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Maharashtra farmers walk to be heard, seen

The majority of farmers in Maharashtra have alas, despite repeated mass protests, been fooled by hollow promises
Last Updated : 17 March 2023, 09:35 IST

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Desperate not to allow thousands of barefoot farmers enter the capital of their own state, the Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde and Deputy Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis finally met their leaders on March 16, a meeting that had been postponed thrice.

Letting these men and women with their rustic clothes, cracked feet, weather-beaten faces, and stories of deprivation set up camp in the heart of Mumbai, would have been far too risky. The last time this happened, five years ago, the farmers won over Mumbai’s notoriously blasé city slickers with their disciplined and considerate protest. Their decision to march through the night despite having walked in the heat all day, so as not to disrupt traffic on the morning of the all-important school board exams, hit just the right spot in this competitive city.

There was also another danger in allowing the villagers into India’s financial capital. For many, this would have been their first trip to the city. Even for those who’d seen Mumbai before, the glitter would have been a bitter reminder of the darkness back home. One of the demands of this long march is an uninterrupted 12-hour supply of power.

Mumbai at night is all ablaze; with the farmers set to reach the city on March 17 evening, they’d have experienced the full impact of a weekend in downtown Mumbai. From Azad Maidan, where they would have camped, the majestic CST railway station, and the headquarters of the municipal corporation, another Gothic marvel, are just across the road. Both are lit up in garish multi-colour every night. On one end of the maidan is the former ‘British-only’ club, the Bombay Gymkhana; on a Saturday night, its verandahs look warm and inviting. Azad Maidan today is also the site where huge cranes are at work to build an underground metro; at night, the work goes on under huge floodlights. Lending a touch of reality to all this dazzle are the pavement dwellers outside the Maidan’s main entrance.

Persisting Drought

No government would have wanted those who work the land under the toughest of conditions, and then barely manage to eke out an existence, to spend days and nights looking at all this.

Majority of the farmers still depend on the rains; and drought has been a repeated curse since 2015. Villagers this author met just before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections bathed every alternate day, and that luxury came after ferrying water from the nearest source.

The last few years have also seen unseasonal rains and hailstorms in March that destroy crops — for many small farmers, these have come as the last straw that has driven them to suicide. Incidentally, the Centre’s Economic Survey predicted in 2018 that farmers’ incomes could fall between 12-25 percent every year due to Climate Change.

Farmer Suicides

Then there are the fluctuations of the market. This year’s glut in onions that led farmers to set their crops on fire isn’t new; in 2019, 18 farmers committed suicide in the first 20 days of the year in Nashik as onion prices crashed. In 2021, farmers dumped tomatoes on the road. The Narendra Modi government’s Digital India obsession has also necessitated repeated trips by both husband and wife to distant Seva Kendras to fill up online forms, leaving land and cattle untended.

None of this would be unknown to Fadnavis or indeed, any politician in Maharashtra. As the state’s Agriculture Minister Abdul Sattar, formerly of the Congress and now in the ruling Shiv Sena, remarked a few days back, farmers’ suicides were nothing new.

His remark sums up perfectly why, year after year, farmers have felt they must march to the seat of power in their state. Farmers don’t matter. In this year’s budget, Fadnavis doubled the amount to be given to farmers per year, from Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000, but also slashed the allotment for agriculture by 26 percent.

Contrast this with the budget’s focus on infrastructure: metro lines and expressways, which cut through farmers’ lands. In a recent interview, a real estate expert was all praise for the manner in which these projects would open up new areas for builders; one more gift to this sector after the incentives already provided by the government to tide over the setback caused by the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Two years back, protesting farmers in North India won a massive victory over the mighty Union government. The majority of farmers in Maharashtra have alas, despite repeated mass protests, been fooled by hollow promises. This time, however, they’ve decided not to take the government at its word. If within four days the promises do not reach every taluka in the form of a government resolution, they’ll march to Mumbai. Till then they’re waiting just outside.

(Jyoti Punwani is a senior journalist.)

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Published 17 March 2023, 08:53 IST

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