A day after nearly 35,000 farmers reached Mumbai, walking 180 km from Nashik, the Maharashtra government started dissembling. Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in the Legislative Assembly on Monday, while praising the protestors for their consideration in ensuring as little inconvenience to Mumbai as possible, said they were landless Adivasis, not farmers.
“Of all the adivasi issues, the most important is that of land,” Fadnavis said. “95% of them are landless and they need to get the rights to the forest land. That is why they are unable to become farmers.” He used the Marathi word “shetkari”, which can be literally translated as someone who possesses a farm.
Adivasi farmers might not possess titles to the land they have been tilling for decades. But that does not mean they are not farmers. One of their demands is that the land they are already cultivating be transferred to their names.
Meanwhile, Poonam Mahajan, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament too appeared to be dismissing the protest entirely as being orchestrated by what she called “urban Maoism”.
“Sadly in Maharashtra, tribals have been captured by urban Maoism,” Mahajan said, adding, “This cannot be misinterpreted. You have seen urban Maoism in many cities of India where they go to these districts which they call Naxal affected.”
Elsewhere on social media, a Google document with templates of messages of thanks purported to be from farmers to Devendra Fadnavis has been circulating, reported Pratik Sinha of AltNews.
One of the messages, in evident ignorance of Fadnavis’s Assembly speech that praised the marchers for their consideration for the city, said the march “will not only shatter peace, law & order in the city, but also increase pains of common people and farmers participating in the march under the aegis of AIKS [All India Kisan Sabha].”
Apart from the fact that there is no Naxal presence in Thane and Nashik, from where the marchers have come from, both Fadnavis and Mahajan seem to be saying that farmers are only dominant caste landowners, such as the Marathas who marched across the state to demand reservations and agricultural relief in a series of rallies culminating in Mumbai in August 2017, or the farmer strike of June 2017, which was also dominated by Marathas.
Adivasis or other landless agricultural workers, Fadnavis and Mahajan seem to say, cannot be regarded as farmers in their own right, with legitimate enough concerns to make them want to walk all the way to Mumbai of their own volition.
While the protestors in Mumbai are also demanding loan waivers, many of them are indeed demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, which allows for land up to four hectares to be granted to families that have traditionally cultivated those plots. The Indian Express’s collection of voices from the rally makes this clear.
With land in their names, these farmers will become eligible for institutional credit from banks. Only those who have taken credit from cooperative and nationalised banks are eligible for farm loan waivers. In June 2017, Maharashtra government announced a loan waiver of crop loans to farmers across the state.
But many farmers at the march, even those who have land titles and can access institutional credit, said the loan waiver had not yet reached them.
A total of 46.52 lakh farmers had been found eligible for the loan waiver and the state government had estimated the entire procedure would cost it Rs 34,022 crore. But so far, the government has distributed only Rs 13,580 crore to 35.32 lakh farmers, reported Firstpost.
The protestors also want electricity and water and secure access to the public distribution system as well, an indication of just how low public investment in rural infrastructure has become.
In the last five years itself, the All India Kisan Sabha, under whose flag the marchers walked to Mumbai, has organised protests in Nashik, Thane, Aurangabad and even outside the Vidhan Sabha. The All India Kisan Sabha also has a much longer history, particularly in Thane district, of demanding land rights for those who actually till the fields.