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Imagine a democratic protest where a million farmers, labourers and others march to the capital and compel discussion of the exploding crisis of the countryside in a special three-week session of Parliament

Farmer long march in Mumbai. Night at somaiya ground
Farmer long march in Mumbai. Night at somaiya ground. Photo: People's Archive of Rural India

 

India’s agrarian crisis has gone beyond the agrarian.

It’s a crisis of society. Maybe even a civilizational crisis, with perhaps the largest body of small farmers and labourers on earth fighting to save their livelihoods. The agrarian crisis is no longer just a measure of loss of land. Nor only a measure of loss of human life, jobs or productivity. It is a measure of our own loss of humanity. Of the shrinking boundaries of our humaneness. That we have sat by and watched the deepening misery of the dispossessed, including the death by suicide of well over 300,000 farmers these past 20 years. While some – ‘leading economists’ – have mocked the enormous suffering around us, even denying the existence of a crisis.

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has not published data on farmers’ suicides for two years now. For some years before that, fraudulent data logged in by major states severely distorted the agency’s estimates. For instance, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal and many others claimed ‘zero suicides’ by farmers in their states. In 2014, 12 states and 6 Union Territories claimed ‘zero suicides’ among their farmers. The 2014 and 2015 NCRB reports saw huge, shameless fiddles in the methodology – aimed at bringing down the numbers.

And yet they keep rising.

Meanwhile, protests by farmers and labourers are on the rise. Farmers have been shot dead – as in Madhya Pradesh. Derided or cheated in agreements, as in Maharashtra. And devastated by demonetisation, as in just about everywhere. Anger and pain are mounting in the countryside. And not just among farmers but amongst labourers who find the MNREGA being dismantled by design. Amongst fisherfolk, forest communities, artisans, exploited anganwadi workers. Amongst those who send their children to government schools, only to find the state itself killing its own schools. Also, small government employees and transport and public sector workers whose jobs are on the anvil.

Vishwanath Khule, a marginal farmer, lost his entire crop during the drought year. His son, Vishla Khule, consumed a bottle of weedicide that Vishwanath had bought
Vishwanath Khule of Vidarbha’s Akola district, whose son Vishal consumed weedicide. Farmer suicides are mounting, but governments are falsifying numbers. Photo: Jaideep Hardikar / People's Archive of Rural India

And the crisis of the rural is no longer confined to the rural. Studies suggest an absolute decline in employment in the country between 2013-14 and 2015-16.

The 2011 Census signalled perhaps the greatest distress-driven migrations we’ve seen in independent India. And millions of poor fleeing the collapse of their livelihoods have moved out to other villages, rural towns, urban agglomerations, big cities – in search of jobs that are not there. Census 2011 logs nearly 15 million fewer farmers (‘main cultivators’) than there were in 1991. And you now find many once-proud food-producers working as domestic servants. The poor are now up for exploitation by both urban and rural elites.

The government tries its best not to listen. It’s the same with the news media.

When the media do skim over the issues, they mostly reduce them to demands for a ‘loan waiver.’ In recent days, they’ve recognised the minimum support price (MSP) demand of farmers – the Cost of Production (CoP2) + 50 per cent. But the media don’t challenge the government’s claims of already having implemented this demand. Nor do they mention that the National Commission on Farmers (NCF; popularly known as the Swaminathan Commission) flagged a bunch of other, equally serious issues. Some of the NCF’s reports have remained in Parliament 12 years without discussion. Also the media, while denouncing loan waiver appeals, won’t mention that corporates and businessmen account for the bulk of the non-performing assets drowning the banks.

Perhaps the time has come for a very large, democratic protest, alongside a demand for Parliament to hold a three-week or 21-day special session dedicated entirely to the crisis and related issues. A joint session of both houses.

Two women sitting at Azad maidanIn Mumbai, covering their heads with cardboard boxes in the blistering heat.
We can’t resolve the agrarian crisis if we do not engage with the rights and problems of women farmers PHOTO • BINAIFER BHARUCHA / People's Archive of Rural India

On what principles would that session be based? The Indian Constitution. Specifically, the most important of its Directive Principles of State Policy. That chapter speaks of a need to “minimise the inequalities in income” and “endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities, opportunities….” The principles call for “a social order in which justice, social, economic and political, shall inform all the institutions of the national life.”

