There is a qualitative difference between the farmer unrest that rocked large swathes of India last May-June and the six-day, 180-km “kisan long march” from Nashik culminating in the protests at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, which was called off on Monday. Last year’s demonstrations were mainly by farmers from relatively prosperous belts — western Maharashtra, Neemuch-Mandsaur-Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan’s Hadoti and Shekhawati regions, and the Cauvery delta of Tamil Nadu — and who had seen prices of their crops crash following a bumper harvest and a demonetisation-induced liquidity crunch in mandis. Also, they were drawn primarily from dominant agrarian communities such as Marathas, Patidars and Jats. The 50,000-odd peaceful yet determined men and women who converged in Mumbai were, by contrast, predominantly poor tribal farmers from the Adivasi pockets of Palghar, Thane, Nashik, Dhule and Nandurbar in northern Maharashtra.
On the face of it, the demands of these protestors may have seemed the same as those voiced by other farmer organisations — from implementing the Swaminathan formula (to guarantee a minimum 50 per cent return over production costs while fixing minimum support prices or MSPs) to waiving all outstanding crop loans. But a closer look, based on reports of what the participants themselves had to say, would reveal that their real focus was different. What they have been seeking is a legal title to forest land being occupied and cultivated by them for generations. This problem is something that’s specific to Adivasi farmers — people who are traditional forest dwellers, but whose rights over such land are not officially recognised. In the absence of recorded titles — their lands technically belong to the forest departments — these farmers cannot access institutional credit. Hence, the demand of waiving loans from cooperative or commercial banks holds no meaning for them. And since such farmers rely on moneylenders, who typically extend credit for input purchases against delivery of the former’s harvested produce to them, even MSPs are of little consequence.
Now that the protests have ended, the BJP-Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra should honour its promise of resolving the issue of forest land transfer rights “within six months”. Proper implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, will allow Adivasi farmers — who are today practically landless labourers or, at best, tenants at will — to claim ownership over their traditionally cultivated lands, subject to verification by the Gram Sabhas concerned. It will, then, incentivise them to invest in land improvement, which contributes to its long-term productivity, and farm without fear of eviction or having to bribe forest department officials. That is precisely what abolition of zamindari and conferment of ownership rights to tenant-cultivators did during the 1950s and 1960s. There is need to do away with similar intermediaries in tracts already being farmed for generations by traditional forest dwellers.