THE “LONG WALK”

They completed a gruelling 170 km long walk just to ask for their rights… And then won hearts when they set forth on the final lap to south Mumbai’s Azad Maidan ground at around 2 am on March 12 to spare students who appearing for crucial Board exams

TIGHT SPOT: The government has to find a balance between keeping food prices in check (a priority to rein in runaway inflation) and ensuring farmers don’t face a price crunch

ON THE eve of Tuesday, March 6, close to 30,000 farmers started a massive march towards Mumbai from the CBS Chowk in Nashik. Covering 35 kilometeres daily, the farmers continued to protest for their rights for four days. Not only middle-aged farmers and youngsters but a large number of women and senior citizens strengthened the protest.

The “long march” which was called by the the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha (ABKS), the farmers’ collective of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded a complete farm loan waiver, transfer of forest land to tillers, implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations, compensation of `40,000 per acre to farmers hit by hailstorm and pink bollworm, and putting a stop to sharing the state’s water with Gujarat.

Along with the farmers, women and senior citizens were seen joining the protest from different places.

For part of the way, Ayush Dubey, a 24-year-old web developer and aspiring journalist in Pune, walked with them. He covered 40-odd kilometres with them on Saturday, March 10 before the heat took a toll on him. But he described how the farmers, accustomed to toiling hard on the field, showed no signs of slowing down, while some old ladies still took the time to remind him, at least thrice, to cover his head to protect himself from the heat.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Long March is the level of discipline the farmers maintained throughout their journey. They managed to complete their long journey without any instances of violence.

Dubey described the same level of discipline in their arrangement for preparing and distributing food as well. Before each meal, a team of farmers would break off from the larger procession to find a clear ground and cook food (from resources collected largely by themselves) before the rest of the group arrived. There were no large tents and the farmers would eat khichdi under the harsh sun.

Musicians in the group would play traditional songs and some farmers would even dance, somehow still energetic after their gruelling journey. Others could only on and smile as they lay down exhausted, but determined to complete the walk any how.

THE DEMANDS

MOST of the problems protested are not new. Farmers have been facing these issues for a long time now. The group consists of different farmers with different demands, but one underlying voice — a better life for themselves and their families.

First, the farmers are demanding a complete loan waiver instead of a partial one. The Maharashtra government did announce loan waivers but the benefits of this scheme have been extremely limited.

One of the organisers, Ajit Navale, general secretary of the ABKS, says protests such as this have an impact on the government. “The problems we are talking about have now become talking points,” he says. “Even though with a lot of caveats, the government was forced to deliver a loan waiver. We call it loot wapsi. Our earlier generations have been looted and exploited by the governments over the years. We are merely taking it back step by step.”

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said it was not financially feasible to meet the demand for full and unconditional farm loan waiver. However, the government has agreed to expand the list of those eligible for the farm-loan waiver announced in 2017.

The main demand of the tribals, who comprised the biggest chunk of the march from Nashik to Mumbai from 7-12 March, was to be given the land ownership rights that are guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act passed by the erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

According to the act, a maximum of 4 hectares can be allocated to a family if they are already cultivating a piece of forest land. However, the amount of land allocated to families, even those who have been cultivating 4 hectares is far from adequate.

Fadnavis promised to clear all pending claims made by tribals under the Forest Rights Act within six months.The next issue on the list is the river linking project around Nashik and Thane, which will lead to the submerging of tribal lands.

Another issue was increase in pensions to agricultural workers. Thew government has agreed to an increase from `500 to `1,000 per month

Older issues like the non-implementation of the Swaminathan commission’s recommendations still persist. The farmers were agitating for the implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendation for fixing the minimum support price at one-and-a-half times the cost of production.

Added to these issues is the fact that despite a bountiful monsoon in 2016-17, many farmers found it hard to sell their produce after prices crashed in the aftermath of demonetisation in late 2016. A failed monsoon this year significantly affected agricultural productivity and incomes of farmers in Maharashtra, who were reeling from debt. The farmers are asking for relief from economic losses sustained due to implementation of demonetisation. All these are issues which have a direct impact on these farmers and their families.

Over 60,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2013, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The morbid numbers have only increased pace since then—at least 12,400 recorded between 2014 and 2017—as consecutive droughts deepened the farmers debt problem.

A note from a professor of St Xavier college Mumbai…

TODAY morning as I was entering my college at Dhobi Talao, I saw many unfamiliar faces outside my college,  in a state of despair, agony, some with hope, with aspirations and most of them exhausted, but didn’t loose the spirit and spark. I entered my college and handed over my bag to the security and immediately turned back, the distance of 20 meters from the  main road to the main gate of my college put me in innumerable introspections.

I came out, they were the farmers of my state who had been walking for last six days,  with minimal means at their disposal. They had walked through out the night to reach Azad  Maidan for their final destination of protest. I sat with them, inquired about their well-being, they had not had tea and breakfast since morning. Though they didn’t ask for anything, but my mere interaction with them made them feel they have the attention of urban-centric people.

I returned back to my canteen and placed the  order of 200 cups of tea and biscuits for them. I returned back to them and had conversations which moved me to the core. They told me their reasonable demands and least expected the state government to take cognizance of their existence and give them fair price for their production. I could see their swollen feet, dark patches around the eyes, the bare minimum attire,  which expressed their woes of last six days struggle. Some got emotional and others still had hope that they would get justice.

Finally after sometime the tea arrived and as I started distributing  the tea, I saw some members offering the cups to the elderly men and women of their group who couldn’t reach to the pot due to over exhaustion and ill health. The tea with biscuits were taken by them with each one giving instructions to each other, that take in the limits so that everyone gets it. These expressions were phenomenal and indeed brought out those virtues which we teach as part of compulsory subjects to our students. It is inherent to them and they practice it with pride.

I really had my best  morning tea with them today. After spending almost one hour  with them, I left with the empty can of tea and many startling and distressing questions with me inside my safe St. Xavier’s College campus.

My questions are still haunting me…..

1) They told  me they were supposed to start today morning, but preferred not to cause inconvenience to the students of the  city appearing for their SSC exams. If they are thinking about our children and their future, is it not our responsibility to think about the future of their children too?

2) They told me they don’t want to trouble and disturb the  city life. Is it not our responsibility to see that even their self sustained rural fabric not disturbed by uneven policies?

3) The farmers I was speaking to said they did not need any loan waiver or packages, but an adequate price equivalent to their  investment in farming. Is it really too much they are asking for filling our plates with variety of food?

4) They said all the political parties and leaders tried to meet them and showed their support, but why did not a single leader from their Constituency, or the Constituency they walked through, or the leaders who met them yesterday, choose to walk with them today?

5) While interacting with Sangeeta maushi from Sangamner, Nashik District, she said we only have one request “you also live  and allow us also to live, as our lives are integrated to each other”. Was she really demanding too much from us?

As I introspect  now, I could not do much for them, but sincerely prayed for them to get justice, which is their inherent right as the citizens of this country.

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