The farmers’ stir in Maharashtra entered a decisive phase on Friday. Toughening its stand, the Kisan Kranti Morcha (KKM), a coordination committee of various protesting farmers’ outfits, has now given a call for a Maharashtra bandh on June 5 if their demands are unmet. Farmers across the state have gone on an indefinite strike from June 1 onwards.
Pressing demands for a minimum price guarantee for farm produce and a full waiver of farm loans, they have refused to sell their produce in markets. Among other demands, the KKM has raised the demand for an urgent implementation of reforms recommended by the M S Swaminathan Commission in 2006 and the introduction of a pension scheme for farmers.
On Friday, the second day of the strike, cities across Maharashtra began feeling a crunch of essential commodities such as milk and vegetables. With the threat of rise in inflationary pressure looming large, the BJP government in the state went into an intensive damage control exercise.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had on Thursday blamed the Opposition for fuelling the crisis, invited the core committee members of the KKM for talks. After receiving the CM’s call in this regard around 2 pm, the core committee members, who were in Ahmednagar’s Puntamba village, decided to accept the government’s invitation. But just before leaving for Mumbai, the KKM hardened its stance.
It announced that the farmers would observe a bandh across the state, with the exception of Mumbai, on June 5, if their demands remained unfulfilled. The KKM, however, kept supply of essential commodities out of the proposed bandh’s ambit. It further declared that on the following day, June 6, farmers will forcibly down shutters of all government offices across the state excepting Mumbai. Flexing muscles further, the KKM declared plans of blocking the movement of BJP’s elected representatives altogether on June 7.
“They (the BJP) are now understanding the farmers’ might. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ran an election campaign where he promised a minimum price guarantee of 1.5 times the input cost for farm produce. It was his assurance that the recommendations made by the Swaminathan Commission would be implemented too if his government was elected to power. But after coming to power, the BJP forgot these promises altogether,” said core committee member Jayaji Survavanshi.
Blaming the government for the crisis, Suryavanshi said, “They paid no heed to our demands. In fact, the government tried to split the farmers’ movement.” The KKM on Friday also strongly objected to the CM’s contention that political forces were behind the stir.
“The chief minister has insulted the farmers’ movement,” said Suryavanshi.
Government officials said that the meeting between the two sides was scheduled to take place at chief minister’s residence in South Mumbai around 11.30 pm on Friday. At the time of going to press, the discussions were still ongoing.
While the chief minister had ruled out a blanket loan waiver on Thursday, senior government sources said that he is keen to break the impasse. There are fears of worsening law and order if the stir continues. Sources said that the government is considering the option of writing off loans up to Rs 1 lakh of marginal farmers, who have defaulted on crop loans due to natural calamities. On Monday, the chief minister had hinted that a relief package was being formulated for about 31 lakh farmers. The state has a total of 1.3 crore farmers. But the KKM indicated on Tuesday that such a package was not acceptable to them. “All farmers who depend on farming for a living are in distress. All of them must be covered,” said Suryavanshi.
Earlier in the day, social activist Anna Hazare offered to mediate between the two sides. But the KKM turned him down. “Where was he (Hazare) when we were protesting for the past three years? We can handle talks on our own. We do not need him,” said Suryavanshi, questioning Hazare’s “sudden” offer for help. Meanwhile, a senior BJP minister, on the condition of anonymity, admitted that the government had underestimated the protest initially. It now finds itself caught in a bind. Maharashtra’s economic outlook had worsened in the last fiscal. In 2017-18, the government has already estimated that the state’s public debt would cross the Rs 4 lakh crore mark.
Protesting farmers are also demanding other fiscal incentives, including interest-free loans, free farm electricity, a customised pension scheme for farmers, and perks for switching to drip irrigation. To counter the allegations, the Fadnavis government, meanwhile, has taken to projecting the various measures it has taken to boost farm productivity.
Scramble for political gains
On Tuesday, the `(Marxist) announced that its peasants front— the All India Kisan Sabha— would lay seige on tehsil offices across the state on June 5 in support of farmers. CPI (M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, who was in Mumbai on Friday, announced that his party was in active support of the farmers’ strike.
Firing a salvo at the BJP government, Yechury said, “This government writes off bad loans of big business houses, but cringes when farmers in distress seek a loan waiver. We are seeking loan waiver for all suffering farmers.” The CPI (M) leader also made it clear that his party has plans to build a political narrative around “people’s struggles.”
BJP ally Shiv Sena took to the streets with the protestors in Dhule on Tuesday. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and Congress’s Maharashtra chief Ashok Chavan have already backed the stir. “The farmers should continue the stir till a full loan waiver and the other demands are fulfilled,” said Pawar, while Chavan slammed Fadnavis for suggesting that the strike was politically motivated. “Time for him to introspect,” said Chavan. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, too, has come out in support of the protestors.