As Maharashtra moved to contain an ongoing protest by farmers with a loan waiver, a similar protest in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh took a violent turn Tuesday when at least six farmers were killed and eight others injured in two separate incidents of firing in Mandsaur. Farmers have been seeking better prices for their produce and waiver of loans. After protesters alleged that police fired at them, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Bhupendra Singh, who had earlier denied the charge, later conceded that police may have fired in self-defence at one place. A judicial probe has been ordered and curfew imposed in Mandsaur.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced a compensation of Rs 1 crore and a job to the next of kin of each dead and Rs five lakh and free treatment to the injured. An officer said that of the six dead, five were killed when farmers tried to storm the Pipalia Mandi police station and resorted to arson. This attack followed the death of a farmer in Bahi village, not far from Pipalia Mandi. Madhya Pradesh Patidar Samaj chief Mahendra Patidar said bodies of five killed at Pipalia Mandi will not be cremated till the Chief Minister comes to the spot. He identified the dead as Kanhaiyalal Patidar, Babloo Patidar, Chainram Patidar, Abhishek Patidar and Nathulal Patidar.
In Mandsaur and the adjoining district of Neemuch, protesters have torched vehicles, blocked traffic and manhandled police officers while sporadic incidents have taken place elsewhere in the state ever since June 1 when the Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) announced the agitation. Over the last three days, protests were stepped up in Mandsaur, Neemuch, Ratlam and Indore districts. Protesters set ablaze nearly a dozen vehicles and targeted the railway tracks near Mandsaur late Monday. On Tuesday, a group of farmers blocked traffic near Pipalia Mandi and pelted stones at police and CRPF personnel. Security agencies lobbed tear-gas shells to disperse the mob. It was not clear who ordered the firing.
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Calling it “a conspiracy’’, Chief Minister Chouhan accused the Opposition Congress of instigating farmers. “I am sad. The administration had been told not to order firing, but to talk to farmers. But some criminal elements entered the protest,’’ he said. Chouhan appealed to farmers to remain calm. He said his government was ready for talks. “Madhya Pradesh has been an island of peace,’’ he said. The Rashtriya Kisan Mazdoor Sangh (RKMS), a group formed by a former RSS worker, and Congress have called for a bandh Wednesday. The RKMS was formed by Shivkumar Sharma who used to be an office-bearer of the RSS-affiliated Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) till he led a violent agitation in 2012 in which a farmer died in firing in Raisen district. Thrown out of the RSS and BKS, Sharma floated the RKMS.
The BKS and RKMS entered the ongoing protest only after it spread. On Sunday, the Chief Minister called the BKS for talks at Ujjain. BKS office-bearers announced that since Chouhan had assured them of purchasing onions at Rs 8 per kg and making half the payment in cash at mandis, they were taking back the agitation. The farmer agitations being witnessed now are basically along two belts: Nashik-Ahmadnagar-Pune extending to Satara-Sangli-Kolhapur in Maharashtra, and Ratlam-Mandsaur-Neemuch in Madhya Pradesh. What’s common to both belts — apart from their being in the western part of the two states — is that they are home to relatively prosperous farmers, unlike their counterparts in the predominantly rainfed Vidarbha/Marathwada or Bundelkhand regions.
Farmers in Ratlam-Mandsaur-Neemuch grow not just the usual soyabean, wheat and chana (chickpea) grown in rest of Madhya Pradesh, but also a range of seed spices and medicinal plants from methi (fenugreek), dhaniya (coriander), jeera (cumin) and ajwain (caraway) to garlic, isabgol (psyllium), white musli and ashwagandha. The same goes for western Maharashtra farmers who have taken to cultivation of grapes, onions and pomegranates, besides commercial dairying through investing in high milk-yielding Holstein-Friesian crossbred cows.
The current crisis appeared to have been triggered by a price crash in most crops, partly on account of bumper production and more so due to demonetisation-induced liquidity crunch in produce markets. Methi seed prices in Mandsaur, for instance, ruled at Rs 2,500-3,000 per quintal during the recent marketing season in March-April, compared to Rs 4,000-4,500 last year. The same goes for onions, which have traded at an average of Rs 450 per quintal in Nashik’s Lasalgaon market this rabi season, as against around Rs 800 last year. Grapes too fetched about Rs 15 per kg compared to Rs 50 plus last year, while soyabean has crashed from Rs 3,500-3,600 to Rs 2,700-2,800 per quintal.
A similar price collapse story was also reported for red chilli in Andhra Pradesh. Farmers in Guntur and Kurnool — and Khammam in Telangana — went on the rampage, burnt their crops and blocked highways when prices fell to almost a quarter of last year’s Rs 12,000 per quintal levels. Condemning the Mandsaur firing, JD(U) leader Sharad Yadav slammed the state government: “At this moment of tragedy, I can only advise the government to change its style of functioning and be careful for the welfare and interest of farmers as three years of its rule have been very depressing for them.” He said farmers in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have been demanding a fair price and loan waiver for the
last few days but state governments have remained unmoved. “Instead of giving them solace, the government has attacked farmers agitating for genuine demands. Situation is that the Madhya Pradesh government has disconnected cell phone and internet connections. It shows that the ruling party is treating farmers as enemy and terrorists which is regrettable,” he said.
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