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When Indian farmers put their foot down

Indian farmers have clearly underlined the key message — this current dispensation supports the urban rich and big businesses, refusing to recognise the rural, the farming class and the landless labourer

When Indian farmers put their foot down

The March 2018 issue of the prestigious periodical Caravan has a very interesting piece by two researchers based on a research conducted on a media analysis platform developed by MIT and Harvard. The piece delves deep into the reasons behind the scanty coverage of farmers’ protests in the mainstream media.

The article goes on to highlight, that even in cases where media tended to cover them, they were either run with the lens of ‘political interest’ of ministers, Members of Parliament etc or so called ‘sensational stunts’ employed by the protesting farmers in order to attract attention. Overall, it attributed this to the biased location of urban, middle class India from which these journalists come, thereby largely making the cultivators invisible leaving them without much agency. If any agency was to be bestowed on them, it was as puppets working at the behest of ‘vested political interests’ trying to outwit each other.

Media reported how acceding to the appeal of the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, they agreed to march additional 25 kms in the night so that the students undertaking exams would not be disturbed in the day.

Ironically, during this month, a 40,000 strong farmers’ march took place between Nashik and Mumbai (the capital of Maharashtra) covering a distance of around 200 kilometres over four days. The key demands of the marchers included an amendment in the recent loan waiver scheme announced by the Maharashtra government to cover older cases as well as those loans taken by the members of the families; a stricter implementation of Forest Rights Act, (which accorded tenureship rights to the tribal communities who were cultivating these lands along with community rights on land); better price for their crops through increased Minimum Support Price; push for multiple water conservation schemes to provide water to the parched lands of this region and also look at the severe health conditions being faced by the tribal communities and provide solutions for them.

While initially the march didn’t make much headline barring the sharing of video clippings through social media or scattered reporting by sympathetic digital media, it suddenly began to catch everyone’s eyes as it neared Mumbai, the commercial capital of India. Pictures and videos of the long red flags sported by the marchers began to get more and more prominence; there were reports as how many of these marchers (with a strong contingent of women) were walking barefoot, without much food or shelter. Photos are still being displayed of their bloodied feet full of blisters.

Support also emerged from a section of the Mumbaikars as the marchers entered the city; some providing them medical help, others pair of sandals and the city’s famous Dabbawala union supplying them with food. Media reported how acceding to the appeal of the Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, they agreed to march additional 25 kms in the night so that the students undertaking exams would not be disturbed in the day.

It is not that all was nice and rosy suddenly. A large section of right wing media led by the ruling party BJP’s honchos began to call it a conspiracy of the communists as the march was organised by All India Kisan Sabha, the peasant wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxists) — CPI (M). Another BJP spokesperson called them ‘úrban Maoists’ engineered by the well-heeled anti-BJP sections who were providing them with all the logistical support etc. But they were soon outgunned by a majority of the mainstream media as the images of barefoot, barely clad frail looking old and young, men and women began to flood the drawing rooms of the urban middle classes across the country.

As the March entered Azad Maidan, the venue of the marchers’ congregation, the CM hurried to strike a deal with the protestors agreeing to almost all their demands in writing, while also praising them for the amazing grace displayed by the marchers. While this helped prevent further damage to the state government at least temporarily, this victory coming at the back of ongoing farmers protests nationwide in the past two years seemed and was projected like a light at the end of the tunnel.

Economist Himanshu, in a recent article (published in the early March issue of the journal Economic and Political Weekly), while comparing the data of farmers protests has noted an 8 times rise in the number of farmers protests in the last two years alone. According to him, the year 2016 alone saw 4837 farmers’ protests.

Farmer mass unrests have been reported from Tamilnadu (farmers coming to Delhi to protest on Jantar Mantar threatening to drink urine, covering themselves with skulls ostensibly belonging to the farmers who had committed suicide); Uttar Pradesh (in a recent incident farmers dumped their unsold potatoes and milk in front of Raj Bhavan early in the morning causing huge embarrassment to the ruling BJP once again); Maharashtra (multiple protests, the last one being in Nashik again drawing almost an equally large crowd like the most recent one); Rajasthan (almost an equally large and fierce one a few months ago); Gujarat (where an angry farming class made it really difficult for BJP to come back to power in their own backyard and they barely made it by the skin of their teeth); Madhya Pradesh (in Mandsaur district a surging farmer protest witnessed police firing leading to the death of 5 in 2017) and Chhattisgarh, to name a few.

So what has led to this unending surge of farmers in recent years? With a population base of about 60-70 per cent dependent on agriculture producing just about 16-17 per cent of total GDP as per recent statistics, there are larger structural challenges which have led to a consistent decline in agriculture in the past few decades. In contrast, services industry backed by IT’s strong growth generates around 60 per cent of the total output with just under 30 per cent of the country’s population driving it. Hence, there is inequality writ large on the forehead of the farming community.

However, recent years have also seen wide fluctuations in this regard. Himanshu calculates that, while during the years 2004-5 to 2012-13, agriculture posted a decent growth of about 3.84 per cent per annum backed by decent MSP, India’s ambitious rural employment guarantee programme and widespread construction in the rural areas, this has declined to a meagre 1.86 per cent currently. There was a concomitant sharp decline in the wages of farmers during these years. All this points to a larger malaise of steady decline in investment in the agriculture sector itself. This comes as a huge irony since the current government’s recent promises included doubling of farmers’ income by 2022.

However, there is another dimension to the story in the recent protests. While the country has seen one too many public gathering of farmers in the preceding years, they were largely seen as muscle flexing by the large and middle farmers. The latest protest perhaps witnessed a unique coming together of small farmers and a large section of landless tribals who were not only asking for loan waivers but formal right to till the lands they have been cultivating for generations. While thousands of farmers’ suicides have become everyday news now, the coming together of these pauperised sections of the rural class in a way also signified an altogether distinct mode of protest, which became literally the talk of the town.

So in a way, farmers of all variety and layers are not only coming out again and again on the streets but in the very act are clearly underlining the key message which was always visible to the analysts. That is, this current dispensation supports the urban rich and the big businesses. It doesn’t recognise the rural, the farming class, the landless labourer. The truth despite being a cliché is what stands out starkly before us. And somewhere, the shame in recognising the same, found itself faced with a mirror amidst the recent marchers.

Avinash Kumar

avinash photo copy
The author has been in the development sector for more than a decade and currently works with an International non-governmental organisation based in Delhi. He may be reached at: [email protected]

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