On the first night of a 180-km “long march” by farmers and labourers from Nashik to Mumbai, the nearly 10,000 protestors who braved the blazing sun as they walked all day had realised just how difficult the journey will be. Near Rajur Phata on the Mumbai Nashik Highway, around 9 pm, they were first denied permission to spend the night on the service road, and eventually spread out their sheets on an open plot near the Valdevi river, in pitch darkness.
They ate sparse meals by the light of their cellphone torches, while others struggled to locate members of their groups. But their spirits remained high with a group of six or seven villagers from Paregaon village in Chandwad, Nashik, regaling others with folk songs and musical instruments until the wee hours. “We are carrying our instruments with us to keep everyone entertained. It’s a good way to unwind after walking almost 15-20 kilometers,” said Shantaram Gavit, a farmer and singer from the group.
The protestors, led by the Left-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha, are marching to Mumbai where they hope to gherao the Assembly on Monday as they press for various demands on agrarian issues. Not everyone could enjoy the folk music, however. With most of their belongings loaded onto a series of jeeps, some farmers were unable to locate their groups’ jeeps in the darkness. A little before midnight, as some who could locate their belongings prepared to settle in for the night without a mat or sheet, policemen helped protestors make arrangements for a generator to switch on two mercury lights hoisted on a jeep positioned near the river.
A police van with constables was also stationed on the highway through the night. A system of making announcements to help people locate their friends was also set up. Dinner was mostly a simple affair of bhakri (flatbread made of jowar or bajra) and home-made chatni, all carted by protestors from home. Then the chatter shifted to preparations for the following morning — with neither mobile toilets nor any amenities near their location, men began to joke about the situation. “There is a pill for a bath, you swallow it and it’s done,” said one farmer, as his group burst into peals of laughter.
By 5 am on Wednesday, the cold air had woken everybody. Spots hidden by bushes were used as makeshift toilets, and a small number of protestors even chose to take a dip in the river. Others just washed their faces and slipped away for a cup of tea before the march resumed by 7.45 am. They planned to walk 30-35 kilometers, stopping only for lunch and then for the night. Traffic remained smooth as police diverted traffic in both directions to a single carriageway. Aware that many had an uncomfortable night followed by a long walk, some groups proceeded ahead in jeeps, including several women, to reach Khambale where the protestors would halt for lunch. The volunteers then prepared large utensils full of khichadi on wood stoves.
“Everyone has contributed material such as rice, pulses, oil, salt, onions, etc. Most of us did not have breakfast in the morning, so this will be their first meal,” said SA Chuadhary, a member of the Kisan Sabha from Peth tehsil in Nashik. One leader from each village has been entrusted the job of caring for his group through the six days, he added. Santosh Nikam from Mohadi village in Dindori tehsil in Nashik said they brought only rice. “We purchased the other material from an adjoining village from collections of Rs 500 per head,” said Nikam, who drove his own tempo. Farmers were also advised to carry Rs 1,000 in case of any emergencies.
Subhash Chaudhary, Nashik district treasurer for the Kisan Sabha, said nearly 50 quintals of rice were purchased on Wednesday. When the protestors reached Khambale around 1 pm, the piping hot food and the shade were welcome respite. A lake also offered some the chance to take a bath. Kisan Sabha leaders also instructed activists to ensure anyone who is hungry is fed regardless of which village he is from. By 3 pm. the protesters were back on the road, tired but still enthusiastic.
Kisan Sabha president Dr Ashok Dhawale said more farmers are likely to join the protestors over the next two days. “Some of our leaders are also talking to Opposition parties regarding our issues,” said Dhawale.
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