More than 30,000 farmers and tribals from across Maharashtra are currently marching to Mumbai from Nashik. They intend to surround Mantralaya, the state’s seat of power, when they reach the Maximum City on Monday, to protest against what they call the government’s breach of promises to them. Young and old peasants, men and women are on the streets, halting along the roads or rivers, sleeping under the open sky, eating together, some of them walking bare feet, some of them playing the drums and flutes and singing folk songs, but briskly walking on to knock on the government’s doors.
The 180-km protest march, christened the ‘Long March of Farmers’, steered by the Maharashtra unit of the CPM’s farmers’ wing, the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), is the latest in a string of farmers’ protests Maharashtra has seen in a year. The peasants are reaching Mumbai when the state legislature is in Budget Session. The state finance minister Sudhir Mungantiwar presented yet another “farmer-friendly” Budget for 2018-19, a day after the Economic Survey for 2017-18 showed a severe constriction of farm economy last fiscal.
SHRINKING FARM ECONOMY While the Devendra Fadnavis government claims it has delivered on its loan waiver promise and is doing more than what previous governments did for agriculture, why are farmers in Maharashtra angry? Ravaged fields, sluggish delivery of loan waiver, and the Economic Survey yield some answers. Vidarbha and Marathwada have seen an unprecedented devastation of cotton crop due to pink-worm attack — government’s estimates district to district hover between 30% and 70%. The tribal areas of north and eastern Maharashtra are witnessing a strong opposition by the BJP-Shiv Sena government to grant the community forest rights to the tribal communities under the Forest Rights Act. There has been a severe dent to rural and agriculture economy this past fiscal, following a 16% drop in long-term annual average rainfall furthering a sharp decline in farm yields across all commodities, save sugarcane that is witnessing bumper production, but it occupies barely 6 lakh ha of nearly 20 million ha cultivable land in the state. Notably, Mungantiwar announced a raise in farm and allied sector spending in his 2018 budget to Rs 23,621 crore, but it was still only less than 6.5% of the total budgetary outlay. In 2016-17, Maharashtra’s farm sector grew, riding on good monsoon and bumper harvests, by 22.5%, pushing its overall growth to 10%. Even that year, sections of informal farm economy got hit by demonetisation. Yet, that jump was due to preceding years of drought. In 2017-18, the farm economy contracted 8.3%, the Economic Survey said, owing to weak monsoon — it indicated growing distress. This decline in growth of agriculture and allied activities brought down the state’s overall economic growth to 7.3%. During the Kharif season of 2017, the survey said, sowing was completed on 15 million ha with minor increase over the previous year. The area under cereals, pulses, oilseeds and cotton decreased by 3, 3, 1 and 0.1%, respectively, while sugarcane acreage increased by 43% over the previous year. The production of cereals, pulses, oilseeds and cotton, the Survey predicted, is expected to decrease by 4, 46, 15 and 44%, respectively, while the production of sugarcane crop would increase by 25% over the previous year. Maharashtra has cotton on a whopping 13 million hectares of land. Same applies to the Rabi crops: The Survey says, as on January 5, 2018, the acreage is 31% less over the previous year. The area of cereals, pulses and oilseeds dwindled by 42, 6 and 60%, respectively, over the previous year. The production of cereals, pulses and oilseeds in Rabi is expected to fall by 39, 4 and 73% , respectively, as compared to previous year. Small and marginal farmers — growing food crops and cash crops like cotton and soybeans — are taking a hit. LONG-TERM STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS Like the rest of India, Maharashtra’s farm woes that are pushing farmers’ distress are structural and they need more than band-aids. Let’s take this: The share of “agriculture & allied activities sector” in the total Gross State Value Added (GSVA), according to the Economic Survey, stood at 12.2% as against 15.3% during 2001-02, marking a declining trend over the period while a large part of the population is still dependent on this sector. These were the years of a high incidence of the farmers’ suicides, particularly in its dry and arid regions.