The farmers' march led by Bhartiya Kisan Sanghatan (BKS) that started from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh on 11th of this month, concluded after ten days on Saturday 21st in Delhi. The march was to raise once again the long-pending demands aimed at saving agriculture and farmers. Although the plan was to stage a sit-in at the Kisan Ghat, the final resting place of former prime minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, the marchers called off the strike and dispersed after the Centre accepted five of their 15 demands and promised to consider the rest sympathetically.
The march was blocked at the UP-Delhi border following which talks were held with the Joint Secretary of the central Agriculture Ministry Vivek Agarwal during which the Centre informed the acceptance of its five demands. The demands accepted were for sugar mill owners who purchase sugar cane from farmers to clear arrears within 14 days, cleaning the pollutants in tributaries of Ganga river in western UP on urgent basis, to include farmers' representatives in the panel to fix the minimum price for crops and to include all members of the family in insurance cover instead of family head alone. Assurance was also given that a council would be formed within 21 days to discuss demands that were outside the jurisdiction of the ministry and an opportunity would be given to farmers for discussing the demands with those including the Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture.
It is not for the first time that the farmers staged a march to Delhi and blocked gateways to the national capital. Last year on the same date, Delhi had borne witness to two spirited farmer agitations. At that time over a lakh farmers and labourers in agro-industries had sat in protest at the Ramlila ground raising their welfare demands. But, when the Kisan Kranti Yatra by Bharatiya Kisan Union that started on 23 September from Haridwar reached Delhi on Gandhi Jayanti Day, the marchers were greeted by the government forces with tear gas and water cannon.
On that occasion too, the Centre which finally budged for negotiations, gave assurances on seven out of the 11 demands paving the way for the dispersal of the protesters. Interestingly enough, the first assurance given this time on Saturday - after a lapse of one year – is the same that was given last year. The issue involves the mill owners not paying the farmers the price for sugar cane purchased from the farmers, promptly after they receive it. In this connection, even though the government offers advances of crores of rupees to the mill owners to mitigate their hardship in addition to other facilites, at the bottom level the farmers find that reward of their labour was lying in arrears.
The demands raised by the Kisan Long March that brought Maharashtra to a halt the year before last, were not much different. There were pictures in the media of the farmers' feet that contracted cracks like their drought-hit farms, after treading long distance with naked feet. But it has come to mean now that the only gain they made is of their feet wearing out thanks to kilometers of arduous walking. It looks as though their agitation, subsequent negotiations and government's assurances have all become wasteful rituals to be repeated annually.
Many of farmers' demands have been lying with no improvement in status, like write off agrarian loans, grant concessional power tariff, pass to them at least a proportionate share of the huge profits reaped by the firms that market their produce, save the family of farmers committing suicide from debt trap or if that is not possible at least help them by giving employment to one member of the unfortunate family, and implement the recommendations of MS Swaminathan Commission including fixing of Minimum Support Price (MSP) that guarantees a minimum of half of the cost of production for the crops.
Not only is the government not able to address such demands as a way of being farmer-friendly, but many of the policies adopted by the government in the name of development even turn out to be to the detriment of the farmer. Earlier, governments were in the forefront of making land reforms aiming at progress for agriculture and farmer welfare. But now the government has turned into an agency to acquire land and hand it over to private entrepreneurs who come up with myriad exploitative projects. Most of the land so grabbed are fertile agricultural plots. Not only does the government fail to lend an ear to the farmers woes, but instances abound also of such acquired land lying dry for years without any utilization.
Also badly missing are any schemes for appropriate restoration of home or jobs for farmers who get evicted. Governments that become beneficiaries and facilitators of the market economy, have been taking steps that far from support an ever weakening agrarian economy. Therefore, each farmer agitation that descends with enthusiasm and returns with burn-out fervour, only serves to prove that the only outcome is the wearing off of their skin that tread north-south with their grievances.