It wasn’t only Mumbai that was gripped by the March of the Great Unwashed. The rest of the nation too viewed the determined trudge of 35,000 farmers from Nashik, covering 180 kilometres in six days, as a cry for justice.
TV networks flew their best anchors to Mumbai to walk and talk the last stretch before the sea of red flags gheraoed South Mumbai last Monday.
Front page images of the blistered, bleeding feet of women who had faced the blazing heat with broken footwear left an indelible mark on those who had no idea what rural poverty was like.
It was also to do with the discipline of the marchers; the way the poorest of the poor conducted themselves. It’s not that rural distress is anything new.
The Maharashtra government has admitted that over 24,000 farmers’ suicides have taken place since 2009. It is also known that Rs 32,000 crore worth of farm loans waived may be a Big Lie. More than 2,000 farmers had taken their lives in the Marathwada and Vidharbha regions after these waivers had been announced.
But these are just a maze of statistics for our city slickers. What amazed them was the silent, unobtrusive protest: The fact that traffic was not disrupted; the gesture to march at night through Mumbai to ensure that students giving their Board exams would not be inconvenienced. These little things put the focus not on traffic chaos but their long-standing demands: the right to land title of forest pattas promised since 2006, the need to cancel back-breaking loans, and minimum support price for farm produce.
Where is ‘Asli Bharat’?
Besides the compassion the march generated, it also put the old but still relevant slogan ‘India versus Bharat’ back on the agenda. It has been amplified by many farmer leaders like Mahendra Singh Tikait of Meerut and professor M D Nandjundaswamy. But it was left to Sharad Joshi, who gave it meaning when leading the onion farmers in the 1980s against diminishing returns in the mandis.
In a signed article in 2003, the Shetkari Sanghatna leader said: ‘India’ is that notional entity, largely Anglicised and relatively better-off, that had obtained the succession of colonial exploitation from the British; while ‘Bharat’ is largely rural, agricultural, poor and backward that was being subjected to colonial-like exploitation even after the end of the Raj.”In the same article, Joshi explained the yawning chasm between rural and urban labour giving the example of a young lad who laboured on his farm from morning to night in 1978 for `3 a day. The same boy went on to work at a Daichi plant in Pimpri-Chinchwad, a neighbouring industrial zone, where he earned 10 times the sum.
Sharad Joshi’s contention was that the terms of trade had been so manipulated that farm produce was deliberately made to sell cheap, while urban goods and services came at high prices. Result: economic surplus was extracted to benefit ‘India’ at the expense of rural ‘Bharat’. Farm produce prices in the controlled domestic market were far lower that the global price. This gap was never bridged by subsidies and the government support for agriculture was therefore ‘negative’. In sum, the farmer landed up selling below his cost of production, and was therefore in a constant state of penury.
Loan waivers not the answer
Today, this is what M S Swaminathan, head of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) is saying. Incidentally, one of the demands of the Nashik farmers is the implementation of the Swaminathan Report. The set of reports delivered between 2004 and 2006, had recommended among other things comprehensive land reforms; and a minimum support price for farm purchase that is 50 per cent more than the comprehensive cost of production.
Swaminathan says first, the demand for loan waiver shows that agriculture continues to be an unviable economic activity; and, second, loan waivers can only solve the short-term pain but cannot set right the long-term distress of rural India. The solution lies, he says, in improving technology, changing terms of trade and training-related inputs. “From farm to fork, agriculture has to be looked at in an integrated, holistic fashion.” In simpler terms, Sharad Joshi had said the same thing – farmers need to control supply chains and logistics, and form corporations for distribution.The Maharashtra government in June last year had announced `34,000 crore worth of farm loans would be waived. The recent Maharashtra Budget shows just `13,780 crore has actually been disbursed. It doesn’t seem anyone is listening.