Why Maharashtra Farmers Today Commanded Such A Following

Published: March 12, 2018 19:28 IST
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For protesting Indian farmers, it is usually difficult to get noticed. In years when onion prices have been high, urban consumers have made their anger clear, and politicians have responded by grovelling to their concerns - shutting down exports, for example, depriving farmers of a little extra cash by exporting produce in order to keep city-dwellers within budget. But at times when the opposite has happened, when prices have been low, farmers have struggled to attract attention to their plight. On occasion, they have dumped their produce, including, at times, onions, on national highways. On other occasions, they have held massive rallies. But the Indian state doesn't notice tens of thousands of farmers rallying in the distant interior of Maharashtra.

That is partly why, no doubt, as many as 35,000 farmers have walked in the blazing sun from Nashik to Mumbai. The distance, 180 kilometres, is hardly easy to cover. Many of the farmers are elderly; photographs of their chapped and blistered feet have elicited sympathy.
 
farmers march mumbai

Some 35,000 farmers walked all the way from Nashik, 180 km away, to Mumbai's Azad Maidan

There is something oddly old-fashioned about what has happened so far on this march. Let us not ignore, for instance, the fact that they are marching under the red banner of a Left that many of us just last week were quick to deride as completely vanished after it was ousted from Tripura which it had governed for 25 years. The Left retains the ability to organise dissent in a manner that is the envy of other opposition forces. This is why they, in spite of declining electoral support, continue to be players in the politics of India.

But that is not the only thing that is old-fashioned and even courteous about this incident. It's worth noting that, in addition, the marchers have been studiously non-violent so far. In response to an appeal from the Maharashtra Chief Minister on behalf of examination-taking students, they chose not to disrupt traffic on Monday and instead decided to forgo their well-deserved rest and march through the city overnight to get to their camp before Mumbai stirred into its own. Some residents welcomed the farmers with food, others with flowers. The political opposition supported the marchers and addressed their gathering at Azad Maidan, but did not try and infiltrate their numbers with more violent or partisan protestors. And finally, the Maharashtra government was nimble and sure-footed enough to come to an agreement as quickly as possible with the marchers.
 
farmers 650

The farmers said their main demand was for a waiver of all loans and the implementation of the Swaminathan Committee report

On the whole, one could wish there were more incidents in Indian politics that were conducted with as much civility and consideration. On one level, it is a tribute to all involved, from the farmers to the political parties.

But let's also try to look behind what happened. Why are farmers protesting? Why was everyone so responsive? And why do other protests - such as those this January by Dalit organisations - receive far less sympathy, leading them to be less co-operative with the normal life of the city?

First, the farmers' demands are clear: they want tweaks to the loan waiver mechanisms, they want minimum support prices to be set according to a particular formula. Importantly, they also want implementation of certain aspects of the Forest Rights Act that provides Adivasi farmers with property rights. This gives us a clue as to the identity of many of the farmers. It is also a partial explanation as to why this protest has been treated with particular consideration and care so far. The farmers' vote is usually important, but all four or five main political forces in Maharashtra are particularly interested in the Scheduled Tribe (ST)vote. This has traditionally been with the Congress. But the Bharatiya Janata Party's massive gains in the 2014 assembly elections were greatly aided by a swing of about half the ST electorate towards the party. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, it won every ST reserved constituency in Maharashtra.
 
farmers 650

The farmers had planned to gherao the Maharashtra state assembly demanding complete loan waiver, fair pay and transfer of Adivasi land to farmers who have been tilling it for years

In other words, in the run-up to 2019, the rural ST vote is crucial. If the BJP holds on or increases its share among these voters, it has a chance to deal with the erosion in its support elsewhere, particularly among Dalits. If the Congress-led alliance can win them back, it is in with a fighting chance in one of the few states where it has retained a party organisation. This is a situation massively different from what happened with the Dalit organisations in January, who the BJP clearly no longer sees as swing voters to be wooed. Moreover, questions of identity and hierarchy were central to the Dalit protests, causing various far right organisations to be involved and to see the Dalit protestors as an enemy of social order. No such dynamic existed in these farmers' protests.

But let us not assume that this means that there is a genuinely happy ending to these protests. Some of the farmers' demands - such as a reasonable mark-up over cost to minimum support prices - gel easily with promises already made by the Union government. But it is feared by many farmers' organisations elsewhere in India that the promises contain enough wiggle room for the government to actually escape following through on its commitments. If that is the case, expect farmers to be protesting visibly again in quite a short while.
 
devendra fadanavis loan waiver mumbai

The protest was called off after Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis accepted the demands of the farmers (File photo)

But more importantly, the entire thrust of many of these demands - loan waivers, high MSPs, and so on - reflects an unsustainable approach to the agrarian economy. Farming cannot be made profitable enough for half India's population through government subsidies. This is an impossible task. And if the government tries to, it will wind up infuriating its urban voters who will suffer through high inflation. This is partly what led to urban India's unhappiness with the United Progressive Alliance government towards the end of its tenure. And when it comes to a choice between farmers and inflation, most governments will take one look at the UPA's experience and go with reducing inflation.

In other words, until the government ensures that the number of Indians depending on farming for their livelihoods actually goes down substantially, farmers will continue to be short of resources. And they will continue to demand transfers of a size that the state will struggle to provide. In places where they constitute less of a swing vote in the case of Adivasis in Maharashtra, their demands will be treated with much less compassion. The four years that the BJP has been in power in Delhi and Mumbai should have seen the beginning of attempts to address this unfortunate dynamic. But the real lesson of the farmers' protest in Mumbai is that these four years have been wasted. Under the BJP, we have just got more of the same. In other words, farmers across India will be out on the streets soon enough. And let's just hope that next time, their demands are received with as much courtesy as on this occasion.

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(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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