The nearly 40,000 sunburnt and dusty men and women waiting patiently in an open ground in Mumbai on Sunday night tell the story of the continuing gloom in Maharashtra’s farmlands more succinctly than the statistics in the just-released state Economic Survey Report for 2017-18. Maharashtra has projected a double-digit negative growth in the farm sector, but it is the composition of farmers marching in Mumbai on Sunday that explains just how agrarian distress hits individual homes.
More than half of those gathered in Mumbai armed with a list of demands ranging from a complete loan waiver to an overhaul of a river linking plan belong to the tribal belts such as Kalwan, Sargana and Dindori in Nashik; Talasari, Mokhada and Jawhar in Palghar; Shahapur and Murbad in Thane; and parts of Jalgaon. Large numbers of these tribals are landless and, therefore, loan-free at least as far as institutional credit is concerned. They are in Mumbai seeking, not a loan waiver, but the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Their participation in the agitation in such large numbers suggests a new edge in the countryside’s despair — while successive drought years, inequitable water management and pricing policies have seen a slow impoverishment of the farmer community everywhere in Maharashtra, the circumstances for the landless are ever more exacting.
As farm incomes stagnate or shrink, labourers and those traditionally tilling forest lands or dependent on forest produce are in grave economic distress. Thousands of those spending Sunday night waiting to gherao the state legislature on Monday have never got a bank loan, have little or no access to credit, and have their hopes pinned on the government transferring to their names the small forest or community plots they till.
The Forest Rights Act seeks to accord rights to forest-dwelling communities including Individual Forest Rights’ and Community Forest Rights, and through the forest resources, a livelihood. While Maharashtra has actually shown the best performance on implementation of the FRA, a long way ahead of the other states that have fared moderately well including Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, according to a November 2017 report by the Community Forest Rights- Learning and Advocacy Group Maharashtra, disparities in the implementation are wide. According to the report, 21 districts have near-zero recognition of Community Forest Rights, while there is over 60% implementation in districts such as Gadchiroli, where the approach has been different owing to traditional movements for land, the law and order situation and due to the efforts of select district collectors.
Dr Geetanjoy Sahu, one of the authors of the report and assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, told The Indian Express that in several districts, the performance of the Maharashtra government on implementation of the FRA has been disappointing. Calling them “political challenges and bottlenecks in implementation”, Sahu says there are areas where titles were given, perhaps when elections were around the corner, and then withdrawn owing to errors in procedure. Not only is the problem of title recognition on applications under the FRA serious, but other conflicting policies have slowed down spirit of the FRA, for example, the concept of Joint Forest Management keeping resources in the control of the forest department or other policies through which the Gram Sabha does not have complete control over management of forest resources as originally envisaged by the FRA. The demand for better implementation of the FRA will be among the top agenda items as a delegation of leaders meets Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis today.
Also indicative of the intensifying distress, the march to the state legislature in South Mumbai, a distance of 180 km covered over six days of walking in blazing sunlight after nights spent on threadbare sheets on open grounds, is the culmination of a swirl of agrarian movements across the state over the past two years. Pockets, where the Left continues to command strength, have been at the centre of some of these movements too, or have supported stirs called by other farmer leaders.
In March 2016, the CPI(M)-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha gathered almost as many protestors as this week, also when the state legislature was in session as it is now. Nearly 40,000 protestors spent two days at the CBS Square in Nashik city, some of them briefly blocking the highway. As on Sunday night, the government invited a delegation for talks after the March 2016 protest as well. Then in October 2016, over 15,000 tribals from Palghar district attempted to gherao the home of Maharashtra’s Tribal Development Minister Vishnu Savara in Wada taluka, also guardian minister for the district. Hundreds of those tribals from Palghar marched to Mumbai this week.
But while the 11-day ‘strike’ by farmers in June 2017, unprecedented in history anywhere in India, saw various farmer leaders gather under a single umbrella — even if rifts and fault lines emerged by the end — the current march is conspicuously missing large populations of western Maharashtra farmers.
On its part, the All India Kisan Sabha says it is determined this time to stay parked in Mumbai until their demands are met. In fact, in village meetings organised to drum up support and numbers for the long march, the Kisan Sabha announced that this march would denounce the state government for its “betrayal” on assurances given to the peasantry after every agitation during the last two years, whether on remunerative prices, recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission or the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.
On the Rs 34,000-crore farm loan waiver announced and implemented by the Maharashtra government, the protestors — many of them out of the ambit of the waiver owing to the conditions imposed — are seeking a complete, condition-free loan waiver. There are other demands — an overhaul of the proposed river-linking scheme in Nashik, Thane and Palghar districts to ensure no villages in this tribal belt are submerged, ending land acquisition for infrastructure projects and transfer of pasture or grazing lands to those tilling these plots.
Notably, for the BJP, the long march trudged out of Nashik’s CBS Chowk on the very day after the crushing result for the Left in Tripura, nearly 15,000-strong on Day One, bearing red banners and sporting red headbands. As the government raced to avoid an embarrassing situation outside the legislature premises, the Sena, MNS, Congress and others rushed to welcome the protestors, publicly declaring their support even as Kisan Sabha leaders held parleys with leaders from other parties to together corner the BJP in the legislature.