The right to work, to education, to social security. The raising of the level of nutrition and of public health. The right to a better standard of living. Equal pay for equal work for men and women. Just and humane conditions of work. These are amongst the main principles. The Supreme Court has more than once said the Directive Principles are as important as our Fundamental Rights.

An agenda for the special session? Some suggestions that others concerned by the situation can amend or add to:

3 days: Discussion of the Swaminathan Commission report – 12 years overdue.

It submitted five reports between December 2004 and October 2006 that cover a multitude of vital issues and not just MSP. Those include, to name a few: productivity, profitability, sustainability; technology and technology fatigue; dryland farming, price shocks and stabilisation – and much more. We also need to halt the privatisation of agricultural research and technology. And deal with impending ecological disaster.

3 days: People’s testimonies.

Let victims of the crisis speak from the floor of Parliament’s central hall and tell the nation what the crisis is about, what it has done to them and countless millions of others. And it’s not just about farming. But how surging privatisation of health and education has devastated the rural poor, indeed all the poor. Health expenditure is either the fastest or second fastest growing component of rural family debt.

3 days: Credit crisis.

The unrelenting rise of indebtedness. This has been a huge driving factor in the suicide deaths of countless thousands of farmers, apart from devastating millions of others. Often it has meant loss of much or all of their land. Policies on institutional credit paved the way for the return of the moneylender.

3 days: The country’s mega water crisis.

It’s much greater than a drought. This government seems determined to push through privatisation of water in the name of ‘rational pricing’. We need the right to drinking water established as a fundamental human right – and the banning of privatisation of this life-giving resource in any sector. Ensuring social control and equal access, particularly to the landless.

3 days: The rights of women farmers.

The agrarian crisis cannot be resolved without engaging with the rights – including those of ownership – and problems of those who do the most work in the fields and farms. While in the Rajya Sabha, Prof. Swaminathan introduced the Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill, 2011 (lapsed in 2013) that could still provide a starting point for this debate.

3 days: The rights of landless labourers, both women and men.

With mounting distress migrations in many directions, this crisis is no longer just rural. Where it is, any public investment made in agriculture has to factor in their needs, their rights, their perspective.

3 days: Debate on agriculture.

What kind of farming do we want 20 years from now? One driven by corporate profit? Or by communities and families for whom it is the basis of their existence? There are also other forms of ownership and control in agriculture we need to press for – like the vigorous sangha krishi (group farming) efforts of Kerala’s Kudumbashree movement. And we have to revive the unfinished agenda of land reform. For all of the above debates to be truly meaningful – and this is very important – every one of them must focus, too, on the rights of Adivasi and Dalit farmers and labourers.

While no political party would openly oppose such a session, who will ensure it actually happens? The dispossessed themselves.

Midnight walk to Azad Maidan
The morcha of farmers from Nashik to Mumbai in March has to go national – not just of farmers and labourers, but also others devastated by the crisis PHOTO • SHRIRANG SWARGE / People's Archive of Rural India

In March this year, 40,000 peasants and labourers marched for a week from Nashik to Mumbai making some of these very demands. An arrogant government in Mumbai dismissed the marchers as ‘urban Maoists’ with whom it would not talk. But caved in within hours of the multitude reaching Mumbai to encircle the state legislative assembly. That was the rural poor sorting out their government.

The highly disciplined marchers struck a rare chord in Mumbai. Not just the urban working class, but also the middle classes, even some from the upper middle classes, stepped out in sympathy.

We need to do this at the national level – scaled up 25 times over. A Long March of the Dispossessed – not just of farmers and labourers, but also others devastated by the crisis. And importantly, those not affected by it – but moved by the misery of fellow human beings. Those standing for justice and democracy. A march starting from everywhere in the country, converging on the capital. No Red Fort rallies, nor skulls at Jantar Mantar. That march should encircle Parliament – compel it to hear, listen and act. Yes, they would Occupy Delhi.

It might take many months to get off the ground, a gargantuan logistical challenge. One that has to be met by the largest and widest coalition possible of farm, labour and other organisations. It will face great hostility from the rulers – and their media – who would seek to undermine it at every stage.

