Over 30,000 farmers marched to Mumbai, from different parts of Maharashtra, for five days from March 7 to 12 to draw the State government’s attention to their demands, that included transfer of forestland to tribals who had been tilling it for years.
The protest began in Nashik on March 7 and was organised by the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Kisan Long March started with over 10,000 farmers. Over five days, more farmers from Nandurbar, Palghar and Thane joined in. By the time they reached Mumbai, the number swelled to 40,000, by some estimates.
Why are farmers so distressed?
Farmers in the State are distressed for a host of reasons, the key being rising debt. Barring 2016-17, Maharashtra has had negative agricultural growth since the current government took over in 2014. According to estimates, the State will register negative growth this year too. Maharashtra has seen high farmer suicides. Last year, it is estimated that over 2,000 farmers committed suicide for reasons such as debt and land acquisition. Farmers have been plagued by a variety of issues over the last couple of years. These include pest attacks, hailstorms, drought, falling market prices, land acquisition for infrastructure projects, poor irrigation facilities and lack of access to credit. Over 40 lakh cotton farmers were affected by a pink bollworm infestation last year, with around 50% of the State’s crop being ruined by it. Hailstorms in the Vidarbha and Marathwada regions in February destroyed crops on several hectares. This is not the first time farmers have protested in the State. Farmers staged a massive State-wide protest last June, where they refused to sell their produce in protest against the rising debt and deteriorating conditions. The State announced a farm loan waiver scheme.
Didn’t the loan waiver help?
The ₹34,000 crore farm loan waiver declared last year came with several conditions. For instance, only one member per family was allowed a debt-waiver and a ceiling of ₹1.5 lakh was prescribed. Because of the conditions, a majority of farmers were unable to benefit from it, and have continued to reel under debt. The key demands of this march were a complete farm loan waiver, the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, implementation of the Swaminathan Committee’s recommendations on the fixing of Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops, compensation of ₹40,000 per acre to farmers hit by hailstorm and pink bollworm, and projects to link the Nar-par, Damanganga and Girnar rivers. A large section of the farmers that marched to Mumbai were Adivasis from Thane, Palghar, Nashik and Nandurbar. They were demanding that they be given rights to the land they have been tilling for generations as prescribed under the Forest Rights Act. The farmers were upset at the slow pace of approvals. In the cases where farmers had received land, they got only a fraction of what they had been tilling.
What is the government’s stand?
The government conceded most of the demands such as reducing conditions for loan waiver, making loans taken between 2001 and 2009 eligible for waiver (the earlier cut-off was 2009), and sorting out appeals and claims under the Forest Rights Act within six months. A maximum of four hectares will be allotted in the cases where land transfer is less than the land being tilled.
What are they planning?
Many of the demands are not new, and the government had made assurances after farmers took to the streets earlier. This time, the farmers wanted an assurance ‘in writing,’ which the government gave. However, it remains to be seen if the government implements the farmers’ recommendations, which include a complete loan waiver and increasing the MSP of milk and crops. A steering committee of 40 farmers’ organisation, of which the AIKS is a member, has called another round of protests across the State starting March 19. including a ‘jail bharo’ on April 30.