Nearly 40,000 farmers and tribals from across Maharashtra, who embarked on a 'Long March' from Nashik on 6 March, arrived in Mumbai on Sunday having walked around 180 kilometres in six days.
The farmers, including both men and women from tribal-dominated talukas in Nashik, Thane and Palghar among other regions, are demanding a loan waiver free of any conditions, implementation of the Forest Rights Act, fixed remunerative prices for agricultural produce and implementation of the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission with respect to minimum support prices.
Braving scorching heat, the protesters have covered the long distance on foot in six days. On Sunday, they stayed the night at the Somaiya ground in suburban Chunabhatti in Mumbai, and plan to set out for Vidhan Bhavan in south Mumbai on Monday, where the Budget Session is underway.
Here is how the thousands of farmers undertook the arduous and long march:
At around 1 pm on 6 March, the Central Bus Stop in Nashik was relatively empty, with jeeps full of farmers still transporting people from the interior areas. Soon, the entire street was filled with people and a sea of red flags and red caps with CPM emblems took over. Everything was red — as far as the eye could see. Some of the men wrapped handkerchiefs around their foreheads and women covered their heads with their sarees using them as shields against the hot, unforgiving sun.
Most of the protesters had heavy bags on their shoulders; bags containing clothes, and wheat, rice, bajra and a few other food grains to last them for the week-long march.
By 2.30 in the afternoon, they dipped into their bags and brought out roti and sabzi wrapped in newspapers, preparing for the first meal of the march, as other Adivasi farmers sang traditional folk songs to pass the time.
By 3 pm, the organisers started addressing the crowd, and by 4 pm, around 20-25 thousand people start walking briskly through the streets towards the Nashik-Agra highway. Since then, there was no stopping until 9 pm that evening — every member in the march walked for 5 hours straight on the very first day.
Dance away their troubles
The night of the first day of the march, when farmers finally got room to breathe after hours of marching, some of them broke into a traditional folk dance in order to help everyone unwind. Soon they were joined by several others who partook in the folk art form where people formed a semicircle with hands behind each other’s back and went back and forth with some music.
Although the choreography was obviously not practised, the tribals danced in perfect sync.
Continuing with the lively mood, there were other tribals playing folk songs with their own ethnic instruments that they had got along; one of them was a tribute to Khandaraya, a deity they worship. The cultural gatherings went on until 11.30 pm in the nights, and they had to start marching again by early morning, but these acts helped keep the spirits up.
As the march continued through the week, the overhead sun and bad roads under their feet took a toll on the farmers' health. Jidabai Gaikwad, one of the farmers from the protest, who marched consistently for four days and kept encouraging others not to give up, showed off her blisters and told NDTV, "I want to tell the chief minister that he should transfer the land in our names so that we can work and feed ourselves."
The pain of travelling on foot was somewhat eased by medicines adistributed at regular intervals by organisers, as well as the warm welcome the protesters received as they entered various villages and towns along the way.
On 8 March, as the march entered Shahpur, the protesters were greeted and welcomed by daughters of 25 farmers who had committed suicide in the recent past. The emotional moment also helped remind the thousands of tired protesters of their objectives as they were joined by more farmers from Shahpur.
By 10 March, when the march reached Bhiwandi, farmers and tribals from a spectrum of communities and regions had joined it. The contrast in composition of the protest's members was obvious, as the march began with mostly tribals on 6 March.
The overarching ambition was the same for everyone, which was to reclaim farmers' rights and force the government to pay more attention to their issues, but the specific demands differed from community to community and farmer to farmer.
While some complained of their cotton crops destroyed by pests, others were struggling to find a livelihood after hailstorms damaged acres of farm land. While tribals want land rights as they are yet to get their due under the Forest Rights Act, farmers from Marathwada do own land but are frustrated with the low rates they get for their produce.
Hiraman Waghmare, a 46-year-old farmer who tills five acres of forest land in Chikadi village in Nashik, is entirely dependent on a good monsoon but does not have money for a borewell. Speaking to The Indian Express, he hopes that once the forest land that his community has been tilling for decades is transferred to their names, he might be able to get a loan. "Maybe then I can make some arrangements for irrigating the land."
Forty-year-old Ramraje Mahadik from Marathwada is demanding compensation for his cotton crop damaged by a pink bollworm attack. "My crop was hit very seriously. The yield fell from 10 quintals per acre to just 2-3 quintals per acre this year. From my three acres of land, I have been able to get only 12 quintals of cotton. The government announced it would compensate for the damaged crop, but no money has come yet," the report quoted him as saying. Having heard that some villages in Parbhani were excluded from compensation, he said, "What’s our fault? The state must give us compensation."
As the march entered Mumbai, the protesters were warmly welcomed by leaders of all Opposition parties. The BJP government found itself cornered after even alliance partner Shiv Sena announced their support to the march. While Aaditya Thackeray met with the farmers at the Somaiya ground, support poured in from Congress, Nationalist Congress Party as well as Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
But after days of continuous walking, the farmers were left with no choice but to listen to long political speeches by various leaders. Even though all farmers had settled in the Somaiya ground by 9.30-10 pm, the speeches went on for much longer, delaying dinner and rest. Within the next hour, the farmers had to get whatever rest they could get, before resuming the march, as the organisers decided to walk through the night so as to not disturb the schedule of students appearing in board examinations on Monday.
Through the night, organisers distributed pain killers and other medicines to the farmers. Protesters waited in long queues, swallowed their medicines and resumed the march. By 1 am, everyone was back on the road en route Azad Maidan.
On Monday, BMC stated that it will provide 20 mobile toilets at Azad Maidan, which will be increased at night to 40 toilets. Further, four water tankers will be put in place at the ground. Pay toilets near Azad Maidan and Mantralaya have been instructed to provide free services for two days. At the Somaiyya ground, the BMC has put in place three water tankers, each with a capacity of 12,000 litres. Further, 120 mobile seats have been hired at the venue.
As the march nears its end, farmers and tribals of Maharashtra await resolution of the crisis after a meet with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at 2 pm on Monday.
With inputs from Parth MN, who reported on the march from Nashik
Updated Date: Mar 12, 2018 13:57 PM