It can be done. Do not underestimate the poor – it is they, not the chattering classes, who keep democracy alive.

It would be one of the highest forms of democratic protest – a million human beings or more showing up to ensure their representatives perform. As a Bhagat Singh, if alive, might have said of them: they could make the deaf hear, the blind see and the dumb speak.

This article was originally published in the People's Archive of Rural India on June 22, 2018

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It is a piece Ashok Malik wrote to explain Rahul Gandhi's stupidity. It ends up improving my estimation of his intelligence. In a rather long winded post "Green means stop", Ashok Malik shows his mastery over words and writing to an objective, but alas little respect for the intelligence of the Supreme Court or people. My summary of it is "But how can they just stop mining? Think of the money! Congress lost election there. Therefore proved greed is right. And oh. NGOs are evil."

The title itself is fascinating. Green means stop. It would probably have been more relevant to the subject matter if it were "Green means stop mining" but the absurdity of implying green indicating a halt works with traffic signals, while green meaning stopping mining is plain common sense, even if you left out all policy, profit or manipulations and just went by before and after photos. I'd think the truncated title was serendipity, but credit must be where due. It is a well crafted title for the goal of the article.

Articles that comment on such issues are a dime a dozen and everyone has their opinion. My irritation with this article is the sneering patronizing, not only of the view it challenges, which is only to be expected - for example this article itself, but of the Supreme Court and the people themselves.

The most important paragraph of the piece (at least to my irritation) is:

The final roadblock came when the environment ministry and the government’s lawyers used a provision under a new forest law, drafted by UPA or more specifically NAC, to seek concurrence of the local community for land acquisition. In his wisdom, a Supreme Court judge agreed. In theory, the concurrence of the local community sounded like a noble idea. In practice what did it amount to?

"In his wisdom, a Supreme Court judge agreed." Really? He means like agreed on a personal basis? And the passive aggressive "in his wisdom" before going on to call that wisdom wrong belongs to an Ekta Kapoor script. Perhaps Ashok Malik is not aware that when a Supreme Court judge gives a judgment, it is THE SUPREME COURT speaking in judgment after considered evaluation of the matter, not an individual opinion of agreement. This is not to say the Supreme Court cannot be wrong and my belief is that in a democracy people should be able to speak up when it is, but it cannot merely be shrugged off as individual opinion either that doesn't require any explanation about flaws in the case.

What is more worrisome is the manner in which the article goes on to dismiss the local population as ignorant and disinformed into refusing a better life. I don't know how much experience Ashok Malik has in engaging with rural/backward/remote populations, but in my experience, while it is easy to disinform them to aceept short term profit for longer term loss, it is nearly impossible to do the opposite. It is extremely difficult to get a person to let go of profit visible right now to remain at a disadvantage and that too suffering state brutality, pressure tactics and intimidation in order to do it.

People are not stupid. If a promise will give them a better home and livelihood and also get the state and private militias off their backs, in one fell swoop, they aren't stupid to refuse it just because a few outsiders tell them to. Maybe you could convince a few with conspiracy theories that the advantage was not real. But to convince twelve gram sabhas? That would take a level of gullible that is only possible if you have never really interacted with any rural or tribal populations. Development isn't a mere concept there with variable weight depending on who is arguing. Necessity forces knowledge.

Let us take a look at the knowledge. Odisha currently has the highest income of all the states from mining. So what is the prosperity mining has brought to Odisha that it should do more of the same? What is the prosperity mining has brought anywhere?

To write about economics for the country, economists go "Increase manufacturing! exporting raw materials and importing finished goods will keep India poor." Yet when it comes to getting regions to accept mining, the argument follows the opposite logic and predicts prosperity to come, even if the state is the national leading state in the prescribed activity.

The progressive state's hatred of anyone endorsing rights to anyone outside a tight circule of people with power is hardly a surprise - be it by caste, gender, economic class or social. Yet, it takes a special kind of ignorance to believe that people of the state earning highest revenues from mining need outsiders to explain to them what the consequences of mining are for their livelihoods, displacement and health. Because of course they live conceptual lives and have never seen the realities of mining like an elite theorist has.

And who is supposed to deliver this miracle and at what cost? Vedanta, which has polluted many places already.

