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A Struggle Far from Over

Kisan Long March in Maharashtra

Amit Narkar (narkaram@gmail.com) is an independent researcher on development and governance.

The kisan long march, which took place in March 2018, is the most noteworthy agitation by farmers in Maharashtra in recent times. However, beyond the demands of complete loan waivers and fair prices for farm produce, the march is the manifestation of deep-seated and burgeoning structural problems within the agricultural sector that successive governments have failed to address.

Maharashtra continues to top the list of states with the highest number of farmers’ suicides in the country, as was revealed in Parliament by the minister for agriculture in reply to a question (Sandhu 2018). Despite the farm loan waiver announced by the state government, in the first six months of 2018, a large number of farmers’ suicides have been reported (Kakodkar 2018). Thus, Maharashtra, once famous for path-breaking innovations in agriculture as well as its trendsetting policies for agricultural and rural development, has now won repute as the worst state for farmers and land tillers, with the highest number of farmer suicides in the country so far. The never-ending phenomenon of farmer suicides is the penultimate manifestation of deep-rooted agrarian distress in the state, caused by anti-farmer and anti-agriculture policies that have been pursued by successive central and state governments over the last two and a half decades. This is not to say that suicide is the only response available to farmers in distress. In fact, farmers’ groups and political organisations have continuously agitated, taking up various farm-related demands from time to time. The Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana became a formidable political force in the state’s polity, thanks to the massive organised struggles it waged for fair prices for farm produce, particularly sugar cane. These often successful struggles were replicated in other agriculture-allied occupations such as milk production. The state has thus witnessed numerous militant farmers’ movements over the last two decades.

Significant Struggle

The kisan long march under the banner of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) in March 2018, is the recent, most noteworthy struggle by the farmers of Maharashtra, and stands out from the long list of farmers’ and peasants’ struggles in the state on multiple counts. The march covered a distance of 180 kilometres, from Nashik to Mumbai, drawing around 50,000 farmers and agricultural labourers, with a massive participation of Adivasis from the Nashik and Thane districts. An utterly disciplined protest, there was no disruption to civic life during the course of the march. In Mumbai, the farmers walked the last few kilometres overnight, in order to avoid any inconvenience to the students appearing for their Class 10 board exams, a gesture that won many hearts.

Above all, it was the resolve of the farmers, landless labourers, Adivasi men and women, both young and old, which was visible throughout the march that forced the Devendra Fadnavis-led government to lend its ear, and accept their demands. Much has been said and written about the kisan long march, with most of the discussions centring around the demands of complete farm loan waivers and implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations, especially raising minimum support price (MSP) to 150% of the cost of production. While these demands were certainly the highlight of the march, there were, in fact, many more.

The march was planned with demands such as implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), provision of irrigation facilities, land titles for the toiling masses, implementation of social security schemes for the rural poor and homeless, prohibiting acquisition of land belonging to Adivasis in the name of development, and recognition of and respect for the powers guaranteed by the Provision of Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) to the gram sabhas in matters of land use in tribal areas.

The kisan long march was not a sudden response. It was preceded by a coordinated statewide farmer agitation in June 2017. The farmers had demanded that their farm loans be waived off, and threatened to go on strike if the demand was not met. A coordination committee, Sukanu Samiti, comprising various groups, organisations and factions was set up. The struggle, which began in Puntamba in Ahmednagar district, soon spread to various parts of the state, forcing the state government to initiate discussions with the Sukanu Samiti. There were attempts to weaken and sabotage the struggle, and in a meeting, it was evident that the state government was trying to divide the hitherto coordinated struggle. Ajit Navale of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated AIKS walked out of the meeting, and spread the word on
social media of the attempts to divide the struggle. Contrary to the establishment’s intentions, this led to further consolidation of the farmers’ organisations, and the government was forced to accept the demand of farm loan waiver. However, observing the state government’s failure to fulfil its promise, in March 2018, the AIKS decided to stage a walk to Mantralaya with thousands of farmers.

