Nohar (Rajasthan): After Punjab and Haryana, the Samyukta Kisan Morcha -- a collective of farmers’ unions – held mahapanchayats in Rajasthan with assemblies held in Nohar and Churu on February 22 and 23, respectively.
The rallies saw the participation of around 10,000 people, smaller than the massive gatherings in Western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. However, this is part of the strategy of the farmers’ collective, which now seems to be focused on comprehensive campaigns in rural areas, where people are still unaware about the implications of the farm laws.
Farmers and youth of Rajasthan, who participated in the mahapanchayats in a big way, are aware and angry for their complaints and problems being ignored.
In Nohar region of Hanumangarh district, Sahab Ram rushes with a bunch of applications neatly stacked in a transparent plastic folder. He is going to meet Balwan Punia, one of the prominent faces in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, to raise his complaint about funds being delayed for four years against the sales of certified seeds of wheat.
Ram and his friends have been growing seeds of different crops to be sold to a local co-operative affiliated with Rajasthan State Seeds Corporation Limited, and are part of the farmers’ rally in Rajasthan’s Nohar.
“The co-operative is holding up payment of Rs 1.16 crore since 2016-17 on the pretext of unsold seeds. Similarly, payments of Rs 15 lakh and Rs 13 lakh, respectively, for seeds of wheat and moong have been withheld,” says Ram, adding that “it must understand that the small farmers like us cannot be in debt for such a long period. It (the co-operative) is saying that the seeds could not be sold. How does it matter? It has been selling the seeds at a premium rate whereas we get about only Rs 400 above the minimum support price.”
Ram says the new farm and labour laws will decimate any possibility of support to the working population. “Look, they have already increased the working hours from 8 to 12. The provisions of the new laws will sound the death knell for the public distribution system. So, there is strong resentment among people,” says Ram, who along with his friends have travelled about 150 km to attend the first mahapanchayat called by Samyukta Kisan Morcha in Hanumangarh’s Nohar.
Asked how long he expects the farmers’ movement to continue, Ram says, “It is up to the government. Farmers will not stop unless the laws are repealed and a guaranteed law for MSP (minimum support price for crops) is introduced. Once the government accepts our demands, the movement will conclude accordingly.”
A little away, Mohammad Rustom, along with his friends, is serving water to the rally participants. Rustom, a member of the Muslim Aman Insaf Committee, Nohar, says the region is witnessing acute water scarcity and alternative methods are only making agriculture expensive.
“Some parts of the district receive canal water but for most other parts, the farmers have to depend on bore wells. Sometimes we get water at 250 feet beneath the surface. Sometimes, we may have to dig a little deeper. For such bore wells, we pay about Rs 3 lakh. Now, when we grow gram, mustard or guar, we do not get even recover our costs. Gram, for which MSP is Rs 4,875/quintal was sold for Rs 4,000- 4,500. Even if we succeed in selling at MSP, we may have to wait for 6-18 months to receive the payment,” says Rustom.
Asked for his view on the perception that the region’s farmers are not participating in the movement in a big way, Rustom says, “The farmers of this area are aware of the farm laws and have significantly participated at the Shahjahanpur protest site. The Muslim fraternity here ensured that there was adequate representation at the protest site because this movement is not linked to any religion or caste. It’s for farmers and we will ensure that farmers win against these oppressive laws.”
As the mahapanchayat proceeds, Shyam Sundar, along with Pala Ram, Mula Ram and Hari Singh sit under the shade of a cloth tied to a pole to escape the scorching sun. Pala Ram takes a jibe at the lack of ‘family connection’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying “only people with families would feel the pain of running a household in difficult times.”
Across regions of states, such as Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, farmers have been gathering in large numbers to protest against the three farm laws, and everywhere one can hear this refrain about “only people with families would know our suffering”. This strong feeling of the PM’s “disconnect” with the woes of farmers appears to be denting his nurtured image of being a ‘benevolent’ leader, despite cash-guzzling sophisticated PR campaigns.
Sundar recalls his days in Ahmedabad and Surat in Gujarat (the PM’s home state) to highlight the so-called “benefits” of these laws.
“I lived in Surat and Ahmedabad for eight years. PM Modi and his party campaigned and projected as if there we had an extraordinary model of development, known as the Gujarat Model. People, some of whom I know personally, are still dependent on water supplied by tankers there. Yet they still voted for Modi because Ramdev-Anna Hazare duo duped them by saying that he would offer ‘a clean, honest’ government.”
Rising fuel prices, especially of diesel, have been hitting the farmers harder. Sundar says, “Diesel consumption in this area is higher compared with other regions because we hardly get electricity for 12 hours in a day. Government spokespersons keep repeating that it is a matter of pride that people are contributing to country’s development by paying taxes. All that’s fine, but will they tell us why, despite the exorbitant tax rates, do we have such mounting fiscal deficit? They have even snatched money from Reserve Bank of India. Where is our money going?”
Coming back to the need to repeal the farm laws, Sundar says that the biggest difference lies in the government’s treatment of farmers. Citing the example of Rajasthan, he says, “On the one hand, the state government has put a stock holding bar of 25 quintal per farmer whereas the stock limit for private traders is unlimited as of now.”
Support for the farmers' protest in Rajasthan is pouring in from different quarters. Tarachand Thodi, a young boy who was recently appointed as a nursing officer in a Centre-run hospital, aims at critics who are questioning the farmers' protests for over three months for going on “without any victory”.
“For how many years did we fight for freedom from the British colonisers? It went on for decades. Why are people in such a hurry to reach any conclusion? The important thing is that people are fighting. If we give up hope without any fight, we will certainly not win. But struggle always give you hope,” Thodi says.
Simmering Youth Anger
The simmering anger among the youth could also be sensed in Churu’s mahapanchayat, which saw large participation of the young population, who are at the forefront of the struggle there. Sunny, who came from Jasrasar in Churu, lashes out at the recent statement of Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar, saying that “mere crowd gathering cannot push the government to repeal the laws”.
Talking to NewsClick, Sunny says, “Tomarji is forgetting that BJP formed a government with absolute majority only by gathering crowd. Then we were right? Now, when we are asking to repeal the laws, we are demons? We are expected to fall in line without raising a finger. We are not slaves. First, they increased the prices of petrol, then LPG, and now diesel. Farmers will no longer accept this.”
Away from the main Mahapanchayat stage in Churu, Mewa Ram is sitting under the shadow of a tree to beat the heat. He counts his expenses on his fingers and says, “I have done calculations several times for determining the cost of production. I found that for producing a quintal of wheat, I spend about Rs 2,100 whereas the sale fetches me Rs 1,700 per quintal. Please remember, input costs are rising every year but the prices of crops are only reversing.”
Ram, however, seems confident about the government repealing the three agri laws. “Our experience suggests that governments accepted our demands only when farmers have struggled unitedly. Vasundhara Raje (former Rajasthan CM and BJP leader) also enjoyed absolute majority in the government. It had introduced a new bar of temperature dipping below -2.8 degree Celsius to claim any damage on crop insurance. It was only our struggle that compelled it to accept our demands. Now, Churu is among the few districts where farmers get 60% coverage on insurance. So, it is only our struggle that will bring victory for us, nothing else,” he says.