Agrarian distress is an undeniable fact. Across the land, farmers are suffering for want of a sustained approach to alleviate their plight. This stems from a woeful lack of irrigation facilities, an inordinately high reliance on the monsoons, low-yields and unremunerative price for the produce, exploitation by money-lenders, small land holdings and, above all, labour-intensive farming and too many mouths to feed on small holdings.
Maharashtra, particularly, has been in the grip of deficient rains. Last year, it received 16 percent less than the normal. This is reflected in a lower farm output, down to 8.3 percent of the State GDP as against the previous 12 percent. However, the farm agitation last year was different than what Mumbai saw on Monday. Farmers last years were essentially drawn from various neighbouring States, some as far away as Tamil Nadu, and were relatively well-to-do. They were demanding debt write-offs, having suffered from the sustained effects of demonetisation and the consequent squeeze in the grain mandis across the land. But what the six-day, 180-kilometer-long march, culminating in Maharashtra’s political and the nation’s commercial capital, saw was a tribute to the sheer doggedness and determination of the poorest of the poor tribals and others reliant on forest lands for livelihoods.
They must be commended for one of the more peaceful and orderly demonstrations seen in Mumbai in decades. And Mumbaikars, too, deserve praise for having been good hosts, offering food and water and other help to the simple folks who had trekked long miles with callused feet, most unshod, and even empty-stomached. Their flesh was week but the spirit did not falter. All through their presence in Mumbai not a single untoward incident was reported, a welcome departure from some of the earlier farmers’ demonstrations. These people, the real salt of the earth, as it were, were not pressing for the usual run-of-the-mill reliefs invariably sought by farmers everywhere.
That is, a remunerative price for their produce as per the M S Swaminathan formula, which would guarantee fifty-percent over and above the total cost of inputs, including the human labour. Monday’s demonstrators were seeking title rights to small plots of forest lands they had tilled for generations and which they were promised under the Forests Rights Act, 2006. Tribals have run from pillar to post for these titles. A lackadaisical and insensitive local bureaucracy, which dragged its feet in granting these titles also erred often in issuing flawed ones with land already appropriated by other entities. Again, availing of the loan waivers announced by the State Government last year was proving ticklish for the tribals. The demonstrators sought a conditions-free waiver and wanted the proviso that only one member of each family could avail of it removed.
Convinced of the genuineness of their demands, the Maharashtra Government did well to concede most of them. The Government could not have done otherwise. At a time, when crooked businessmen loot and scoot after helping themselves to tens of crores in bank funds, the Government was not in a position to argue paucity of resources as an excuse to deny the tribals. But this may not be the last time agitating farmers would feel obliged to come on the streets. Their periodic agitation underlines the intrinsic failure of the farm policy. Though, agriculture barely contributes about 15-16 per cent of the GDP, it still supports more than 60 per cent of the population. In modern, western economies, the farm sector feeds the entire population and leaves a huge surplus for exports, yet the workforce hardly exceeds two to three per cent.
Indian farmers are obliged to farm for want of opportunities elsewhere. Besides, in Maharashtra the agrarian crisis is skewed further by the stranglehold of the politician-sugar-mill lobby. Production of almost all other crops came down last year but that of sugarcane increased almost 25 percent. Given that sugarcane is a water-intensive crop, it is unfair to deny and divert water from other crops to keep the politicians’ cooperative sugar factories running. Farmers blessed to have a stake in the sugar sector manage to do well, while a vast majority lives in penury. A beginning should be made to unburden Maharashtra’s farm sector with the gradual shift of sugar factories to other more irrigated parts of the country.