Milk flows again as friends turn foes
Farmers and the ruling dispensation simply do not seem made for each other. Last June, as farmers went on strike for loan waivers, we saw milk flooding the streets as these milk producers themselves stopped the vans of the distributors they had supplied and emptied the tankers on the highways. Wisely, then, this year, collectors like Amul have refused to lift supplies out of fear of wastage and financial losses; and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis expressed his disapproval of the strike.
Once bitten, twice shy but it seems still not wise enough. Last year, when Fadnavis initially went ballistic against farmers, he had the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana (SSS) on his side. In fact, Sadabhau Khot, who represented the SSS in his cabinet, was tasked with negotiating with the farmers but it was soon apparent that the Fadnavis government was interested only in sabotaging the strike rather than securing a fair deal for them. The chastened government only came around after visuals of angry farmers flooding the highways with milk overtook its attempts to contain the strike, and it had to ultimately give in to their demands.
Given the anti-farmers image the government acquired, it was inevitable that the SSS would sever all ties with the NDA which it had helped to propel to power. Since then, farmers have either not received their loan waivers in full, or got no minimum support prices for their produce. Even more ridiculously, they received cheques of a mere ₹1 as crop insurance.
It is no surprise, then, that though Khot clung to his job after his expulsion from the SSS and formed a new party, the SSS decided to bow out of both the government and the NDA for their growing anti-farmers image and has now become a thorn in the side of it former friends. It is leading the agitation for higher remuneration to farmers for their milk produce. The perception, once again, is that while the government has offered better prices to milk distributors and consumers, it is diddling farmers out of their legitimate dues yet again.
I wonder how long the ruling dispensation can afford to carry this anti-farmers image without having to pay a price for the same. Perhaps, Fadnavis is aware of the danger as this year he has been less hostile and more conciliatory, offering to sit down and negotiate with them. However, Raju Shetti, the president of the SSS, who is now in the enemy camp, is not one who can be taken for a ride or even trifled with. He undertook an agitation for sugarcane farmers during the Congress-NCP regime knowing full well how the hostility of cane growers would affect the two parties that were so heavily dependent on sugar barons.
Now he is targeting milk distributors with deliberate intent as the cessation of supplies of milk will affect not just a few co-operatives but the entire population, rich and poor. Already, tetra-packs are flying off the shelves even as people are grumbling at having to pay the extra cost for them. This is something that is likely to unite the consumers with the producers given that milk is a basic necessity and there is clear recognition of the huge cost differences from end to end.
But this milk agitation also seems to have brought the Congress and the NCP on the same side as the SSS, and politically, that is something that the BJP, leading the NDA, must worry enormously about. Already, the alliance in Maharashtra is in shambles. The Shiv Sena has made its inclinations clear and, of late, we have seen even the RPI (A) chafing at the bit. Ramdas Athawale, a junior minister in the Union cabinet, who compared himself to Dr BR Ambedkar, the only other Dalit leader from Maharashtra to make it to a Union cabinet, has realised the folly of that comparison. Dr Ambedkar was not a token minister like Athawale is in the Modi government, with none of the honour and importance accorded to Ambedkar by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. His supporters have made their apprehensions clear and the RPI too might soon be looking for an exit route out of the NDA. That leaves just two ministers — Khot and Mahadeo Jankar of the Rashtriya Samaj Paksha — clinging to the government until its term-end. But after that, it is anybody’s guess if they would like to associate with an alliance perceived as anti-farmer. All the cookies could then crumble.