SOMETHING unusual happened last week. Farmers in Maharashtra organised an amazing ‘strike’. Last month farmers in a village of Ahmednagar decided that they would stop sending their produce — food grains, vegetables, etc. — to cities from June 1. Soon, the call was adopted by the farmers of the entire district. Before anyone could realise, this resolve had extended to several districts of Maharashtra. The farmers stuck to their decision and on June 1 and 2, an overwhelming majority of APMC (Agriculture Produce Marketing Cooperative) did not receive any produce. There were stray incidents of coercion and violence, highlighted by the media, but by and large, it was a peaceful and voluntary affair. The state government, which took the protest lightly to begin with, was forced to come to the negotiating table. Chief Minister Fadnavis sat till early morning of June 3 to work out a deal with the leaders of one section of the farmers.
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The matter is far from over. The deal with the CM was rejected by most farmers’ organisations, saying it was a sellout. Even the BJP’s partner organisation, Swabhimani Shetkari Paksha, was forced to reject this deal. The farmers organised a successful statewide bandh on June 5. Media reports tell us that this strike has already spread to many districts of Madhya Pradesh. Farmer organisations in other states also feel charged and energised.
This chain of events is extraordinary. The spontaneous nature of this protests and its rapid spread reminds us of peasant rebellions during colonial times. The Fadnavis government has alleged that the strike is the handiwork of its political opponents, mainly, the Shiv Sena and the NCP. Facts deny this claim. While the opposition parties have certainly extended covert support, the organisations and leaders involved in bringing the farmers together are not affiliate to any of the major parties. In fact, the Congress and the NCP are yet to recover from the shock defeat in the recent municipal elections across the state. The farmers are unlikely to heed to the largely discredited Opposition. It seems that a new generation of farmers’ leadership is emerging in Maharashtra.
What makes this protest even more unusual is that it is not happening in a year of natural calamity and crop loss. Maharashtra has seen normal rainfall and bumper crop in the last agricultural season following two successive droughts in 2014-15 and 2015-16. Usually farmers’ protests are triggered by crop loss. This year the farmers of Maharashtra had normal, if not bountiful, harvest.
What, then, explains this sudden burst of farmers’ movement? Two developments seemed to have triggered the current protest. On the one hand, bumper crops have led to crashing down of crop prices for the farmer. On the other hand, the crop loan waiver announced by the newly elected BJP government in UP has reminded the famers of their long unfulfilled demand.
Crash in prices is most evident in the case of pulses. Following a shortage of pulses in the country, the Central government had enhanced the MSP for tur from Rs 4,500 to a little over Rs 5,000 per quintal. This was presented as a major step to promote higher production of pulses. The farmers obliged, cultivation and production of pulses went up, but the government failed to keep its part of the promise. State agencies failed to procure much of the production at the assured price. Instead of getting Rs 5,000 a quintal, the farmers were forced to sell tur at Rs 3,000. Similar tragedy has befallen the soyabean farmers of Madhya Pradesh and chilli farmers in Telangana. There were reports that tomato and potato growers from different parts of the country preferred to throw their produce than sell it for a ridiculous price in the mandi. Thus the farmers suffer not merely when there is a crop failure, but also when there is a good monsoon and a bumper crop. This angst seems to be driving the current protest.
This is the real significance of the farmers’ strike in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It is not a localised, seasonal, crop-specific or calamity-driven distress. This protest is linked directly to the crisis of Indian agriculture. This crisis, in today’s India, takes three forms. First, there is an ecological crisis of Indian agriculture. Modern agricultural practices associated with Green Revolution are unsustainable. Resource and water-intensive, fertilisers and pesticide-heavy farming has now reached a dead-end. Second, there is an economic crisis of Indian farming. The agrarian productivity is not in keeping with the country’s requirement and the availability of land and resources. And linked with that, the third is the existential crisis of the farmer. Farming is an unviable proposition, and is mostly a loss-making activity. Price of agricultural commodities has not kept pace with input costs and consumption expenditure of the farmer. The farmers barely manage to survive in a good year and find themselves in a debt-trap in any adversity. The phenomenon of farmers’ suicide is directly related to this crisis.
What is remarkable about the farmers’ strike in Maharashtra is that it has sought to address this basic crisis. The farmers’ demands are not for any immediate, localised relief. Instead, they have raised the fundamental issue of determination of crop prices. They have reminded the ruling party of its electoral promise of fixing the MSP so as to yield 50 per cent over and above the cost of the farmers. They have demanded implementation of many structural reforms suggested by the Swaminathan Commission. And, of course, they have demanded a loan waiver for all farmers. These are some of the long-standing demands of the movement that no party is willing to address.
The Fadnavis government has agreed to a partial and conditional loan waiver. But that is not going to satisfy the farmers. The CM has assured that procurement shall take place as per the MSP. But that does not address the basic issue of how the MSP is fixed in the first place. Fadnavis is much unlikely to get any support from the Centre. The NDA government is arguably the most farmer unfriendly Central government in the history of Independent India. We do not know how long the strike will last, but we do know that its real demands are unlikely to be met.
Farmers in Maharashtra have shown the path. Farmers in the rest of the country shall have to hold the baton now and take this struggle to its logical conclusion.
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