The march was successful in that the state government agreed to set up separate mechanisms to look into and resolve many of the issues and demands raised by the agitation. It even agreed to set up the State Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. It remains to be seen, however, whether the state government is serious and sincere about fulfilling the promises it made to the state’s farmers and rural poor.

The agrarian and rural situation in the state must be understood if one is to understand the context of the frequent struggles and this kisan long march.

Agriculture and Allied Sector

One of the larger states in the country, Maharashtra ranks first with the highest gross state domestic product (GSDP) and the highest per capita income. This impressive picture of the state’s economy, however, is heavily skewed. The state’s majority population still depends on the agriculture and allied sector for their livelihood. The share of this sector in the state’s economy has shown a declining trend over time. The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2017–18 revealed that the share of the agriculture and allied sector in the gross state value added (GSVA) has declined from 15.3% in 2001–02 to 12.2% in 2016–17 (GoM 2018). Except for two years, the sector has recorded a negative growth rate in the last five years (Table 1). Within this, the high negative growth rate of crops is a matter of serious concern. The allied activities, such as livestock, have not been able to make up for the impact of the shrinking livelihood support from core farming activities. Thus the depressed agriculture and allied sector has aggravated the overall rural distress in the state.

The patterns in land utilisation, land under different crops, and yield are also disturbing. The Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2017–18 also highlights the decline in area under cereals and pulses, and decline in their total production, in both, the kharif and rabi seasons (Table 2).

The decrease in area under foodgrains and oilseeds, and decline in their production are steeper in the rabi season. This is a clear indication of the absence of sufficient protective irrigation in the state. And wherever irrigation is available, the bulk of available water is used for sugar cane cultivation. Maharashtra, which boasts of the highest number of dams in the country, irrigates only 17% of arable land.

The state has also been facing deficient rainfall continuously for the past three years. In the monsoon of 2017, over 40% of the state’s area received deficient rainfall, which resulted in the live water storage of hardly 70% of the total storage capacity.

The above figures for the area under cultivation and production of crops also indicate loss of farmers’ confidence in cultivation of any crops, except sugar cane. This is largely due to the fact that sugar cane has been favoured over any other crop by successive state governments and the classes that control state polity. The fate of cereals and pulses, and of the farmers growing these crops, are left to the market forces, with very little state support in the form of MSP, procurement and risk covers. The fact that the state’s majority landowners are small and marginal (having operational holding size of up to 2 hectares [ha]), protective irrigation and state support for food crops become essential for their survival. However, this is completely neglected in the state’s agriculture policy. (It should be noted that average size holding for Scheduled Caste [SC], Scheduled Tribe [ST] and women farmers is far less compared to others.) The reduction in the average size of operational holdings (from 4.28 ha in 1970–71 to 1.44 ha in 2010–11), increasing number of small and marginal farmers, and uncertainty regarding the guaranteed availability of inputs at affordable prices, output and markets, as well as support systems, have added to the drudgery of the state’s farmers. The farmers, especially small and marginal farmers, have to increasingly rely on farm and non-farm wage employment for mere survival. The state’s high-growth rate economy has failed to create employment and reduce the burden on agriculture and the rural economy. The proportion of workers employed in the agriculture and allied sector in the state has increased from 45.1% as per the 2001 Census, to 46.1% in the Census 2011.

Flawed design and unsatisfactory implementation of rural employment guarantee programmes have led to failure in creating alternate livelihood opportunities in rural parts of the state. It was the Maharashtra government that came up with the innovative Employment Guarantee Scheme during the drought years of 1972–73. In 2006, Parliament passed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 (MGNREGA). However, the performance of MGNREGA is dismal at the national level, as well as in Maharashtra. For instance, from 2015–16 to 2017–18, the state has recorded a fall in the generation of person-days of work, average employment per household and share of STs and women in employment (GoM 2018).

