MAHARASHTRA: Farmers Wrest Historic Loan Waiver through United 10 Day Strike Struggle

Ashok Dhawale

IT was a historic struggle. And it culminated in an equally historic victory. It has already had its impact all over Maharashtra. And it will have its impact in the country.

On June 11, 2017, the farmers of Maharashtra at last won the hard-fought battle for a loan waiver after a ten day unprecedented strike struggle that began on June 1, supported by a massive Maharashtra Bandh on June 5. The first part of that battle has been recounted in these columns last week.

THE STRUGGLE

As a result of the novel united struggle that caught the imagination of the people of Maharashtra, the Co-ordination Committee of Farmers’ Organisations was invited by the state government for negotiations at the Sahyadri State Guest House in Mumbai on June 11. This itself was a climbdown for the government, which had claimed for a week that it would talk only to ‘real farmers and not to those who were using the farmers for their own ends’. Five factors influenced the government to change its stance.

First, the attempt by the chief minister on June 3 to abort the peasant strike by using some pliant and servile ‘peasant leaders’ was smashed by the decisive intervention of the AIKS, which was detailed in these columns last week. The AIKS immediately took the initiative to bring all farmers’ organisations together to fight this betrayal and to continue the strike.  

Second, on June 6 there occurred the horrendous police firing by the BJP state government on farmers who were agitating for the very same demands in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, killing five of them. This had severe repercussions throughout the country and it put the BJP, along with its central and state governments, on the defensive.  

Third, on June 8 a massive state convention of the Co-ordination Committee of Farmers’ Organisations of Maharashtra was held at Nashik. The unity of all peasant organisations and the militancy of thousands of farmers displayed at that convention, together with the vibrant success of the then week-long farmers’ strike, conveyed its own powerful message.

Fourth, this convention gave a clarion call for a statewide rail roko and rasta roko struggle slated for June 13 if the government still refused to relent. This unnerved the powers that be, who began seeing nightmares of a repeat of Mandsaur in several places in Maharashtra. The preparations for that decisive action had begun in full swing all over the state.

Fifth, special mention must be made that the print and electronic media as a whole, especially the Marathi media, prominently and consistently highlighted the novel peasant strike and its demands, the Maharashtra Bandh, the Nashik state convention and all the peasant actions that took place. Public opinion thus turned against the BJP government.      

As a result of all these factors, on June 9, the very next day after the Nashik convention, the state government announced the formation of a high-powered committee of six cabinet ministers headed by revenue minister Chandrakant Patil, to hold negotiations with the Co-ordination Committee on June 11 and sent a letter inviting the committee for talks.

To ensure unanimity within the 35-member Co-ordination Committee when talking to the government, a special committee meeting was held at the office of the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP) on June 10. A charter of demands was prepared with the concurrence of all participants. A jam-packed media conference was held after the meeting.

It is significant to note that in the first meeting of peasant organisations that was held at Nashik on June 4, the young and dynamic general secretary of the Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha (AIKS), Dr Ajit Nawale, who had walked out of the earlier negotiations with the chief minister on the night of June 3 and who had blown the lid off the betrayal of the strike, was unanimously elected convenor of the Co-ordination Committee. He carried out all his responsibilities as convenor with admirable courage and fortitude that was acknowledged by all. This, together with the fact that the AIKS has consistently and independently led militant mass struggles in recent years on burning peasant issues, has a state membership of well over two lakhs and has functioning units in 23 districts – more than any other farmers’ organisation –  put the AIKS at the centre stage of this peasant struggle in Maharashtra.   

THE VICTORY     

On June 11, the entire 35-member Co-ordination Committee was present at the talks with the state government. Prominent among them were Raju Shetty, MP, Bachhu Kadu, MLA, Jayant Patil, MLC, Raghunathdada Patil, Dr Ashok Dhawale, Namdev Gavade and convenor Dr Ajit Nawale. Also present were experts helping the committee like Vishwas Utagi and Prof H M Desarda. The state government was represented by cabinet ministers Chandrakant Patil, Pandurang Fundkar, Divakar Raote, Girish Mahajan, Subhash Deshmukh and several secretaries and other officials of the related departments.

