Photo: The farmers were elated that their voices were finally heard (Kiran Mehta/Al Jazeera)
Thousands of farmers marched to Mumbai to demand better conditions for themselves in the country. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), abbreviated CPI(M), drew a parallel between this movement and the historic Salt March led by renowned nonviolent activist Mahatma Gandhi during British colonial rule. All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a farmer-oriented political front connected to the CPI(M), is guiding this mobilization in Maharashtra state and is joined by many tribal farmers.
Around half of India’s labor force works in agriculture, but the industry makes up only 14% of the nation’s GDP. Infrastructure is lacking and support is far too inelastic, unable to support citizens in times of blight or drought and unable to accomodate or store surplus. These deficiencies are only deepened as climate change makes crop output ever more erratic. India’s agrarian system is severely failing farmers — destroying livelihoods and creating a trend of suicide among many who feel they will never escape hopeless debt. Activists estimate that between 2015 and 2016, nearly 12,600 farmers committed suicide. This occurs with alarming frequency during times of crop failure, highlighting the severity of the shortcomings of the agrarian system in India.
More than 45,000 protesters gathered in Mumbai after six days of walking. They were supported by community members, who brought them food, water, and slippers to replace their worn out shoes, in a show of solidarity. Some marchers were in their 60s and 70s, have depended on the land for decades, and left their livelihoods to be a part of the process. With this sacrifice, these farmers legitimized the cause and proved their conviction to it. In Mumbai, members of the march were seen greeting the police posted at the scene. Their friendliness illustrated their respect for and willingness to work with the government. A parade of state ministers from various political parties passed through the gathering, speaking with leaders of the protest to hear their appeal.
Their vision of tomorrow was made clear through their specific demands from the government. Their top priority was loan forgiveness for expenses associated with their farms. A loan forgiveness program had been promised last year, but has not yet been implemented. Next, since the government buys a large portion of crops to protect farmers from volatile market prices, they requested an adjusted and appropriate fixed minimum price for their produce, accompanied by a raise in their wages to at least one and a half times the cost of their crops. With this, they also called for the national pension amount to be increased. Furthermore, they asked for land titles to be transferred to the indigenous farmers who have worked the land for generations.
Talks between AIKS representatives and state ministers ended in success when the government promised to follow through within six months on 100% of the demands made. In response, the farmers agreed to withdraw their protest, and trains were arranged to transport the famers back to their homes.
No action has yet been taken in the week and a half since the marchers withdrew their protest. As the farmers return home, they are optimistic but cautious. As one farmers says, “We are happy that they listened to us, but let’s see when the promises are implemented.” The long march to Mumbai was a counterpart to a mass sit-in by farmers in Rajasthan last month. A similar mass mobilization is in the works in Uttar Pradesh, as AIKS encourages farmers to raise their voices and fight for their rights, and to use allied law- and policymakers to create change. The government has not upheld its promises in the past, so it is imperative that the people keep the pressure on.