Groundswell of Peasant Protests Sends Tremors Across Maharashtra
Maharashtra has been witnessing a massive peasant movement in the recent weeks, and it is creating waves. All across the BJP-ruled state, thousands are flocking to farmers’ conventions where several longstanding demands of the peasantry are being raised. The conventions began in Nashik on 10 July, and are expected to go on till 23 July when a call for further action is expected to be given.
Joint Peasant Convention at Beed district, 20 July 2017
The agrarian distress that has been going on for many years and the suicides of thousands of debt-ridden farmers form the background of the current surge of the peasant movement in Maharashtra. The crisis that has engulfed the agriculture sector is widely seen by farmers’ organisations and economists as being the direct result of policies followed by the central and state governments in the last two and a half decades.
Joint Peasant Convention at Amaravati, 15 July 2017
The foundation for the current struggles was laid in a series of agitations last year. The first of these was a one-lakh strong sit-in satyagraha by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) at the Nashik Golf Club Grounds, in March 2016. The farmers were demanding debt relief, minimum support price 50% above the cost of production, drought relief package, forest land distribution for Adivasi peasantry, and takeover of surplus land under the control of temples and its redistribution to the landless.
Joint Peasant Convention at Wardha, 17 July 2017
This was followed by a struggle on the issue of drought at the Aurangabad Divisional Commissioner’s office in May 2016, and a 50,000 strong siege of the Adivasi Development Minister Vishnu Savra’s house at Wada in Palghar district in October 2016.
In April this year, the Kisan Sabha began a march which it named the ‘Aasood Yatra’ (‘Whipcord March’) throughout the state. The name of the march was inspired by Jotirao Phule’s famous book Shetkaryacha Asood (‘The Farmer’s Whipcord’). District conventions, meetings and demonstrations culminated in an ‘Aasood’ State Rally to the house of the BJP’s state agriculture minister Pandurang Fundkar at Khamgaon in Buldana district of Vidarbha region on May 11.
The main demands of the march were complete loan waiver to farmers who own less than 25 acres of dry land and less than 10 acres of irrigated land, remunerative prices to farmers at cost of production plus 50 percent profit, implementation of all the recommendations of the MS Swaminathan Commission, and pension of Rs 3000 per month to poor and middle peasants and agricultural workers aged 60 and above.
By the beginning of June, peasant protests had erupted in several other states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan as the steep crash in the prices of a large number of crops plunged farmers deeper into crisis. Maharashtra saw a 10-day strike called by the farmers’ organisations in the state.
The strike began on 1 June at Punthamba village in Nashik, where farmers refused to take their produce such as milk, vegetables and fruits to the market. On the night of June 2, a 17-member delegation of the Core Committee of farmers’ organisations met the Chief Minister for talks, following which two self-styled leaders close to the RSS announced the “withdrawal” of the strike.
But Ajit Nawale, Maharashtra State Secretary of the AIKS and a member of the delegation, pointed out that none of the main demands had been agreed to by the Chief Minister. He argued that the strike should not be withdrawn, and walked out of the talks. Nawale’s intervention was described by observers as the catalyst for the subsequent phase of the agitation.
After this episode, the Kisan Sabha and other farmers’ organisations decided to continue the strike. In a meeting of the organisations held at Nashik on 4 June, the old Core Committee that held discussions with the CM was declared dissolved, and a new 21-member Coordination Committee comprising leaders of 21 peasant organisations was formed. Ajit Nawale was elected the Convenor of the new Coordination Committee. The Committee called for a state-wide bandh on 5 June.
On the day of the bandh, almost the entire rural and semi-urban Maharashtra came to a halt to support the state-wide farmers’ strike. Lakhs of farmers hit the streets to voice the demands of the bandh. Effigies of the BJP government were burnt, and numerous peasants were injured in police lathi charges at several places. Hundreds were arrested.
