In March this year the remarkable Nashik-to-Mumbai protest march of farmers took place. Forty thousand peasants and rural workers from rural Maharashtra trekked to the shining financial capital of India in the hope that their plaintive pleas for justice will be heard.
It was remarkable because of the extraordinary reception they got from the citizens of the city of dreams. Instead of cursing them for disrupting the normal life of the urban money-making machine, blocking the traffic and dirtying the streets, Mumbai-ites displayed a rare empathy for their cause.
The State government, which initially condemned the rustic invasion as civic terror tactics by ‘Urban Maoists’, soon realized that the peasants had struck an emotional chord with the common people - not only the urban working class, but also the middle classes and even some from the upper middle classes, stepped out in sympathy. The orderly manner in which the farmers conducted their dharna around the State Assembly complex added to the impact they made and the support and solidarity they generated.
Now seven months later, the Nashik-to-Mumbai model of agrarian protest is being reenacted in a different setting. The capital of India, the seat of political power, is besieged by an influx of cultivators and farm labourers from the agricultural hinterland of neighbouring States.
The stakes are higher than ever and the demands are unique – a call for a special session of Parliament to focus exclusively on the agrarian crisis in its entirety and the precarious plight of the millions who live and work in rural India.
Once again the emphasis is on disciplined behavior. The umbrella organisation of 200 farmers unions organizing the Long March - All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee - has pledged not to cause needless disruption. There is to be no Red Fort rallies, no throwing the city out of gear. The aim is to encircle Parliament House – and compel the powers-that-be to hear, listen and act. The mission is to make the deaf hear, the blind see and the dumb speak.
The objective is also to win the hearts and minds of urban India, just as it happened during the Nashik-to-Mumbai march. To send out the signal that India’s agrarian crisis is no longer just an agrarian crisis – it has gone far beyond that and become a crisis of society.
Some of the leaders of the movement even see the rise of the farmers as something of a civilizational crisis. It is the beginning of a mass of humanity seeking a fair deal that will be to the benefit of all. In fact, in terms of numbers, this represents the largest body of small farmers and labourers on Planet Earth fighting to save their livelihoods.
Clearly, the agrarian crisis is no longer just a result of any one single set of factors. It is not just a question of loss of land, nor the number of farmers driven to committing suicide nor even the loss of jobs or productivity and the lack of a remunerative price for farm products. It is a measure of our own loss of humanity.
Anger and pain and suffering are mounting in the countryside. And not just among farmers but amongst labourers who find the MNREGA being dismantled by design, amongst artisans, anganwadi workers, fisher-folk, forest communities. And amongst those who send their children to government schools, only to find the State itself killing its own schools. And humble government employees and transport and public sector workers whose jobs are on the anvil. Made even more unbearable after demonetization.
And the crisis of the rural is no longer confined to the rural. What is taking place silently is the greatest distress-driven migrations from rural to urban in independent India. Apart from that millions of poor and dispossessed families are fleeing the collapse of their livelihoods to other villages, other rural towns, not just towards urban developments or the big cities. They are desperately searching for jobs that do not exist. The new locations they go to are equally bereft of opportunities for earning a basic income.
But nobody in the government listens, nobody cares. Hence the march to Parliament – to plead for a special session to discuss for three dedicated weeks running the entirely of the crisis and the catastrophe to come.
Clearly, the agrarian crisis is no longer just a result of any one single set of factors. It is not just a question of loss of land, nor the number of farmers driven to committing suicide nor even the loss of jobs or productivity and the lack of a remunerative price for farm products. It is a measure of our own loss of humanity
The organizers have even suggested an agenda for the 21 day special session –
Three days: Discussion of the Swaminathan Commission report – 12 years overdue. Covering a multitude of vital issues and not just MSP but also productivity, profitability, sustainability; technology and technology fatigue; dryland farming, price shocks and stabilization, an end to privatisation of agricultural research and technology and dealing with impending ecological disaster.
Three days: People’s testimonies. Let victims of the crisis speak from the floor of Parliament’s central hall and tell the nation what the crisis is about, what it has done to them and countless millions of others. Not just about farming. But how surging privatisation of health and education has devastated the rural poor, indeed all the poor. Health expenditure is either the fastest or second fastest growing component of rural family debt.
Three days: Credit crisis. The unrelenting rise of indebtedness. This has been a huge driving factor in the suicide deaths of countless thousands of farmers, apart from devastating millions of others.
Three days: The country’s mega water crisis. It’s much greater than a drought. The right to drinking water should be declared as a fundamental human right.
Three days: The rights of women farmers. The agrarian crisis cannot be resolved without engaging with the rights – including those of ownership – and problems of those who do the most work in the fields and farms. While in the Rajya Sabha, Prof. Swaminathan introduced the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, 2011 (lapsed in 2013) that could still provide a starting point for this debate.
Three days: The rights of landless labourers, both women and men. With mounting distress migrations in many directions, this crisis is no longer just rural. Where it is, any public investment made in agriculture has to factor in their needs, their rights, their perspective.
Three days: Looking at the future of agriculture. What kind of farming do we want 20 years from now? One driven by corporate profit? Or by communities and families for whom it is the basis of their existence?
Will political party agree to hold such a session?