With strenuous and protracted negotiations for over three hours, after the ministers present consulted the chief minister, the state government finally agreed as follows:

1. Complete loan waiver to the peasantry, subject to certain criteria to exclude the rich sections;

2. These criteria will be decided within one month by a 10-12 member committee, which will have half the members from the Co-ordination Committee and half from the government;

3. Implementation of loan waiver to all peasants holding less than five acres of land with immediate effect and new loans to be given to them immediately for the coming sowing season;

4. Substantial increase in the price of milk to be paid to the peasantry as per the formula that 70 per cent of the selling price of milk will go to the peasant and 30 per cent to the processing institute for its expenses;

5. The chief minister will take a delegation of farmers’ organisations to the prime minister to insist on the Swaminathan Commission recommendation of fixing the minimum support price (MSP) to cover the cost of production plus 50 percent profit;

6. The state government will give a written reply to all the other demands in the charter;

7. Police cases in this struggle will be immediately withdrawn.

After the leadership placed these decisions before the committee for its approval, the group of ministers was requested to place the same decisions before the entire Co-ordination Committee for its acceptance. It was only after this democratic and transparent procedure was followed that a joint media meet was held and all the above decisions were reported. They were flashed with lead and banner headlines by all the media in Maharashtra.

The same evening, a wave of joy swept through the rural areas across the state. In thousands of towns and villages, people burst crackers and distributed sweets to celebrate the victory of this magnificent struggle.

Apart from the significance of the demands won, the characteristics of this peasant struggle were: it was led by young peasants all across the state; most peasant organisations and their leaders stood united in this struggle; peasant issues came to the forefront in discussion and decision making after a very long time; unity of the peasantry and the working class (CITU, AITUC and other trade unions held impressive joint solidarity actions in several cities), peasant organisations and intellectuals in the agrarian field began taking shape; and peasant struggles on these and other issues began to spread to other states across the country.

THE FUTURE     

The immediate issue is the finalisation of the exclusion criteria for the complete loan waiver. There is unanimity that the richer sections must be excluded from the benefits of any loan waiver. The actual quantum of the loan waiver will become known only when these criteria are finalised. But if these criteria are not satisfactorily settled before the state assembly begins its monsoon session on July 24, the Committee has warned in the joint media meet itself that the struggle will be revived with even greater unity and strength from July 26, which is the birth anniversary of the renowned social reformer Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj.

The loan waiver decision will certainly provide much-needed relief to the overwhelming majority of the peasantry. The committee strongly insisted on two aspects and these were conceded by the government. One, there should not be a land limit because dry land farmers everywhere generally have more than five acres of land. This is especially the case in both Vidarbha and Marathwada, the cotton and soyabean-growing backward and largely unirrigated regions, which have the largest number of suicides of debt-ridden peasants. It is the peasants here that need loan waiver the most. Two, the loan waiver should not be limited only to peasants who have defaulted on their loans. In the largely irrigated regions of Western and Northern Maharashtra, lakhs of peasants with less than five acres of land who grow sugarcane, vegetables and fruits and who cannot pay off their loans, simply renew them each year in record books. They should not be left out of the loan waiver ambit.

With union finance minister Arun Jaitley’s recent statement that the centre will not help any state financially for peasant loan waivers, the Modi regime’s anti-peasant stance becomes crystal clear. No such statement was ever made when loan waivers and tax benefits of lakhs of crores of rupees were given to corporate houses by the same regime.     

At the same time, a loan waiver by itself cannot be the panacea for all the ills afflicting agriculture and the peasantry. Implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendation as regards remunerative prices will be the next key issue of struggle. That struggle cannot be limited to Maharashtra alone; if it has to be successful, it must be intensified all over the country. The Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan has already given a nationwide call on the issues of loan waiver, remunerative prices, the ban on the cattle trade and increased MNREGA allocation, for June 16.

Last but not the least, there is the vital question of land acquisition and land reforms, and the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for land rights to the adivasis. All these are the key issues for intense nationwide peasant struggles in the future.      

   

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