The very next day, thousands of peasants closed down the tehsil offices in the state, putting padlocks on many of them. The police firing at Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh which led to the death of five farmers created a huge impact in the state.
On June 8, a State Farmers’ Convention was held in Nashik, where leaders of the farmers’ organisations came under one stage for the first time. A call was given for Rail and Raasta Roko (blockade of rail and roads) on 13 June all over the state if the government refused to relent. The success of the week-long farmers’ strike and the unity of peasant organisations which was visible at the convention conveyed a strong message.
Sit-in Satyagraha by the All India Kisan Sabha at Nashik, 29 March 2016
The farmers’ organisations gave the state government four to five days to come to a decision. The government, which initially made the curious claim that it would talk to only “real farmers”, bowed to pressure and invited the Coordination Committee for talks. Meanwhile the Committee was expanded and now it included 35 members (up from 21 in the beginning) as more organisations joined it.
In the talks held in Mumbai on June 11, the government agreed for complete loan waiver to the farmers, excluding the rich sections. The Committee accepted the government’s offer. It was also decided that a “criteria committee” will be formed to decide the criteria for excluding the rich farmers from loan waiver.
The promises, if implemented, would have meant a historic victory of the peasants of Maharashtra.
But the state government soon backtracked. Instead of complete loan waiver which would entail waiving off the total peasant crop loan of Rs. 1.14 lakh crore, the government announced a Rs 34,000 crore loan waiver.
The farmers’ organisations cried foul, since the package would mean that more than 70 percent of the loans would still remain. Moreover, now only loans up to Rs. 1.5 lakh were to be waived off. Those having loans higher than Rs. 1.5 lakh would have to repay the remaining amount in one go if the government is to provide them loan waiver. 30 June 2016 was fixed as the cut-off date for loan waiver, whereas the demand of the farmers was to fix 30 June 2017 as the cut-off date. This meant the exclusion of a large number of farmers who took loans in the months after June 2016 in the expectation of a good monsoon. The government also said that only defaulters, and not those who are paying loans regularly, would get the benefit of waiver.
Such additional conditions which went contrary to the promises made in the negotiations led the Coordination Committee to reject the package. The Committee declared that the struggle would be intensified further, and decided to organise joint peasant conventions for mass awakening (Janjaagran) in various districts of Maharashtra from 10 to 23 July.
Meanwhile the Kisan Mukti Yatra organised by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee was welcomed warmly at Dhule on 9 July. It was greeted with similar enthusiasm on 10 July at Nashik before it moved on to Gujarat.
Massive farmers’ joint conventions began on 10 July, as per the decision of the Coordination Committee. The conventions in the northern, Konkan and Vidarbha regions were held from 10 to 17 July, while those in the Marathwada and Western Maharashtra regions began on 18 July and are scheduled to go on till 23 July. Tens of thousands of farmers have participated in the conventions in spite of it being the sowing season.
A key poll promise of the BJP in the 2014 elections was that it would implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations on remunerative crop prices. The farmers’ anger at the Modi government’s refusal to implement these recommendations has come through clearly in the ongoing conventions. The government even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, stating that it cannot implement the Swaminathan Commission recommendations as that would “distort the market”.
The farmers’ organisations point out that even as the central government is dilly-dallying on its promises to the peasantry, it has been willingly providing lakhs of crores of rupees as loan waivers and tax concessions to big corporate houses. Thousands of copies of a booklet brought out by AIKS on the MS Swaminathan Commission recommendations have been sold as part of the campaign.
Leaders of the AIKS, Shetkari Sanghatana, Prahaar Shetkari Sanghatana, AIKS (Ajoy Bhavan), Satyashodhak Shetkari Sabha, and Baliraja Shetkari Sanghatana are among those who are touring the state as part of the conventions.
The conventions, which began in Nashik are scheduled to end on 23 July in Pune, where the farmers’ organisations are expected to give a call for the intensification of the struggle.
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