Thousands of farmers shout slogans against the government at a rally organized by the All India Kisan Sabha in Mumbai on March 12. Photo: Reuters / Danish Siddiqui

A massive protest by more than 40,000 farmers, who marched for days and arrived in Mumbai early on Monday morning, was a major embarrassment to both the Narendra Modi government and the BJP-led state government.

The farmers found massive support from people along the way as they headed for Mumbai. Not wanting to create chaos in India’s financial capital, they marched through the night, also winning support from the city’s residents.

On June 24 last year, when Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced an historic farm loan waiver after sustained pressure and agitation from the opposition and farmers’ groups, Shantaram Bhise, a farmer from Parbhani district, was ecstatic. After low production and poor returns the year before, the 62-year-old Bhise had defaulted on his loan.

The Fadnavis government’s announcement entitled him to a full waiver, but nine months later, Bhise it yet to see any results.

On the heels of yet another “farmer-friendly” budget, presented by state finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar on Friday, scores of farmers started walking towards Mumbai and reached the state government’s offices on Sunday night. Their intention was to surround the State Assembly on Monday in protest against what they call the government’s breach of promises to them.

Their demands include the proper implementation of a farm loan waiver, adequate compensation for all farmers whose crops have failed and stopping forcible land acquisitions for the much-vaunted Delhi-Mumbai corridor.

They also want the quick implementation of the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations that suggest fair and remunerative prices be set at 1.5 times the input cost. They also demanded land rights for forest dwellers and a Rs2,000 (about US$30) monthly pension for all marginalized farmers aged more than 60.

The 180-kilometer protest march was steered by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) farmers’ wing, the All India Kisan Sabha. The BJP’s ruling partner in the State — Shiv Sena and the opposition parties — Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, have all extended their support to the farmers, their core voters.

The rally is also embarrassing for the Modi government since they were banking on their votes to return to power in 2019. The federal government has been frequently accused of failing to address crisis in the agriculture sector or create new jobs.

“The BJP government has betrayed farmers on every single promise they made in the last three and half years. The farmers neither got fair and remunerative prices nor the loan waiver or land rights,” alleged Dr Ashok Dhawale, the head of the All India Kisan Sabha and CPI(M) leader, who has been pushing for monthly pensions for farmers.

The leader of the rally said more than 30,000 farmers and tribal people from across Maharashtra had joined the protest, a figure contested by government officials. Interestingly, the government made no effort to speak to them until they arrived in the city, even as the rally was expected to bring the commercial capital to a standstill. The government has now invited leaders of the protest for talks on Monday afternoon.

“To protest is everyone’s right. We are ready to speak to the farmers. Hopefully, a solution will come out,” said Maharashtra Agriculture Minister Pandurang Fundkar.

Crop failures

Crop failures and poor market prices are the prime reasons for the anger among small and marginal farmers. Most districts have seen an unprecedented failure of the cotton crop due to a pink-worm attack. The government estimates between 30% and 70% of the crops were destroyed. Maharashtra is India’s second-highest cotton producer.

India’s agriculture sector has taken a big hit in the past year, with a 16% drop in the long-term annual average rainfall furthering a sharp decline in farm yields across all commodities, apart from sugarcane, which is seeing bumper production.

In 2016-17, Maharashtra’s farm sector grew 22.5% because of a good monsoon and bumper harvests. Despite preceding years of drought and demonetization, its overall growth was pushed to 10%. But in 2017-18, the farm economy contracted 8.3%, the Economic Survey said, owing to a weak monsoon.

Making matter worse, the survey predicted, the production of cereals, pulses, oilseeds and cotton was expected to drop this year by 4%, 46%, 15% and 44% respectively, while the sugarcane crop would increase by 25% over the previous year.

Poor implementation of loan waiver scheme

Most farmers in Maharashtra are yet to receive the benefits of the loan waiver scheme, under which the government promised to waive bank loans up to Rs150,000.

At the time of the scheme’s announcement, 8.9 million farmers were expected to be beneficiaries and the burden on the exchequer was expected to be Rs340 billion. But by the end of January, only 3.1 million farmers were given waivers totaling Rs122 billion, according to government statistics accessed by Asia Times.

Apart from the lack of political will, poor planning and a messy preparation of the beneficiary database were cited as the prime reasons for delays in distributing the money. A few public sector banks were also accused of inflating the bills with bogus names, forcing the government to go slow.

Decreased landholding

India’s farm sector, including that of Maharashtra, is under huge distress due to several structural issues. The share of the “agriculture and allied activities sector” in the state economy, according to the Economic Survey, stood at 12.2% in 2017-18 as against 15.3% during 2001-02. These were the years of high incidences of farmer suicides.

In the same period, Maharashtra saw a steady reduction in the average size of landholding. In 1971, the state had an average land holding of 4.28 hectares. Today it stands at 1.44 hectares. In other words, 78% of the state’s 13.7 million farmers are small and marginal.

One can add to that an abysmal 20% rate of irrigation. “Overall poor returns and the failure of BT-Cotton, a genetically modified crop variety, is triggering unrest in the state,” a government official said. The cotton is largely grown in the region known as Vidharbha, a traditionally arid zone. The introduction of BT-Cotton saw input costs escalate and led to a spate of suicides by farmers.

‘Ministers inefficient, bureaucracy hostile’

“Fadnavis ministers are inefficient and bureaucracy is hostile, failing the chief minister and his waiver scheme,” alleged Kishore Tiwari, a prominent agriculture activist appointed by the Fadnavis government as chairman of the Maharashtra government’s committee on farmers’ distress.

Tiwari criticizes Left leaders for pouncing on the farmer issue due to “vested interests”. However, he admits that issues raised by Left parties – the agrarian crisis and the government’s inability to deliver on the waiver – are true.

In December, the Fadnavis government announced a per hectare compensation of Rs39,000 to each cotton grower reeling from the pink-worm attack. “Not a pittance has come through,” said Tiwari. “Every poor beneficiary must be given the same treatment as Nirav Modi (the Punjab National Bank scam accused) by the government.”

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