On Monday, representatives of several farmers’ unions met Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar in New Delhi and extended their support to the three contentious farm laws against which thousands of farmers from various states are protesting in the national capital. Among those who met Tomar included Shetkari Sanghatana, a union founded by legendary farm leader Sharad Joshi, which has its base in Maharashtra.
So, what is Shetkari Sanghatana?
Shetkari Sanghatana follows the vision of Joshi, an economist by training who had taken up farming in the rural parts of Pune. Prior to his emergence as a farm leader, Joshi worked with the United Nations in Switzerland. After his return, Joshi purchased land near the now-industrial belt of Chakan in Khed taluka of Pune district and started farming. His first brush with farm politics was in 1979 when he led a group of farmers to block the Pune-Nashik Highway to press for higher prices of onions. The genesis of Shetkari Sanghatana’s genesis lies in this movement that saw onion growers dumping their produce on highways to press for higher prices.
Since its inception, the union has been on the forefront of various agitations for the benefit the farm sector. Joshi used to say that till the problems of Bharat (meaning rural India) were not raised forcefully in India (a reference to cities and urban areas), farmers would never get justice. Joshi’s agitations, therefore, were invariably staged in the urban areas, or affected urban life. The protests often used to happen on the highways or railway tracks for gaining support on issues like better price of sugarcane, or removal of state monopoly in procurement of cotton.
How is it different from most other farm unions?
The Shetkari Sanghatana has always been vocal about access to open market. It was Joshi’s firm conviction that the root cause of the farmers’ woes lay in their limited access to the market. Markets, Joshi believed, should be open and competitive to allow price realisation for farm produce. The farmer leader used to accuse the governments of intentionally deflating the prices of farm produce in order to ensure consumers get them cheap.
This espousal of open market saw Joshi and his then hugely popular Sanghatana hit the roads demanding the removal of zone limits on sugarcane farmers, or ban on inter-state movement of cotton. Back in 1984, Joshi had declared war against the then monopoly on cotton procurement by the Maharashtra State Cooperative Cotton Marketing Federation. In those days, the federation was the only buyer of cotton and farmers had to line up for days together to sell their crop. Allegations of nepotism and corruption were often levelled against the federation. Like the farmers of today, Joshi and his men had gone to the borders of Maharashtra with their cotton in open violation of government rules to sell their produce. The agitation was successful as the government was forced to retract its law on inter-state movement of cotton.
Amongst the three big farmer leaders that India has seen – the other two being Mahendra Singh Tikait of Bharatiya Kisan Union, and M D Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha — Joshi was the only one who supported globalisation and the entry of MNCs in agriculture. Thus, while the followers of Tikait and Nanjundaswamy were busy torching outlets of US fast food giants, Joshi and his supporters took out marches in support of India signing the contentious General Agreement of. Trade and Tariff (GATT) in the 1990s. India’s joining of WTO was also welcomed by Joshi.
It was again this conviction about open markets, which led Joshi to oppose the chain of Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC)s. These cooperative markets, Joshi felt, was an impediment towards honest price realisation for farmers. While other farm leaders espoused government subsidies for the farm sector, Joshi talked against such move and talked of open markets instead.
The union is also different from many other farm unions given its strong support for genetically modified seeds. It had last year led a ‘civil obedience movement’ to press for introduction of GM crops.
What is its stand on the current crisis?
Given its DNA of open market, it is no wonder that the Shetkari Sanghatana was one of the first ones to come out in open support when the farm reforms were announced by the central government. Of the three new laws, the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2020 has perhaps got the most support from the union. This law, which restricts the power of the APMCs to regulate agricultural trade within its four walls, allows for actual free markets to operate for the farmers, according to Anil Ghanwat, the present president of the Sanghatana.
The present system, Ghanwat said, was an impediment to better price realisation of farmers. “Just a handful of traders control the auctions. Now, with the markets opening up we hope newer traders will enter into the trade this will help for fair competition,” he said. Investments in terms of warehouses, cold storages, he said would come up in the rural areas. The other laws, the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance, and Farm Services and Essential Commodities Act, do not cause too much of anxiety even amongst the protesting farmers.
Ghanwat went to meet the Agriculture Minister at a time when farmer organisations across the country have gathered at the Delhi-Punjab-Haryana border to force the central government to repeal the act. Asked about this move, he pointed out how this was the first time in the last 40 years when farmers had the chance to taste open market. “If under the pressure of farmers from just two states, the central government decides to repeal the Act, it would mean an end of the road for this,” he said. No popular government, Ghanwat said, would ever try to provide a free market to the farmers.
At present, the Sanghatana’s support for the farm laws might suggest that they are pitted against the majority of the other farm unions in the country. But politically, the group claims to stand for a Left-of-centre policy. During its heydays, the Sanghatana had seen many of its senior leaders getting elected to the state assembly. However, Joshi’s own foray into politics was not successful. He managed to get to the Rajya Sabha on a Shiv Sena ticket, and is most remembered for his vote against the Women’s reservation bill. At present the Sanghatana has zilla parishad members in various districts of Maharashtra.
While the Sanghatana has supported the bill, it has also demanded that the ban on export of onions be removed forthwith. The union has threatened to throw onion bulbs at BJP MPs in case the central government fails to do so forthwith.
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