Rejection of Rightful Claims

Maharashtra is home to 10% of the country’s ST population. The FRA was passed to undo the historic injustice meted out to the tribal and other forest-dwelling communities. It is no secret that the implementation of the FRA is unsatisfactory across India. In this regards, Maharashtra is no exception: the state has rejected 63% of the total claims received, distributing only 31% titles (GoI 2018).

Growing Land Alienation

The story of PESA in Maharashtra is similar. The act grants decision-making powers with regard to land and natural resources in Adivasi areas, to the gram sabhas. The Maharashtra version of the act is a much diluted version of the central act, and gives the gram sabhas only consultative powers, making gram panchayats the decision-making bodies instead. And it is no secret that the state government overrides the decisions and opinions of the gram sabhas and gram panchayats in Adivasi areas. Land is often acquired in the name of development, without the consent of the gram sabhas or gram panchayats, be it for the ambitious Delhi–Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) or the Samruddhi Highway.

Besides, land distribution has never been implemented honestly in the state. Outside tribal areas, large tracts of land lie unutilised, when the number of landless and land-needy people is great. Different types of landholdings such as commons, government land, gifts (like Mahar vatans gifted by the British to the Mahar community for their bravery in the fight against the Marathas), and land belonging to temples and religious trusts (devsthan lands), can be distributed among the landless. The landless have been demanding land titles and there have been numerous struggles on the issue. By one rough estimate, in Maharashtra alone, around 1 lakh ha of Mahar vatan land is available, and can be distributed to the community. But, beyond mere promises, the government has not taken any steps in this regard. If land is distributed to the landless, it will ensure a life of dignity for them, and also reduce the burden on already-stressed agriculture in the state.

Escalating Costs of Living

The decline in prospects of a better life in agriculture and other areas in rural Maharashtra is coupled with the rising costs of living, which add fuel to the fire. The calculations by the Labour Bureau of the consumer price index (CPI) for agricultural labourers and rural labourers clearly show that for both the categories of rural workers, the CPI has always remained higher than the all-India figures (Table 3). The first nine months of the year 2017–18 also show that the index of food group and the general index, both for agricultural and rural labourers were higher than the national figures.

Promises of Social Security

The social security net is created to reduce hardships caused by income uncertainties. But the state government has failed miserably in its duty towards the state’s poor, including the rural poor. The share of the state’s budget allocated to the social sector, including social security schemes, has been declining year after year. Studies have shown that health expenditure accounts for almost 60% of the income of the poor. It is an established fact that out-of-pocket expenditure on education and health has increased in the last decade. This increase in private expenditure is due to the withdrawal of the state from these sectors. Maharashtra has cut down on its public health expenditure, and has increased allocation for education only marginally. In fact, the allocation towards overall social services has been increasing marginally in the past few years. The share of social services in the state’s gross domestic product (GDP), as well as total outlay, has been continuously decreasing, while inadequate allocations and huge underspending have become characteristic features of the state’s social sector spending.

Worse is the situation of food security in the state. Maharashtra is the richest state in terms of its high GSDP and a high per capita income. On the nutrition index, it ranks 11th in a list of 18 states of the country (IFPRI nd), but on the Hunger Index, it competes with countries like Rwanda and Cambodia (Maitra et al 2017). The scope and coverage of food security schemes have been narrowed over time in the name of “targeting” and “efficiency.” The state has allocated a miserly 0.25% of the GSDP towards food security, and had not spent 87% of these allocated funds when the farmers set out on the long march in March 2018 (BEAMS nd)!

The implementation of the Antyodaya Anna Yojana tells the true story of the targeted food security scheme in the state. In 2016–17, 47,788 metric tonnes of the allotted foodgrains were never distributed to the fair price shops in the state. In the first nine months of 2017–18 as well, 1,04,267 metric tonnes never reached the fair price shops. The exact figures on the amount of foodgrains that actually reached the intended beneficiaries are unavailable (Table 4).

