A HUNDRED years after Mahatma Gandhi led a movement of indigo growers against their oppressor landlords in Bihar’s Champaran district, farmers of Maharashtra launched an unprecedented strike early this month. But unlike the Champaran Satyagraha, this was a movement led by farmers themselves. It started with farmers from Puntamba, a sleepy village in Ahmednagar district, deciding at a Gram Sabha meeting in April to stop supply of all produce to cities from June 1. That resolution was subsequently adopted by farmers in villages across Maharashtra, culminating in a stunningly successful strike lasting almost 11 days.
The striking farmers not only shut down wholesale produce markets and blocked highways to prevent delivery trucks from reaching urban centres, but also even dumped milk and vegetables on the streets. The Maharashtra government was, then, forced to constitute a Cabinet subcommittee of five ministers to hold consultations on the main demands that included a complete waiver of institutional farm loans and remunerative crop prices based on the
M S Swaminathan report’s formula of 50 per cent returns over cost. These demands were accepted in principle, following which the strike was called off. The collective might of farmers had clearly triumphed over the all-powerful state.
The Maharashtra farmers’ agitation was remarkable for not only its seeming spontaneity and absence of any towering leader, but also it happening in an above-normal rainfall and bumper agricultural harvest year. Such protests one would have normally expected in the event of losses from drought, especially of the kind seen in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
But as the accompanying table shows, the Maharashtra government infused around Rs 20,939 crore during the two consecutive drought years through time-honoured relief measures such as crop loss compensation, insurance claims and labour payments under MGNREGA. In addition, rescheduling of crop loans and reduced interest on these — plus the state government’s ambitious Jalyukta Shivar programme of water and soil conservation in 25,000 drought-prone villages — turned out to be significant interventions.
The trigger for the current farmers’ agitation has not been any natural calamity-driven distress, which was, on the whole, deftly handled by the state government. Instead, it has primarily been prices.
A bumper crop resulting from good rains had ignited hopes among farmers of setting-off their losses from previous years. But what they encountered was a price crash across crops — from cereals and pulses to vegetables and fruits.
Take pulses, where the Centre, in a bid to promote their cultivation to bridge domestic shortages, raised the minimum support price for tur (pigeon-pea) from Rs 4,625 to Rs 5,050 per quintal. Farmers obliged by increasing production, but the government failed to honour its promise. Far from getting the promised rate, farmers had to dump tur for as low as Rs 3,000 per quintal. Even during peak summer, they realised hardly Rs 5 per kg for tomatoes, onions and other vegetables.
In short, farmers suffered more with record production on the back of good rains than when there was crop failure from drought.
A second trigger for the stir was the crop loan waiver announcement by a newly-elected government in Uttar Pradesh, which took place around the same time prices were crashing. Farmer organisations admit that waiving loans cannot be a real solution, but say that it will have a soothing effect in the present context. At the least, it will bring many farmers back into the formal credit system. Also, if there can be a farm loan waiver in UP, then why not in Maharashtra?
What is clear from the above is that the risk of price fluctuation in agricultural commodities isn’t covered by any of the existing government relief mechanisms. The need of the hour is a framework that insulates farmers from the shocks of not just natural calamities, but also market price crashes. And loan waiver cannot provide any sustainable solution.
That said, the Maharashtra farmers’ agitation — and the state government having to eventually concede to an unconditional loan waiver — is a game-changer, simply for showing how even an otherwise unorganised class can successfully express and negotiate demands. Organised labour unions, not to speak of industry associations like FICCI and CII, are known for constantly engaging in promoting and protecting the interests of their members. Farmers have had no such arrangements for collective lobbying. In this case, though, ordinary farmers under the most lugubrious conditions stood firm on their demands, resisting attempts to divide and weaken their ranks.
The following elements may have contributed to the invisible glue of emotional unity among Maharashtra’s farmers: * Insensitive statements against farmers by some responsible public figures even amidst tumbling crop prices. Similar statements from top bankers (and also the financial regulator) against loan waivers and the possible adverse impact on repayment culture would only have further fuelled resentment among farmers.
* The photos/videos of farmers ploughing back their onion and tomato crops because of not being able to afford the additional cost of harvesting. These images went viral on social media and were exchanged by farmers with one another. n Drying up of credit post-demonetisation from cooperatives, the lifeline of farmers in Maharashtra. They were, then, compelled to approach commercial banks and moneylenders for credit on far less favourable terms.
* A spike in suicides, including in northern Maharashtra, the country’s top onion and grape producer. The latter belt has been the epicentre of the strike. The losses to its farmers have been more, as they grow a host of cash crops entailing higher investment and also exhibiting greater sensitivity to price crashes. These farmers are generally more well-off, educated and combative. They, not surprisingly, provided the leadership for the movement.
* A sustained public debate on farm debt waiver in the last two years, amidst talk of loan write-offs for big corporates. The Opposition’s Sangharsh Yatra and also a ruling coalition partner’s Atmakalesh Yatra marches in support of loan waiver would only have created the perfect pitch for the farmers’ strike.
These elements established a common chord of angst amongst lakhs of farmers, culminating in a state-wide agitation. This is a classic example of collective behaviour driven by group dynamics that leads people to engage in unthinkable acts under unusual circumstances, as was propounded by the American social scientist Robert E Park. And nobody could have imagined that the success of Maharashtra’s farmer strike would pave the way for similar demands elsewhere, including in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.