By Sagar Rabari*
The farming community in Gujarat, ever since the neoliberal policies began being implemented, has been facing many challenges. The biggest challenge is of land acquisition for various purposes, followed by anti-farmer laws, the unaddressed issues of farmers such as 24 hour electricity, falling prices of agricultural produce, lack of agricultural infrastructure etc. Over the last 10 years, certain long-pending issues of agrarian community have been particularly neglected by the state government, with new one emerging. To express this distress and grievances, the Khedut Samaj – Gujarat organized a 460 km long 20 day foot march from Somanath to Sachivalaya, Gandhinagar, to draw the attention of the state government towards the farmers’ unaddressed issues and generate awareness in the farming community.
The farmers demand that the government should:
- Scrap the amendments it introduced in the Land Acquisition Act (LAA), 2013, and abrogate Special Investment region (SIR) Act, 2009, and Drainage and Irrigation Act, 2013.
- Waive farmers’ loan and declare a date for 100% payment against crop insurance.
- Hike by 100% minimum support price (MSP) and give 80% loan against crop.
- Scrap the amendments to the land ceiling Act and the tenancy Act.
- Constitute an agriculture commission with active farmers’ representatives.
- Start a state-wide programme to update all the land records.
- Clear the long-pending list of more than 3,00,000 applications for electricity connection and provide 24 hour electricity to farmers.
- Build cold storages and warehouses, one each for every 5 villages.
- Ensure through law that auction of food grains start with MSP as the base price in all the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMCs).
- Make legal provisions to compensate for loss to agricultural produce due to government policies, including when the crops are attacked by nilgais (blue bulls), pigs and other animals.
- Recommand all the areas that have been decommanded from irrigation areas.
- Declare a time table to complete the Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation (SAUNI) project and Narmada canal network.
- Come up with a white paper on Kalpasar project.
- Scrap 7.5% increase in irrigation charge annually.
- Start allotting waste/barren land in villages to landless in all the villages.
- Ensure that the area of grazing land is in proportion to cattle population, and stop giving grazing land for any other purpose at any price.
- Declare white paper on unused land after acquisition. Return all the unused land acquired for irrigation projects, Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation (GIDC) and other purposes, including in cases where land was acquired for industrial purpose but industries were not set up.
- Stop land acquisition for any polluting industry.
- Provide loan and other facilities to farmers for agro-based employment generating industries.
During night meetings, we requested the farmers to seriously ponder over the following issued:
- What has the government done/behaved with agriculture and farmers during the last 15 years?
- How many farmers have committed suicide?
- How many farmers have got electricity connections?
- What is the percentage of increate in irrigation facility?
- When did the government help them last and for how much?
- How many children from family who have completed their studies got jobs?
- Has anyone seen the promised development by destroying agriculture anywhere?
The main focus was to ask the government elected with farmers’ votes to deliver justice to the farmers. If the government cannot address farmers’ demands, they would have to start a movement to press the government into action.
During visits to villages, we learned about the pain suffered by farmers. Those who protest when the price of the onion goes up even for a week during the year cannot feel the pain of the farmers who produce the commodity. How many of us know what the farmer actually earns after the hard work of two-and-a-half months in the field, by investing heavily in tilling the soil, sow seeds, applying fertilizers, employing labour and using transportation for taking their produce to the market? It is necessary that people should know farmers’ annual family budget, how their children study, or how their elder parents are treated in primary health centres (PHCs).
How many of us know that farmers get just Rs 20 – 50 per 20 kg of brinjal, Rs 50 – 150 per 20 kg chilly, and Rs 50 – 100 per 20 kg capsicum?
Farmers, who previously lived under the stress of natural calamities, are living under a three-fold stress these days – of Nature, Market and Government. Farmers are made to depend on rain because irrigation facilities have not been increased in Gujarat. On one hand, after producing crop, they face uncertainty of market prices; on the other, they live under the constant fear of government seeking to take away their land by applying the acquisition law. We could see this threefold helplessness during the foot march.
We found how helpless farmers in the Gir-Somnath district had become as a lush green area has been turned into a barren region, with the quality of underground water declining. The reason is the mining leases given by the government alone the sea shore. Illegal mining is also rampant. Both legal and illegal mining are breaking the natural wall of limestone along the sea shore. This natural wall would stop salinity ingress from entering into the fertile land.
Though farmers know that the quality of water is declining and farms are dying a slow death, they are unable to do anything. What could be more painful than this?
As we moved on in the same district, we met farmers who were pained by land acquisition for highway without any restraint. Helplessness was writ large on their faces. There is unnecessary widening of road under the pretext of toll plaza. Some of them have lost all their land; in fact, they are not farmers any more. One also found how land purchased and cultivated by farmers for years was declared illegal by the forest department. Can anyone imagine the pain they are undergoing?
