Around 15,000 farmers from various districts of Maharashtra have gathered at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai to protest against the Centre's contentious farm laws. This mobilisation of farmers under the joint banner of the 'Samyukta Shetkari Kamgar Morcha' is the second of its kind; it comes almost three years after big and small farmers part of the Kisan Long March swept the city in a wave of red and white.
Santu Devram Tumbde from the Ambas village in Nashik district's Peth taluka had joined the protest rally in 2018, is back at Azad Maidan now " this time, against the Centre's agri laws and in solidarity with farmers from various northern states who are staging a two-month-long protest against the laws at Delhi's borders.
"We had protested against the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government's agriculture policies in 2018. This time we're here because the Narendra Modi government in the Centre is not working in the interests of the farmers. The government should only introduce and implement laws after consulting farmers," he said, shielding his face from the midday sun on Monday.
Farmers from various districts including, Palghar, Nashik, and Nandurbar, are holding a sit-in protest at the iconic Azad Maidan till Republic Day, 26 January. Largely, the protesters comprise farmers who have one or less than an acre of land, and Adivasi farmers who cultivate on forest land.
On Monday, the protest witnessed a crowd actively engaging with speakers like NCP president Sharad Pawar, Maharashtra minister and Congress leader Balasaheb Thorat, and activists Medha Patkar and Ulka Mahajan, among others.
In groups fanned out across Azad Maidan, the protesting farmers " men and women, young and old " sat on chatais and chairs and in makeshift tents. They arrived at the venue on Sunday night, carrying provisions like bedsheets, food, and a change of clothes enough to last for the three-day protest.
Madhav Tumbde (left) sits with a group of farmers from Nashik. Firstpost/Natasha Trivedi
Since November 2020, farmers across the country are rallying against the new laws, fearing that they will negate the safety net of the Minimum Support Price (MSP) provision and the mandis under the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) Act. On the other hand, the Centre claims that the laws have been brought in to benefit small farmers by encouraging private trade, contract farming, and removing the stock limit on foodgrains.
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The NCP chief, who addressed the farmers on Monday, said that the Centre may pass any law undermining the Constitution on the back of its majority, farmers will "not remain silent" until the new farm acts and the ruling party are "destroyed".
The former Union agriculture minister also accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of not enquiring about the condition of farmers agitating near Delhi borders in cold weather.
Pawar also hit out at Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari for heading to Goa at a time when farmers from the state were to submit a memorandum to him against the farm laws.
Koshyari, said Pawar, who holds the additional charge of Goa, had the time to meet Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut after the BMC demolished parts of her office, "but has no time for farmers". "It has been 60 days since the farmers from Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan are protesting near Delhi. Did the countrys PM enquire about (the farmers)? It was mentioned that the farmers are from Punjab. Does Punjab mean Pakistan?" Pawar asked.
The NCP chief alleged that the farm laws were passed without detailed discussion in Parliament despite Opposition parties demanding deliberations on the bills concerned.
'Contract farming detrimental to small and marginal farmers'
"The mandi system is flawed because farmers don't receive the correct rate for their produce, but it is an insurance that we cannot do without. It helps to regulate the prices and provides small and marginal farmers an opportunity to earn a sustainable income," Tumbde said.
Tumbde's remarks were echoed by Sandeep Laxi Gadag from the Dhapchari village in Palghar district's Dahanu. Gadag's main worry, however, is that the strengthening of the contract farming system under the new law will have an adverse effect on small and marginal farmers.
Under one of the new laws, Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, contract farming has been included as part of the legal framework of agriculture policy in India.
The law contains provisions through which a farmer can sign a direct contact with companies or businessmen who want to buy farm produce. Until this law was brought in, farmers were restricted from selling their produce directly to consumers or companies and compulsorily had to do so through a licensed trader.
Gadag has barely an acre of land to his name, and feared that businesses might try to manipulate small and marginal farmers like him to give their land on rent.
"By taking many such small patches of land on lease or rent, they will be in control of a large piece of land. This is worrying, because if the crop fails or doesn't do as well as expected, they might pay us less rent for the land or refuse to pay the amount at all. They might even spoil our land by using excessive pesticide"
"Contract farming is also detrimental to labourers since businesses have the resources to use machines for a bulk of the agricultural work," Gadag added.
Additionally, Lata Dashmal Gorkhana, also from the Dhapchari village in Palghar, points out that the mandis and MSP are an integral part of the Public Distribution System (PDS), on which many poor families depend for food grains.
"If the government doesn't buy our grains or buys a smaller amount, then how will the PDS continue? Food grains are bought from us at regulated prices and provided to poor families at subsidised rates. But if the government allows middlemen or businesses into the equation, there is a danger of hoarding and food grains falling short for the PDS. It will also lead to an increase in prices of food grains in the markets.
"We are scared that the PDS will be dismantled because a lot of us depend on the monthly quota of subsidised food grains. Even if they say that instead of grains they will give us money to buy food, how will we manage with rising prices in the market?" she questioned.
The group collectively disagrees with the Centre's claim of bringing in these laws to benefit small farmers. "The problems we have described may seem trivial in isolation but will have a domino effect. The laws negate equity in the agriculture sector, since they will be implemented uniformly across the board. Big farmers will be able to use their resources to gain more benefits," said Tumbde.
Usually small farmers fall back on agriculture labour if their crop fails or the yield used as food is inadequate to last them for the year.
Gadag said he used to receive Rs 450 per day of labour in pre-COVID-19 times, however, that rate has fallen to Rs 350 now. With an average income of Rs 5,000 in a good month, he barely manages to save Rs 1,000 after paying electricity, gas, and water bills and spending on grains and vegetables.
"This protest is a matter of protecting our bread and butter. MSP and the mandis are crucial for us to sustain our families. We want the government to maintain the status quo and do away with the laws completely," he said.
Meerabai Uttam Dhamode, Bhavyatai Balu Jadhav, Achala Damo Kadale, and Gojarabai Shankar Badade from the Kwaraty village in Nashik's Dindori taluka, were of the group of farmers who travelled from Maharashtra to Delhi to join the protest at the National Capital's borders in December 2020.
"We work hard on our land and we are demanding fair prices for the produce. The government and middlemen buy our produce at cheap prices and sell it at expensive rates. Farmers work hard but businesses make the money, and this will be further legitimised by the new laws," Meerabai said.
Sonu Vadhve from the Novkot taluka in Nandurbar district seconds Meerabai, saying, "The Modi government should trust the farmers and bring in laws after consulting with them."