The Big Story: Pay attention

People of Mumbai, meet the people who feed you. Or better yet, people of Mumbai, come out and feed the people who feed you. Thousands of farmers in Maharashtra began marching from Nashik last week, with many more joining along the way until the crowd had become 35,000-strong. Over the weekend, the farmers moved into Mumbai, the country’s financial capital and the seat of government in Maharashtra, with the aim of making it impossible for the authorities to ignore the severity of the crisis that has plagued farmers over the last few years. A crisis that somehow has remained simply on the margins of the conversations that animate this country on a daily basis, occasionally punctured by the news of a farmer who has committed suicide or another set threatening to whip each other and eat flesh just to make a point.

The usual urban upper-class responses also emerged: Headlines seemed as concerned about the traffic disruption to Mumbai, rather than examining the question of why thousands of people who are normally invisible to India’s city inhabitants have decided to make their presence physically felt. Yet there is some awareness, maybe simply because of the size of this contingent, that this time is slightly different. Even the protesting farmers seemed to acknowledge this, specifically timing their plans to avoid letting disruption – particularly for board exams – become the story, rather than their demands.

What are those demands? A true loan waiver, one that genuinely benefits the majority of farmers, rather than just the limited set that was addressed by the waiver announced last year. Better rates for crops, and not just minimum support prices that exist on paper. Land rights for farmers, who are otherwise afraid that the government may take away their livelihoods on a whim. And the acknowledgment that what is happening in India’s rural, agricultural spaces is nothing short of an emergency.

As Himanshu wrote in the Economic and Political Weekly earlier this month, nearly every indicator from rural India seems to suggest conditions have become perilous for farmers. Growth rates for the sector have stagnated, real wage growth has dropped, agricultural credit has slowed down tremendously, and even official government allocations to schemes meant for farmers have been reduced. This year’s Union Budget was billed as a document aimed at addressing this crisis, yet a look at the actual allocations suggests it does not do enough and what it does do will not have an effect anytime soon.

The march, called by the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha – the farmers’ collective of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – will also face all of the politicking that comes with entering urban spaces and taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday. There will be attempts to discredit, to dismiss it as a purely political effort – as if politics can be divorced from the people that underpin it – and, some fear, provoked into something less peaceful than the march has been so far.

But the sheer presence of 35,000 marching farmers should send enough of a message to both the people of the city and the people responsible for the policies that govern their lives. The farmer crisis is real, it is pressing, and to ignore it is to endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of people – not just those who till the land, but those who expect to eat what comes from it too.

The Big Scroll

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  1. “The exploitation of tribals in Attappadi has been ruthless but, fortunately, if this word may at all be used, bloodless,” writes SM Vijayanand in the Indian Express. “The sight of one set of poor people riding roughshod over the rights and entitlements of another mocks at theories of class and the ideals of village swaraj — and certainly puts off politicians from seeking basic solutions.”
  2. M Govinda Rao in the Hindu says using the Finance Commission as a smokescreen to avoid a special category status conversation will lead us nowhere.
  3. “Sino-Indian relations, therefore, require deft management, but pandering to Chinese concerns, real and imagined, did not result in a change in Chinese behaviour in the past and won’t result in any sort of stabilization of Sino-Indian relations. It will only entrench Chinese positions at the cost of India,” writes Harsh Pant in Mint.
  4. Instead of communicating the true heritage of India “cargo-cult” Hindutva supporters are focused on meme-based ideas that spread easily, like how Isaac Newton stole the idea of gravity from India, writes Aravindan Neelakandan in Swarajya.


Don’t miss

Kumar Sambhav Srivastava writes about how the government diluted Adivasi rights to forestlands.

In 2016, echoing the demands of tribal right activists, the Congress and other opposition parties asked that the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill be amended to explicitly state that consent must be taken from forest dwellers before their lands are used for plantations. The BJP government refused to amend the bill, but agreed to ensure that consultations are held with the gram sabhas of Adivasis and other forest dwellers. The Congress agreed and the law was passed, much to chagrin of tribal right activists who have been tracking the implementation of the Forest Rights Act.

The draft rules made public in February go against even this assurance of the government. In retrospect, though, this was bound to happen: a closer reading of the law would have made this clear. Its provisions are designed to ensure a large part of the fund is used for plantation on forestlands without tribal consent or consultation. But this fine print escaped notice. Rules drafted subsequently to implement the law cannot subvert the provisions of the legislation. In that sense, the draft rules are not surprising.