Maharashtra witnesses groundswell of farmer protests
As the country celebrated its 70th Independence Day, debt-ridden farmers in Maharashtra took to the streets to protest against the delay in rolling out the farm loan waiver scheme and refused to allow ministers to hoist flags
On August 14, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) leader Ajit Nawale called for farmers across Maharashtra to prevent ministers from unfurling the national flag on Independence Day: “Farmers will hit the streets and bring the state to a standstill. Ministers will not be allowed to hoist the flag on August 15 in their own districts. They have no moral right to do so, as they have the blood of farmers on their hands.” Farmer organisations who initiated these protests clearly stated that the honour of hoisting the national flag on Independence Day should be given to a farmer instead of a “guardian minister” as in the absence of help from the government and a policy to aid debt-ridden farmers, thousands had committed suicides. Protests were held in Nashik, Nandurbar, Beed, Pune, and Aurangabad. As a result, many farmers were taken into pre-emptive custody and Nawale was detained when he tried to protest in the presence of water conservation minister Ram Shinde.
The widespread protests assumed added significance because they coincided with India’s 70th Independence Day. “Thirty-four farmers ended their lives in eight districts of Marathwada in the last eight days and as many as 580 farmer suicides have been reported in the region since January. Today farmers are stuck between an irregular monsoon and uncertain government decisions.” said the AIKS leader.
The agitation by angry farmers led to violence on streets, and at one point, it expanded into a bandh call where the farmers threatened to stop necessary supply to urban markets. "Earlier last month, on July 10, a protest rally against the government was taken out. The rally went on for 14 days and spread to 24 districts of Maharashtra. The prime cause of ire for the protesters was allegedly the 'false promises' made by the government. It was decided during this rally that if the administration would not look into the matter seriously, then the protest will be continued,” Nawale told Hardnews.
Annoyed and furious, he added, “On August 9, a Maratha Morcha was organised where the demands of the farmers were also brought up but still, the government did not reply. Exhibiting their dissatisfaction over the steps taken by the government so far, farmers from Maharashtra are once again ready to start a fresh protest and called for a strike on August 14 in all districts of Maharashtra."
The first wave of the agitation began on June 1 and carried on for 11 days, eventually ending with the promise of a high-level meeting. Farmers were assured that steps would be taken to alleviate the agrarian distress in the state. Reeling from two years of drought, which were possibly the worst since independence, and a sharp plunge in produce prices, farmers all over the state committed suicide. The protests that began in Maharashtra and spread like wildfire throughout the state compelled the government to act. This was followed by a simultaneous farmer protest in Madhya Pradesh. In the end, when talks took place, many leaders refused to participate in the meeting, alleging that the parley was co-opted by those with the political establishment.
They renewed the protest 62 days after the farmers called off the first agitation. These protests were held as a response to the loan waiver announced by the Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra in July. The protests have been renewed for a complete loan waiver. The government had promised up to Rs 1.5 lakh per farmer. However, the move was met with stiff opposition from protesters who were seeking a Minimum Support Price for agriculture produce. The Maharashtra government is yet to roll out the farm loan waiver scheme and meet the demands raised by the farming community.
Farm/crop loans are taken to buy agricultural equipment and both farmers and banks derive a good earning when everything goes well. But in the case of poor monsoon or a natural calamity, farmers may be unable to repay loans due to irregular harvest. The rural distress in such situations often prompts states or the Centre to offer relief reduction or complete waiver of loans. Agriculture is the primary occupation in India but the sector has taken a hit because of a number of reasons, like deteriorating soil quality, fragmented land holding, depleting water table levels, rising input costs and low productivity for a long time now, in addition to the inconsistency of the monsoon. In order to avoid the trouble of paperwork, farmers are often forced to take up loans to manage expenses from private sources. Farm loan waivers provide some temporary relief to farmers in such situations but long-term solutions are needed to solve farmer woes and minimise the impact of inadequate agricultural produce on food security.
The steps taken by the government to support farmers have found little resonance with the community. “Now the government has asked farmers to fill up online applications for farm loan waiver which has become another headache for them and they are highly disappointed with this decision. The banks already have all the details. Why can’t the government contact the banks directly to resolve this issue,” asked Nawale. There has been an increase in the number of agrarian protests in the last three years as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Chattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal has witnessed several such protests.
Maharashtra is seeing the worst-ever spike in farmer suicides along with family member suicides. Farmer suicides in the country rose by 42 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to newly-released data from the National Crime Records Bureau. It recorded 5,650 suicides by farmers and cultivators in 2014. The figure rose to 8,007 in the latest data. The 2001 Census showed that 8 million people had quit farming since 1991.
Often the benefits doled out by the government to the family members of farmers who commit suicides are looked at as incentives. While reeling under insurmountable amounts of debts, the idea of committing suicide and becoming entitled to benefits in the form of free education, loan waivers and free treatment for dependents seems far more lucrative than having to endure the burden of paying loan sharks.