SOS

The march of thousands of farmers to Mumbai shows the desperation of rural India

Quartz india
Quartz india

Since Sunday (March 11), the humid air in Mumbai and its neighbourhoods has been reverberating with the sounds of many a wailing iktara, alongside flutes and drums. But it is no music to the ears of the Maharashtra government led by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis as it watches thousands of marching farmers bring the country’s financial capital to a standstill.

Six days ago, around 15,000 protesting farmers, including many elderly ones, began walking from Nashik, 180km northeast of Mumbai, carrying Marxist banners and flags. As the marchers reached the state capital, many of them barefoot, their numbers swelled to 50,000, according to the All India Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ organisation leading the march.

They braved temperatures soaring up to 35 degrees celsius while negotiating the rough terrain of the western ghats and later camping in open dusty grounds on the outskirts of Mumbai. As the protests hit a crescendo on Monday, the headcount is expected to be nearly 100,000.

The farmers’ demands include loan waivers, higher prices for their produce, and reforms to provide them ownership of land and end their status as landless tillers.

Meanwhile, the administration beefed up security in the city to avoid traffic problems. To spare students who are appearing for their crucial school-leaving exams, the farmers set forth on the final lap to south Mumbai’s Azad Maidan ground at around 2am on March 12. A chunk of protesters will raise slogans a few blocks away, outside the state government headquarters, while some of their representatives negotiate with chief minister Fadnavis.

The farm crisis

Farmers’ protests are not new in Maharashtra. This time, though, the scale is unprecedented. To the government’s dismay, the protest has peaked just three days after the state budget was presented.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s budget allocated about Rs3,100 crore for irrigation under a central government scheme, and about Rs8,200 crore via the state’s water resources department. Much smaller allocations were made for electrical pump sets for farm lands, food processing units, and organic agriculture. There was no loan waiver and no promise of higher minimum support prices.

Clearly, a good section of the state’s farmers wasn’t satisfied.

As the farmers gherao—a form of protest involving physically surrounding or cornering the target—the state government headquarters in Mumbai, they have vowed not to give up this time until their demands are met.

The distress in the state’s agriculture sector has been lingering for years. Over 60,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2013, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The morbid numbers have only increased pace since then—at least 12,400 recorded between 2014 and 2017—as consecutive droughts deepened the farmers debt problem.

The national scene

Farm distress, though, is not limited to Maharashtra. Agriculture, which supports the livelihoods of over half the country’s population, has been a weak spot for India’s economy for some time now. It makes for little less than a fifth of the country’s $2.3 trillion GDP.

“In the last four years, the level of real agricultural GDP and real agriculture revenues have remained constant,” India’s latest annual economic survey says. The Narendra Modi government has promised to double farmers’ income but has achieved little in the last four years of its regime.

“The government’s laudable objective of addressing agricultural stress and doubling farmers’ incomes consequently requires radical follow-up action, including decisive efforts to bring science and technology to farmers, replacing untargeted subsidies (power and fertiliser) by direct income support, and dramatically extending irrigation but via efficient drip and sprinkler technologies,” the economic survey said.

However, many states are also guilty of spending less than the budgeted amount on agriculture, despite the poor state of infrastructure. Cumulatively, state governments spent 9% less than the budgeted expenditure on agriculture between 2011 and 2015, according to data published by research firm PRS Legislative (pdf).

Predictably, there have been a number of protests across the country ever since the Modi government took over at the centre in 2014.

In 2016, there were three months of continuous protests by farmers across the country demanding government aid. In November 2017, thousands of farmers from Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Telangana gathered in New Delhi demanding a farm loan waiver. Last September, Tamil farmers protesting in the national capital consumed their own faeces in a desperate attempt to draw the government’s attention.

Some state governments have also sought to mollify the farmers. For instance, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Karnataka announced loan waivers adding up to Rs96,000 crore ($1.5 billion) in the last couple of years.

But while these did drain the states’ exchequer, they have done little to ease the suffering.

In any case, loan waivers are not the farmers’ only demand. They also want better prices for their produce.

Support price vs inflation

In its annual budget presented last month, the Modi government proposed a 50% profit over the cost of production for farmers across the country. That proved to be an empty promise as the centre’s calculations gave little room for a rise in minimum support prices.

Besides, keeping food prices in check is a priority for the BJP-led government that stormed to power in 2014 promising to rein in runaway inflation. But its tight leash on prices has cost farmers who went from two painful droughts to a price crunch. As farm product prices plunged, farmers have risen up in arms across several states.

In the three budgets announced in 2018—one central and two of state governments’—the BJP has tried to reach out to the rural voters in the run up to general elections next year. However, the farmers seem to suspect a gap between promises and delivery.

The current protest is likely a reflection of those apprehensions, over and above the distress itself.

The pace and depth of the Maharashtra government’s response may be crucial to determine the voters’ mood in the months to come.

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