The long march to Delhi
They grow rice in Kerala, sugarcane in U.P., cotton in Maharashtra. They all came together to say just one thing: farming has become unsustainable
A plume of dust rose under the shamiana on the Ramlila grounds in New Delhi. Some women were vigorously shaking a large green mat. They coughed, and with their free hand, held up their shawls to their nose. As soon as they laid the mat on the ground, a group of young men sat down on it.
Bindu Devi tapped one of them on the shoulder. “ Na! ” she said. “Get up, go dust your own mat!” The 40-year-old shooed the men off in the Hindi dialect spoken by the Majhi community in Gaya, Bihar. “Our legs are as tired as yours.”
When Bindu Devi finally settled down with about 50 other women from her village, she laughed. “Every moment, every day, we have to fight,” she said. “Whether it’s for good wages for farm labour, or simply a clean patch to rest our bums on!”
Coming to New Delhi for the farmers’ rally on November 29 and 30 meant leaving behind some of the little fights for the big ones. The previous day, Bindu Devi and the others had walked to the nearest town of Manpur, taken tempos and buses to Gaya, and finally boarded a train to Delhi. The 30-hour journey started with a thick roti and roasted chillies, and they had eaten little else after that.
Nearly 200 people came from Gaya district alone. “The rest stayed back to work on the winter sowing,” said 55-year-old Karu Manjhi. “Rain and soil don’t care if the tiller has gone to Delhi to fight for her rights.”
The thousands of farmers and labourers in Delhi that day, organised by over 200 farmers’ unions, had made similar journeys to draw the nation’s attention to a deepening agricultural crisis. Rice cultivators from Kerala, sugarcane farmers from Uttar Pradesh, lease-farmers from Punjab who had just sown wheat, and cotton growers from Maharashtra, all brought region-specific concerns. But at their core, they were all speaking about how unsustainable agriculture had become.
7/10 families in debt
Over half of India is employed in agriculture, but inadequate rains and water shortage have reduced yields nationwide. Even in the 35% farmland that is irrigated, a good harvest does not mean good earnings. The cost of seeds, fertilizers, diesel for pumps and tractors have far overshot income. Of every ten rural households, seven are severely indebted.
The distress has pushed farmers to erupt in protest. In Maharashtra, dairy farmers poured milk on the streets last year to protest low prices. Telangana farmers set their red chilli crop on fire. In Karnataka, they have helplessly petitioned the government for a water policy to address the third year of drought.
Most protests have been led by farmers who own land. But marches of the landless — over 56% of India’s rural population — have occurred too, often separately. In March, 35,000 adivasi farmers walked for seven days from Nashik to Mumbai demanding titles to land they have cultivated for generations.
What set November’s Delhi march apart was the rare coming together of land-owning farmers and landless labourers. Their interests might be disparate, even conflicting at times, but their fates are intertwined. The protestors asked for a 21-day special joint session in Parliament to debate agricultural reforms and insisted on dedicated discussions on landless cultivators, mostly women, Dalits and adivasis. Just 10% of the countryside controls 55% of the land. Any reform policy that does not consider this ecosystem would be myopic.
Every time farmers sell their land in distress, lose a harvest cycle to drought, or have to skip a season of sowing, labourers lose employment. Many of them migrate to small towns or cities. Over 1.5 crore people have quit cultivation in India between 1991 and 2011.
Mrityunjay Dubey from Bihar’s Sivan district owns 30 acres, but can afford to cultivate only 10 acres. He spoke of “ ghaate mein chalna, ” running on a loss, a phrase several farmers used. His costs have shot up, but the minimum support price — the guaranteed price at which the government buys farm produce — has been declining since 2010. “I have nothing left to pay school fees, run the household, or save for the future,” he said.
He admitted to paying only Rs. 80 to Rs. 100 per day to his farm labourers, far lower than the minimum wage of Rs. 250. Dubey, who is now part of the Jai Kisan Andolan, a progressive union of farmers led by political scientist Yogendra Yadav, said he feels guilty. “No one thought it was wrong to underpay workers, and the more we zamindars struggled, the less we paid our workers.” Nearly all the workers on his farm are Dalits. But he refused to call it caste hierarchy, referring to it instead as “an old habit”. “I can say that I earn nothing, so how will I pay labourers so much? Honestly, I know it’s wrong.”
Land for hard cash
Farmers like Dubey have long demanded loan waivers and an increase in the minimum support price. “But these schemes are mostly cornered by landowners, and rarely benefit labourers or marginal farmers,” said Vijoo Krishnan, joint secretary of All India Kisan Sabha, the main organiser of the rally.
The consequences of non-inclusive policies are grave, and sometimes immeasurable. “My daughter dropped out of college last year, because I couldn’t afford the fees,” said Amarjit Singh, a 65-year-old small farmer from Moga district in Punjab. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of farmers around him who had lost land like him, Singh teared up. Two years ago, he was refused a waiver of his Rs. 4.5 lakh bank loan because he had repaid a small amount. He finally had to sell his two acres to repay the loan. He now works for Rs. 200 a day in his neighbour’s field.
Listening to the landless poor speak of farming introduces a whole new lexicon. When Bindu Devi, a Dalit, explained why she was at the farmers’ march, she didn’t produce a list of demands. She described a life, where unpaid wages, rain, drought, five hours of electricity, and the insecurity of generations of landlessness, all choke her as a single force.
Untouchability is her uncle’s quarter acre left unwatered because they are not allowed to draw water from the village canal or share the closest pump. Education is her son’s ninth grade left unfinished because he must harvest paddy during his mid-term exams. State welfare is the ration shop’s 3 litres of subsidised oil that is really 1.5 litres. This is the experience she refers to when she insists that she is notkisan, butmazdoor— labourer.
“I am paid daily wages not in cash, but in kilos of grain,” Bindu Devi said. “I saved it bit by bit to sell for Rs. 10 a kilo.” But ten days ago, forest officials and policemen stormed the hamlet in the buffer zone of a shrub jungle, and demolished their huts. They tore open the rice sacks and spilled the saved paddy. “They said we had encroached; although we have lived here for 30 years. Where do we build huts if we don’t have land?”
Extorting forest officials, sharp hunger, bad school teachers — Bindu Devi was taking on all of them by bringing herself all the way to Delhi. “When I see policemen or politicians, I remember that they have earned thousands and thousands of rupees in my name,” she said. “I don’t get scared any more.”