IN what has become symbolic of the farmers’ struggle in Maharashtra, hundreds of them marched down Nashik’s winding Kasara Ghat on January 24 to mark their protest against the controversial farm Acts. It was a river of red that was similar to what was seen during the March 2018 Long March. On that occasion, close to 40,000 farmers wearing red caps and scarves and waving Communist Party of India (Marxist) red flags walked the 180 kilometres from Nashik to Mumbai to present the State government with a charter of demands, which would essentially ease their debt burden and improve the procurement system.
As the nationwide struggle by farmers intensified, Maharashtra’s farming community, led by several farmers organisations, has been showing in impressive ways solidarity with and support for the protests on the outskirts of New Delhi, beginning with a vehicle rally from Nashik to New Delhi from December 21 to 25, 2020. “We need to break the perception created by the Centre that the issue is only about Punjab and Haryana farmers,” said Ajit Navale, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) Maharashtra State secretary. “We have to get across the message that the laws will affect farmers in all States, and therefore, we have to be part of the protest movement.” The AIKS has been at the forefront of the struggle and has been pursuing a relentless agenda of mobilisation ever since the farm laws were proposed. The AIKS initiated a rally in Mumbai, titled “Mahapadav”, under the banner of the Samyukta Shetkari Kamgar Morcha (SSKM), which involved about 100 organisations in the movement. In the three days before Republic Day this year, approximately 15,000 farmers from across the State gathered at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan to participate in the mass convention of farmers, activists and political representatives.
Significantly, State political leaders from all parties other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appear to have banded together over the farm law issue and thrown their weight behind the protest. Perhaps united in their opposition to the ruling regime at the Centre, particularly since the BJP loses no opportunity to needle the current Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition, political parties have found common ground to fight what is becoming an autocratic government at the Centre.
“The time has come for all political parties opposed to the BJP to corner them and hold them accountable for their poor governance,” said Ashok Dhawale, AIKS national president. “This is the first time in Maharashtra that all parties have come together on one platform, and I believe this will be a huge support for farmers.” Among the coalition members, the support to the movement from Sharad Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party chief and a former Chief Minister and Union Agriculture Minister, is being viewed as a serious warning to the BJP. His speech at the convention at Azad Maidan on January 25 was typical of the Maratha strongman’s style: impactful and completely resonated with the audience.
Pawar said: “If this government destroys farmers, farmers will destroy them…. Has the Prime Minister even asked about the farmers who have been camping in the cold and rain for more than two months? Is Punjab Pakistan? Punjabis fought for our freedom. Is this the way to treat them?” It must be recalled that it was Pawar who turned the 2018 Assembly election results in the ruling coalition’s favour after he made a powerful speech, standing in heavy rain. The image of the octogenarian politician, who suffers from serious health issues, getting drenched on the stage is said to have been a game changer in influencing the Maratha vote. The bulk of Maharashtra’s farmers belong to this community, and Pawar’s hold over them cannot be dismissed.
Well-known activists such as Medha Patkar and Teesta Setalvad, representatives from trade unions and the senior journalist P. Sainath addressed the convention, but it was Pawar who was the huge draw, and he did not disappoint. Dhawale quashed attempts by the media to speculate about the absence of Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister and Shiv Sena leader, by clarifying that the Sena had sent a representative as Thackeray and senior Ministers were busy at the opening of an infrastructure project. “The Sena has been communicative and extremely supportive of our protests.”
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Although the rally was a success, it unfortunately culminated in a poor response from the Governor of Maharashtra. On January 25, when a delegation from the SSKM went to present its charter of demands to Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, he refused to meet them. Citing a prior commitment in Goa, Koshyari left Mumbai. Dhawale told the media: “On learning that Governor Koshyari, in spite of having given an appointment to the Samyukta Shetkari Kamgar Morcha delegation, had fled to Goa, the people got angry. A unanimous decision was taken to cancel the delegation to the Governor and to publicly tear up the memorandum prepared for him. The public meeting then dispersed amidst great enthusiasm with the resolve to broaden and intensify the struggle manifold against the farm laws and the labour codes and for a minimum support price law.”
On January 14-15, thousands of working people in Maharashtra made bonfires of the farm Acts and labour codes. In addition, the All India Democratic Women’s Association observed January 18 as Mahila Kisan Day. “When women join the struggle, it brings a different energy to the movement. We also work on our land; we know the problems; we have to be involved. These laws concern us too,” said Saroj Atmaram Bhane, a farmer from Thane district.
The SSKM’s main demands to the Centre are as follows: Repeal the three farm Acts and four labour codes; enact a Central law to guarantee a remunerative minimum support price (MSP) and procurement; withdraw the Electricity (Amendment) Bill; give farmers and agricultural workers a regular pension; and withdraw the anti-people New Education Policy. Its demands relating to the State government are as follows: Implement the Mahatma Phule Loan Waiver Scheme; implement the Forest Rights Act and vest forest lands in the name of the tillers; vest temple lands, pasture lands, and so on, in the name of the tillers; and repeal the 2018 Land Acquisition Act the previous BJP State government enacted and restore the 2014 Act.
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An SSKM delegation was able to meet top leaders of the MVA, and it requested them to convene a special session of the State Assembly to deal with the agrarian crisis and related issues, to adopt a State Assembly resolution asking the Centre to repeal the three farm Acts and the four labour codes, and to pass a law ensuring MSP and other demands.
The MSP issue was critical because not adhering to it was leading to severe distress, said Dhawale. For instance, this year the MSP for paddy is Rs.1,870 a quintal. The government has said it has enough and will not procure any more. Farmers are now selling their stock at Rs.1,100 to Rs.1,200 a quintal in Maharashtra. In Bihar, where the Agricultural Produce Market Committees had been shut some time ago, farmers were being paid Rs.800 to Rs.900 a quintal for paddy, said Dhawale. “How can the peasant survive? It is really as simple as this. The new laws will subject them to further exploitation.”