“Everything else can wait but agriculture cannot,” said India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Ironically, agriculture and agriculturists wait for proper attention, protection and remuneration even six decades after Nehru made the comment. This has taken a heavy toll on farmers: thousands of them have ended their life unable to bear the pain of unending wait for justice. The long march by thousands of farmers to Mumbai this past week was the outpouring of their agony. It was in retaliation to the unfulfilled promises made to them over the years.
Among the top demands of farmers is fixation of prices of their produce at 1.5 times the input cost. There cannot be a more genuine and justifiable demand by producers of any commodity. The farmers have not made it arbitrarily; it is based on the expert M. S. Swaminathan Commission report which has recommended a higher support price based on the above formula. Many political parties have vowed, through their election manifestos, to implement the recommendation. But once enthroned, they conveniently forget the promises.
Farm loan waiver is another major demand of farmers. Often crop failures due to natural calamities worsen their situation. Many a time, crops are destroyed by pests leaving the poor farmers with almost no produce. Repayment of loans becomes next to impossible. Though waiving off their loans may not be a panacea for their plight, but it will go a long way to help them continue with farming, hoping for a better crop, and better future.
There are 12 industrialists in the country who owe over Rs. 2 lakh crore to various banks. In a recent reply in Parliament, the government admitted that 31 defaulters have fled the country. They owe thousands of crores of rupees to banks. A government which shows a soft corner for such fraudsters sheds crocodile tears for the farmers. It refuses to see the malnourished farmers with blistered feet who walked close to 200 kilometers to reach Mumbai seeking waiver of loans among other demands.
Another crucial demand relates to right to forest land they cultivate. Many marginal farmers in several states have no legal right to the land they till. The problem is acute among Adivasi farmers, the traditional forest dwellers for generations. In the absence of legal title, they are unable to get any benefit from the government. They cannot take loans from banks because of which they approach private money lenders who bleed them with high interest rates. The Forest Rights Act 2006, if implemented, will help them claim ownership of their land and avail many benefits.
Farmers are weaklings in any society. They have very little bargaining power. Their tired faces and scarred feet fail to move the powers-that-be who act only at the behest of movers and shakers. It is better that the government wakes up to the echo of ‘Mumbai March’ that reverberated across the country. It should touch the conscience of the government. Those defrauded banks of thousands of crores flee the country through direct or indirect support from authorities. On the other hand, the farmers who owe a few thousand rupees do not flee the country but are forced to end their life in their land of birth.(Published on 19th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 12)