Long March to HIND SWARAJ

Published: November 10, 2010 - 16:42 Updated: November 11, 2010 - 12:52

An umbrella coalition of farmers and friends are marching through the vast Indian landscape to resist the neo-liberal policies of the current regime. It's a journey where every beginning is a revelation
Aritra Bhattacharya Ahmedabad/ Jabalpur/ Wardha

This discontent is a very useful thing. As long as a man is contented with his present lot, so long is it difficult to persuade him to come out of it. Therefore it is that every reform must be preceded by discontent -- MK Gandhi, Hind Swaraj 

The discontent that Gandhi referred to came to the fore again and again over the past few weeks, at every intimate interaction, every meeting and rally of the Kisan Swaraj Yatra, where multitudes of farmers, activists and grassroots workers coalesced into a whole, shouting slogans against the State, demanding accountability, seeking swaraj and a radical new path for agriculture.

Farmer after farmer, consumer, the occasional RTO official, bystander and policeman raised his voice, and hands at times, to express his/her discontent with the state of agriculture in India - the ever-rising input costs, sinking water table, rapidly depleting soil and air, and lack of government and institutional support. But will this discontent lead to the kind of reform that is being envisioned?

The yatra has been made possible by the coming together of over 80 grassroots organisations from across the country under the banner of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. It took off from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad on October 2 this year, drawing inspiration from Gandhi's Dandi March, and will traverse 15,000km across 20 states over 72 days to reach Rajghat in Delhi on December 11, 2010. 

Among the principal demands is a comprehensive new path for Indian agriculture - one that will provide livelihood and food security for small farmers, keep our soils alive, and our food and water poison-free. This means that the government must scrap the Green Revolution model of agriculture (the yatris call it chemical farming), promoted through its agricultural universities, block-level agriculture officials, and fertiliser subsidies fattening the pockets of biotech giants. Instead, the yatra is demanding that the establishment must embrace the holistic model of natural or organic farming, where the farmer depends on the market only to sell his produce.

So why this demand for radical change? The answer is an emotive issue for Balwinder Singh, a farmer from Punjab. "The Indian government keeps saying that the Punjab model should be copied in all states. I contend that the model must be discarded completely. As a practitioner of chemical farming, I have seen the devastation it has brought upon us," he repeats in meeting after meeting. 

He lays bare how the water table has sunk below 1,500 metres in places, how the soil has lost all its fertility, how cancer and deformed children are a bitter reality of life. "The train from Bhatinda to Bikaner is called Cancer Express, because it is full of cancer patients going for treatment to the cancer hospital in Bikaner," he says.

He does not counter that Punjab did give bumper harvests and boosted the country's foodgrain production, beginning in the 1970s. Green Revolution did usher in increased productivity, he agrees, but also, increased vulnerability - the need to buy seeds every year, since hybrid seeds can't be resown; the progressively increasing use of the types and quantities of pesticides and fertilisers; the extensive use of tractors and therefore diesel; and as a result, the ever-urgent requirement for more money, and therefore loans; consequently, the stranglehold of the mafia of private money lenders, debt-trap, and recently, farmer suicides.

"Punjab is like a phuljhari that has produced the spark, but all that is left now are the ashes," he rues while sitting at the Osho Ashram in Jabalpur, where the farmers are putting up for the night.

Balwinder Singh recently shifted to natural farming and is beginning to see the difference. That's the source of his conviction, to travel and walk across the village landscape, to raise the call for change, and the previous day, at Bhopal, to perform a yagna, wishing for sadbuddhi for Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and lobbyists of chemical farming. 

The opposition to this model, to Sharad Pawar (the yatris call him IPL minister) and his cohorts, may be existential for Singh, but for others, it is ethical, political and moral. For Kavitha Kuruganti, who works with Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab, part of the opposition comes from the fact that this model is pushed by biotech giants like Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont, to which India is perhaps the world's largest market for seeds and agricultural technology.

It reminds once again of Gandhi's Hind Swaraj: "They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods. They will leave no stone unturned to reach the goal... it is my deliberate opinion that India is being ground down, not under the English heel, but under that of modern civilisation." 

The call of the yatra is also a call to go back to tradition - to agriculture that assumes a central role for women, for cattle and home-made natural fertilisers and pesticides. It is against the neoliberal vision of Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram - of seeing 80 per cent of India settled in the cities, and only 6-15 per cent engaged in agriculture.

The group is dynamic - some will stay through the journey, some for 30 days or 10, some for two to five days, others for just a day. They see a conspiracy in the government's promotion of 'chemical farming'. In intra-group interactions, they suspect that the government is working with the aim of making agriculture so difficult that most people will move out of it on their own.

"Toh kya sashan galat hai?" (So, are the authorities wrong?), asks a police inspector at the Madhya Pradesh border. It's a routine check, a Q&A that has become rather long-drawn. "Bilkul galat (Absolutely wrong)," says Pankaj Bhushan, who works with Tara Foundation in Bihar. The policeman gets suspicious of this reporter, a guy with long hair, obviously from a city.

"You come inside," he commands, proceeding to ask what an urbanite is doing with a 'kisan' campaign. I explain that the yatris are an umbrella coalition: they are urban and rural, farmers, consumers, Gandhians, Marxists, conservationists, photographers, students, filmmakers and actors. I say that what our farmers grow is of concern to all of us, at a very selfish level. He seems to agree.

Further ahead, an RTO official at the Maharashtra border asks for a primer on natural farming, saying he too is a farmer. 

It has been a long day -delightfully rewarding on certain occasions (like when a bystander at a village nukkad meeting professed that he would spread the message, distributing pamphlets, and then maintaining a vow of silence for five days) and excruciatingly difficult at times (like when the bus broke down twice in the night in the middle of forests, and had to be pushed to get it started).

The campaign has the potential to organise farmers across the country under one banner and make them a potent force. This is radical, as well as extremely difficult, given the fault lines of caste, region, religion, imagination, technology. This is only the beginning of a movement, but it is unclear how local grassroots organisations are taking this - it is they who have done the groundwork in the last 10-15 years in their areas. The friction is visible in public meetings, like in Wardha, where local organisers kept harping that yatras would not serve any purpose; what matters is working on the ground. 

Can the campaign bring together, like Bhagwat Singh Uike from Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh, thousands of peasants in Delhi on Deccember 11, so the State takes notice? Surely, what the Kisan Swaraj Yatra is doing has never been done before, but what it can do is far bigger. It will require imagination, dedication and perhaps, charisma, to take it to another level. And in a 'leaderless' movement, with collective resistance, that's a tough task.

An umbrella coalition of farmers and friends are marching through the vast Indian landscape to resist the neo-liberal policies of the current regime. It’s a journey where every beginning is a revelation
Aritra Bhattacharya Ahmedabad/ Jabalpur/ Wardha

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