When we entered Junagadh district, the farmers of Vanthali welcomed us with utmost enthusiasm, but they had pain of another type. One could see lush green horticulture on the river bank, but desperate farmers were selling their produce in the market, failing to get any bills. They didn’t mind getting cheques instead of cash from the market, but their concern was slightly different: In the absence of bills, how could they claim it as agricultural income? Unable to prove agriculture income, they would face the danger of facing heavy income tax on whatever they earn! The overenthusiastic government has declared the drastic step of demonization without considering the impact it would have on various sectors.
In Junagadh, the farmers were seen fighting against unjust land acquisition for constructing a bypass road for a highway. They are facing the ire of the Junagadh Urban Development Authority (JUDA), on one hand, and the threat of eco-sensitive zone, on the other. Power supply for irrigation during night hours is another pain. To save crop from the attacks of blue bulls and pigs, farmers have to stay awake at farms during the whole of night. Simultaneously, they must irrigate their fields during night hours when they get power supply. And to stay awake during night hours, they consume more of tea and tobacco; irregular working hours and short sleep harm their health. One heard complaints that there was an increasing incidence of farmers suffering from cancer, blood pressure and sugar. But who cares?
Up to 2003, farmers in Gujarat were getting 18 hours of electricity for agriculture. At that time, the state was short of power. Thereafter, the hours for which farmers got power reduced year after year. They now get power for just eight hours, even though the state government claims Gujarat is a power surplus state. Though power is available, they do not get it. Is this development?
In Rajkot district land acquisition was found to be creating problems for farmers. While farmers are legally protected against cheating by government officials during land acquisition for high tension electric poles, lack of information about this was a major issue.
Farmers are given two options under the law when high tension wires are sought to be installed. They can either have one-time compensation, or annual rent for the land used for installing the wires. Ignorance of the law is being misused by both government officials and private company executives. They are threatened into submission, often paid a meagre compensation of just about Rs 10-20,000, saying “it is compensation for the damaged crop”. Where is the compensation amount going nobody knows. It is actually a multi-crore scam.
In Botad district, farmers are unhappy because the village ponds and Goma dam are not being filled up with Narmada water, as promised. The district is also facing scarcity of even drinking water during summer. Worse, farmers are being cheated by APMC merchants.
On entering Ahmedabad district, farmers were found to be unhappy with the proposed Dholera special investment region (SIR). Their agricultural fields have been decommanded from the Narmada command area.
On 20th day, after walking 450 km, we were stopped at Sargasan village, as we were proceeding towards Gandhinagar to reach Sachivalaya. The government authorities tried to negotiate with us – they pointed to the difficulties faced by security forces due to the preparations for the Vibrant Gujarat global business meet, and imposition of Section 144 in Gandhinagar. Hence, we were told, we would not be allowed in the state capital. If we still tried entering, they added, we would be detained, with offence registered against us. First they stopped at Uvarsad square, but we proceeded; after crossing Tarapur, the language changed. The chief minister is not available in his office, if we wished to submit the memorandum, 4-5 people could go in a vehicle, but all the foot marchers could not be allowed in the city.
When stuck to our stand, they offered to accept the memorandum on the spot and assured us of a meeting with the chief minister. In a democracy, we ought to trust the promise of a government representative. We trusted the government mamlatdar, who came and accepted the memorandum, with the assurance to fix a meeting with the chief minister.
The memorandum we submitted specifically said: “This is not a political movement, not a programme of a political party. In the interest of farmers, for the farmers, this is farmers’ programme. Instead of looking at it politically, please consider it on merits. Since last 5 years, due to natural calamities, insufficient rain or because of low prices, farmers of Gujarat are reduced to a miserable state. The agricultural sector is collapsing; in the country we stand 12th in grain production per hectare. For this, lack of irrigation facilities is more responsible than farmers’ skill. Even today, despite many claims, farmers of Gujarat are dependent on rain. When the farmers of the state are sandwiched between nature and market, the government should accept farmers’ demands and implement them as early as possible. We hope, considering our present situation, the government will announce urgent steps.”
When the media people asked, what if the government does not keep its promise, we said, “We had no objection in submitting the memorandum here today if meeting is fixed with CM in the coming 3-4 days. The farmers want solution of their problems positively, peacefully, democratically, through negotiations. Hence, we have submitted our memorandum and ended our march here.”
Meanwhile, taking the government offer positively, farmers are worried: What if the government does not keep its word, as it happened in the past? What if it does not solve farmers’ issues by negotiating with us and come forward with a compromise?
If the government does not keep its word, farmers will use the last weapon in democracy – ballot. Farmer leaders will travel to all the districts extensively and expose government negligence of farmers’ issues with examples, and appeal farmers to vote anybody to power, but not the present ruling party which has destroyed and insulted farmers. We will not allow them to even enter villages to canvass. We have no other option left, except to unsettle the government. We work hard, will not keep any stone unturned for this during the 2017 elections.
*Convener, Khedut Samaj – Gujarat. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org