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Long March for Livelihood

The BJP needs to think beyond farm loan waivers to address intensifying rural unrest.

On 11 March 2018, the seemingly disparate worlds of the rural and urban collapsed as nearly 40,000 farmers, men and women, old and young, many sporting red caps and red flags, marched into Mumbai city to take the Government of Maharashtra to task on its unfulfilled promises. They had walked 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai. But it was not just the distance that they travelled that marked this march out as different from previous such protest rallies by other groups. First, was its composition. It was dominated by the poorest of farmers, Adivasi cultivators. And second, the marchers chose to conduct themselves in a way that did not disrupt the frenetic pace of India’s financial capital. Mumbaikars could not fail to note this difference. Many of them set aside their legendary indifference, and came out to show their solidarity by bringing food, water and medical aid to the exhausted marchers. This, and the mainstream media coverage left the political dispensation as well as opposition parties redfaced, leaving the state government with little room to manoeuvre.

The Devendra Fadnavis-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–Shiv Sena Maharashtra government inherited the deepening farm crisis in the state from its predecessor, the Congress party. The crisis had reached its peak in 2016–17 due to the BJP-led central government’s big-ticket policy reforms—demonetisation and the goods and services tax—that adversely affected the farm sector. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s All India Kisan Sabha led farmers across Maharashtra in protest in early 2017 when crop prices crashed to historic lows. They succeeded in extracting from an unwilling state government a partial loan waiver amounting to ₹ 30,000 crore and a partial review of the minimum support price (MSP) for farm produce. However, a year later, as a majority of crop prices continued to remain defl ated, unhappy farmers embarked on the long march for an unconditional loan waiver, irrigation facilities, and land rights. Facing a popular backlash, Fadnavis accepted all demands of the movement that are estimated to cost the state exchequer another ₹ 10,000 crore.

Loan waivers, however, are only a stopgap measure. They enable debt-ridden farmers to stay afl oat by erasing their outstanding credit and allowing them to borrow anew for the upcoming crop cycle. This is no small measure for a state that enjoys the infamy of having the highest number of farmer suicides. And yet, it is stopgap because the current defl ationary trends of the farm market notwithstanding, the uncomfortable truth facing the government today is that farm incomes have been unviable for a long time now. This has to do with rising input costs and falling output prices, inequitable access to water resources and technological inputs, increasing and intensive cultivation of cash crops and a corresponding decline in productivity. These factors are further exacerbated by the vagaries of the monsoon and international markets, against which majority of the farming class has no defence.

The farm reform agenda’s singular focus on “prices” can be traced back to the “new farmers’ movement” that began in the 1970s. While this plank allowed for a wider unity of small and large landowners, it scuttled the agenda for more fundamental structural reforms, especially those pertaining to landholding, irrigation, credit, land use and cropping patterns. M S Swaminathan, whose recommendations as part of the National Commission on Farmers (2004–06) have formed the basis of most farm reform demands in the past decade and more, has also asserted the inefficacy of loan waivers in arresting farm distress. Instead, he suggests the state should intervene in technology, trade, and training of farmers for economically and ecologically-sustainable farming. In the absence of such reforms, the Indian countryside is witnessing the onslaught of a differentiated agrarian crisis, resulting in an expansion and immiseration of the class of small and marginal peasants.

This latest mobilisation of farmers differs from last year’s in one important respect—the overwhelming participation of Adivasi cultivators demanding implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. This requires speedy approval to the many pending applications for individual and community forest rights to own/cultivate forestland and manage its resources. Such a situation exists despite Maharashtra being one of the top performing states with regard to the implementation of the law. The plight of the Adivasi farmers also illustrates the enhanced precarity of the landless within the farm economy in that they are also vulnerable to corporate land grab and state-led displacement for their historic occupation in resource-rich forest areas. It is evident that “land” as a political agenda is still a potent ground for mobilisation.

The hitherto Maratha-dominated politics of Maharashtra has skewed the regional political economy of agriculture in favour of sugar cane. While occupying only 4% of the gross cropped area, this crop enjoys 65% of the state’s irrigation capacity. Despite such state patronage, the sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra, too, are showing signs of turmoil. The mounting rural unrest, thus, provides an opportunity to the BJP to introduce muchneeded agricultural reforms. Its crony capitalist patrons and core constituency of the urban middle class and petty businesses will resist such an agenda. However, in an election year, the BJP will have to walk a tightrope lest other states decide to emulate Maharashtra’s example. This could potentially unravel the BJP’s golden run with electoral campaigns.

Updated On : 19th Mar, 2018

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