It is good to see the farmers back on the streets. Good to see they are not quietly consuming poison or hanging themselves in the deafening silence of their houses. They are marching. They are shouting and sloganeering and are asking tough questions to those in power. Why not, after all they are nearly 70 percent of the electorate who vote to get the government into power.
It is positive that they are still hopeful of a turnaround of their fortunes. I saw in an NDTV report that many in the Kisan Mukti March in Delhi were from Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and had cast their votes in the recently concluded polling before making way to the national capital to protest. Democracy at its best, isn’t it?
This is the third large protest in Delhi in last one year. Just a few days ago farmers from Nashik had marched a second time in 8 months to come to Mumbai, questioning the state government. Last year in June when farmers took to streets in Tamil Nadu, MP, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the country watched. But why is it that they need to hit the streets to be heard?
A WhatsApp video recently went viral. It showed an angry, distressed farmer in Maharashtra smashing an entire box of pomegranates to the ground. Unable to sell his produce, he simply vented frustration. His plight is not new. Often lost in the cacophony of the “growth” agenda, the farmers are left to fend for themselves. With low prices for their produce, poor compensation mechanism for failed crops, broken credit system and a vicious debt cycle tightening its noose, it was high time that farmers screamed for attention. Last two years been the loudest.
But like always farmer protests have been branded as politically motivated. Spokespersons from ruling parties on the TV debates question the authenticity of the protesters. Most have already written them off as political goons, orchestrated mobs and many comment about how they don’t look distressed.
Pictures and videos of opposition leaders who came to show their support for the latest protest in Delhi have taken centerstage. Opposition leaders are questioning farmer policies without themselves having a clear solution at hand. This certainly tilts the discussion more towards who is trying to milk the agitation right in the middle of crucial state polls and before 2019 general elections. Clearly every single politician is, both in power and out of it.
This is not different from the past. Last week in Mandsaur when I questioned the current local MLA on why farmers in his constituency were angry and unhappy despite claims of pro-farmer policies, he retorted by saying that the protests were motivated by opposition and not real farmers. A visit to villages had unraveled a different reality though. The amount of campaigning both BJP and Congress were doing in 'kisan mandis' was enough to establish the politics in the name of farmers.
But then isn’t this what politicians do best, rake up issues that will fetch them votes? In the last decade we have seen political lineages tilt towards what the middle class wants and campaigns around inflation and price rise.
Politics shaping perspective?
A conversation with my cab driver in Mumbai yesterday brought the stark contrast of how politics could shape perspectives.
My driver was of the view that the current government has worked in reducing inflation and how the prices of Tuar daal are back to Rs 55-60 a kg from Rs 150 two years ago.
Even as he was finishing I suddenly recalled the conversation I had with Tuar daal farmers in Mhow in Madhya Pradesh just two weeks ago. The farmers told me that when in 2015 Tuar daal output fell, and a shortage raised trade prices, farmers were encouraged to increase their Tuar acreage in the next season. There were promises of bonuses and of good rates. They did, and 2016 saw record Tuar daal production, just that the farmers didn’t get their aspired rates. This was because simultaneously the government imported Tuar along with other pulses and with large supplies the prices crashed.
They claimed that the government certainly contained the price rise but for the middle class, at the cost of the farmers.
Now it is farmer that is raising his voice. Since political discourse shapes policies, isn’t it good to see farmers politics take centerstage, after almost two decades?
Remember on all past protests, while initially branding them as political goons, the government, both at the state and center, had taken notice. The issues were discussed and some schemes and promises were made, signing charters with farmer groups. Although they have had a patchy implementation. But it did move the needle.
Can this go wrong?
This August when I was touring Marathwada and Vidarbha regions in Maharasthra to study the implementation of the state’s loan waiver scheme, I witnessed the large scale politicisation of farmers movement. Remember the loan waiver scheme is also part of settlement after protests by farmers. Every village, every tehsil had many leaders and agitators part of some farmer group, who in turn were affiliated to various political parties. Now that’s a good sign. In the last decades farmers had lacked lobbyists as local agrarian leaders found vested interests. Now someone is raising grass root farmer issues and asking for solutions.
But then something went wrong. Many farmers who I spoke to about the agitation a year ago were still angry. The agitations had certainly made big leaders but the farmers felt they were getting a raw deal. Their issues were still unaddressed or just partially looked into. In an instance, farmers in Aurangabad told me how internal politics among their leaders had meant a pressure to sign up for solutions they didn’t really believe in. A local said, “Pichle kisan aandolan se kisan ka to kam hi fayda hota dikh raha hai (The last agitations seem to be bringing little benefits for the farmers).”
Particularly in Maharashtra, the bigger problem was of multiple -- multiple farmer groups with many leaders and their varied aspirations had somewhere muddled the voice of the real farmer. But the farmers were still hopeful.
Politics does work for farmers
Ground situation was not improving for them but the politics had brought awareness. Most farmers, though illiterate are now aware of their land rights, compensations, what MS Swaminathan committee report has to say about crop prices and the promises around it.
If politics can bring awareness about their rights among the populace, farmers, in this case, I believe it is working well.
There was a feeling that since farmers are scattered and unorganised, they would never be able to launch a nationwide agitation, but the current march in Delhi is showing this is possible. For the group that had lost its bargaining power, the only way is to build pressure on during general elections because history tells us that unless political leaders are faced with the threat of loss of power, they aren’t sensitive to issues. So make the opposition raise their issues and make the government work on them.
Farmers need politicians and they need the media. They need those who can amplify their voices. Those with a blinkered view of usurping power will bring political spins. Politicians will also bring divisions based on caste, faction and party lines that has helped till now to take support from farmers for granted. TV prime time debates have quickly shifted from what farmers want and their underlying problems to what the political parties want.
But if we cater to these views we will be following the illusionary image and not the reality.
The farmers who are marching are real. Their issues are real and their aspirations are as real as yours and mine. In the attempt to dislodge the farmers protest as politically driven, let us not miss out on them. Instead let’s make the politics work for them.
First Published: IST