Mumbai, India – Sumanbai Shingade walked for seven days and six nights, travelling 180 kilometres to reach Mumbai, India’s financial hub, from Korat village in Maharashtra state’s Nashik district.
She bemoaned the state of her calloused feet and a visibly swollen ankle as she squatted on a piece of cardboard, spread out on the grounds of Azad Maidan, a sprawling ground in south Mumbai.
Shingade is part of nearly 40,000 farmers who rallied on the streets of Mumbai to demand land rights, loan waivers and better compensation and support to the farming sector that employs about two-thirds of the population.
“My legs hurt, my entire body aches. Ideally, I would like to go home and sleep on my khatiya [coir cot]. But how can I give up, considering that the land I have worked on for decades is not even in my name,” said Shingade, who did not remember her age but appeared to be in her 60s.
This was a common lament among the adivasis, a traditionally forest-dwelling indigenous community that formed the majority of the protesters.
“For generations, they [adivasis] have been living in the forests. They are dependent on the forest for their sustenance, and have been farming for time immemorial,” said D Stalin, who runs Vanshakti, a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) that works on forest, wetland and environment protection.
The protesters and experts say despite living on the lands for generations, adivasis – who are among the most marginalised among the farming communities of India – do not hold title deeds, which continue to be “vested” with the government’s forest department.
Under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, adivasis are entitled to ownership of land subject to a maximum of four hectares, but the law, say adivasis, has not been implemented on the ground.
However, a report by the Press Trust of India news agency cited a Maharashtra government minister as saying he had settled 50 percent of the claims made by tribals under the Forest Rights Act.
While ownership issues are being stressed, what motivated this peaceful, large-scale protest in Mumbai was the farmers’ increasing distress: reports of farmer suicides have made headlines frequently in recent years.
At least 3,097 farmers committed suicide due to bankruptcy or indebtedness in 2015, according to the National Crime Records Bureau report.
Maharashtra has witnessed an alarming number of farmers’ deaths in the past years.
A leading farm activist in Maharashtra, Kishor Tiwari, believes that while this protest may have been dominated by adivasis, who form nearly eight percent of India’s 1.3 billion population, similar protests across the country are the result of its agrarian crisis.
“The cost of farming has become unsustainable. It is no longer feasible to live in the rural areas. We need to sit before the powers-that-be and ask them to relook at their policies, and act on the Swaminathan Commission report,” Tiwari said, referring to the report according to which farmers ought to enjoy a profit of at least 50 percent above the cost of production.
Vasant Dholbhoie, one of the protesters who came from Surgana in Nashik district, offered insight into the cost of production.
He explained that, for the monsoon season [June to September] – his biggest yield – he spends anywhere from 10,000 rupees ($154) to 15,000 rupees ($231) on his six-acre land.
He earns a meagre 2,000 – 3,000 rupees ($30-46) profit per yield.
To supplement his income, he is forced to work as a labourer on other farmer’s fields and gets paid 100-150 rupees ($1.54-2.31) a day.
Small land holdings
Similar stories were heard from many other farmers who were part of the farmers’ march.
Dada Raipure, the former Maharashtra state president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), which organised the protests, demanded that farmers be given land titles and their loans completely waived off.
With little social security protection for farmers, particularly for those with small land holdings, activists have called for a robust pension scheme and other policies to support the farming sector.
The National Pension System (NPS) launched in 2004 has failed to address the problems.
The protesters wanted the pension, which stands at a meagre 600 rupees ($9.25) a month, to be increased to 2,000 rupees ($30.84) a month.
At Azad Maidan, farmers sat under the pandals – huge, cloth-encased enclosures – braving the heat as leaders from a host of political parties came to address them, claiming solidarity with their cause.
Food and water seemed aplenty as political parties, as well as regular citizens, showed up with bottles of water, biscuits, wada pav (a traditional Maharashtrain snack), bhaji chapati (vegetable with Indian bread), and even shoes and slippers to replace their worn-out footwear.
Emergencies on the ground only came in the form of a few farmers who sadly passed out due to extreme exhaustion.
Ambulances stationed within the grounds, along with alert volunteers, allowed for quick medical aid.
The police personnel manned the grounds to prevent any untoward incidents, while the peaceful protesters were sometimes seen greeting the men and women in uniform.
‘A big achievement’
Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which offered support to the rally, drew parallels with the historic Dandi March or Salt march during the British colonial rule.
“It was on this very day (March 12), 88 years ago, that Gandhiji (Mahatma Gandhi) succeeded in shaking the foundation of the British Empire,” he said, to a round of applause from the farmers.
Ajit Nawale, general secretary of the AIKS, and Ashok Dhawale, president of the AIKS, took to the stage to announce that the state government had accepted their demands that, among others, included relaxation in farm loans and an increase in pension amounts.
“Ownership rights over Forest Land, have once again been upheld … An assurance has been given to the farmers that title rights will be decided by a special committee set up in this regard, which will reach a decision within six months,” Nawale told Al Jazeera.
“Minimum support prices (MSP) of items that have been declared by the Krishi Mulya Aayog (Agriculture Price Commission) will be enforced. And work will begin on setting the MSP of other items.”
MSP is the minimum price at which the government purchases crops from the farmers. It is a means of insuring farmers against a sharp decline in prices.
“This is a big achievement,” Nawale said.
Exhausted and tired after days of protest, the farmers were elated that their voices were finally heard.
As they prepared to go back to their villages, many of them remained cautiously optimistic.
“We are happy that they listened to us, but let’s see when the promises are implemented,” said Krishna Dhadar of Ranpada village in Nashik district.