Ten years ago, Jirabai Lilke spent a month in jail with other Adivasis from her village, after they were arrested for holding an angry protest march in Maharashtra’s Nashik district. They had been demanding land rights due to forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, and prison did not dampen their spirits.

On Monday morning, Lilke sat in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan grounds after successfully completing the longest protest march of her life: a 180 km-long, six-day walk from Nashik to Mumbai with an estimated 30,000 farmers from across north Maharashtra. The protesters reached Mumbai’s Somaiya grounds on Sunday evening and had originally planned to march towards the state legislature on Monday morning. But to prevent inconvenience to students giving their board exams, the protestors changed their plans and spent all night marching the final 20 km to Azad Maidan.

“We are here to demand our forest land that the government has been promising to give us for 20 years,” said 62-year-old Lilke from Nashik district’s Korat village. “We will not leave Mumbai till the government accepts our demands.”

Despite her exhaustion, Lilke sat resolutely amidst the sea of protesters, with a red cap and a red flag bearing the symbol of the All-India Kisan Sangh, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated farmers’ association that organised the march. She was flanked by her neighbours and former jail-mates Vatsala Kadal and Babiabai Kadal, both women in their 70s.

“My feet are full of blisters and I can’t walk anymore, but we all decided we would do this protest on foot, no matter what,” said Babiabai Kadal, a landless labourer who earns Rs 150 a day by working on other farmers’ fields. However, with erratic rainfall in the past few years, crops have been failing and labour work has been scarce for Kadal, Lilke and other Adivasis from their village. The drop in income has had a direct impact on food availability for their families.

“The only way we can survive now is if we get the 10 acres of land that is ours by right,” said Lilke. “This time, with such a big protest march, the government will have to listen.”

A sea of protesters in red caps at the farmers' protest in Azad Maidan on Monday. Photos: Aarefa Johari

The government’s assurance

The right to land under the Forest Rights Act was one of the many demands put forth by the All-India Kisan Sangh when its delegates met Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and other state ministers on Monday afternoon. Other demands included genuine loan waivers that are not just on paper, better rates for crops, irrigation facilities, crop loss compensation and the proper implementation of pension schemes for the elderly.

By Monday evening, the Maharashtra government gave a written assurance agreeing to fulfil the demands of the protesting farmers, including an unconditional loan waiver scheme. Fadnavis told the media that his government had promised to “give to tribals whatever they are eligible for”, and state minister V Savra claimed that the implementation of this demand would begin in six months.

If the state government keeps this promise, it would be a hard-won victory for hundreds of Adivasi farmers who spent a hopeful Monday in Azad Maidan after demanding forest land rights for more than a decade.

“I have five acres of land that my family has been farming on since my great-grandfather’s time, but in the 1950s or 60s the government took three acres and gave it to the forest officials,” said Nivrutti Gadhve, a 58-year-old Adivasi farmer from Nashik’s Harangaon village. For nearly 20 years, Gadhve has been determined to the land title of those three acres back in his name. “I am still farming on that land, so why should I not have the right to own it? Why does the government keep falsely claiming that land belongs to the people who till it?”

Nivrutti Gadhve lost his family's forest land titles in the 1950s.

‘Sometimes my family is not able to eat’

Not having formal ownership over the lands they live and work on has direct consequences on the Adivasi farmer’s success in agriculture.

“I have to invest more than Rs 25,000 every year to grow paddy, peas and fruits on my family’s old four-acre plot,” said Lasu Bhoye, 60, from Nashik’s Ragatvihir village. “But if I want a farm loan, the banks ask for land records, which are not in my family’s name. So I can’t get loans and can’t irrigate my crops properly.”

Lasu Bhoye is not able to get bank loans because his farm's land titles are not in his name.

For the past five years, farming has been a consistently loss-making enterprise for Bhoye and other farmers in Nashik. “Sometimes heavy rains wash away our crops. Sometimes it doesn’t rain and our crops burn out. Last year my crops were destroyed by a disease,” said Chhabu Pawar, 61, another Adivasi farmer from Nashik’s Kalamdare village. “And the government has not even been giving us compensation for all our loss, because our land is not in our name.”

To sustain his family in the absence of consistent agricultural income, Bhoye and other farmers have been travelling to Mumbai or Gujarat for the past few winters, working as migrant daily wage labourers. “But those jobs are also difficult to get nowadays, and sometimes my family is not able to eat,” said Bhoye.

Chhabu Pawar claims that crop loss compensation is hard to come by when land is not in a farmer's name.

A few feet away from Bhoye, farmers Shakeela Sheikh and Raniabai Pawar nursed their swollen feet while listing the other hardships that come with not having official land titles in their name.

“We have been living and working on our five acres of land for more than 30 years, but the forest-walas keep evicting us from our home,” said 50-year-old Sheikh from Parsu village, who claims her family is legally entitled to their plot as per the Forest Rights Act. “A lot of times we are not even given our full ration because of this land case that my family has been fighting for 20 years.”

According to Raniabai Pawar, at least three people from their village have committed suicide in the past five years because they were stuck in similar land conflicts. “Poor farmers like us are not getting the land we deserve, but in 2006 the government gave a large plot of forest land in our taluka to a private company,” said Raniabai Pawar. “How is that okay?”

Shakeela Sheikh and Raniabai Pawar from Nashik's Parsu village.

‘U-turns for 15 years’

While the state government has temporarily assuaged the farmers’ indignation with the assurance that their demands will be met, ministers’ statements earlier in the day about the largely-Adivasi protesters were more dismissive.

On Monday morning, Fadnavis had told the state Assembly that 95% of the protesters were Adivasis and not farmers. Later, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Poonam Mahajan claimed that the protest march by the All-India Kisan Sangh was an attempt by Maoists to misguide farmers and infiltrate their long march. She claimed that “tribals in Maharashtra have been captured by urban Maoism”.

Farmers camping in the sun in Azad Maidan were unaware of these comments through most of the day. But 70-year-old Yashwant Gangurde from Nashik’s Nalegaon village knew he had to keep his expectations low even after walking 180 km over six days. “I have seen different governments promising us our forest land and then doing a u-turn for 15 years,” he said. “Now we have tried our best and our feet are full of blisters. We hope they meet our demands.”

Yashwant Gangurde has seen government u-turns for 15 years.