On 29 and 30 November, farmers from across India will gather in Delhi and march towards the parliament to demand a special three-week joint session on India’s agrarian crisis. The march—named the Kisan Mukti March, or Farmers’ Freedom March—has been called by the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, an umbrella group of at least 130 farmer organisations, formed in June 2018. Along with one lakh farmers and agricultural labourers, the two-day protest is also expected to see participation from middle class citizens, walking in solidarity with farming communities.
Mounting debts, annual droughts and farmer suicides have marked the story of Indian farmers for decades. In November 2004, the government constituted the National Commission on Farmers, under the chairmanship of professor MS Swaminathan, to examine the causes of farmers’ distress and recommend ways to resolve it. Between 2004 and 2006, the commission submitted five reports. None have been implemented.
In recent years, farmers have begun to collectively assert their rights through public protest. In March this year, at least 35,000 farmers walked 182 kilometres from Nashik to Azad Maidan in Mumbai, demanding land rights, loan waivers and support for crop losses. Taking this forward, the Kisan Mukti March in Delhi aims to engage the people’s representatives in a long-overdue conversation about what concerns India’s farmers.
In an interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, P Sainath, the founder-editor of People’s Archive of Rural India, discusses this new assertion, what middle class support means, and why farmers need to be heard on the floor of the parliament. “When you hold a special session, you are telling your farmers that you care,” Sainath said. “And you are focusing the attention of the entire nation on a crisis that has devastated the Indian countryside.”
Aathira Konikkara: Do you think the farmer’s march to the parliament is inspired by the huge turnout at the Kisan Long March in Maharashtra?
P Sainath: The Kisan Long March in Maharashtra inspired people all over the country. I spent three weeks in Punjab in April, very shortly after the Mumbai march. In really small villages—parts of Muktsar, Bathinda, Sangrur—farmers were asking me, “Tell us about the Nashik-Mumbai march.” They have all heard of it. They were inspired by it.
Also, what was very inspiring about the Nashik-Mumbai march was that for the first time in 36 years of being based out of Mumbai, I saw the middle classes show up in large numbers, in several thousands. Doctors from JJ Hospital came up and started treating all those with injuries from walking 182 kilometres [with] bleeding, blistered feet. Businessmen came out of Crawford market and left 1,000 pairs of footwear, very quietly, without saying anything, because they had been moved by pictures and photographs of women with bleeding feet walking that distance. Lawyers came out and started asking if they could file any PILs on behalf of the farmers. These were not legal sharks; these were young lawyers who were moved by the plight of the farmers and wanted to do something. I think that was a turning point; that the middle classes were finally responding to the struggles of their fellow citizens and for the first time, connecting with farmers and labourers.