We’ll be at corporates’ mercy: Farmers march in Mumbai in solidarity with Delhi protests

Thousands of farmers gathered in Mumbai's Bandra area on 22 December to protest against three recently enacted farm laws. ANI
23 December, 2020

On 22 December, farmers associated with various farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra gathered outside the office of Milind Borikar, the district collector of Mumbai Suburban, in the city’s Bandra East area. The farmers were protesting against the three recently enacted farm laws. From there, they marched on to the nearby Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Udyan, a public garden. Thousands of protesters streamed into the circular garden surrounded by a heavy police presence. On 17 December, Raju Shetti, the chief of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ union based in Kolhapur district, had announced that farmers would march to the corporate offices of Reliance Industries and the Adani group in the Bandra Kurla Complex. “We are going to ask Ambani and Adani, ‘Oh god, how greedy are you? How much more do you want?’” Shetti said, in a video posted on his Facebook page two days before the protest. He was referring to the industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani.

The protesters remained in the garden for around two hours before marching towards the corporate towers in BKC. However, Shetti told me that the police stopped the protesters from demonstrating in front of the corporations’ offices. “The police had blocked the road with barricades,” Shetti said. “The police said that the route ahead is narrow and it can cause commotion. Their second point was that there are foreign corporate offices there. They said you cannot go because there could be a law and order problem. I asked whether Ambani and Adani have been given any special protection. What is their status?”

Subsequently, the farmers sat down before a makeshift stage in Bandra East, two kilometres from the Reliance office and leaders of the participating organisations addressed the crowd. Pratibha Shinde, the general secretary of the Lok Sangharsh Morcha, a civil-rights organisation, told the farmers that “the police have stopped us from going to the offices of Ambani and Adani,” and accused the police of sympathising with the “agents” of the government. She then implored the gathering to raise slogans of solidarity that could be “heard all the way at the Singhu border.”  

The call for a march to the offices of the two corporate giants took place in the backdrop of the ongoing farmers’ protest at various points along the Delhi border since 26 November. The protesting farmers believe that the three controversial farm laws will benefit corporates at their expense. The farmers camped at Delhi’s borders have called for a boycott of Reliance and Adani products. Protesters in Mumbai too backed the boycott calls with the slogan, “Ambani ka Jio SIM jala do, jala do. Ambani ka Jio SIM tod daalo, tod daalo.”—Ambani’s Jio SIM, burn it, burn it. Ambani’s Jio SIM, break it, break it. “They are capitalists. They will purchase from us and resell it for the price of gold,” Tarachand Pawra, a farmer from Maharashtra’s Jalgaon district, told me. “We will be at their mercy. They are the ones who run the government. It is Ambani and Adani who fund the elections as well. They have captured the state.”

The protesters in Mumbai came from a range of farmers’ organisations in Maharashtra such as the Satyashodhak Shetkari Sabha, apart from the Lok Sangharsh Morcha and Shetti’s Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana. A former Lok Sabha member of parliament, Shetti also founded the Swabhimani Paksha, a political wing of his union. His party contested the 2019 Maharashtra assembly polls in alliance with the Nationalist Congress Party. He has previously also allied with the National Democratic Alliance. Members of the Prahar Janshakti Party, a small Vidharba-based political party led by Bacchu Kadu, the minister of state for education in the current Maharashtra government, also participated in the protest.

Pawra told me that he had earlier travelled to Delhi to participate in the ongoing protests at the interstate borders. “It is continuing with vigour. The farmers are standing up for their rights,” he said, adding that he will rejoin the Delhi protests shortly. This was not the first time that Pawra has participated in a farmers’ protest. “In 2018, I had come from Jalgaon to Mumbai on foot. It took 17 days to reach here,” he said. He was referring to the historic Kisan Long March to Mumbai, during the then chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ tenure, to press for a complete farm-loan waiver, and guarantee of the minimum support price, among other demands. Several other farmers I spoke to at the protest on 22 December had participated in the 2018 march.

As I spoke to the farmers about the new farm laws, several of them said that inadequate redressal mechanisms was one of the major loopholes in the current legislations. “We don’t understand how these laws can guarantee any kind of security for us,” Ranjit Gavit, a farmer from Nandurbar district, who is affiliated to the Satyashodhak Shetkari Sabha, said. “If we sell our crops to a company and if they don’t pay us on time, where will we go? This law has been kept out of the purview of the judicial process. If a company cheats you, this law only allows you to approach the collector’s office.” He was referring to the Farmers’ Produce Trade And Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, one of the three controversial laws. The law has a clause which explicitly states that “no civil court shall have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceedings in respect of any matter.”

Gavit continued, “We are speaking against big companies like Ambani, Adani, Birla because they enjoy protection while farmers don’t have any. Farmers work day and night to raise their crops. They should get the right price for it,” he said, adding that the central government should repeal the three laws and introduce a bill that will legally guarantee a minimum support price.

Yuvraj Patil Rajegore, president of the Nanded unit of the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana echoed this demand. “I have been a farmer for ten years now,” he told me. “I sell some crops in the APMC and some outside.” The APMCs or agricultural produce market committees are marketing boards established by state governments to regulate transactions related to farmers’ produce. “I did not get the support of MSP either within the APMC or outside,” Rajegore said. “So, if they want to bring a new law, I will look for MSP in it. They are offering an assurance but it is not provided in writing anywhere.” Offering an illustration of a possible trade scenario, he continued, “If a company has agreed to pay Rs 4,000 per quintal for a crop and the market rate increases to Rs 6,000, will the company give me an additional bonus? He will only give me the Rs 4,000. On the other hand, if the market comes down from Rs 4,000 to Rs 3,000, the company will refuse to make the purchase.” Rajegore described the three laws as “slow poison” and said that they increase the chances of monopoly by private players. “Nobody asked for these laws in the first place,” he said. “It was imposed when everyone was sitting at home under lockdown, when there was no farmer on the street.”

Dilip Gawli, an Adivasi farmer from Nandurbar, said that the three laws have to be repealed because of the undemocratic manner in which they were passed. “These laws are of no use to the farmers. They should do this in consultation with senior leaders of farmers,” he told me.

Gawli refuted the government’s contention that the opposition to the laws is only coming from farmers in Punjab and Haryana. “Maharashtra’s farmers also have a problem with it,” he said. “That is why we are extending support to them.” Over 5,000 farmers from Maharashtra have departed on a vehicular convoy from Nashik district to Delhi as a show of strength in support of the farmers protesting at the Delhi borders.

“Adani and Ambani are Modi’s favourites,” Rajegore said. “We have to pressurise them although these are companies with an international reputation. The central government is already getting defamed in the international media because of the farmers’ movement.” Rajegore added that the brief protest in Mumbai was only representational of what is to come.