Agriculture is India’s biggest industry and its practitioners should be regarded with consideration rather than disdain.
The Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra has done well to accept “in writing” the key demands of tens of thousands of poor farmers who marched on Mumbai over the past three days, carrying the red banner of the All India Kisan Sabha. But the bulk of those who arrived to protest in the big city were marginalised tribal folk who do some farming within forest areas or on the edges of forests. They labour under handicaps that our tribal communities in forest areas suffer from. This is an extra burden compared to that of normal farmers.
It is, therefore, important that Maharashtra’s government demonstrates its sincerity in implementing the demands within the six-month framework that was agreed upon. It should face no difficulties in doing this as the Congress, NCP and Shiv Sena, a coalition partner in the Fadnavis government, have expressed sympathy for the demand of the tribal farmers, who are in reality landless cultivators.
The marchers came from areas around Nashik but their story is representative of poor tribal farmers across the country. They are not kisans or peasant proprietors in the ordinary sense, though some of their demands will overlap with those of ordinary peasants — such as fixing of the minimum support price (MSP) according to the M.S. Swaminathan formula of 50 per cent above the cost of production and loan waiver. These demands have come to acquire urgency due to farm distress in India.
But the structural demand of the tribal farmers is that the Forest Rights Act be implemented sincerely. Since this law was passed in 2006 to bring relief to forest and tribal communities, its implementation has left much to be desired. Under FRA, there are individual rights as well as community rights for the forest-dwelling tribal people.
Individual rights come into play when those tilling forest land (whose owner is the government) for generations have to be given propriety rights under the FRA. (This had been the spirit of zamindari abolition laws, and other regulations to do with doing away of intermediaries in agriculture.) And this is what the poor farmers came to Mumbai to demand.
In the final analysis, loan waivers aren’t the way to go, as they only burden the state. But if the state can help those who till the soil with water infrastructure by making canals, land improvement techniques, and help with insurance and loans for ongoing farming operations, besides affording a reasonable MSP, the farmer may not need continual loan waivers.
In case of tribal people who farm within the forest or its edge, giving them property rights will also incentivise them to make land improvements themselves, saving the state resources relating to long-term subsidies. Agriculture is India’s biggest industry and its practitioners should be regarded with consideration rather than disdain.