Swaraj Yatra: Another Yatra with a Difference

The Swaraj Yatra in Rajasthan may have set the template for another kind of mobilisation among farmers battling the onslaught of big business and GM seeds and crops

The Swaraj Yatra on its way from Banswara to Jaipur
The Swaraj Yatra on its way from Banswara to Jaipur

Bharat Dogra

Even as there is a grudging but growing acknowledgment of the efficacy of the Bharat Jodo Yatra as a means of connecting and communicating with people, it is not the only long march inspired by Gandhi’s idea of resistance. The 500 km Swaraj Yatra in Rajasthan last year, which went largely unnoticed but certainly deserved greater attention, was one such.

This long march, unlike several others in different parts of the country, was not just another protest to draw attention to some demands; it was an interactive learning process for both the officials as well as the villagers who were a part of it. The farmers from tribal communities in Banswara and neighbouring areas exchanged their experience and shared ideas and best practices with people they met on the way and wherever they took a break. They also made it a point to call on local officials to tell them about the Yatra—more specifically, why they embarked on it—making it a learning process for everyone.

Jayesh Joshi of Vaagdhaara, an NGO that has been working with farmers and villagers in the Banswara region from the mid-1980s, explained that the need to sensitise people’s representatives and government officials was felt acutely over the years. While most villagers were happy with traditional methods of cultivation and trade, the disruption wrought by global supply chains, online marketing, large corporate bodies and changing technology were forcing them into more difficult situations with many questions. While village haats or local markets earlier catered to their needs and integrated the farmers, artisans and traders, they were now finding it difficult to keep pace with changing modes and the growing and sometimes opaque competition in a global marketplace.

A series of deliberations preceded the Yatra to find out what the people needed by way of solutions and to define the threats to traditional ways of farming and indeed alternative ways of living. That they needed to adapt—and adopt newer solutions— in the context of farming, food supply, seeds, nutrition, soil, water, forests, health, education and culture were becoming increasingly obvious. The villagers felt the need to discuss the issues with other villagers, scholars and experts, and hence the idea of the Yatra, explains Joshi.

It started in Banswara on 11 September, the birth anniversary of Vinoba Bhave—four days after the Bharat Jodo Yatra got under way in Kanyakumari—and concluded in Jaipur on the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi on October 2. The stretch between Banswara in southern Rajasthan and state capital Jaipur was covered by 200 tribal farmers in 21 days.

The Gandhian concept of swaraj originally meant self-rule, but the practice has been reimagined to stand up to tendencies to concentrate power in the hands of a few at the cost of a community and often settled ways of local life. The traditional ways of life and farming for centuries had forged community ties, ensured a fair degree of self-reliance and protected indigenous seeds and biodiversity. A great diversity of local seeds and crops that have survived centuries are threatened by hybrid seeds and GM (genetically modified) seeds and crops. These indigenous seeds and crops are now increasingly threatened by the expanding footprint of the global marketplace and government policies that privilege the new order.

Swaraj Yatra: Another Yatra with a Difference

Two hundred villagers started off from Banswara. Along the way, they drew other people, who joined them and walked along for a stretch, in solidarity. An early start was important, but waking up even as early as 3 a.m. was a cinch. As in the Bharat Jodo Yatra, they would walk 25 or so kilometres every day. As much as the march itself and the pace it kept, there was a metronomic certainty about the dialogue during the breaks when they stopped.

One positive gain for the villagers was to learn that other villagers along the way also shared their concerns. There is growing alarm at the adverse effects of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on soil health. The farmers are worried about the loss of traditional crops like millets and the erosion of the nutritional and medicinal value of crops because of the changing soil conditions and natural fertility. Greed and the obsession with short-term gains have dealt a body blow to sustainable farming and water supply, which is depleting alarmingly.

Stories of farm distress are hardly unique to Rajasthan. Farming communities, especially smaller tribal communities in different parts of the country, have been feeling the pain. But their growing uneasiness has remained largely unaddressed. Could it be that some important link is missing, or that better understanding of issues is needed to achieve better results from development programmes?

Although the Constitution has thoughtfully provided several important safeguards for tribal communities, specifying special provisions and processes while dealing with scarce resources like land, forests and water in tribal areas and provided for consultations and permissions, these safeguards have weakened over time. Implementation of PESA (Extension of Panchayati Raj to Scheduled Areas) Act was high on promises but disappointing in its execution. Constitutional authorities vested with the power to protect the interests of tribal communities have often been found wanting.

Another gain from the Yatra, besides the convergence of concerns, was the many thoughtful responses and solutions villagers came up with. Some villages, it was found, had coped with the threats better than the rest and it helped to understand why and how. Villagers generously shared their best practices.

They also made it a point to visit schools along the way and sensitise students and teachers about their concerns. Sensitising future generations, it was felt, was important.

At its end in Jaipur, a meeting was organised with experts on issues that had come up during the Yatra. This helped prepare the charter of demands. The charter also highlighted educational and cultural initiatives to strengthen village communities and prepare them better to cope with challenges of climate change and adverse weather.

The charter also demanded identification of shamlat (common) land to raise new forests, and for government agencies to promote people’s efforts towards self-reliance in seeds. This charter of demands was presented to the chief minister and the governor. Rajasthan has been at the vanguard of several people-centric government initiatives, which gives hope that the farmers’ charter will receive the CM’s sympathetic ear.

BHARAT DOGRA is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now

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