With a sea of agitating farmers swamping Mumbai and pressure mounting, the BJP-led Maharashtra government Monday accepted almost all demands of the farmers, including their right to till forest land and extension of farm loan waiver to those who had borrowed between 2001 and 2008.
Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, even before he met a delegation of the Left-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) that led an estimated 40,000 farmers on a 180-km march from Nashik to Mumbai, told the Vidhan Sabha that the state government was “sensitive and positive” to the demands of the farmers, many of them tribals.
The announcement that the agitation had ended was made after a three-hour meeting of the AIKS with Fadnavis at Vidhan Bhavan, in the presence of Congress leader Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil and NCP leaders Dhananjay Munde and Ajit Pawar.
In April 2017, a few months before announcing a waiver expected to cost Rs 34,000 crore, Fadnavis drew flak when he said he believed that loan waivers were not a sustainable solution for agricultural distress even if they were politically expedient.
But on Monday, there was no mention from the government about essential infrastructure for sustainable agriculture. Instead, the state government tweaked its farm loan waiver to include thousands who had been left out of its ambit owing to stringent conditions imposed earlier, extended the waiver to loans outstanding since 2008 instead of 2009, quick resolution of bottlenecks in the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, minimum support price for farm produce as recommended by the Swaminathan formula, and the Nar-Par and Daman Ganga and Girnar river-linking projects to bring water to drought-prone areas in the state.
The AIKS, which pointed out that the state government did not reach out to their leaders during the first five days of the march when thousands of farmers, including senior citizens and women, were walking on the highway in blazing heat, called it a “historic struggle” and a “historic victory”, made possible by the outpouring of support that farmers received from people across the country.
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On the Forest Rights Act, the implementation of which was a major demand of the farmers who comprised nearly 90 per cent landless tribals who till forest land, the government consented to ease all hurdles within six months, including resolution of pending appeals by farmers or gram sabhas. A special task force will be constituted to implement the decision in a time-bound manner, the government said.
The government also extended its loan waiver scheme to tribals with debts on agricultural loans taken between 2001 and 2008. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Shetkari Sanmaan Yojna or the loan waiver announced last year was limited to farmers with debts between 2009 and 2016. A committee was formed to expedite the process of identifying individual cases and providing relief.
“The government has agreed to enforce all the demands made by the AIKS. The state government will accord forest land rights to the tribals. It will be strictly implemented within six months,” Fadnavis said.
Among issues raised during the discussion on loan waiver was the condition that a loan in the name of the farmer’s wife was deemed ineligible for waiver even if the couple together had an outstanding loan less than the ceiling amount of Rs 150,000. To remove the anomaly, the government said the waiver would be for up to Rs 1.5 lakh for each family unit of husband and wife, irrespective of the land holding size.
High on the agenda of the protestors were recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission for higher remuneration. The government said, “The Minimum Support Price was the commitment of the state government. And the Centre has already made the announcement to give one and half times more than the MSP to farm produce to help farmers earn higher income.”
A decision was taken to set up a full fledged State Agriculture Price Committee to regulate the price mechanism and stop exploitation of farmers.
The protesters had also listed in their charter of demands issues related to water conservation projects. All the 31 water conservation projects in the tribal region of North Maharashtra, along with Nar-Par and Daman Ganga and Girnar river-linking projects, were given consent. The project, the government said, had already been discussed with the Centre.
Under the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojna, the government promised higher financial aid to tribals with serious health problems.
Leaders of the AIKS, who participated in the talks with the Chief Minister, said they insisted at the outset of the meeting that the negotiations would end successfully only if they were given assurances in writing.
“We have had experiences with this government before and they were not good. We insisted on this and so the assurances were made to us in writing, under the signature of the Chief Secretary of Maharashtra,” Dr Ashok Dhawale, president of the AIKS, said.
At the end of the meeting, the delegation asked that the agreement regarding the dozen demands it made be placed before the legislature to accord it some legal sanction.
“A battle has been won, though the war will go on,” said Dhawale, adding that the AIKS local units would hold the government to its promises and would act as a “watchdog” to ensure implementation on the ground.