Rss

  • stumble
  • youtube
  • linkedin

A Protest Like No Other -#FarmersMarchToMumbai

When foodgivers walked 180 km in six days seeking enough food for themselves, they caught the attention of the nation. Jayashree Bhosale reports

Ajit Navale is busier than usual these days. The doctor has to attend patients at his hospital at Akole, a taluka place 20-km off the Pune-Nashik highway, as well as meet many a well-wisher who is walking in to congratulate him.

The achievement, though, is outside his profession.

Navale was one of the key brains behind organising the Kisan Long March, the recent farmers’ procession in Maharashtra that caught the attention of the whole nation, and has been seen as a success.

The doctor who is familiar with distress that the agrarian community around him faces, has always been there to fight for farmers’ rights. He was part of the farmer strike that started spontaneously on June 1, 2017 from Nashik and spread to other parts of the country, and resulted in the death of some protesting farmers in police firing in Madhya Pradesh.

That strike had forced the Maharashtra government to announce a loan waiver scheme for farmers who could not repay their crop loans taken between 2009 and 2016.

Eight months since announcing the waiver, only about 40% of the 89 lakh eligible farmers could get at least some relief.

This was one of the triggers for the latest agitation.

The Maharashtra unit of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), at a meeting held at Sangli on February 15, decided to try another form of protest. It decided to hold a long march of farmers from Nashik to the state capital of Mumbai nearly 180 kilometres away, and picket the assembly when it was in session. Navale is the state general secretary of the AIKS.

The march started from Nashik on March 6 with participation of about 10,000-12,000 farmers. The number swelled to more than 30,000 by the time it reached Mumbai on March 12.

The AIKS, which is linked to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has its base mainly in the tribal areas of Nashik, Thane, Palghar and Ahmednagar districts. That meant, many of the participants of the march were tribal people. But, many of those who joined the march later didn’t even belong to the Kisan Sabha.

There was widespread anger among farmers, not just because of the slow implementation of the loan waiver scheme, but also over not getting remunerative price for their produce.

Fifty-year-old Krishnabai Jambukar from Akole, for instance, wants at least ₹15 a kg for the onions she grows as a sharecropper. She gets only ₹4-8 in the wholesale market.

LOOT VAPASI

Farmer organisations across the country have agreed on two common demands to raise with the authorities: a price of at least 1.5 times the cost for their produce and a full loan waiver.

The Swaminathan commission that studied the issue of farmer suicides had recommended the government to ensure a return of 1.5 times the cost of production. “A farmer commits suicide, because for generations he has been getting negative net returns. Farming is in loss because the government interferes and manipulates prices of farm produce to ensure urban consumers get cheaper food and industries get cheap raw material,” Navale said.

P Chengal Reddy, the chief adviser to the Consortium of Indian Farmers’ Organisations, linked farmers’ miseries with government policies. “For example, the import and export policies are always controlled by vested interests. Huge quantities of pulses and edible oil allowed to be imported in the country despite local farmers not getting remunerative prices for both,” he said.

A complete loan waiver is the other primary demand. Asking for loan waiver is neither begging nor asking for a favour, Navale said. “It is Loot Vapasi. Generations of farmers have been robbed of their rightful income. We are asking for its partial return by way of loan waivers.”

Senior journalist Sunil Tambe explained the economic rationale behind loan waivers: “The farmer has to pay upfront for buying inputs from corporates but has no control on market prices. He has to bear the risk of production and marketing. Loan waiver is that temporary relief which can help farming come out of the intensive care unit to the normal hospital bed.”

STRIKING A CHORD

The long march was unprecedented in the way it built up public pressure on political parties and the government.

“Apart from the sheer number of participants in the morcha, people could see that they were genuine poor, landless food givers asking for enough food for themselves,” said Ashok Dhawale, the president of the AIKS.

The decision of the protestors to walk during night-time to avoid any inconvenience to students appearing for board examinations, moved everyone.

The public pressure was so huge that organisations like the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, whose ideologies are diagonally opposite to CPM’s, extended their support to the march.

The urban middle class, too, became sensitive towards the conditions of farmers. Mumbaikars volunteered to provide food to the marching farmers, who had come to the financial capital as their voices from the hinterland had fallen on deaf ears.

