The spontaneity driving the ongoing farmers’ strike in Maharashtra has rendered it unusual and extraordinary. Though the farmers in the Puntamba block in western Maharashtra are not known to have a strong farmers’ organisation, their decision to not cultivate their fields this monsoon has fired the imagination of farmers in different districts across the state. The phenomenon is unique, but the method of agitation is not.
In the heydays of the Shetkari Saghatana, led by Sharad Joshi, then the country’s most articulate farmers’ organiser, an attempt was made to stop the supply of milk to cities. The move, however, turned out to be a fiasco. Candidly admitting failure, Joshi quickly withdrew the agitation. The retreat, however, didn’t damage the Shetkari Sanghatana’s strength. Instead, the organisation continued to grow by leaps and bounds.
The question before us now is: are we going to see history repeat itself? This could indeed be bad news for Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, who, till now, has kept a firm grip over the state’s agriculture policy discourse.
Strikes, a common tool of protest for organised workers, is a completely novel form of resistance in the farm sector, which is fundamentally unorganised. So the idea that they, as farmers, could actually go on strike has catalysed the imagination of young farmers. Given that we are inhabiting times dominated by a vibrant social media, spreading the message of protest has been quick and easy. The visuals of farmers throwing their produce on roads, be it vegetables or milk, has proven to be an effective way of conveying farmers’ anguish, releasing their accumulated rage.
Let us trace the processes that have led to the present situation. Farmers in the state have been battling two consecutive years of drought. For a state with a meagre 20% of land under irrigation, the prolonged continuation of drought was bound to lead to a calamity. But the ensuing unrest has failed to find political expression.
There are three main reasons for this drawback. First, the opposition parties – dislodged after helming the state for 15 years marked by sluggish agricultural growth and stagnating irrigation – are yet to regain their credibility. Second, the chief minister was successful in co-opting the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a strong farmers’ organisation in western Maharashtra, by making one of its leaders the minister for agriculture. Third, and perhaps most important, is the chief minister’s skillful management of the political discourse on the agrarian crisis.
Earlier, during his election rallies in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised minimum support prices (MSP) for farm produce, ensuring 50% profit. But after coming to power, the Maharashtra chief minister succeeded in deflecting attention from the issues of MSPs and loan waivers. He succeeded in projecting his flagship programme, the Jalyukt Shiwar (water in every farm), as the most important programme, aimed at tackling the neglected subject of irrigation. The Jalyukt Shiwar involves constructing small water storage structures and reworking earlier structures so that the groundwater level can be quickly raised. The involvement of NGOs headed by films-stars like Nana Patekar and Aamir Khan added to the political appeal of this programme.
In fact, Fadnavis has picked up on the trail left by his predecessor, Prithviraj Chavan. The former chief minister had begun by attacking the dam and canal-dependent irrigation policy that has proved to be highly inefficient, besides helping the corrupt nexus between contractors and politicians. He launched the sakhali bandhare (chain of check dams) programme and tried to boost the implementation of MGNREGA for creating dug wells for small farmers. But unlike Fadnavis, Chavan was bound by the political compulsions of running a coalition government. While he failed to make the programme attractive to farmers, Fadnavis has succeeded in doing so.
Fadnavis could brush aside the issue of remunerative prices through the MSP by highlighting the issue of productivity through his pet scheme, Jalyukt Shivar. Irrigation is certainly the most important challenge facing the agricultural sector in the state, and the chief minister deserves credit for pitching the subject at the centre of the agriculture policy discourse. But the tall promises made by Modi during his election rallies had raised farmers’ expectations to a much higher level. The frequent bans on the export of onion and the government’s failure to set a fair MSP for soybean didn’t help either. But the real jolt came when prices of all major farm produce crashed after demonetisation. This happened after a good monsoon – coming in the wake of two consecutive droughts – had raised the yield significantly and farmers were hoping for good earnings. The prices of many vegetables and onions are yet to completely recover.
But the real trigger of the crisis was the government’s reluctance to ensure price support to tur (gram) producers in the state. The crop is grown in large parts of the rain-fed region in the country. Encouraged by high prices in previous years and an increased MSP, the area under tur cultivation went up, and private investment through increased pesticide application raised the yield and productivity. But the prices crashed. Farmers were forced to sell their produce at as low as Rs 2,500 a quintal, when what the government had announced was Rs 5,050 a quintal.
Also read: For Farmers Reeling Under Tur Price Collapse in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha, the Centre Is to Blame
In dealing with the situation, the government’s response was typically too little, too late. They did not assure the farmers that the promised price floor would be protected. The farmers, as a result, felt cheated. As part of damage control, the chief minister tried to convince farmers that his government would request the central government to raise the limit on the quota for tur procurement.
This quota defies the very principle of MSPs. Farmers suffered heavy losses. Small and marginal farmer was badly hit as they couldn’t afford to wait for the government procurement to begin. The tur issue should be seen as the first major blot on the credibility of the Fadnavis government. Opposition parties and Shiv Sena, the BJP’s ally in Maharashtra, have been quick in trying to cash in on the government’s discomfiture. The Sangharsh Yatra organised by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party was also received well by farmers. The demand for a loan waiver had already acquired political appeal. And after the new government in Uttar Pradesh waived farmers’ loans, it became increasing difficult for the Maharashtra government to delay a loan waiver in the state.
The chief minister succeeded in splitting farmers’ unity by partially accepting the loan waiver demand. But the side that agreed to hold back the protests based on this demand has lost farmers’ backing. The move seems to have backfired on Fadnavis, as the protests has only united the political parties and farmers’ organisations. The proposed loan waiver is restricted to small farmers, ignoring the fact that this would mainly benefit the farmers in the western Maharashtra, who have assured irrigation but have small land holdings. A farmer in Vidarbha with a larger land holding but without irrigation is poorer than a small farmer cultivating grapes or other commercial crops.
The government could hope that this will diminish the strength of the agitating farmers. But this seems unlikely, as the issue of loan waiver appears to be just a manifestation of a deeper disquiet in the farming community. With this, Fadanvis seems to be losing his grip over the political discourse on agriculture.
Milind Murugkar writes on economic and political issues.