I am no fan of NGOs or the cartel state. But I have a special contempt for those who dismiss rights, plight or concerns of Indians - any Indians, anywhere - for profit.

Note: This post does not cite anything issued by the Congress Party or NGOs. None of my posts on the subject do though some cite court judgments against bauxite mining in other countries.

On day 2 of Modi on the job, his cabinet has passed the ordinance for the Polavaram project. It is waiting for Pranab Mukherjee's signature.

Apart from 136 villages, 211 hamlets and 7 mandals being transferred from Telangana to Andhra, as per the Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management Plan study conducted by Agricultural Finance Corporation Limited, on behalf of the irrigation department, the backwaters of Indira Sagar dam, once completed, will submerge 2,929.07 hectares of reserve forest, spreading across mostly Khammam (2,820.61 hectares), followed by 70.71 hectares in West Godavari and 37.75 acres in East Godavari. Another 293.08 hectares of reserve forest would have to be acquired for project and canal. Thus, a total of 3,223 hectares of reserve forest would disappear totally under the project.

That will teach the anti-national animals to not vote for Modi in the next election.

The National Board of Wildlife (headed by the Prime Minister) had cleared the wildlife aspect of Polavaram (Indira Sagar) project in 2006 after considering various aspects of submergence of the Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary (187 hectares) in a meeting attended by BJP's favorite enemy A. Raja. Clearly the "developmental harvest" will be reaped at the cost of the tribals and wildlife he sold out anyway.

The project, proposes to irrigate 232,000 acres in Krishna, Godavari (east and west) and Vishakhapatnam districts (in other words, less than 1.5 times the 1,57,406 acre area that will get submerged - or in other words, there are industrial uses for most of the water), and generate about 960 MW electricity. Water from this project will also feed the proposed Vizag-Kakinada Industrial Corridor; two Special Economic Zones, the Apparel Park, Pharma City, probably a Naval Establishment, and perhaps an atomic research station. The project's stated aims are to irrigate 54 mandals in 4 districts - Krishna, Vishakapatnam, West and East Godavari; to sustainably increase agricultural production; to assure water supply for drinking in Vishakhapatnam and towns en route; to link the Godavari and Krishna rivers, thus reducing pressure on the Krishna waters; and also facilitate recreation, pisciculture, etc.

Over 276 tribal villages in the agency areas of East and West Godavari districts and Khammam district will be submerged. Based on the 2001 census of these areas, it is estimated that 237,000 people will be displaced. About 53 per cent of those displaced will be adivasis, two-thirds of them being Koyas and Konda Reddis. More than 300 hectares of prime forest land, comprising the Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary, will also be inundated. The likely agricultural loss is also phenomenal; in the submergence area, cotton is grown in over 10,000 acres, each providing an average of 150 person-days of work. Paddy is grown in 10,000 acres, providing an additional 75 person-days of work each. Tobacco is grown in 6,000 acres and gives 250 person-days of work per acre. And losses in other livelihoods will worsen this situation further. The levels of displacement of lives and livelihoods, besides destruction of environment from this project will far exceed the impact of the Sardar Sarovar dam over the Narmada river. What is more important, a lot many more tribal households stand to be displaced in this project when compared to the latter.

Prof T Shivaji Rao commented on the India Together post this article refers to extensively saying:

The Polavaram Dam issue is not properly understood by the general public in either Andhra pradesh, Orissa, Chattisgarh or CWC in Delhi with the result that the Courts at the state or central level are not scientifically briefed about the complete environmental implications of the project. Firstly,the project was strongly opposed in May 1983 by Dr.K.L.Rao,the top most expert in irrigation Engineering on the ground that the spill-way is highly under-designed and wrongly sited and it will collapse one day or the other.

Secondly,it is not clear if Orissa and Chattisgarh states are opposing the dam on the ground that their original agreement was based on assumption of spill-way design for a Maximum Flood Discharge of 36 lakhs cusecs with a return period of 500-years which is not in tune with the CWC Design standards of 1000-year return period which means raising the peak flood to 49.5 lakh cusecs. Further,the Environmental Impact Assessment, Risk Analysis, Disaster Management including the Rehabilitation and Resettlement reports are based on the old design [2004] criteria of 36 lakh cusecs peak flood while the revised project design based on peak flood of 49.5 lakh cusecs [September,2006] does not take into consideration the need to make a corresponding revision of EIA, RADM and R&R packages. Under the inter-state Agreement,it is the CWC which has to design the project and the determine the back-water curve that is crucial for identifying the areas to be submerged due to extreme floods.

