Mumbai farmer protest called off after Maharashtra govt accepts demands

Mumbai: More than 30,000 farmers and tribals who had gathered in Mumbai at the end of a “Kisan long march” called off their stir on Monday after Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis promised to clear all pending claims made by tribals under the Forest Rights Act within six months and waive loans taken by farmers up to June 2017.

The main demand of the tribals, who comprised the biggest chunk of the march from Nashik to Mumbai from 7-12 March, was to be given the land ownership rights that are guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act passed by the erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

Fadnavis told the legislative assembly earlier in the day that 95% of those who have walked the 180-km distance were tribals who have never owned the farm lands they have tilled for decades, adding the Maharashtra chief secretary would review all their claims including those declared ineligible for land transfer.

“We have agreed to set up a committee to hand over forest land used for farming, to tribals and farmers. A meeting was held with representatives of farmers and adivasis at Vidhan Bhawan today. We have agreed to set up a committee to allot agricultural land to tribals provided they submit a proof of pre-2005 land cultivation. We have accepted almost all their demands,” Fadnavis told reporters.

Fadnavis said it was not financially feasible to meet organizer Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha’s demand for full and unconditional farm loan waiver. However, he added that the option was open and would be studied by a government committee. Fadnavis said the Rs34,022 crore loan waiver announced by his government in June 2017 had so far directly benefited 4.6 million or 80% of the eligible farmers. Fadnavis, however, assured a delegation of farmers at a meeting that a new government resolution would be issued to make sure that both the husband and wife in a farming family, if they have separate loan accounts and together have taken debt of up to Rs1.5 lakh, benefit from the loan waiver. Currently, the loan waiver has a per account cap of Rs1.5 lakh.

Earlier in the day, Azad Maidan in Mumbai turned into a sea of red as farmers carrying red flags gathered to press their demands. They were led by the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha, which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The farmers were also agitating for the implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendation for fixing the minimum support price at one-and-a-half times the cost of production.

The opposition Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Shiv Sena, which is part of Bharatiya Janata Party-led rul-ing coalitions in the state and at the centre, had extended support to the farmers.

Meanwhile, agriculture and forest experts, government officials, and two BJP legislators from the assembly constituencies reserved for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) told Mint that the full charter of demands put forth by the “Kisan long march” had “inherent contradictions and indicated larger political play in the garb of farm unrest”. They say since an overwhelming majority of participants in the march were tribals demanding land ownership rights under the FRA, they could not have been demanding loan waiver since they were not eligible for loans in the first place.

“The landless farmers, which these tribals are, don’t get loans so there is no question of them demanding loan waiver. The demand for full loan waiver and implementation of the recommendations of Swaminathan Commission have come from two quarters—the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha which is affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the other opposition parties in the state, prominently the NCP,” said a senior BJP minister who did not want to be named. He said the CPM, NCP, and Congress had joined hands to lend logistical support to the march and thereby attempt political revival.

“The Kisan Sabha has been demanding full loan waiver since early 2017 and it is still demanding that. The tribals have nothing to do with it but the demand became part of the protest at CPM and NCP’s behest. The cap of Rs1.5 lakh per account has benefited 83% of the total farmers in Maharashtra who are small and marginal (holding up to 2 hectares). The NCP is protesting for the remaining 17% who are rich farmers and the CPI(M) has joined this campaign,” the BJP minister said. He said demands like higher purchase price for milk, loan waiver, and implementation of the Swaminathan report could not come from those who “technically” did not own land.

A former forest department official in Maharashtra, who was serving when the Forest Rights Act was introduced, said the very purpose of the Act was to let tribal and forest-dwelling communities own the forest-land they have been tilling. “Since this was the stated objective of the Act, large number of tribals and forest-dwellers were made aware of the provisions of the Act in Maharashtra by NGOs and activists. Maharashtra is ahead of other states in implementation of this Act due to this but there are thousands of pending claims and this is what the kisan march represented. The tribals who participated in this march are demanding ownership of land and not loan waiver, full or partial, because they simply do not have debt,” the forest expert said requesting anonymity.

A BJP legislator, who did not want to be named, from one of the 25 ST-reserved constituencies in Maharashtra’s total 288-assembly seats said the ‘kisan long march’ was the “Nationalist Congress Party, Congress, and CPM’s joint attempt to revive their political fortunes particularly in the tribal belts”. This legislator, who defeated a Congress nominee in the 2014 assembly polls, said the opposition parties were jittery over the rise in BJP’s tribal base especially in Nandurbar, Dhule, Nashik, Thane, and Palghar districts. The numbers bear this out.

In the 2009 assembly elections in Maharashtra, the Congress won 12 of the 25 ST-reserved seats followed by NCP which won 4 and BJP with 3. The CPM won one seat. But in the 2014 assembly elections, the BJP won 11 seats reducing the Congress to 5. The NCP and CPM retained their 2009 numbers. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls too, the BJP won all 4 ST-reserved seats among Maharashtra’s 48.

“In Palghar and Nashik districts, the BJP has risen in the last decade or so but the CPM still wields influence in some pockets. It is these pockets where most of the protestors came from,” said the BJP legislator. He pointed out that the late BJP MP from Palghar Chintamani Vanaga, who died in January, and Vishnu Savara, BJP legislator from Vikramgarh in Palghar district and Maharashtra minister for tribal welfare, had built the BJP by challenging the CPM in these pockets. “The CPM saw the opportunity to grab headlines after their defeat in Tripura,” said the BJP legislator.livemint