A single day away from the fields often means a considerable loss for small farmers.

The cost of Maharashtra farmers rally What each farmer loses as they walk to Mumbai
news Agriculture Monday, March 12, 2018 - 08:20
Written by  Aparna Karthikeyan

The last thing a farmer has the time for is a protest. And yet, 30,000 - and counting - are on their way to Mumbai. Called the 'Long March of the Farmers', the protest has been organised by the All Indian Kisan Sabha (CPI (M)'s farmers wing). It began in Nashik, 180 kilometers away on March 6th. The farmers, many of them barefoot, have walked 30 kilometers every day. They reached the city on Sunday, March 11.

On Monday, March 12, they plan to surround Mantralaya, the state legislative assembly, and protest against the government for not fulfilling their promises. What do they want? Chiefly, farm loan waivers, profitable prices for agricultural produce and rights to forest land. 

The demands of the Maharashtra farmers are not very different from what Tamil farmers - or those in other parts of the country - want. (Of course, water is an additional and crucial issue in the drought-hit states.) Neither is the cost of the protest - to the farmer. Because, even if their demands are met, the household of every single farmer who is marching to Mumbai is sure to pay a high price. A single day away from the fields, as small farmers in Tamil Nadu have told me, often means a considerable loss. Their work - which is typically never accounted for - cannot be outsourced. Neither can it be skipped. Thirsty crops need constant irrigation. Those who cultivate vegetables need to harvest them daily. If the fields are filled with flowers, the picking is usually done by night (when the flowers have not quite bloomed), and mid-day is when they get a little rest. Should the farmer raise cows or goats the day is bookended by the milking, and a good part is often spent finding the animals a spot of green to graze. And in between, the house needs minding; and the milk and vegetables and flowers must be taken in to the collection pointsshanties. Where, the farmers ask, is there time to even attend a wedding in another town? Why, they say, they don't chase up loans and subsidies - which often entail several visits to government offices, each time with a different set of documents - because their time is precious. And worth far more than is calculated as their modest daily takings.  

Now when over 30,000 farmers march for more than seven days, what is the price of such a protest for the farmers? 

P Sainath, Founder-Editor, People's Archive of Rural India says the cost is terrible, for each of them. “What the Tamil Nadu farmers told you is true,” he says in an email interview. “Each day away from work for a farmer or agricultural labourer means a significant loss of income, and less food on the table. Further, the TN farmers in that last protest had gone all the way to Delhi -  and their desperation and forms of protest tell us a great deal about how insensitive and uncaring we in the media are. That kind of trip cost them even more. The Maharashtra farmers now on the Long March are within their own state, but doing a huge distance walking in increasingly hot weather. Like their counterparts in Tamil Nadu, the cost is deep and hurting. Every day away from work is a loss of important money. For agricultural labourers, each day on the protest is a loss of the daily wage for that day. Many will go hungry for days after their return. It should tell you something about how deeply grieved they are, how provoked by the state's neglect, to be putting themselves through this. People are sacrificing, cutting into their own food, cutting into their own income, in order to be able to take part in the protest. And how thoughtful they are, still, changing the timings of their entry into the city - by marching at midnight -  so as not to inconvenience all those students who will be sitting for their exams tomorrow daytime.”

Farmers from Tamil Nadu have enough reason to protest, says Himakiran, an organic farmer who cultivates 10 acres of paddy in Komakkambedu village, Tiruvallur district. “In our district, cyclone Vardah caused heavy damage but insurance claims weren’t processed fully. As it is, the amount given is pittance compared to the money spent. The cyclone happened close to harvest, which meant we had already spent close to 20,000 rupees an acre. The 3000-4000 rupees that we got as compensation was just not enough.”

Turning up for protests is a huge financial loss for the farmer, agrees P. Ayyakannu, a farmer, lawyer and state president of the National South-Indian Rivers Interlinking Agriculturists Association. Last year, he led the farmers from Tamil Nadu who protested in Delhi for 41 days to seek loan waivers, profitable prices and water, besides compensation for crops lost during the worst ever drought in 140 years. This year, he's just begun a 100-day march to highlight farmer's issues. Ayyakannu calculates the loss to individual farmers 'not just in hundreds of rupees.'  In a telephone interview, he explains that if the farmer is away for several days, and the fields are not watered, the whole thing can dry up. “The loss can run upto Rs. 20,000 or Rs. 30,000 rupees per acre.” If she or he raises cows, they have to be grazed, otherwise the milk yield will fall, he points out. And it can then take up to a month to increase. 

And yet, protests are happening everywhere because farmers have awakened. “Today, if tens of thousands of farmers are marching to Mumbai, it is because they believe they have to be united and present their demands. If Modi meets our demands, he might win in 2019. If he doesn't, he will lose.”

Chennai-based writer and filmmaker Kombai S Anwar says the rural disconnect has been exacerbated in the last few years. “I used to complain about the Dravidian parties until I travelled to interior Maharashtra in 2011. I came back a changed man. The infrastructure and other facilities that are taken for granted in rural Tamil Nadu don’t seem to exist there. I saw that: when you enter the rural areas, poverty hits you in the face. It was a sharp contrast from the cities, which were fantastic and had impressive architecture. I think these protests are a fallout of development issues. Also, when they present you with statistics, they include Mumbai, with its great industry and finance. That gives you a lopsided image of Maharashtra.”

Farmers everywhere are really crushed, says Ayyakannu. “We have gone to the extreme end. There has been no rain, no water in the well, no water in the bore, we are in a pathetic condition. To solve our problem, we have to agitate.”

Himakiran hopes the protests grows bigger, spreads across the country and that the government takes it seriously. “Farmers really don't have any recourse. Either we protest or quit farming.”

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