TRIBAL FARMERS

The morcha achieved many objectives, including an assurances from the state government to widen the scope of beneficiaries and relaxing the terms of the loan waiver scheme announced last year for ‘mainstream farmers’.

The government agreed to extend the scheme, earlier restricted to defaulting farmers between 2009 and 2016, to farmers who had defaulted on loan payments from 2001 to 2009 and from June 2016 to June 2017. It will also waive long-term farm loan up to ₹1.5 lakh. Previously, it was restricted to shortterm crop loan.

The state also agreed to change beneficiary from family to individual bank account holder. Farmers had alleged that despite knowing that loan was normally taken by the male members of the family, the government prioritised waiver to loans taken by women to reduce its burden in the name of giving preference to women.

A major achievement, according to journalist Tambe, was the realisation that tribal people were also farmers.

The reference was to chief minister Devendra Fadanvis’ statement that it was a march mainly by tribal people demanding the right of ownership over forest land, and not by farmers seeking loan waiver.

The government agreed to dispose of about two lakh applications of tribal people regarding their rights over the forests land they cultivate.

PRIVATE BILLS

The All India Kisan Sangharsha Coordination Committee, which has about 150 constituent organisations and was set up following the 2017 farmer strikes, plans to present two private member’s Bills in the Lok Sabha. Raju Shetty, the founder-leader of the Swbhimani Shetkari Sangathana and MP, will move the Bills, seeking debt relief and guarantee on minimum price. The coordination committee has organised a convention of political parties in New Delhi on March 29 to seek support of at least 50 MPs, which is required for placing a private member’s Bill on the floor of the House.

TOP: Ajit Navale was one of the brains behind the Kisan Long March BELOW: Farmers walked from Nashik to Mumbai demanding land rights, loan waivers and better compensation and support to the farming sector

Farmer’s Long March: Giving Legs To A Story

As a long distance march passes through different towns, it is a chance to deliver its message to new audiences and win more supporters. Vikram Doctor reports

At the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony one group of performers stood out. Amid the dazzling display, directed by Danny Boyle, of all that was quirky and entertaining about the British, a small group of men and one woman were distinctive for their drab clothing and banner with stark black on white words: Jarrow Crusade.

It was Boyle’s tribute to an event that, when it took place in 1936, might have seemed unlikely to be remembered beyond a few years. It was a march of 200 men, along with their young women MP, from their home in Jarrow in the north of England, to London to protest the devastating closure of the shipyard that was the town’s main employer. They walked around 290 miles in 22 days.

It was not the only such march at that time. Widespread 1930s unemployment led to several ‘hunger marches’ on London, including a larger one at the same time, and a march of blind men on almost the same route. In London the government refused to meet the Jarrow Marchers, and they were sent home with just their train fare. Ironically, it was the industrial demands of World War II that soon revived the region, but after that long term industrial decline set in that has never really lifted.

Yet it has become mythical. Matt Perry, a labour historian, notes in his book The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend: “five plays, two musicals, an opera, three pop songs, two folk songs, several paintings and poems, a short story, performance art, a mural, two sculptures, glassware, four television documentaries (three British, one German), four radio programmes, a children’s story, a cuddly toy…” And this is not including its Olympic moment, in front of the watching world.

It is probably unlikely that the Farmer’s March that descended on Mumbai earlier this week will be remembered in the same way. Yet the coverage it got was extensive and near reverential, a bit like how the Jarrow March is now treated in the UK. The agrarian crisis that triggered the march has been festering and reported for years, yet it never got such major coverage before this week.

Vivid images of the farmers’ blistered and bandaged feet illustrated stories about their desperation and the hard walking that had brought them to the city. The march was also much praised for its order and the way in which it avoided disrupting life in the city – which has painful reminders of how much political protests habitually throw life out of gear.

The Farmer’s March seemed to be a reminder that long distance walking protests can make for effective political theatre. The physical toil forces more respect that just arriving in a bus, while its extended nature, in time and across distance, literally gives the story ‘legs’. As a long distance march passes through different towns, it is a chance to deliver its message to new audiences and win more supporters – who aren’t jeopardised by the marchers sticking around to outlive their welcome.

One reason Jarrow is remembered is because, somewhat inadvertently, it was ideal for mass media tools like radio and cinema that were just beginning to develop in the 1930s. Perry notes that Labour activists were suspicious of newspapers which, controlled by large business interests, had not been supportive of them in the past. But the Jarrow marchers agreed to have reporters march along with them possibly because they felt so desperate they had nothing more to lose.