The budgetary support for agriculture and rural development has seen substantial decline under the present Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–Shiv Sena government in the state. The BJP came to power with the promise of complete loan waiver to the debt-ridden farmers of the state, a promise, soon forgotten, upon assuming office. By juggling the budgetary figures, they tried to create an impression that more funding was being made available to the agricultural and rural sectors. This, however, was a myth, which has been continually busted by academics and activists after every budget presentation. For instance, the state finance minister announced the 2018–19 budget as the “farmers’ budget.” But a closer look at the budget figures revealed that the state had actually reduced the budget allocation for the agriculture and allied sector by 14.64%, and for irrigation by 16.75% (over the 2017–18 budget). In 2017–18, the state had spent only 40% and 13% respectively on agriculture and irrigation. Data also showed that the state government had paid only ₹14,000 crore of the promised ₹34,000 crore of loan waiver.

The Way Ahead

The state’s failure on all fronts to ensure the development of agriculture and the rural economy has culminated in the present disastrous situation. The struggles of farmers are in response to this hopeless situation. The Kisan Long March, under the leadership of the AIKS, was a much-needed response to the government’s anti-farmer policies. It served as a reminder to the state government to respect its own promises. The vision of the organisers of the march must be commended, for the demands of the farmers were not limited to the routine, and often populist, demands of merely loan waivers and fair prices. The comprehensive demands raised during the march transcended the class bias, visible in the state’s farmers’ struggles—which are invariably led, guided by, and beneficial only to the rich farmers—and brought to the fore issues faced by the poorer sections of the agrarian and rural society in the state.

The march was the product of a conscious effort on the part of the organisers to mobilise agrarian, rural, and tribal peoples, and build bridges across classes and communities. The participation of a large number of Adivasis and women highlighted the possibility of building a strong resistance to the anti-agriculture, anti-rural poor policy paradigm. The charter of demands is comprehensive, and is based on a sound understanding of achievable short-term demands and long-term policy suggestions. This can provide a solid base for developing pro-people manifestos, at least for the rural constituencies of the state in the upcoming elections.

The magnitude of the Kisan Long March compelled the state government to invite the leaders of the march for discussions, and the government subsequently accepted their major demands and promised action within six months. Four months have already passed, and things have not moved. There is very little hope that the government will fulfil its promises. In that sense, the struggle is far from over.

References

BEAMS (nd): “Without Public Account and Deduct Recovery Report for 2017–2018,” Budget Estimation, Allocation & Monitoring System, Finance Department, Government of Maharashtra,
https://beams.mahakosh.gov.in/Beams5/BudgetMVC/MISRPT/DeptExpAct.jsp?fmo....

GoI (2018): “Status Report on Implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 [for the period ending 31.10.2017],” Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Government of India.

GoM (2018): Economic Survey of Maharashtra 2017–18, Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Planning Department, Government of Maharashtra, Mumbai.

IFPRI (nd): “India State Hunger Index,” Food Security Portal, International Food Policy Research Institute, http://www.foodsecurityportal.org/test-1.

Kakodkar, Priyanka (2018): “7 Farmer Suicides a Day in Maharashtra Despite Loan Waiver,” Times of India, 12 July, viewed on 21 July 2018, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/7-farmer-suicides-a-day-in-mah....

Maitra, Chandana, Vani Sethi, Sayeed Unisa, S Chandrasekhar, Saba Mebrahtu, Victor Aguayo and Sriram Shankar (2017): “Household Food Insecurity and Maternal and Child Undernutrition: The Case of Maharashtra, India,” International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&....

Sandhu, Kamaljit Kaur (2018): “Farmer Suicides Down by 10 per cent in Country, 14 in Maharashtra: Centre,” India Today, 23 July, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/farmer-suicides-down-by-10-per-cen....

Updated On : 13th Aug, 2018

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