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Do not mock hungry farmers as ‘red terrorists’

mumbai Updated: Mar 14, 2018 13:32 IST
Sujata Anandan
Sujata Anandan
Hindustan Times
Mumbai,Mumbai news,farmers' protest

Nearly 30,000 farmers, including children, women and the elderly, started from Nashik on March 6 and walked six days to reach Mumbai to highlight their demands.(HT Photo)

Five years ago, as Maharashtra faced a severe drought and a lone farmer sat alone at the Azad Maidan in Bombay, demanding the release of more water from the dams, then deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar mocked him, “Shall I urinate in the dams?”

That was as crude a comment as could have come and it instantly doomed the then Congress -Nationalist Congress party government to ignominy at elections to both the Lok Sabha and assembly the next year.

Now, with a year to go to the next elections again, it is the ruling BJP government that seems to have caused tremendous hurt to the more than 30,000 farmers who had marched to the city over 200kms from Nashik and congregated at the same Azad Maidan for their demands. They were first dismissed as mere tribals, as though tribals had no rights, were not humans or indeed not farmers. Then BJP MP Poonam Mahajan accused them of being influenced by “urban Maoists”, implying that they were rural Naxalites who had been provoked to march to the city under the red flags of the Communists. Indeed she was dismissive of those red flags per se but her callous remarks have damaged her party’s reputation vis-à-vis the farmers who arrived in the city marching for six days with broken slippers and bleeding feet. The woman whose bleeding legs went viral on social media had said she would rather die marching to Bombay than return to her village empty-handed and die starving. But the poignancy of the images and the statements of the hungry farmers, who went so far as to march past midnight rather than inconvenience students heading to their exams the next morning, and won the hearts of the urban Mumbaikars, obviously escaped the notice of both Mahajan and her party.

So what if these farmers were mostly tribals? They were not just demanding loan waivers - indeed it is doubtful if any of them had loans over a few thousand rupees (one farmer said he owed just Rs15000 to the banks). But, as tribals, they had other issues that should have been addressed by governments, both present and past, long ago. Much of this has to do with the Forest Act that prevents them from accessing food (both plant and animal) from the jungles. Any attempt to pluck or hunt food in the jungles is considered a violation of the law and they do not have the right to the land on which they grow food for themselves and others. It is no surprise then that many of them look to non-government authorities to get their sustenance and dismissing them as Maoists shows a gross ignorance of their dire circumstances, if not a complete sadistic attitude towards their precarious plight and livelihood issues.

The BJP has always been an urban-oriented party but the Fadnavis government has seemed more inept than most other BJP governments across the country in handling the agrarian crisis. Last year, the chief minister proved intransigent when farmers had demanded loan waivers and, to a large extent, he was right in not wanting to jeopardise the state’s finances by ceding to the demand. However, it was the arrogant attitude that was adopted in the initial days of the agitation that did his government in. Instead of thumbing a nose at the farmers, the better way out would have been to express sympathy right from the start, sit them down and seek the best possible way out of the crisis rather than a blanket loan waiver that was messed up in both design and the implementation.

Now it is not enough to say that all the demands of the marching farmers have been accepted and will be implemented in six months because tinkering with the Forest Act will require central intervention to give the farmers exactly what they are demanding. Much like reservations for Marathas need constitutional changes, so does the amendment to the Forest Act require parliamentary approval. So the core demands of the marching farmers - land rights in the forests - might take a long time to be fulfilled.

Meanwhile, just because they marched under a sea of red flags of the Communists is no reason to dismiss these unfortunate farmers as Maoists or Red Terrorists. If they were Naxals they would not have to march on bleeding feet to have their voices heard in government corridors. They, after all, put the food on our tables so we do not starve to death. The least we can do is not sneer at their hunger.

First Published: Mar 14, 2018 13:32 IST