By luck, they were filmed by the BBC and other new film news channels. The marchers were an ideal subject. Their relatively small numbers, compared to the larger hunger march, made for easier viewing. The parallel march of blind men got more immediate sympathy, and government access, but ultimately readers and viewers – a new concept at that time – could related more to the woes of unemployment.

Jarrow also showed how a wider message can best be told through smaller stories. One much repeated story was of how one marcher, on receiving a ham sandwich on the way, took out the meat and posted it back to his family, because they had not eaten meat in weeks. Whether true or not, the story was great fodder for reporters and conveyed the deprivation of towns like Jarrow in an extremely effective way.

Another story was of the big black dog that marched along. Reporters are cynical of how children and animals are used to add interest to a story, but Jarrow showed how effective this could be. It is not clear if the dog actually meant to come along, but once its presence was noted, it played its part well enough. It often got special meals at stops along the way and featured in many photographs. The dog now tags along as a small, but essential part, of every memorial to the Jarrow March.

NATIONAL MYTHS

Two other marches like Jarrow, have become national myths. The one obvious parallel in India is Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March in 1930, and the other is the March on Washington in 1963 for civil rights for black people. There have been many other protest marches, of course, including some that involved much walking (like various political padayatras in India), yet few others have reached the mythical status of these three.

There are interesting links between them. Ellen Wilkinson, the firebrand Labour MP for Jarrow, who lead the March, was also a strong supporter of Indian independence. She was close to Krishna Menon, knew Jawaharlal Nehru and had visited Gandhi on a fact finding mission in 1932. She would have definitely known much about the success of the Dandi salt satyagraha from a few years back.

The March on Washington is most associated with Martin Luther King, whose delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at it. But its main organiser was Bayard Rustin, an African American activist who also had much experience with the anti-war movement, and through to Gandhians (he was also, remarkably for his time, an openly gay man).

They also avoided overt political identification, and at least attempted to show they wanted in broad dialogue. Gandhi famously sent a letter to Lord Irwin, the Viceroy, informing him of his intentions and inviting him to avoid the struggle. The 1963 March challenged President Kennedy’s lack of action on civil rights, but the organisers avoided direct attacks and kept up a show of co-operation that allowed Kennedy to claim the March as a support for his hastily unveiled Civil Rights programme.

DID THEY WORK?

This is where the importance of myth comes in. The Jarrow march was a clear failure in the short term, yet its subsequent stature helped build the image of the deserving, yet unfairly deprived working man, which contributed to the Labour movement’s later success. The Civil Rights Act in the US was arguably delivered more by the shock of Kennedy’s assassination and President Johnson’s manoeuvring after. Yet its foundational importance of the March in the fight against racism cannot be doubted – even as it continues today.

The Dandi march did little for its stated aims of removing unfair taxes like the salt tax, and most of its leaders were soon in jail. Films like Gandhi argue that it helped embarrass the British globally, and force Irwin to negotiate. But perhaps its greatest success was in what Gandhi had intended all along – to use it as a huge teaching exercise for Indians in satyagraha, and how it could be channelled into the nationalist movement.

For the farmers who marched to Mumbai the long term success of their painful march must lie in how they manage the myth. The short term gains, like waiver of debt, will almost definitely be pointless in the long run. But if the March can build on the sympathies it gained it might make people aware of the real problems that must be tackled in the long run – and the difficult decisions that must be taken.

For example, it has long been clear that Maharashtra’s vast focus on sugar is environmentally bad, economically dubious, hardly ideal for the real food needs of people and of real benefit only to the politically powerful sugar barons. It is also clear that farmers have to cultivate a greater range of crops, particularly pulses, and receive support for all of them – not just rice, wheat and sugar.

And city dwellers must get ready to pay the real, higher, costs of crops like vegetables, in ways which benefit actual farmers more, and not just the manipulators of the mandis. For all this to happen, more awareness, involvement and understanding of agricultural issues is needed. The best tribute that can be paid to the sore feet of the farmers who marched to Mumbai is to start that happening.

Related posts

Comment (1)

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    The long march has given hope and optimism to farmers. They could exert pressure on rulers to address their issues

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: