Kisan Long March shows farmers have decided to make themselves heard

The rally has pointed out to the political, media and business elite that people want economic and social rights, not the communal game.

 |  7-minute read |   14-03-2018
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There is nothing like an absolute victory, or an absolute defeat. They are relative terms in a contested space, especially in a seriously fragmented, unequal and diverse democracy.

For instance, an electoral defeat in one geographical space, might not anticipate the simmering contours of mass uprising in another distant mapping, especially in the vast and often invisible rural hinterland of India.

Moments after the CPM lost the elections in Tripura, the march was already preparing to start from Nashik in Maharashtra, along with several other progressive organisations. By the time it had moved beyond Nashik, the farmers had accepted, with an open and non-dogmatic heart, the unconditional support of major political parties: the Shiv Sena, MNS, NCP, Congress, Peasants and Workers Party, CPI, AAP, among others. This had already become a formidable struggle.

In this context, the 180km-long march of the farmers, including the poorest of the poor with just about "do bigha zameen", or even lesser in their possession, resurrected memories of the Hindi black-and-white classic Bimal Roy directed, as much as the Dandi March led by Mahatma Gandhi. Indeed, it has become an epical narrative of farmers’ resistance in India. 

In their own words, the farmer leaders have described it as a “historic struggle and a historic victory” - this time “in writing”.

In a noble gesture, that deeply touched the heart of Mumbai’s residents, the farmers, bone tired and with abject lack of sleep, walked an extra 25km in the neon-lit night on Sunday to enter Mumbai, so that school students sitting for their board exams do not get disturbed. And, despite some channels screaming endlessly that traffic has been disturbed etc (or, discussing about Sunanda Pushkar’s murder when the whole country is discussing the farmers’ distress), Mumbai responded with an outpouring of solidarity and compassion, from the elite to the middle class, to NGOs and students, to the dabbawallas who arrived with packs of "pav bhaji" at Azad Maidan.

Flowers were showered from terraces on the march, young boys distributed water and biscuits, while some went around their neighbourhood collecting sandals for the weary feet of the farmers. India has not seen such a remarkable "unity in diversity" in recent times, amid the organised and engineered wave of social polarisation and hate politics dominating the land in recent times.

From Nashik to Mumbai, in blazing heat, while sleeping in open-to-sky landscapes with frugal food in their stomachs and with bleeding feet, this was a peaceful, organised, disciplined march in a "sea of red", wearing red caps, red head-bands and holding flags with the eternal working class symbol of "sickle and hammer". The march was initially, and predictably, ignored by the mainstream media, including the audio-visual media, despite the cinematic content and the dramatic realism.

However, it was the social media cameras and certain stoic reporters, which transformed this river into a sea, with many new rivers of farmers joining at various cross-sections, swelling the tide of the march.  

Led by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), the peasant front of the CPM, the farmers, around 40,000-plus, including a large section of tribals who live in and around the forests, hailed from Nashik, Palghar,Thane, Dhule and Nandurbar in North Maharashtra. The adivasis came from the tribal belts, like that of Kalwan, Surgana, Dindori, Talasari, Kokhada, Jawhar, Shahapur, Murbad, among other interior zones. The main demands were as follows:

1) Full and final implementation of the Forest Rights Act (2006) enacted by the UPAI government, taking full cognisance of the ground conditions of land distribution and forest conditions.

2) Complete and unconditional loan waiver, beginning from 2001, and with no bureaucratic clauses and hurdles.

3) Minimum support price for the farmers produce, promised by Narendra Modi before the 2014 election, and thereby wilfully betrayed.

4) They also demanded water from the river-linking projects in the area (Narpar, Daman Ganga and Girnar), restoration of 31 water conservation projects, community forest rights, health benefits, legitimate and legal land holdings.

5) Another crucial demand is the "national demand" of farmers all over India:  Implementation of the Swaminathan Committee Report, founded in 2004. Its recommendations are path-breaking. Some of them are:

“…Agrarian distress has led farmers to commit suicide in recent years.  The major causes of the agrarian crisis are: unfinished agenda in land reforms, quantity and quality of water, technology fatigue, access, adequacy and timeliness of institutional credit, and opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing.  Adverse meteorological factors add to these problems. Farmers need to have assured access and control over basic resources, which include land, water, bio-resources, credit and insurance, technology and knowledge management, and markets.  Agriculture should be inserted in the Concurrent List of the Constitution…

“Land reforms are necessary to address the basic issue of access to land for both crops and livestock.  Land holdings inequality is reflected in land ownership. In 1991-92, the share of the bottom half of the rural households in the total land ownership was only 3 per cent and the top 10 per cent was as high as 54 per cent.”

Hence, distribute ceiling-surplus and wastelands. Prevent diversion of prime agricultural land and forest to the corporate sector for non-agricultural purposes. Ensure grazing rights and seasonal access in forests to tribals and pastoralists, and access to common property resources.

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A comprehensive set of reforms to enable farmers to have sustained and equitable access to water should be implemented. Water supply through rainwater harvesting and recharge of the aquifer should be launched.

Indeed, one of the highlights of this "sea of red" was the fact that farmers have not chosen to commit suicide due to debt, crop failure, bad monsoon, etc, and instead have chosen to fight back peacefully with bleeding feet.

They have drawn the attention of the nation to extreme rural distress, with abysmally low rural growth since liberalisation, large-scale farmer suicides all over India, including in Vidarbha in Maharashtra with the disastrous BT cotton project amid scarcity of water, the collapse of the cooperative banking system and the public distribution system, the rise of parasitic money-lenders, dubious irrigation contractors-politicians and mass debt.

They have also pointed out that primarily India remains as what Gandhi said - a country of villages. And that you can’t flaunt your urban growth rate, SEZs and super power status when farmers in acute distress often commit suicide.

The rise of the farmers’ movement under the Modi regime has been stupendous. In Maharashtra itself, the AIKS, was able to mobilise 40,000 farmers in March 2016, in Nashik.  In October, the same year, around 20,000 tribals from Palghar district led a militant protest. In June 2017, thousands of farmers camped in the capital for days, ignored yet again by the big media.

Earlier, farmers were killed in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh as they protested on the streets. In Rajasthan, again led by the AIKS and former CPM MP Hannan Mollah and former MLA Amra Ram, the farmers led long marches and protest. Finally, their demands were accepted by the BJP regime.

This had a spiralling effect in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, which is on a boil yet again, as the Bharatiya Kisan Union has threatened to occupy the Parliament Street in Delhi in the days to come.

Indeed, the Kisan Long March has sown seeds of hope in a parched land where a deadly and vicious mix of crony capitalism and communalism, helped by the big media, has been ruling the roost in recent times.

It has also crucially pointed out to the political, media and business elite that the communal card is not the game which people want. People want economic and social rights - the right to land, the right to water, the right to food, the right to forests, the right to clean drinking water, education, health, the right to dignity, the right to dissent. The right to live.

Also read: Why the farmer crisis is far from over

 

Writer

Amit Sengupta Amit Sengupta

Amit Sengupta is a journalist and writer based in Delhi.

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