It was his growing dissatisfaction with the ongoing academic discussions about poverty alleviation that led farmer leader Sharad Joshi to leave his job with the United Nations in 1976 and settle in Pune to lead the life of a farmer.
Joshi’s biographer Bhanu Kale said he had used up almost all his savings to purchase 27 acres of land in the Ambethan village in the district after returning to India.
“He was working with the Chief Informatics Service in Berne in Switzerland when there was a lot of talk about poverty and how to tackle it. That was the decade of development and such talks were much in vogue,”said Kale.
Such discussions, however, were disliked by Joshi who felt it was not addressing the real problem. After serving for eight years in Berne, Joshi left his job and returned to Pune to take up farming.
Kale said Joshi would have been the first person in his family who took up farming in all seriousness. “Traditionally, he did not come from a family of farmers,” he said.
His family, although reluctant at first, supported his decision in later years.
Ambethan was to be Joshi’s learning field for three years starting from 1979. In this water-scarce village, Joshi practised rain-fed irrigation to learn the problems of farmers. His long-time associate Shyam Pawar said it was based on his new-found experience as a farmer that he went on to launch the Shetkari Sanghatana, an apolitical farmers’ movement, in the early 1979.
The first major movement that Joshi undertook was to demand better price of onions in 1980. Following the success of that movement, Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana undertook massive agitations across the state and the country to highlight issues of rural distress. At present, the training centre of Shetkari Sanghatana functions at the farm.
Along with highlighting the issues of famers, Joshi is also credited with starting the movement to give women equal rights on land. Indira Patil, former head of Shetkari Mahil Aghadi (the woman’s wing of the Shetkari Sanghatana), said this came as a result of Joshi’s first-hand realisation of the women’s problems. “During his travels in the state, he understood how the women of rural areas were oppressed. His decision to start the Laksmi Mukti Andolan was taken to allow women to come out in the open and discussion their problems,” she said.
Patil’s village of Vitner in the Jalgaon taluka/district was the first village to start this programme. Incidentally, Vitner was also the first village in the country to elect an all-women’s panchayat.