By Ameya Karve, Pratik Parija, and Archana Chaudhary
Tens of thousands of farmers gathered in India’s financial capital called off their agitation late on Monday after the Maharashtra government accepted their main demands, including widening the scope of a crop loan waiver program.
“The state government assured us that they will form a panel to resolve the land rights issues,” said Kishore Tiwari, president of the Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti, one of the organizers. Farmers who were left out of the earlier loan waiver program will be considered, the norms for compensation for pest attacks on cotton will be eased and the state government will seek higher support prices for crops from the central government, he said.
Rising discontent among the farming community is the latest challenge for Prime Minster Narendra Modi who promised to double farm incomes by 2022. Farmers are a key support base for political parties as 800 million of India’s 1.3 billion population depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihood. Bumper harvests, boosted by good rain in 2016 and 2017 after back-to-back droughts, have hurt incomes and left them with huge debts.
The farmers reached Mumbai after marching almost 200 kilometers (124 miles) for nearly a week from Nashik to protest outside the state assembly, according to Ashok Dhawale, president of the All India Kisan Sabha, which led the protest. Mumbai and Nashik are major cities of Maharashtra, the country’s second-biggest producer of cotton and sugar cane and third-biggest grower of pulses.
Farmers demanded a broader debt waiver program after some of them failed to qualify for any financial relief under the Maharashtra government’s initiative last year. Other major demands included better prices for their crops, changes in a river-linking program in the state to ensure that tribal villages are not submerged, halting the acquisition of farmers’ lands for the bullet train and the super highway projects and compensation for losses due to pest attacks and hailstorms.
“The last four years have been a relentless cycle of distress,” said Vilas Babar, a 41-year-old farmer from Surpimpri village in Buldhana district, adding he borrowed 500,000 rupees ($7,694) from a state-owned bank after droughts for a couple of years and failed to repay as prices of agricultural commodities fell following a good monsoon.
Crop failures in some areas have further agitated the farming community. Cotton farmers in Maharashtra have lost about 120 billion rupees after pink bollworm damaged crops, Dhawale said. The number of farmers committing suicides in India climbed about 42 percent to 8,007 in 2015 from a year earlier, according to a federal farm ministry statement in parliament in February.