We shoud not put the cart before the horse. In one of the cinemas "Vaddate Dabbu",N.T.Rama Rao as hero instructs his engineers to construct the top floor of the building first so that the basement can be taken up for construction later. Today the politicians and the bureaucrats seem to follow this advise in total that means even without the Central Water Commission taking the primary step in calculating the maximum peak flood for spillway design as per the norms prescribed by the Central Government and the norms followed in other countries and also without the directions of the Central Water Commission on the configuration of the backwater curve that presence the scenarios of submersion in the upper states of Orissa and Chttisgarh and Andhra Pradesh no organization can make a proper assessment of the environmental impact, risk analysis, disaster management plan including rehabilitation and resettlement schemes. But in the present case it appears the reverse process has come into operation and the non-governmental organizations and the Ministries of Environment and forests at the state and central levels seem to be helpless spectators while implementing the rules under the Environmental Protection Act and Forest Conservation Acts.

Unfortunately when the Bachawat Tribunal was giving the award 1982 on Godavari water the peak flood at that time was of a far lesser magnitude and consequently the peak flood was raised to the expected peak level of 36lakh cusecs. Consequently the Bachawat Tribunal accepted the interstate agreement for a peak flood of 36 lakhs cusecs and put a condition that the clearance for the polavaram project was considered for the dam height fixed at an elevation of 150ft. and that the submersion of villages due to back water curve in the upper reaches of the river in Orissa and Chattisgarh states must be limited to +150ft only. Unfortunately in August 1986 the Godavari river experienced a peak flood discharge of 36 lakhs cusecs and hence this unexpected event of extreme magnitude leads to a corresponding increase in revising the peak spillway flood discharge to be about one and half times the historically recorded flood and consequently the state Government has been directed by the central Water Commission in August 2006 to revise the peak flood to 49.5lakh cusecs.

Consequently the Orissa and Chattisgarh state governments are arguing that in view of this revised extreme flood the inundation in Chattisgarh and Orissa will be far higher than originally contemplated at the time of interstate agreement made in 1980. Hence the environmental clearances and forest clearances obtained on the basis of a peak flood of 36 lakhs cusecs does not hold good because more extensive areas will be inundated due to the peak flood of 49.5 lakh cusecs as revised in Aug-Sep 2006. Hence the non-governmental organizations, the state Governments and the courts must take into consideration this new aspect which throws all the earlier reports on Polavaram dam out of gear and hence fresh reports must be prepared to confirm to the rule of law for ensuring a safe environment for the dam and the people who are likely to be affected both on the upstream side and downstream side. Prof.T.Shivaji Rao, Director,Centre for Environmental Studies, GITAM Engineering College,

These people will be moved to cheaply provided accommodation that usually never reaches all those who are displaced and a 40,000 rupee alternative cannot compare with the loss of your own home. The tribals live off the land and forests and have no skills for economic survival in other environments. On top of losing their homes and getting some half hearted compensation that can never compete with the quality of life they have, they will also have to figure out how to survive in an environment they don't have the skills for.

As usual, the person deciding on how their life should unfold is some guy sitting on a stack of notes elsewhere, who will not have to face a moment's discomfort over their devastation.

Once more, development hit tribals will sacrifice for the "greater good" of those who already have more than them. Us, elitist leeches will never tire of sucking the life out of them.

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The scent of the earth... the title deed
The life of a man... and futile need
The freedom to be... in silly glee
And the weight of the smallest deed.

Each on their own way, they split
Flames snuffed, and fires lit
A change ordained though nothing was gained
But that indeed was the writ.

Some saw the woman in chains and wings
Others saw farmers and tiny 'people things'
"The earth!" they cried, is brittle and dried
An intricate web of ominous tidings

"Oh this needs attention the most"
"Fight that fire first, mere dost"
Unseen fractures abrupt departures
"To prosperity!" we raise a toast