produce and they are often kept away from gathering this produce. Together, the Adivasis and farmers, are demanding implementation of the Forest Rights Act so that forest workers can finally have legal rights to their homes, lands and livelihoods.
Reasons for Low Produce
The Economic Survey 2018 has acknowledged that farm incomes could see a drop of up to 25 per cent due to climate change. There were successive droughts in 2015 and 2016 and before that in 2012 and 2013. The absence of adequate water caused standing crop to wither and dry. There wasn’t even hay to feed farm cattle forcing many farmers to sell their cattle to slaughter houses. While 2017 saw better rainfall, un-seasonal rain and hail storms damaged the standing winter crop causing huge losses to farmers.
The water table has sunk to abysmal levels in several parts of Maharashtra. While some of it is due to scanty rainfall, a lot of it is also due to the water tanker lobby that prioritises filling up its tankers over natural availability of water to farmers. The water is then sold to the farmers at a premium rate. Even if government provides free tankers to farmers, the tanker lobby charges the government a premium rate due to complicity of corrupt officials.
The Powerful Sugarcane Lobby
There is greater enthusiasm in cultivating water guzzling cash crops like sugar cane. In fact, many sugar cane production plants are owned either directly or indirectly by politically powerful people which is why they get water and other resources on a priority basis as opposed to small farmers or those engaged in production of food crops.
Phenomenon of Farmers’ Suicides
In the past few decades, one witnessed many cases of farmer suicides. As per figures from Indiastat.com, in the period between 2001 and 2006, farmer suicides in Maharashtra increased from 50 to 1427. It must be noted that farmer suicides have been higher in states which were producing cotton. Vidarbha region of Maharashtra with around 10% of its population accounted for 55 percent of its suicides.
Contrary to seemingly evident reasons like indebtedness or increase in the cost of cultivation, this phenomenon has deeper underpinnings.
The opening up of India’s agricultural economy post 1990s was a major reason behind the loss of competitiveness of Indian farmers who were engaged in cotton farming. In an economy framework that was closed earlier, the main losses that farmers suffered were due to loss in yield and this could be somewhat compensated by an increase in domestic prices. However, an open economy implied that the prices of the crop could still be lower if there was an increase in the worldwide supply. Thus Indian farmers would have to face not only yield failure but also price risk.
In that context few factors contributed to the challenges that farmers faced. First was low yield accompanied by low cotton prices internationally owing to large production from other countries (after liberalisation). For example, in a 2003 study report by Motilal Oswal, they indicated that the sharp decline in cotton prices have been due to the subsidies that US farmers get from their government, leading to a large production and subsequent dumping of excess production in the international markets. This reduced the world cotton prices, with which Indian farmers could not compete.
A lack of dynamism in cotton yield per hectare was also one of the reasons why Indian farmers were more at risk. Further statistics revealed that as compared to the years 2000-01, the revenue generated in the year 2005-06 had significantly reduced. In fact during this year it went into negative, falling upto 19,700 with an approximate loss of 1006.Thirdly, a huge increase in costs of cultivation contributed to distress of farmers. Essentially, all these factors made cotton farming not just less lucrative but also unprofitable to great extents. In Maharashtra the proportion of these losses faced by farmers was enormous. Another additional factor was the use of costly BT cotton by farmers. Lack of adequate irrigation also resulted in farmer suicides in Maharashtra. Some areas which were neglected as not being so politically lucrative like Vidarbha, especially suffered.
*** Feature Image by Suhel Bannerjee